Many schools in the area are taking time to honor our veterans. Milwaukie’s “Living History Day” is an example of a very successful program that has been giving kids a very real and personal look into the contributions of our veterans. Many schools in Oregon are adopting such programs, bringing in veterans who can share some of their unique experiences.
I became of draft age shortly after the Vietnam War had come to a close and not needed for any military service. Since most of my generation were not involved in military service, our views of war were influenced by outside sources. Perhaps the most visual source were the movies we watched. But as we grew older and more experienced we learned that John Wayne’s war was not the wars of our fathers.
A clearer way to shape your reality, regardless of your views as to what is right and wrong with any of our wars; is to talk, and to listen, to those men whose lives will forever be changed and shaped by their service to our country.
What follows is a talk one such veteran gave to the kids of a far later generation, at the high school from which he had graduated some 64 years prior.
Veterans Day Speech, November 13, 2007
“I graduated from high school in June. My class had 50-some kids. My first experience during WW2 was being an airplane observer. This was in the days before we could trace airplanes by radar in the area. The government built little elevated observation shacks every few miles and they were manned twenty-four hours a day, by volunteers. When an airplane was heard or sighted it was the job of the observer to telephone a central command with a description of the plane and as close as possible the altitude, speed, direction and distance of the plane from the observation shack.
I also was part of the Civil Air Patrol. One of our duties was to guard any military planes that happened to be at the Eugene airport. The airport had built up dirt berms high enough to hide a plane and we’d walk around it all night, carrying whatever gun we had. I was a hunter and I carried my 12-gauge shotgun. Never did have to use it though!
In April of 1943 most of the senior boys got our induction letter from the draft board to report to Portland Induction Center. They waited until we had graduated and gave us one week after graduation before reporting. I was inducted at the same time as two of my best friends and we had our choice of which branch of service we wanted. We thought our best chance of staying together was to join the Army. That lasted for just one week. The two of them were shipped to Camp Abbot south of Bend (which is now Sun River) and I was sent on to Camp Roberts in California
There were about 300 other draftees from the northwestern states going to Camp Roberts at the same time. We were kind of a special unit with a special kind of gun and we were kept together during training and all through the war. Two years later we were discharged together.
At Camp Roberts I was trained in the 558th field artillery battalion. The battalion consisted of three gun batteries and headquarters and service batteries. Each battery had about 100 men. I was in the telephone section of headquarters battery. We used telephones and radios for all our communication.
The three gun batteries each had four 155m guns mounted on medium tank chassis.
The guns were designed to shell concrete fortifications. The shells weighed 98 1bs. and were not attached to a shell casing.
The powder was in silk bags of various sizes depending on how far you wanted to shoot and what kind of fuses were used. We had armor piercing fuses and fuses that would explode the shell at different heights above the ground.
On June 8, 1944, just a year after I’d graduated high school, we finished our training and were sent by train to Camp Shanks in New York to be shipped out to Europe.
Probably the first train trip for a lot of us. It took 5 days. On July 2nd we embarked with our big guns that we had trained with, and about 5,000 other guys, on the US Army Transport Edmund B. Alexander. A live band played as we left. Spent Independence Day at sea and landed in Liverpool England 10 days later. I thought it was interesting that when we came back to New York the next year we only had recorded music.
We stayed in England until the 12th of August when we crossed the channel to the coast of France in LST’s. We landed on Utah beach and headed inland to where the main action was then. The battalion fired our first round in combat the 21st day of August and from then on we were in continuous combat. . (I know this date because it is in an Army booklet I have, describing the “History of the 558th Field Artillery Battalion.”)
One of my jobs was laying telephone lines between the gun batteries and headquarters battery, and between headquarter and observation posts and other units of the army. After the lines were laid it was our job to keep them usable. Because our lines were mostly laid right on the ground they were broken a lot by shellfire or by vehicles.
