Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 30, 2005
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
Sixty years have passed since the Japanese officials arrived on Ie Shima in white planes with green crosses. They left by cargo plane for Manila and then moved on to the U.S.S. Missouri to play their part in the surrender to end World War II. But it didn't seem so long ago for the old soldiers gathered in Washington, D.C. earlier this month to sightsee and to reminisce.
In addition to Ie Shima, the men served in Australia, New Guinea, Wakde Island, Leyte and Luzon as members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, 5th Air Force, 100th Air Service Squadron. Those dozen "boys" now range in age from 82½ to nearly 90. Some needed canes or walkers, while others seemed to sprint rather than walk. All wore caps with the 5th Air Force insignia stitched on the front and their last names embroidered on the back.
Ed, who will turn 90 in February, had just been released from the hospital two days before he flew to Washington. He teaches line dancing in Florida. Chuck, 88, has won several gold medals in swimming in the Senior Olympics. When I asked Rex, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, how old he was, his eyes twinkled and he answered, "Almost as old as dirt." He was exaggerating a bit since he's a mere 86. My Uncle Stan is the youngster of the group and plays golf several times a week.
They have been meeting since 1989 in various locations around the country. They decided to gather in Washington this year so that those who hadn't seen the World War II Memorial that was dedicated last year would have the opportunity. Other sites, such as the Iwo Jima Memorial, Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Park, the National Archives and the Udvar-Hazy Center - part of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum - were also on the agenda.
Of particular interest was the latter. The men enjoyed looking at the WWII-era planes on display such as the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. But they were especially interested in the P-38s and P-47s because it was their job to service them during the war. They were responsible for cleaning guns, repairing engines, fixing propellers and doing whatever work was needed to keep the planes in the air. Sometimes it was necessary to raid parts from planes that had crashed into nearby rice paddies.
But the main thing the men wanted to do was share their war stories with each other and with family members who had come with them.
And the stories came, one after another.
One mentioned how after their arrival on Wakde Island in May 1944, the Japanese shelled their ship. The squadron members dug foxholes and set up a perimeter on the beach. In the night shelling, the Japanese set a jeep on fire. That turned out to be a good thing because the U.S. soldiers could then see their enemy. By daylight, all the Japanese had been killed. Some members of the outfit were put on the detail of burying the dead.
Another recalled five Navy men, who were scheduled to return to the States after completing their required 50 missions. After asking to use the shower before they went home, they were told they could, but were warned that the island was under a red alert. The sailors said that didn't bother them and they'd make it quick. But they didn't make it quick enough. All five, along with several men from the 100th, were killed in a Japanese attack.
Still another mentioned the time a typhoon on Ie Shima destroyed a good part of the unit's equipment and tents. He recalled seeing the wind roll the officers' latrine over and over until it rolled off a cliff. While some used foxholes for shelter, others found cover in Japanese burial caves.
Ed, whose job was to work on plane propellers, made a wind-driven washing machine using blades he fashioned out of plywood. "Yankee ingenuity," he said grinning.
Listening to them talk, I thought of the first line of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, his book about the French Revolution. For the men of the 100th Air Service Squadron, it had been the best of times and the worst of times. Their experiences, despite many of them being awful to withstand, had welded them into an inseparable squad that has endured 60 years.
Ed Willet was proud of the wind-driven washing machine (left) he made during World War II.
Stan, Rex, Ed and Alanzo (right) in front of the pillar representing the Pacific Front.
Stan Freeland with a P-38, a plane he repaired and maintained with the 100th Air Squadron.