Sunday, May 30, 2004

Soldier to soldier

World War II veterans share their advice for today's military personnel

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As the nation honors its World War II veterans in Washington this weekend, other, younger Americans are facing combat in faraway places. What advice can the veterans from what Tom Brokaw calls our "Greatest Generation" offer to those fighting in today's war?

Eighteen men from across Greater Cincinnati shared their thoughts with us. Their advice is generally devoid of politics or any of the larger issues behind the war. They are speaking soldier-to-soldier, sailor-to-sailor. Most of what they say is down-in-the-dirt practical - listen to your sergeant, look out for your buddies, keep your head down.

Many of these veterans showed us pictures of themselves in uniform during the war. They were young men in their teens and 20s, handsome, idealistic and not a little nervous. They shared the anxieties of young people who were far away from home for the first time: the pain of homesickness, the worry for those left behind.

Several spoke of their mothers and of the pain those women endured while their sons were away. It was a pain they often did not fully understand until they came home and raised children of their own. "Write to your family as often as you can" to preserve that vital connection with home, said Shelby Snowden, who was with the Army Ranger Battalion in North Africa.

These veterans are proud of their service, but there is no brag in their stories. These are men who fought on Okinawa, who waded ashore under enemy fire at Kwajalein and who survived the German onslaught in the Battle of the Bulge. Yet when they talk of those times they mostly describe their survival as a matter of luck or fate. Their voices take on a sense of awe when they talk about the comparative dangers being faced by today's troops. "We never had to be afraid when the battle was over," said George Allen, who served in Europe from 1943 to 1945.

"These people in Iraq usually can't tell enemies from friends," said Jim Swegles, who had to worry about German submarines while serving on a destroyer in the North Atlantic.

These veterans are old now; many are in their 80s. But their memories of life in the service are sharp and clear, preserved in some special recess of the heart where images never fade and the tarnish of time never erodes.


'Try to be careful and take cover when you can. Be careful. You grow up in a hurry. I went in when I was 19 and came out at 23. You have to learn to think for yourself and be responsible. It's like one big family. You take care of your buddies and you learn to treat everybody as equals."

Bill Osterbrock, Colerain Township. Served in Army Supply Corps in France, Holland, Belgium, 1942-45


'I feel sorry for those young men. They can't tell who the enemy is. They see little Iraqi kids and they want to be their friends, but they can't trust that that kid might be the one with a bomb trying to kill them."

Tom Ruffin, Lockland. Entered the Army Air Corps in 1945 at age 18, served until 1948 as a military policeman in Germany


"We were drafted. Now people are volunteering for whatever reason.

"When the war was over we were free. I never worried about getting killed. Today, over there, even though they say the combat period is over, you don't know who might be walking down the street toward you. We never had to be afraid when the battle was over.

"To young men going in today, I say, 'Go in, do your time. Come home safely.'

"We always hear about people who get killed. We never seem to hear about those people who just get injured. Believe me, there are a lot more of them. I wish them well."

George Allen, Lockland, Army Quartermaster Corps and infantry, 1943-45


"The only way a young person can do this is to follow orders and the best job you possibly can.

"You never know how fate is going to treat you, and you can't do anything about it. I had a brother, Gene, in the Navy on the aircraft carrier Hornet. My brother Harry was in the Army at Anzio. Gene and I came through OK. Harry got shot up pretty good."

Art Arnold, Alexandria, Navy, 1943-46


"It's not a matter of just watching out for yourself. Make friends, get a buddy, never go anywhere by yourself.

"Never take anything for granted. Even if you think someone is lying there dead, check to make sure. If you don't, you could go right past them and end up getting shot in the back."

Raymond "Joe" Bayer, Price Hill, Army, participated in several amphibious assaults, including Kwajalein and Enewetok in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific


'In my day you just went. Today you have a choice. I would tell them to think about that. All of my friends were going. That was the thing to do. I wanted to do what my buddies were doing.

