Soldiers

War is Cold? What happened to –? Did it Freeze Over?

“They ordered us soldiers to go below,” said Dad. ”Damned if I would. If that ship went down, I was a-plannin’ ta swim fer it.”

James Clifton McDaniel
23 Jan 1917 — 12 Jan 1999

World War II took many a green farm boy and plopped them right in the middle of places as alien to them as another planet. Many, like my dad, had never even been outside the state before. James Clifton McDaniel was inducted at Ft. McClellan in Alabama in 1942. Before he was sent oversees he was stationed somewhere out in the northwest where winters get really cold. He was assigned guard duty one night during a snowstorm and got lost getting there. We don’t have blizzards in Alabama.

“I was scared half to death,” said Dad. “I mighta froze to death for one thing, and for another there was bears out there and I only had a l’il ole guard rifle.”

He managed to hunker down until dawn lightened things up enough to see he was only a few yards away from the fort. Of course he got in trouble for not relieving the guard. Getting lost and imagining non-existent bears were apparently not viable excuses to wartime brass.

Dad’s fish-out-of-water, tenderfoot mentality dogged him past our western shores when they shipped him out for Hawaii. Here was this formerly barefoot country boy whose only experience with water was swimming in Canoe Creek and fishing from its banks, and they stick him in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His first maritime experience of an ocean storm in a ship that seemed to shrink from the dock to the depths, really rocked his world. He described giant waves “like mountains” that dwarfed the ship, sending it plunging into deep, lightless troughs.

“They ordered us soldiers to go below,” said Dad. “Damned if I would. If that ship went down, I was a-plannin’ ta swim fer it.”

Well, the ship managed to weather the storm intact, made it to Hawaii, post-Pearl Harbor of course, and deposited Dad in the land of gentle breezes and beautiful girls (this was pre-Mom, too). And although Dad earned his expert marksman medal (back then, farm boys in Alabama put meat on the table by actually hitting what they pointed a gun at), for some reason the powers that be were loath to put him at the front. They found he had a talent that superseded snowstorms and the wrath of the Trident god. He could cook. Boy, could he cook. When he made it stateside after the war with nothing more life-threatening than a sunburn, he had an expert baker’s degree and an offer from some place in California to come to work for them.

But Dad politely declined. He missed his family. He missed the farm. But thank God he didn’t miss Mom. They met and were married in 1947. I was born at home in 1948 in the middle of an unusual snowfall in Crawford’s Cove next to a cotton field.

 *********************
Old Glory

I once interviewed a veteran who spent much of World War II on a remote and lonely base in Greenland, but who was later shipped out to the fighting front where he was seriously wounded.

“Which was worse,” I asked him, “the loneliness or the fighting?”

“When you’ve been shot at,” he replied, “you know you’re at war.”

At a football game back in south Georgia one Friday evening, the crowd stood at attention for the National Anthem. Teens ran about helter skelter, screeching and laughing, oblivious of this hallowed moment. To my horror, my own son, then age 14, was making his way down the aisle toward me. I was with some friends, Tildun and his wife, Pat. Tildun, a very large, imposing man, was the assistant principal at the high school. As my son drew even with him, Tildun’s arm dropped like an iron bar across his path. Still at attention, his eyes never wavering from the flag, Tildun’s arm stayed steady as a rock, blocking any forward movement. I knew, as my son did not, that Tildun was seeing much more than a red, white, and blue flag snapping smartly in the night breeze. He was seeing his brother’s name etched on a black marble memorial in Washington, D.C.

There’s a clipping in my family album showing a head and shoulders shot of a young soldier with an earnest face. His name was Thomas Duncan. Whenever I look at it, I think of another news clipping of Thomas’s parents receiving posthumous medals in his name. The remorseless camera had captured their stricken eyes and listless stance. More grief was bared on that front page than I could stand to see. The clipping I have of Thomas is his obituary.

Thomas was serving his term in Vietnam when he was wounded and taken to a field hospital. When the hospital was surrounded and attacked by the Viet Cong, the wounded rose to fight — and died. Thomas had just turned 21.

In Charleston, SC, there is a certain overpass. From one direction, just as the wheels of your car touch the overpass, you see a huge flag emerge like a star-spangled dawn above the horizon. On a windy night, lit up against the darkness, Old Glory shines there like a new constellation. I always found myself leaning forward, watching for it, anticipating it. And somewhere in the mist that would cover my eyes would be a vision of black marble, and news clippings, and earnest young faces.

