In the November 2008 and January 2009 issues of World War II magazine, as part of our exploration into what will be lost when those who witnessed history are no longer able to share their memories, we asked readers to share the stories they had heard from someone who served in the war. The responses flooded in–and we have published a selection of them below. Chime in with your own loved ones’ World War II memories in the comments.
My father-in-law served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His name was Jamie Dreyer, called Jim by all. He passed away a few years ago and we miss him. My wife and I often visited with her parents and Jim and I often played cribbage, while Valerie and her mom talked in another room.
One day, Jim started talking about his time in the South Pacific during the war. He said that he was in photo recon, and would be flown over Japanese-held islands in a stripped-down B-26. He would lean out and take pictures as the pilot would fly back and forth until he had enough photos to make a complete picture of the island. While looking through the viewfinder of his camera, he often saw the faces of Japanese soldiers shooting up at them with their rifles. He could also see tracer bullets coming toward them and it looked like they were all shooting directly at him. Occasionally, he heard the sound of a bullet entering the underside of the fuselage and exiting the top. They could tell if they had a particularly hazardous day by how many rays of sunlight shone through.
On one mission the pilot suddenly put the plane into a steep dive and Jim was concerned as they were headed straight for the island, so he yelled to the pilot, who yelled back, “Not now, Dreyer!” Jim called a couple more times getting the same response. He then saw that the starboard engine was on fire and the pilot was attempting to feather it. Everyone on board waited while the pilot struggled and fortunately succeeded in putting out the fire. The flight back to base was longer than usual on one engine, and scary because they would not have been able to evade enemy planes. Fortunately, they made it back safely.
He told me that the only thing that really scared him was the thought of surviving a crash in enemy-held territory. He had so much information in his head that his orders were to shoot himself with his .45 should he survive, and it gave him nightmares for years.
Jim had a far-away look in his eyes, shook it off, and we continued to play cribbage. He would share other (in my opinion hair-raising) memories with me when he could. I wish I had asked him more questions about his experiences, but he was a proud man and not one to discuss such things unless the time was right. I respected that area of his life and felt special that he thought enough of me to talk about it as much as he did.
On our way home, I told Valerie that it was difficult to picture her dad doing all those things now. She stared at me and said, “My father did those things?” He never told Valerie a thing about his experiences.
—My father, Eugene Edward Warren, was a technical sergeant with the 389th Service Squadron, 64th Service Group of the Fifth Air Force. He was an airplane mechanic and served in the South Pacific from 1942 to 1945—arriving in Brisbane, Australia, in September 1942 and transferring to Port Moresby, New Guinea, in December of 1942 where he served until June 1945. His airfield was under constant Japanese bombing raids during these three years.
I inherited a valuable keepsake from my Father after his passing in 2001. It is his M-1910 canteen that was more than a canteen for him. As you will see in the photos he used this canteen as a diary of the dates of his various deployments and also as a record of the multiple bombing raids he endured during his deployment in New Guinea. He kept track of the air raids by inscribing an X into the side of the canteen. Xs that are grouped together represent multiple raid nights. The X that is circled was the air raid that “almost got him”.
In addition to being a record of his deployment and the bombings that he endured, it also helped to remind him of home, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and his sweetheart Betty. On the front side of the canteen he inscribed BETTY and HUEY with a heart pierced with an arrow. He married Betty in 1945 when he returned from overseas.
Robert L. Warren
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Early in the war we learned that my father’s cousin Harold was a Japanese POW and had survived the Bataan Death March. We had an opportunity to send a package to Harold via the Swedish ship Gripsholm, docked in New York. Having heard that the POWs would soon go to northern Japan, we included two suits of long underwear.
After the war Harold shared his experiences with us, including the delivery of the Gripsholm packages. The guards picked through the contents of all packages and doled out selected items. When Harold’s package was opened, the guards displayed the long underwear. There was much laughter since the POWs were still being held in the Pacific islands. Distracted by the humor of the underwear, Harold received the entire package.
Harold did indeed ship out to labor in the mines in northern Japan, where it was cold and the Japanese threw cold water on the POWs as they marched to their work site. The warm underwear helped him get through his time as a prisoner.
