A WWII Story

It easy to hear the word “Veteran.” But do you really know what it means? Do you know all of the stories these men can tell? What about the families of the men who don’t get to tell their story?

The following is a recount from my grandpa, Tillman. He’s one of the most badass guys I’ll ever know and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. He has some incredibly entertaining stories outside of WWII but we’ll save those for another day. He’s a good 60 years older than me, but I read this knowing we’ve all been 18 at some point. I’m so proud to be a part of his family. I know it’s taken him many years to pull this together and it hasn’t been easy. I’m posting it in hope that we can learn from our history and appreciate all of the men and women that have helped get us where we are today.

To start off the story, here he is, many years ago with his brothers and sisters (he’s the one on the top left):

My draft notice said, “Congratulations, you have been selected by your friends and neighbors to represent them in the United States Army for the duration of the war.”

In 1942 I was a farm boy working with my brother on the family farm.  I was drafted into the Army Oct. 5, 1942 at Fort Crook (what is now known as Offutt Air Force base).  I left Wahoo on Oct 5th about 7am.  I had had my first physical by a local Doctor in Wahoo a few days earlier.  He said, ”I was told you are farming with your brother by Cedar Bluffs.  That is necessary for the war effort.  You don’t have to go, I could reclassify you.”  I said, “NO, I want to go.” So off to the war…

When I got to Fort Crook I ran into a soldier that used to come to the farm with my brother, Emmett, when he was stationed there.   His name was Sgt. Winhym or something like that.  I told him I had a hangover and didn’t really want to take a physical so he told me to follow him. I followed him to his room. He slid out his radio and reached behind it and pulled out a jug of whiskey, he said have a drink if you need it and I will fill out all the papers you need to get you in the Army. And he asked me if I knew of any physical problems I had, I said “None.”  He let me nap in his room and woke me a few minutes before the bus was ready to leave for Fort Riley, Kansas to officially be inducted into the Army.

I was then shipped to Fort Riley, Kansas. There we all had several tests, physical and mental, that was suppose to give them some idea of what duty we would be capable of doing.  On the intelligence test I scored 126… how, I don’t know, but not too bad for a farm boy…. it just impressed the hell out of the Sergeant giving the test.  The Sergeant took me to the back of the room and told the Captain my score.  The Captain said he wanted me to apply for “Officer Candidate” training when I had three months in the service and was finished with basic training.  I was told to pick a school to last about that long.  I chose airplane mechanics school which was longer.   After that we were put on a troop train headed for St. Petersburg, Florida for more testing and training, etc.   My first duty assignment when we got settled in was to guard some ducks that the hotel was known for, and our Army unit used as mascots.  The Sergeant told me to guard the four or five ducks “with my life.”  Wouldn’t you know it the first thing the ducks did was try to cross the busy street in front of the hotel right in front of an oncoming bus and lots of cars. Naturally after what I was told I dashed out to stop traffic and try to get the ducks back.  The bus driver that had to slam on his brakes and throw his passengers around to keep from hitting me was pretty mad… and yelled some obscenities at me, plus all the other cars.

The next day we spent all day mopping floors in a very large mess hall.  When we finished we had to start over, three times no less.  The next day we “sorta” marched to the beach for a close order drill.  That lasted all of a half hour and a shower came over so we went inside.  Then our lectures started and we were told of the many pitfalls soldiers would encounter if we went with the wrong women, etc.

Then there were more tests to match us up for schools.  They asked what I would like to do.  I told them I would like airplane mechanic school or to drive a tank. “Thank God they had openings for airplane mechanics.”  Our stay in St. Petersburg didn’t last long.  So after a couple weeks in Saint Petersburg some of us were shipped to Gulfport, Mississippi for Airplane Mechanics School, which was very interesting.  While at Gulfport I had a terrible cold and developed pneumonia.  For some reason they had no place to put me for medical care. I was told to stay in our barracks and try to stay warm. Those barracks had no insulation and it got real cold in that area.  In fact that winter it was the coldest they had ever had it down there… they even had ice in the ditches.

