Remembering midstate WWII vets

wcrenshaw@macon.comNovember 9, 2013 

In the summer of 1940, Byron Jones was making $2.50 a week delivering groceries in Macon when he decided the Army might offer a better future.

He was only 15 but got someone to falsely swear that he was older. He became a member of Company C of the 121st Infantry Division, which is today the Army National Guard’s 48th Brigade.

For a year Jones trained for war with 147 other Company C members, mostly from the Macon area. When they shipped out they scattered to units in both the European and Pacific theaters, but Jones has kept track of the entire group.

He is one of only three still living.

In Middle Georgia and across the nation, World War II veterans are rapidly disappearing. As of September, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 1.2 million of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still living. They are dying at a rate of about 413 per day.

“The greatest generation is fast leaving us,” said Avery Chenoweth, a retired Marine and military historian who lives in Perry.

While World War II vets are becoming scarce in Middle Georgia, there are still some. In August The Telegraph ran a reader solicitation for World War II veterans living in the area, and it generated more than 60 phone calls and emails.

The Telegraph and students from the Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism have interviewed many of them to tell their stories for Veterans Day, which is Monday.

Chenoweth lives in a large retirement community but doesn’t know any World War II vets there. He was in high school when the war was raging, and reading about the heroism of World War II vets inspired him to join the military.

“We had an education back then because the newspaper had stories about combat every day,” he said. “When we graduated high school in 1946, we knew as much about World War II as professors do nowadays.”

No atheists when bullets fly

Jones, 88, is one of the youngsters among World War II vets. Most are in their 90s.

He entered World War II on the shores of Italy. He was part of an invasion force that battled through town after town, and Jones saw many of his fellow soldiers fall. Asked to describe the first time he saw combat, he said, “Scared, is the main thing. We didn’t believe it was happening, that it could happen that way. There weren’t no atheists over there, I can tell you that.”

Jones saw Benito Mussolini hanging upside down in Milan with his mistress after the deposed dictator was executed as he tried to flee the country.

Jones returned to Italy in 1985 to visit cemeteries where he helped bury American soldiers.

Jones told the stories of time in combat without a flinch, but he suddenly became emotional as he described returning home from war to Macon. He walked from the Greyhound bus station to his parents’ home on Forsyth Street and knocked on the door at about 3 a.m. His parents didn’t know he was coming.

“My father said, ‘What’s that noise?’ and my mom said, ‘That’s Byron. He’s home,’” Jones said, choking back tears.

A ship’s Red Herring

Leon “Red” Herring, 96, lives by himself in Macon. He still drives and square dances every week.

About 69 years ago he was a young sailor standing on the deck of a destroyer as he watched a Japanese fighter with guns blazing coming right toward him. He thought his life was about to end.

He joined the Navy in 1941 and was sitting in church when news came over that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. He worked in engineering on the destroyer USS Anderson (DD-411).

The ship steamed to Pearl Harbor, where Herring witnessed the aftermath of the attack. The Anderson, and Herring, would go on to be in some of the biggest sea battles in history, including the pivotal Battle of Midway. Herring kept a diary, which he published into a book.

It includes a passage of the events of Nov. 1, 1944, at the Battle of Leyte, in the Phillipine Sea. Herring normally worked below deck, but he happened to be on deck when he spotted a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” fighter speeding toward the ship, with its bullets hitting the water. Herring hit the deck, right next to a shipmate, and then realized the pilot was a suicide bomber.

The pilot intended to hit the ship’s smokestack but missed, hitting it only with a wing. The plane spun around and hit the boat davit, which is the structure that lowers lifeboats, and that helped save the ship as the plane’s bomb detonated, Herring said.

“I’m just lucky,” Herring said. “The kid that was laying down right beside me had both of his shoes blown off his feet, and both heels were completely blown away.”

Herring immediately began tending to the injured. The attack killed 14 sailors and wounded 22 more.

Afterward, Herring discovered he had shrapnel in his back. He has a piece of it in a case that also holds the Purple Heart and Bronze Star he was awarded for his actions that day.

Herring would go on to become one of the first Americans to set foot on the Japanese mainland. The Anderson served in the battle group with the USS Missouri, where the surrender was signed on Sept. 2, 1945. Days earlier, the Japanese had agreed in principle on the surrender, so in preparation for the signing, Herring and some other sailors went out in a motorboat to determine whether the harbor they were at could accommodate the ships. They decided to go ashore.

“All you could see was Japanese looking back at you,” he said.

About 250 men served on the Anderson. Starting right after the war ended, they would have a reunion every two years, and Herring has regularly attended. He can remember more than 100 sailors at the reunion, but their numbers have been dwindling for years. They were disappearing so rapidly they started having the reunion annually.

In September, Herring traveled to Arkansas for the reunion. There were only six of his former shipmates there.

After the war ended, the Anderson was sent to the Bikini Atoll to be sunk in testing of the atomic bomb. That didn’t sit very well with Herring.

“At one reunion we were told if we had $3,000 and a deep sea diver’s license, we could go visit it,” he said.

War and peace

Ken Clark, 89, entered the war late, but it gave him a unique perspective and allowed him to be an eyewitness to history.

He long had a fascination with planes, and when the war broke out, he signed up to be a pilot. However, after he trained, he was assigned to train other incoming pilots.

“I didn’t think it was very heroic, but it probably saved my life because I didn’t really learn to fly until I trained others to fly,” he said.

It wasn’t until September 1944 that he was sent to the Pacific. He flew a P-38 twin engine fighter and saw some action but nothing he described as major.

However, he and other members of his squadron would become the first fighter pilots to land on the mainland of Japan following the surrender.

They flew into a naval base where other U.S. troops had already established operations. With the Japanese having vowed to fight to the last man, there was considerable uncertainty whether they were all on board with a surrender.

When Clark got out of his plane, the first thing he saw was a group of armed Japanese policeman. A U.S. commander approached the pilots, and Clark asked him where their guards were.

“He pointed to the Japanese and said, ‘Those are your guards,’” Clark recalled.

Because he entered the war late, he stayed in Japan for two more months following the surrender. His job was to patrol the skies and provide security for the occupation forces.

He was surprised at how easily the Japanese people accepted the occupation forces.

“It was an astonishing change,” he said. “The picture of them that had been painted to us as mean and aggressive was totally misleading. We found the Japanese were very courteous and very respectful.”

He flew over the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima where the atomic bombs were dropped. For all the devastation they wreaked, Clark said what many people may not understand is that the Allies had been bombing the entire country with conventional weapons for months, so devastation was everywhere.

Asked what he would most want people to know and remember about World War II, Clark said it would be that the U.S. should always be prepared.

“We have a very charming lady (at the retirement home) who wears a badge that says, ‘War is not the answer,’” Clark said. “She said, ‘I guess you don’t agree with me.’ I said, ‘No, I agree with you, but the best way to avoid war is to be prepared for it.’ I do believe we should have a strong military, but I don’t believe we should be in every skirmish that comes up in the world.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.


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