I retain two things from Harold’s visit: being about to count in Japanese, and a “butterfly” knife made by one of the POWs from scraps of metal and bone. It is a sturdy knife, 5 1/4 inches long when folded, 9 5/8 inches fully open with a 5-inch blade.
Maxwell L. McCormack Jr.
On May 6, 1945, my uncle, Frank E. Drudge, was a squad leader with the 85th Division of the Fifth Army in northern Italy. The Allies had the Germans penned up in the town of Udine in northern Italy. The next day, May 7, 1945, was V-E Day, and it also happened to be Frank ‘s birthday. The Allies took over a walled compound in town as headquarters, and the soldiers were told they could not leave the compound. However, the German soldiers were free to roam the town, including the pubs.
This was too much for my uncle Frank, since not only was the war over, it was also his birthday. Consequently, he sneaked out of the compound and celebrated the end of the war in a pub with his many new German and Italian friends. The next morning, he woke up safe and sound in his bed inside the compound.
Shortly, he was called in to see his captain, who asked him if he knew that the Americans were confined to the compound. When Frank answered “Yes, sir,” the captain asked if he left the previous night. “No sir,” Frank replied. “Then what in the hell were those two Germans doing pounding on the gate last night when they brought you home at 2:30 in the morning?” yelled the captain.
One day before they were mortal enemies, but on this day of armistice, these two good Germans just wanted to make sure their new friend got “home” safely.
South Bend, Indiana
After the death of my father, Thomas Quincy Harris, in 1998, his items were given to me. One item is a canvas canteen holder, recently found in my father’s papers. It seems to be his journal for Europe. Some parts of the canvas are extremely difficult to read, but for the most part, it details where he was in Europe. I do not believe this list is comprehensive since he joined in December 1940 and left the service in December 1945.
Some of the places listed are: West Plains, Mo.; Siegfried Line, March ‘45; Saarbucken, Germany; Marseille, Fr.; Cadenbrown, Alsing, Zinz-Zinz, Phillipsburge (1st Battle), Fr.; Kreucnach, Germany (Hospital) April 5 ‘45; Spichern Highth, Germany; Rhine, March ‘45; and – two extremely difficult to read toward the top center of the canvas – Bannstal (?); Groslineadorf.
I wish I had more information to impart; but my father was deeply affected by the war. Most usually when he spoke of the war, it was to impart something humorous; such as, he was a sleepwalker during this time and his buddies were extremely worried he would sleepwalk right out on to the line. Normally any story told of the war was one where we all would laugh; very few were ever stories to cause anguish, fear, or pain.
Shauntel R. Harris-Highley
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This was told to me by a World War II veteran. They were and are the greatest generation. He was a rifleman from the 102nd Infantry Division. Their association disbanded in 2008. The following words are what he said:
“After the war, I wished I could have brought my rifle home, covered it in salt, set back in a chair, and watched it rust.”
Olean, New York
My father, Joy Aaron Mayo, rarely spoke of his experiences in the navy during WWII. He enlisted in the navy in September 1939, because, he said, “I knew we would be in it sometime.” In 1942 he was aboard a ship stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He and another sailor, only identified as an Italian American who could practically see his home in New Jersey, were the same rank and only one could stay. The captain said to decide among themselves. They flipped a nickel and dad lost. He spent the next three years in the Pacific theater. Dad looked so sad when he spoke of the other sailor, for the ship was torpedoed and went down its next time out.
I learned something that surprised me on finding a copy of my brother, 1st Lt. R. Reid Sanderson’s discharge from the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in England, flew P-47s, and during his service was awarded two Bronze Stars. I never knew of these awards and I am sure neither did our parents. When I asked him to tell me how he got them his answer was, “They pass them out to everyone.” He is gone now and the circumstances of these awards will remain a mystery to me unless there is some way I can find an answer.
In reverence for all those who saved our country in World War II I am
Mary J. Sanderson
—While working as a nurse at the VA I met Lorraine Clemons. Since it is rare to see a World War II female veteran I asked her to tell me about herself. Lorraine and her twin sister Isabelle volunteered for the WAVES. This is their story.