Some older guy in the barracks, God bless him, took over caring for me. He pushed my bed as close to the stove as he could get it, then sat there all night making sure I stay covered so I would sweat it out. He kept the stove red hot all night.  When I woke up the next day my whole bed was soaking wet from sweat, but I felt 100% better in the morning. I don’t even remember the man’s name, but he was sent home the next day because he was too old for the Army, and besides he had a venereal disease. He sure had a kind heart.

While stationed at Gulfport, Glen Smith and I hitchhiked to New Orleans to go to the Sugar Bowl game on New Years Day 1943.  A few days before I finished mechanics school, as Glen and I were returning to the barracks from class, we noticed a crowd around the bulletin board so we went over and checked it out.  There was a list of names of guys shipping out the next day… “It was shipping orders!”  My name was on the list but not Glen’s.  Glen also was eligible for OCS (Officer Candidate School), so we went into the Orderly Room to talk to the Captain in charge about signing up for OCS.

The Captain asked me if my name was on the list for shipping and I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Sorry, you’re too late.”  He had called me into his office a month earlier to urge me to get signed up. I told him I wanted to wait until I had my diploma. He said Glen still had time as long as his name was not on the list, so Glen got to spend about 6 months or so at the University of Georgia while I was headed to Kerns, Utah for overseas training.

So in a day or two I was on a troop train on my way to Kerns, Utah for more combat training   Kerns is no longer there, it is all built up with houses, etc.    For some reason while there I was put in charge of our “Flight”, which the barracks was called.  It was my duty to take my Flight out and teach them close order drills, etc. So we marched and marched and marched to the foothills and all over the base.  Lots of inspections and more meetings, some boring and some very interesting, hand-to-hand combat, how to kill the enemy, etc.  And again, women that frequently visited army bases.

Most of the guys enjoyed marching.  I always had my group whistling or singing when we marched.  That wasn’t code but we did it.   We would march into the foothills of the mountains, out of sight from the “brass”, and do weird marches. If someone saw a different drill some place we would try it just for fun.  We had what we called the Queen Ann Salute that we did.

Unknown to us when we were to perform at a parade the commanding officer called on us to show what we learned in our secret sessions.  We were not a bit bashful and proudly showed what we could do.  When we finished we were complemented by the commanding officer and “soundly” applauded by the group.  The commanding officer said we were one of his best units and wished other groups would enjoy the training like we did.  Evidently some Lieutenant had seen us march off over the hill and followed us off base to see what we were up to as he watched from a distance.  We made our training fun. We would have wrestling matches, etc.

I would like to mention here I lost all track of time while I was in the service. One day was just like the next. The army really didn’t want us to keep a diary in case we would be captured, etc. I guess I really didn’t want to any way.  I was homesick and lonesome the whole time I was in the service.

A few days later a lot of us were hauled to a Marine base, I think it was Stockton, California to be loaded onto a ship bound for Hawaii.  We shipped out on a captured German vessel, “The Pueblo”.  Shortly after we left port we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge.  A lot of our G.I.’s started feeding the fish over the ship’s side rails.  Us rookies got seasick.

Once in Hawaii I was sent to Hickman Field, then onto Wheeler Field.  I was then loaded on a truck and sent to Mokuleia Airfield to join the 98th Bombardment Squadron who had just come back from Guadalcanal and Espiritu Santo.  Mokuleia was located at the far northern end of the big island (Oahu).  They had just returned that day to regroup and get new B-24 bombers.  They had been using B-17s but the B-24s had a longer flying range.  Our planes did a lot of scouting for enemy ships and subs.  Midway and Wake Islands were part of our territory.  Everywhere you flew you were over water.

While stationed in Mokuleia I was having a little problem physically so I went to the squadron doctor.  After checking me over he advised me to check into the Hickam Field Hospital.  I had a varicose vein, of all places, in my left testicle.  They advised me to have it repaired before we shipped down-under.  So a Captain Dedens operated on me.  I was in the hospital for about three or four weeks. They didn’t seem in any hurry to ship me back to duty (my nurse may have had something to do with that).  They even asked me if I would like to go to Hilo for a couple weeks rest.  The nurse who had been taking care of me told me that she was going also and we would spend a lot of our time together. Would you believe, stupid me, I said I had better get back to my outfit ‘cause we were suppose to be headed down-under for a long tour of duty and I didn’t want them to go without me.  Stupid, stupid me!  I found out later that I would have been assigned to the “Jolly Rodger” group right there in Hawaii for the duration of the war and I would have missed all that “easy duty” in the southwest Pacific.  Who knows, if that would have happened and that cute little nurse got connected I might still be living there.  Oh well, it didn’t happen, my life may have been all different.