"I was in an ammunition supply unit, loading shells onto ships in Bremerton, Wash. We would set the caps on the shells so they would be ready to use. They were stored in these underground units that we called igloos. It was very dangerous. If one of them went off the whole place would have gone up. You constantly feared an explosion that could kill you on the spot. All you could do was depend on each other to get the job done. When you were working side by side, you didn't feel the fear so much. That's what I'd say to the young people in Iraq - stick by your buddy; depend on the guy next to you.

"I had talked to some people who had been in the service, some of my uncles and some other people, so I had an idea what it would be like. There weren't many surprises for me as far as military life went, but it was my first experience away from home, and that was hard. I didn't worry so much about myself, but I worried a lot about how my mother felt."

Robert Edwards, Lockland, Navy. Joined in 1944 at age 18


"Follow the officers and non-coms. Don't try to do anything by yourself. You absolutely have to have trust and (have) togetherness with the others in your unit.

"There is such a difference in today's war. We knew whom we were fighting, but today ..."

But even in World War II, the face of an enemy or the nationality of a friend, could be surprising.

"I spoke German and so was an interpreter for the company commander. When we would come to a village I would find a house to serve as headquarters and tell the occupants to move into one room. I got to talking to this one woman and she told me she had sons in the German navy, but also sons who had emigrated to New York. She was worried about the ones in the United States because she hadn't heard from them since before the war. I told her I would try to have someone contact them and tell them that she was all right. Well, word got back to these fellows in New York and they were so grateful that they made it a point to contact my mother in Northern Kentucky and tell her that I was all right and that I had been kind to their mother. I never forgot that."

When Fitzer's unit reached the Rhine River, he was assigned to operate a motorboat to ferry troops across because he had run boats on the Ohio River growing up.

"On about the fourth crossing, we were ferrying German prisoners back across to our side. An artillery shell went off nearby and tore my helmet off and knocked me into the river. The other American in the boat pointed his gun at the prisoners and told them to get me out. They did, and one of them had first aid training, and he stopped the bleeding on my head until the medics got to me. He may have saved me, and I got a Purple Heart."

Herbert Fitzer, Highland Heights, Army Combat Engineers, 1942-47


"Learn to play a musical instrument. I was in the Army Ground Force Band in Hawaii. I played the clarinet, saxophone and flute. We were in basic training, and I was lucky that somebody heard me playing the clarinet one night. They said, 'We're going to put you in the band.' After basic I went to the band in Hawaii. The rest of my group went into the infantry, and three of my friends from there were killed. I would tell young men today, put your faith in God, because he certainly did watch over me.

"Keep the faith and hope that God watches."

Walter Fox, Lockland, Army, Drafted in 1942 at age 25


"I was always thinking about going home, but just let that be. There is nothing to look out for but yourself and your buddies.

"I lost my older brother in the Battle of the Bulge. That was right about the time I was drafted. My mother was not very happy. But then they passed a new regulation that said you could get out early if a member of your family had been killed, so I was discharged early, in 1945."

John Lahmer, Colerain Township, entered Army in 1944 at age 18, served as a military policeman in Italy


When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Bill Linville was 10 and his father got drafted. Because his parents were separated, Linville said that he, his brother and sister were sent to the Children's Home orphanage in Cincinnati for the duration of the war. In 1950, at age 18, Bill dropped out of high school to enlist to go fight in Korea.

"Just follow your training. Training is the most important thing. You don't realize how dangerous war really is until you get there."

Bill Linville, Colerain Township, Army


'I'm very concerned about the young soldiers over there in Iraq now. I can't figure out for the life of me why we are doing this. We shouldn't be fighting this war now; Bush's dad should have pushed through to Baghdad years ago when we had the chance.''

His unit was ready to accompany the 4th Marine Division on the planned invasion of Japan when the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Pacific war.