Our flag is sacred. Our soldiers are heroes.

* *  * * * * * * *

Dad and his brother,

Samuel LOUIS McDaniel (right);
24 March 1928 – 20 May 1999;

three McDaniel brothers were in World War II;
other brother, Eddie Lee McDaniel (below)

Eddie Lee McDaniel
3 July 1919 – 17 April 1979

 My uncle, my mother’s brother, Arthur Marrell Duncan, retired U.S. Air Force
My uncle, Arthur Marrell Duncan
 * * *

I do not have a picture of my uncle, Shelly Owen Duncan, (my mother’s oldest brother) in his uniform. This picture was taken pre-World War II at a CCC Camp (Civilian Conservation Corps) at Camp Sibert in Etowah County, Alabama. During the war, Shelly’s unit was pinned down by a machine gunner in an open, snow-covered field. Orders were passed up the line of soldiers hugging the ground for Platoon Sgt. Duncan and his men to take out the gunner. As Duncan rose to motion his men forward he was thrown backward by the force of the bullets. Severely wounded, Shelly was rolled onto a coat and dragged from one soldier to another to the edge of the field. Shelly survived his wounds and lived to fight until he was wounded again in another battle.  But he survived the war. A few years before his death in 2000, I asked him why he stood up in the face of machine gun fire. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said indignantly, “I had my orders.”                                                      

 

Shelly Owen Duncan
1 Jan 1923 – 3 Sept 2000
CCC Camp at Camp Sibert in Etowah County, Alabama

                                                               *  *  *  *  *  *

Pearl Harbor

This is a story I wrote while working at The Fitzgerald-Herald in Fitzgerald, GA. I interviewed many old soldiers and told their stories. (Linda Smith)

Marine Corps PFC Tom Lester had been walking post at the fuel dumps since four a.m. that Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. Two days earlier, Lester and about seven other Marines had landed at Pearl Harbor on a tanker out of San Diego. Almost the first order of business for the 19-year-old from south Georgia was to snap pictures of the beautiful island. The second order of business was to get settled in at Barracks 32 near the submarine base.

Later, in the pleasant morning sunlight, Lester stopped to lean against a fence that contained about a half million gallons of aviation fuel, all of which was camouflaged. He was talking to his buddy, G.T. Goodrow, when the drone of planes broke into their conversation.

“Guess the Navy’s gonna start their war games early today,” said Goodrow, as he and Lester idly watched the skies.

“Wait a minute,” he said, as he and Lester both tensed. “That plane’s got a big red meatball on the side.”

There was no further conversation as Lester and Goodrow sprinted as fast and as far away from the fuel tanks as possible, stopping only when they came to a cane field on the side of a mountain as the first Japanese bombs began to fall.

From their mountainside view, the two Marines watched as the U.S.S. Arizona came apart. They watched where a congregation of sailors had been worshipping and saw white-clad bodies flying. They watched as one young man, caught in the open on the tarmac, fired at the planes with a Browning 32 automatic rifle.

Lester and Goodrow stayed on the mountainside all afternoon, not knowing what to expect or if it was over. They were rounded up with other Marines that night and sent to the beaches, ready to hold them against an invasion that never came. For several nights they slept on the beaches. In the daytime they buried their dead in an old crater cemetery they had nicknamed, “The Punch Bowl,” now a national cemetery.

Back at the carnage of Pearl Harbor, Barracks 32 had been blown flat and about half the men housed there were dead. During the rest of Lester’s stay at Pearl Harbor, he only saw four of the men who had come over on the tanker with him.

“A lot of people just disappeared,” he said.

Lester, a rear seat gunner on a dive bomber that went with a fleet of carriers, was moved on to the U.S.S. Saratoga. He was there at the Battle of Midway and the Coral Sea. The war ended for Lester when he was shot down over Guadalcanal and lost his right knee and part of his hip.

At the time I wrote this article back in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Tom Lester was a disabled veteran serving as a county magistrate. He saw two sons survive another war — Vietnam. He saw U.S. aircraft evolve from slow, cumbersome dive bombers to sleek, bat-like stalkers. He saw the weapons of war brought to a high-tech new dimension. But it was what he saw from that mountainside in Pearl Harbor half a century before that will ever live in infamy in his mind.

I’m proud I got to serve,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

 *********************
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