When I got settled in Mokuleia and started my work I lived in a hut with six guys that were on a flight crew… my flight crew and we were to become very close friends.  T/Sgt Donald J. Howell was a Flight crew engineer, T/Sgt Johnny Nemchick was the Radio operator and nose turret gunner, S/Sgt Donald Carpenter was the tail gunner and S/Sgt Herman R. Leffew was a waist gunner (sorry I can’t think of the other waist gunner’s name)… a bunch of great guys that would sadly soon be lost in this war.

After we got to use our B-24s we loaded our squadron on a ship headed southwest.  We were headed for south of the equator. Our first landing was Funafuti.  We got off of the large ship and boarded a destroyer escort for the next leg of our journey to Nukufetau.    This island was sort of a mystery.  Big ships could not get into the harbor.  Word was that it was a floating island.  I have never heard such a thing.  I think they were pulling our leg.  Then again they had to send out a radio beam for our planes to follow to find the island.  It would be in a different spot than when they took off.  Several times Jap planes tried to follow our planes back to our base.  Tokyo Rose even mentioned us on her radio show.  The island was small.  The airstrip had to be lengthened by Sea Bees. I worked with a Crew Chief named Lyle Swanniger.  We had two Master Sergeants named Woods.  One was a big fat guy and the other was a little pip-squeak that was dumber than a bucket of hair. One day when we were having a meeting they got to running off the head so I told them the two of them together wouldn’t make a pimple on a good Master Sergeant’s butt.  Naturally they got very unhappy with me and promised me I would be a permanent Private.    That lasted until we got down-under and my crew was going on a mission.

Tech/Sergeant Swanniger had flown on ahead to the next staging area and left me behind and in charge of getting the plane ready even though our maintenance crew had a Tech/ Sergeant and a Staff Sergeant on it.  We were all called into the Operations Office and Captain Loomis gave the order, “I know you guys outrank him, but he is in charge!”   Mind you I was a Private in charge.

About that time I had three engines to replace because of flying hours.  The first thing I did was tell the worthless Tech/Sergeant to get lost, I didn’t want to see him again.  He was a professional gambler and nothing but trouble.  The Staff Sergeant wasn’t much better.  All he was good at was washing the cowlings of the engines.   It took me 76 straight hours to change the three engines.  I was tired after 76 hours straight!

tillamn WWII

On one mission when the crew took off they radioed back and said the #3 engine supercharger was having trouble with max power so they were told to return to base and I would replace the supercharger regulator.  I ended up replacing it twice because of defective parts.  It was no small task.  I had to remove about 200 small bolts to change the two regulators.  I worked my butt off in that heat down there below the equator to get it done   The pilot was impressed that I stayed at it and wanted to know my rank, so I explained to him I was a permanent Private at the request of the Master Sergeants Woods.  He yelled at the commanding officer to get me a raise, so when the next promotions came out I was made a Corporal.

Sorry to say, I wish now that I would not have worked so hard on that plane.  Those great guys (my tent mates and flight crew) all died that day over the target because that pilot was bound and determined to knock out a Jap 12-inch gun emplacement.  The pilot was a wild man who wanted to prove himself by getting it done, so he took way too many chances.  They flew back and forth over that target many times that day fighting off enemy planes before the pilot was satisfied that they could salvo their load of bombs into that gun emplacement. Witnesses who saw all this happen say they saw that 12-inch gun go flying in the air.