On December 7, 1942, the twins were sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserve in Houston, Texas, for the duration of the war. They became the first identical twins in the WAVES. Upon completion of basic training and clerical classes the twins posed for photos to be used on official navy recruiting posters. The twins then received orders to report to Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., with assignments to work in the cryptanalysis and decryption department.
At the time, naval intelligence was involved in an effort to break the top secret Japanese Magic and Purple codes. Lorraine and Isabelle were assigned to work with the Navajo code after accepting a top secret clearance. The twins worked with a Navajo code talker who would take messages in code for the twins to type in English.
At times one of the twins would perform extra duty working on the Japanese Purple code using a special keyboard that was part of the decryption process. Due to nature of the work, the twins never learned much about other personnel they worked with. One of the civilian cryptologists who worked across the hall had translated a message on December 6 that warned of a Japanese attack on Honolulu but was dismissed as unimportant by her superior officer.
The twins stayed in the navy until they both married men in the service. Isabelle died in 1987. Lorraine lives in central Texas. She still has her top secret identification card, which she will show with pride. “It was an honor for my sister and I to have served.”
Gert R. Ording
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A few weeks ago, while looking through old family photos, my mother-in-law came across a photo of her father, Joe Tetrault, with a little black cocker spaniel named Scrappy. The photo was taken in the spring of 1945 during a Presidential Citation Medal awards ceremony aboard the USS Enterprise. It turns out that Scrappy had somehow managed to become the unofficial mascot of the Enterprise. Grandpa Joe, as he was known to me, had slipped the dog onboard the ship during his tour of duty on the USS Enterprise in World War II. Grandpa Joe could be a sneaky one so this really didn‘t surprise me. That cocker spaniel “served” almost 4 years on board that ship! He was totally devoted to Grandpa.
During the ceremony, Scrappy laid at Grandpa Joe’s feet not moving an inch, which was a good thing too because Grandpa Joe had on his dress uniform! My mother in-law is happy that she found the picture. Grandpa passed away in 1999. He and his WWII stories are deeply missed!
I was born in 1953, so I listened to my dad and uncle’s stories about World War II and the real “tough guys.”
However, this past year I lost my heroes. When my father passed, Mom gave me a map he had when he was in the U.S. Navy. I never saw it before, but he had it from the time he left the United States to the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach. Every day is on it, right up to the big day.
When my uncle passed I got another treasure. A 101st Airborne Screaming Eagle patch he wore at Bastogne. He was fortunate to survive there, despite the Nazis throwing everything they had at them.
So to me, the members of this generation are my all-time “tough guys.” I can’t imagine either one of those ordeals today–going onto Omaha Beach or holding onto Bastogne.
My father never talked about his war experiences until a few years ago when the History channel aired a program about Peleliu. After that show, he shared some of his experiences on that island with us.
George Dietrich Jr. was a member of the 5th Marines, 1st Division who fought on Peleliu. Their first assignment was to secure the airfield. The men were told it would take a total of two or three days to capture the island. It actually took 10 weeks. On the first night they crossed the island to the airfield and dug in. Seven Japanese tanks passed onto the airfield, but they were stopped by the marines. The next day the airfield was secured, and marines continued on to their next mission. They went up into the mountains, were driven back twice, and finally captured the hill on the third try. On day seven, they were replaced and given a hot meal on the beach.
Because Peleliu is not far from the Equator, the heat was intense and 50-gallon diesel drums filled with water were distributed. George drank from puddles after witnessing the men in his squad becoming ill from drinking water tainted with fuel.
With their area secured, they chased the fleeing Japanese across a narrow strip of water to the neighboring island of Nicasemus. As his squad reached the far side of the island, George came over a hill leading down to the beach. Suddenly, the enemy stood up in the water and shot him in the leg. When the battle began, there were 21 men in his squad, and only 3 were left when George was wounded. He was transported to a hospital ship where doctors want to amputate his leg. George refused, and after a year in a hospital in Idaho, he made a full recovery.
New Brighton, Pennsylvania
Click here to read Rick Atkinson’s take on how the study of World War II history will change when those who lived it can no longer tell their stories.
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