Charles Mahaney, Bellevue, Coast Guard, 1942-45, Served on a heavy cruiser stationed at Pearl Harbor


'I was in a trucking company in Europe, transporting supplies. I would tell the soldiers today that it is not always going to be as rough as they might have thought it would be. Just do as you are told and you will have a good chance of making it back.

"All I ever thought about when I was over there was coming home."

Sam Mays, Lincoln Heights, Army, Drafted in 1944


"Be focused on your duty and help fight for your country.

"Keep busy. You can't just sit around. You have to realize you are away from home and keep focused on your job over there. A lot of days you will get lonely, so you have to stay busy.

"Don't try to bring souvenirs back. Just leave them lay. I was in a Navy construction battalion in Hawaii, on Guam and several other islands. The tide would go out and expose a lot of unexploded shells and other bits and pieces of junk from the Japanese. We had guys run out there trying to pick it up who would get hurt by it. We even had some drown when the tide came back in.

"You have to stay on your toes all the time while you are over there. You can't take nothing for granted."

Samuel Ray, Lockland, Navy, 1943-45


"Listen to the sergeants and officers. Take their advice and obey them. It's more or less up to you to take care of yourself on the front lines, because someone can't be there all of the time to say 'put your head down.' Write your family as often as you can."

Shelby Snowden, Colerain Township, Army Rangers, Served in North Africa, Italy, Belgium, France and Holland, winning a Purple Heart and the Silver Star, Re-enlisted to serve in Korea


"My only advice to the soldiers in Iraq is to keep your head down and do what you are told. Then you'll come home just fine.

"In World War II, we didn't see the enemy; they were overhead in airplanes or under the sea in submarines. These people in Iraq usually can't tell enemies from friends. They've got it pretty tough."

Jim Swegles, Bellevue, United States Navy


"My advice is always strictly pay attention to the orders from your officers and non-coms. I would tell them not to try anything on their own.

"When I was serving in Germany, what I worried about right then was keeping my head down. I was close to the sergeant and I made sure I did everything he did.

"The hardest thing they will face is first going in and transforming from civilian to military life. It was the hardest for me, but I became very proud to be in the military. I will never forget that they picked men from different units to form an honor guard for Eisenhower's train, and I was one of the ones picked."

Harold Trice, Lockland, United States Army, 1942-45


"My grandson is in Air/Sea Rescue for the Navy. He just finished survival training in California and is expecting to be deployed. His father recently retired from the Navy. I have eight sons and six have served - two in the Army and four in the Navy. My granddaughter is getting ready to enter the Navy this summer.

"I tell them all to serve their country, but that I hope they never have to do what I did. I tell them all I hope they don't come back eligible to be in the VFW - but so far two of them are." (To be eligible to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a person must have participated in overseas combat. Vickers is a life member of the Lawlor-Hanlon VFW Post in Newport).

"You never know what you will miss. There were two times when I was overseas that I got really homesick. Once was in the Philippines, when another fellow somehow came up with a case of Hudepohl beer. The other time was on Okinawa and we were listening to some canned (recorded) music on the radio, and the announcer said, 'This program comes to you from the beautiful Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky.'

"All this terrorism makes today's fight much worse. It's a hidden war. We knew the enemy we were fighting. This is not an open war in Iraq. The soldiers over there can't tell the good guys from the bad guys."

Reuben Vickers, Newport, Army, Went to the Philippines in 1945 at age 17


"What the guys are going through now - being an army of occupation - I did years after World War II in Germany. The real problem with occupying a country is that you are over them, and no matter how good you are, they don't like it. They may not be fighting open battles, but they are sniping at you because they don't want you there.

"I once asked a (German) girl how they felt about us being there after the war. She said that if they had a gun with two bullets they would use the first one to shoot a Russian, but that they would use the second one to shoot an American if they could, because even though they liked us better than the Russians, they still didn't want us there.

"That's what occupation is like."

Mel Westrich, Colerain Township, Army, 1952-54


David Wells is editorial page editor of the Enquirer.

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