For some reason, most of the breaks would occur in the middle of the night and that was not fun. We would get a call from the switchboard operator. Then two of us would go to the switchboard and find the bad line. Because we could not use any lights, we would take hold of the line and follow it out till we came to the break. Then the work starts because there were often 8 or 9 lines. We then had to find the other end of our line, attach a telephone to it and hear if it was the correct line.
Our battalion was part of General Patton’s 3rd army and we fought through France just below Paris. We were actually east of Paris when it was liberated. Our guns were credited with knocking out several German fortifications, and capturing the soldiers in them. One that I remember was Fort Julian. This fort was fired on from distance 25 yards, knocking down the large steel door in to the fort. They were called direct lay guns because the gunners could actually see what they were shooting at. If there were no forts or pillboxes in our area the guns could also be used as regular artillery. They could shoot up to 7 miles. When the target could not be seen from a hill we also had 2 small observation planes in our battalion.
A friend of mine later gave me a copy of “Citizen Soldier” by Steven Ambrose and it was interesting to me that Ambrose mentioned that one of our 558th guns demolished Fort Julian. (If you haven’t read “Citizen Soldier”, it’s a good one for you to read.)
We had some scary times but we also had fun, Such as the time one of the boys got in a small airplane the Germans had abandoned and thought it would be fun to taxi it around.
He had never had any flight training but soon he was flying it around and taking up passengers. I declined. Another day we came upon a trainload of small tanks the German army had abandoned. As I remember these tanks were about 8 feet long and 3 or 4 feet wide. There was space for an explosive charge in the front of it and a platform on the back of it for a roll of wire and were powered by a small gas engine. They were to be used to run into our tanks and blow them up. They’d be controlled by wire from a distance. I think they had just come from the factory, as there were no explosives on them yet but had the roll of wire. Some of the guys took the wire drums off so they could sit on the tank and had lots of fun running them around for a while. Another time, we pulled into a small French town and we were the first American troops in the town. All the villagers came out on the street and I think each one had a bottle of champagne they were saving for the liberation. We all got out our canteen cups and got a little taste of it.
The thing I remember most about the winter of ’44-’45 was how very cold it was.
IT WAS MISERABLE.
By Christmas we were nearing the Saar River when the Germans broke through in the Ardennes forest in what became known as the battle of the bulge or the Ardennes Offensive. We then were ordered to turn north and to support the Third Cavalry Group to drive the Germans back. The official Army booklet I have, mentions in one paragraph that in the 2-week period the 558th “… destroyed a total of 35 pillboxes, 2 bunkers, 3 antitank positions and 2 brick defensive positions.” The big mounted guns we had could go thru 7 foot concrete walls and one is listed as cast steel 12 to 16 inches thick.
I remember the night sky being lit up many times with the light from so many big guns being fired. We kept the guns going all night, partly as a harassment maneuver. It was not a good Christmas.
From the 18th of February into the beginning of March was some of the heaviest artillery barrages in the war as we cleaned the area of Trier in Germany. By the second week of March the fighting was over as far as the 558th was concerned because there weren’t any more bunkers to be destroyed. Most of the men were put to work dealing with getting POWs home to France or Luxemburg or Russia. I could type so I was assigned to making up lists of 25 French POWs for an airplane load to be flown back to France. We used an airfield at a bombed out aircraft factory in Regensburg Germany. This was my job for a few weeks.
But after the war was over in Europe the war with Japan was still being fought in the south Pacific and our men and our guns were needed to help them there. I have forgotten, but I think there were only 3 or 4 battalions in the whole US Army with these kinds of guns. We got on a troop transport ship in Marseilles France August 14th, heading for the Philippines via the Panama Canal. When we were 3 days out the Captain announced over the loudspeaker that the war with Japan was over and the destination of the ship was now changed to New York City. We were sent to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. I will never forget the first meal we had at Kilmer complete with a whole quart of milk and a pint of ice cream. We had not had any milk products or fresh veggies since we left England. What a meal.
Americans called WW1 The War to End All Wars. That did not happen. I guess there will always be wars but it is the strong hope of any person who has ever been through one, that countries can learn to settle things diplomatically so that you students and your children will never have to fight a war again.”