Oh, how I love a good story. You know what I'm talkin' about. The kind which has you hanging spellbound on the edge of your chair as details unfold.
Through urging of a school chum 50 years ago, I evolved into an insatiable student of the Second World War (1939 to 1945). Consider this, more than 16 million Americans served Uncle Sam during that period. The national holiday we commemorate this week never fails to spur accounts shared through the years by military veterans of the Greatest Generation who are rapidly passing into history.
I was thrilled if I could locate a veteran willing to discuss their military experiences. Most returning vets of that era simply returned home after discharge and got on with their lives, filing away their traumatic lost youth.
My uncle, Tom Maple, born in 1916, served in the U.S. Army, Pacific Theater of operations. Get this, he was drafted in October 1941 (prior to the Pearl Harbor attack) and didn't obtain his discharge until after the Japanese surrender, September 1945. He kept the majority of his battle accounts hidden deep inside for over 50 years.
I caught him in a moment of weakness in 1999 at a big family shindig. I asked if he would be willing to share with me. He hung his head for a moment, then looked me in the eye and said, “I think it's time.” We gathered a few weeks later at his home where I videotaped our 90-minute conversation of questions and answers.
Accounts of amphibious landings on New Hebrides, Makin, Okinawa, and other islands were incredible. The death of his best buddy before his eyes while descending into a bobbing landing craft on a rope net down the side of a troop ship left me wondering how anyone could function.
Uncle Tommy was a 37mm anti-tank gun specialist who towed the field piece behind a spunky little Willys Jeep. One steamy day on the island of Okinawa while traversing a jungle road with a load of officers, Japanese artillerymen began bracketing his Jeep with shells. They were zeroed in.
Winding through the flora and fauna at breakneck speed the explosions were nearing their mark. Looking ahead, desperation set in as a bridge across an approaching waterway crossing was missing. Making a split-second decision, Uncle Tom “floored” the Jeep for all it was worth and jumped the stream to the far bank. All aboard survived to tell of the harrowing island tale.
Uncle Tom passed away several years ago. I'm sure glad we got together.
I didn't meet Chet Brantley at church until I was in my 50s. Being of the proper age range, I asked if he was a veteran. He proudly said he served aboard an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) in the U.S. Navy, Pacific.
His job was that of Signalman, aka “flags,” “sigs,” or “skivvy waver.” He and others of his rating were charged with visual communication between ships through semaphore, flags, or signal lamp. Their duty station aboard ship was generally in the area of the bridge, control center of the ship.
One day in the blue Pacific, as LCI 600 was plowing along, Brantley was at his station on the bridge. He was relieved by another sailor and exited the bridge area on the starboard side. Within a minute, “WHAM!” The shallow draft vessel had suffered a horrendous explosion and rapidly plunged to the bottom of Davy Jone's locker. Brantley was thrown high from the ship, landing in the deep blue water. His back was broken.
He bobbed around in pain for a few hours among the ocean swells until rescued by another vessel. He later discovered the shipmate who relieved him on the bridge was killed when the deck rose up from the explosion and thrust him into the steel overhead (ceiling). Also revealed was the fact a Japanese Kaiten suicide torpedo had caused the carnage aboard his ship.
The combat war was over for Brantley, but he spent many months in the hospital. Chet died a few months ago at age 94. He always shared his LCI monthly magazine with me, which was chock full of stories from other WWII gobs.
In the 1980s I met up with and became very good chums with a veteran paratrooper of the 82nd. Airborne Division, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Dick Hunt grew up in Kokomo and was my dad's age. We spent many wonderful hours viewing his regiment reunion albums and reminiscences of his airborne days.
His accounts of intensive training at Camp Blanding, Fla., Ft. Bragg and Camp Mackall, N.C., wore me out just listening. Further specialized training was required once his outfit made the voyage to Great Britain.
The big day finally arrived when the 508th and thousands of other troopers made their drop into Normandy, France, in the wee hours of June 6, 1944, D-Day. He told me the phrase “work as a team” was strongly emphasized by the training officers. When landing in a dark, French wheat field, he was all alone. No one to be seen. He said the team concept went out the window pretty quickly.
He became an army of one. In the meantime, a confrontation with a German soldier required the deployment of a Gammon grenade, thus eliminating the threat. He concealed himself in the undergrowth of a hedgerow and waited until fellow troopers came along.
He survived the carnage of Normandy, taking part in Operation Market-Garden in September. Jumping into Holland, his Regiment fought in the Nijmegen area where a vital bridge had to be captured intact. Elements of the 82nd performed a very risky amphibious river crossing in small boats to facilitate capture of the bridge from both ends. My buddy Dick crossed the bridge later on foot.
The 82nd, as well as the 101st Airborne Division, was rapidly deployed as reserves in Luxembourg and Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in December '44 to January '45. Waist-deep snow, cold temperatures, and accurate artillery fire made bivouacking in the open, harrowing at best.
Dick survived his war too. After the Nazi surrender his outfit was assigned to General Dwight D. Eisenhower's HQ in Frankfurt, Germany, as honor guard.
Dick also has passed on. Before so, he gifted me with my most beloved WWII artifact, a six-inch by six-inch segment of a parachute used in the Normandy airdrop. I wish it could talk. My storytellers won't be around forever, and I'll never forget them. Thanks for what you did before I was born.