The crew paid the ultimate price to get that done. They said Jap planes were coming so close that the gunners could not miss them. Those guys shot down almost a dozen planes that day. Other crews in the formation witnessed the waist gunners, tail gunner & the ball turret gunner all dead and their bodies hanging over their guns. The fuselage of the plane was so riddled with bullets they say they could see daylight through all the holes in that plane.  They felt all the crew was dead.  The pilot although badly wounded had managed to keep the plane in the air with only one engine running as he pulled back into formation.  The planes following them back to base had to fly with full flaps down in order to fly slow enough to keep him close. When they flew into a cloud the plane never came out the other side. They don’t have any idea what happen to them. Due to low gas the rest of the formation could not stay around to search for them.

I stayed on the flight line that night until almost dark waiting until Major Wood came down and picked me up in his jeep and said, “Jurg, they’re not coming back”.  It was a very sad day… all my good friends were dead.   It’s hard to tell, but I imagine they saved many, many lives and possibly many ships by knocking out that 12-inch gun.  Guns that size are capable of shooting many miles and doing tremendous damage.  To this day I still shed tears for those guys.   To make things worse, when I got back our tent area all their personal belongings were gone.  Somebody had stolen everything. Who would do such a thing?  There was nothing left to send to their families.

Our next island was Tarawa.  We bombed that place for over a month and our troops still suffered a ton of casualties. After the island was secure there were still Jap bodies lying beside the runway when our planes landed.  I was never in the forward echelon so I did not see this.  By the time I got there it was fairly cleaned up but you didn’t step on or kick anything you saw lying on the ground, it may have a body part in it.  Several guys had to throw their shoes away because of the smell and stench of dead bodies in 110° to 120° heat.

I did not keep track of time or months while overseas.  We moved every few months as the war progressed.

We then loaded our supplies and equipment on a LST and headed for Kwajalein.  By this time the war was pretty well under control and some of the resistance was letting up.  The unit at this time decided that since we put in a lot of time down under, we were entitled to some R& R so they sent the ground crews 10-day passes, 10 people at a time.  When my time came up I went with five other friends and stayed at Camp DeRussy in Honolulu, Hawaii.    We spent our days and evenings “celebrating”… lots of hangovers.  While there I was able to look up a friend from back home, Ray Grosse, who was in the Navy and assigned to a submarine.  Ray was quartered at a fancy Waikiki Hotel jutting out over the ocean.

On the tenth day our group was hung over just a “wee bit” more than usual and our wake-up call did not happen, so we got up a few minutes late and headed for the airfield.  Well, you probably guessed it… we missed our plane.  So DAMNIT we had to wait for another plane.

We had flown up to Hawaii in a condemned B-24 that smelt heavy with gas, so no smoking, etc.  So after spending an extra 10-days, we decided maybe we should fly that condemned plane back to Kwajalein… it hadn’t been moved since we’d parked it.  So we did.

When we got back everyone was real happy to see us and welcomed us with open arms.  Come to find out the plane we had missed went down in the ocean with no survivors.  They’d been out searching the ocean for seven or eight days.  All they found was debris from the plane.  It’s kind of hard to convince me drinking doesn’t pay now, huh?

After several more months we loaded up again and ended up in Guam.  We almost felt like we were uptown.  The people we saw were friendly, but there were also about 3,000 of the Jap army left on the island.  They were hiding out in the hills.  At night you could see a few of their campfires burning.  They would sneak into our camp area at night and steal food and clothing, etc.  Guard duty at night would get a little hairy when they tried to damage our planes.  After the length of time the big battle was over, they had to be getting pretty desperate.   I remember one night one of the guys on guard duty heard a noise and let loose with a Thompson sub-machine gun.  He did more damage to the plane than the Japs!    We had to replace a couple of engines on the plane… the Jap got away.

While stationed in Guam one afternoon we were finished for the day and got on a weapons carrier to return to our living area.  They guy to my right had just finished cleaning his Thompson sub-machinegun.  I heard a loud pop as the vehicle hit a dip in the asphalt road and this man to my right, whose back was up against my right arm and shoulder fell from his sitting position onto the tarmac.  My first comment was, “What in the hell happened?”  Evidently the jar from hitting that dip in the tarmac caused the bolt of his Thompson sub-machinegun to cycle and fire.  Since he was holding it muzzle up between his legs, the bullet struck him just above his Adam’s apple and came out the back of his head just a few inches from my right temple.  Luck was with me that day… just a little more of an angle and his bullet would have taken off the right side of my skull too.  At the angle it was fired it missed me by about two inches.

While we were getting ready to leave Guam the U.S. dropped a couple atomic bombs on Japan and it brought the war to an end.  We still ended up in Okinawa before the peace papers were signed, but we went through… TWO typhoons.  While there weather wasn’t too good.

About the time we were going home I made Sergeant.  We were preparing to head home after the last typhoon had just passed and had orders to get loaded on a ship for home. We got up early and got on a small landing craft to be ferried to the ship.  The sea was still wild and rough from the weather.  We were just about to unload when we had to pull back to let smaller boats go ahead of us.  So we pulled back and let “ALL” the small boats go ahead of us.  We were all very seasick the whole day and were the last to load on the ship that night.

I ended up quartered about as far forward as we could get on the ship.  On the ride out of the harbor the bow of our ship was going up and down about thirty feet!  Rougher than heck as I was shaving and trying to trim my moustache, the bow started up and I lost the whole right side of my moustache, so I had to shave it all off!

As we were sailing north of Wake Island all of a sudden our ship stopped dead in the water.  The big question was what happened?   They came on the loudspeaker and said they wanted everyone on the right side of the ship and to stay away from the left side.  So I disobeyed the order and took a peek over the left side.  Lo and behold I saw a floating mine just a few inches from the side of the ship.  Those detonators on the mine didn’t look too inviting!    So we sat there dead still waiting for the mine to float a little further away.  Finally it got about a hundred feet away and they very slowly moved the ship ahead so it would not pull the mine along.  The ship finally got about a quarter mile away and fired at it with a 20 mm canon to try to explode it.  They finally radioed the Navy to send a destroyer to get it.  Thank God it was a dud or it would have sunk our ship.

The funny thing was when we got onboard and thinking how lucky we had been to be going home in one piece, I mentioned to one of the guys, “It’s just our luck if there is one damn floating mine around it would be our luck to hit it.”   We had laid a lot of mines around Wake at one time!

When we finally got back to the U.S. I’m not sure what town we landed in.  I think in San Francisco we were loaded on a troop train for Colorado.  Somewhere outside of Denver we were going to be discharged.  When I got to the camp barracks I left everything I had gathered up over my three years in the service.  I walked out with my shaving kit and the clothes on my back and went out to catch a train back home.
As I came out the door some guys by the curb yelled, “Jurgens, come here!”    They had hailed a cab!   So we took up a collection among us and asked the cabbie, “How much to go to Omaha?”  He said a couple hundred, so we said okay and took the cab all the way home.  The first things a couple of the guys said is “Let’s get a jug!”  I said, “Bull S_ _ _!!!  I got that far and I wanted to get HOME!”  So I was the “Kill Joy” and would not let it happen.

We took Highway 30 all the way and when we got to Fremont I said, “I will get out here.”  The cabbie said, “How far do you live from here?”  I said, “About ten miles.”   He said, “I’ll take you home!”  So we headed for Cedar Bluffs.  As we were going around the curve onto Highway 109 the engine of the cab blew up.   I walked to Ernest Beck’s place and called Bert to come get me.  I don’t know how the cab got to Omaha.  I haven’t seen any of those guys since and don’t even know their names.

It was good to be home!

The campaigns we [the 11th Bombardment Group] took part in were:
Battle of Midway
Guadalcanal
Northern Solomons
Eastern Mandates
Central Pacific
Western Pacific
Air Combat of Iwo Jima
RyukusAir Offensive Japan and China

…How do you breathe after reading that? I’m fortunate to know a few of the bits and pieces that fit in between the lines that didn’t make the cut here. The facts are one thing. The feelings and thoughts for each event another. I feel incredibly fortunate that these pictures exist:

1946 Lil & Til

The first pic shows my grandma, Lillian, and grandpa, Tillman together. And then there’s my aunt Jetty with my grandma, Lil (gorgeous, right?)  and grandpa, Til. This man has a large legacy that I’m proud to be a part of. Fast forward several decades and there are now five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren in the family. How cool is that?

Thank you to him and to those who have spent time in service and their families.