‘It was the first time I’d ever went to a prayer service that I had to carry a rifle.’
- Central Oregonian - Features
Dwain Whitney recalls his World War II experiences and those of a fellow classmate
Within each generation there were those who were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country, but somehow survived to tell their tales of war. In the meantime, society has watched from the sidelines as their numbers dwindled, until they were no more.
By some accounts, only 1.7 million World War II veterans remain, with nearly 900 dying each day. Each has a story deserving to be retold.
Dwain Whitney, 87, is one of about 200 World War II veterans still living in Crook County. He was – and still is – a U.S. Marine. His war was in the South Pacific.
“I went in in June, of 1943, and then I got discharged January of 1946,” Whitney began, matter-of-factly. “Everybody down there (Corbett, Ore.) was going in the Army and the Navy, and so I wanted to be different – I joined the Marines.”
Whitney said that after boot camp in San Diego, he became a mortar man, had advanced combat training, and then ended up in Hawaii with the 8th Regiment, 2nd Division. According to Clarence E. Mershon, author of East of the Sandy – the Two World Wars, a book documenting World War veterans from the Corbett area, the division was being trained as an invasion force.
On June 15, 1944, the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions went ashore on Saipan, a Japanese stronghold some 1,500 miles south of Japan. Among them was the 19-year-old Whitney, getting his first taste of combat.
Whitney recalled that the Marines – about 20,000 strong – arrived on board about 10 troop transport ships. Although a pre-invasion bombardment had taken out the Japanese coastal guns and air defenses, the Marines still met stiff resistance and suffered heavy casualties when they landed.
“They were coming in all right,” Whitney said of the enemy’s firepower, “but we didn’t get hit. We got on the beach, and they (bullets) were hitting the trees, and everything, so we moved inland pretty fast.”
According to Mershon, the island was dominated by Mt. Topachau, a rugged area of ridges, blind ravines, and sheer cliffs. The Japanese fought to the death from within its caves. Although the island was taken by July 1, more than 25,000 Japanese defenders died, as well as 22,000 Japanese civilians, and 2,300 U.S. troops. The U.S. forces suffered three times the casualties experienced on Tarawa, where more than 6,000 troops from both sides perished during 76 hours of fighting.
“It was pretty rugged,” admitted Whitney in his typical understatement. He recalled seeing thousands of Japanese dead on the beach – later buried in a mass grave with bulldozers – and Japanese prisoners, including civilians, jumping off cliffs.
The day after the island was secured, Whitney said a chaplain held a prayer meeting in a field.
“It was the first time I’d ever went to a prayer service that I had to carry a rifle,” he said. “There were snipers around and everything else. None of them (the Japanese snipers) showed up,” he quipped.
Next, his division moved to the neighboring island of Tinian. Here he contracted dengue fever and was sent back to Saipan for recovery. Afterward, the 8th Regiment trained for the invasion of Okinawa, only 340 miles from Japan, and the site of the last amphibious invasion in the Pacific Theater.
Whitney recalled that the troops were moved on APAs (attack personnel transport ships) and that when general quarters was sounded (prepare for battle) the troops had to go below deck. When the ship was attacked by Kamikaze pilots, the noise from the big anti-aircraft guns was deafening.
“I couldn’t hear anything for . . . about two days of that and that was enough,” he said.
There was little resistance when the Marines landed on Okinawa. According to Whitney, no one was killed or wounded, other than some troops on a LST (tank landing ship) that was hit by a Kamikaze.
Things changed when they moved inland.
“I don’t know how I kept from getting killed on Okinawa,” he said. “When I came out into this field, some guy behind me with a machine gun opened up on me. There was a shell hole, so I dived in it. He finally thought he’d got me. So I’d look and I’d see another shell hole, maybe 15 or 20 feet (away), and I was carrying that 42-pound mortar – 60 mm – so I’d get a couple of steps, and he’d open up. The shells were going all around me, and by my ear, and I’d dive in that hole. I’d see another one, and I’d wait, and I got in it. There were probably about four of ‘em like that. It was good they were there. Then there was a canal, and I got in that and was all right.”
Mershon related that on Okinawa the Marines had dug in for the night, and had killed two Japanese as they were trying to move through the Marine’s position. The next morning, Whitney awoke to discover a small hole within arm’s reach of his foxhole, with heat coming from it. After a smoke bomb was dropped inside, about 100 Japanese soldiers and civilians emerged from underground living quarters and were taken captive. The two soldiers killed had been on a scavenging foray to obtain food and water.
Later, the 2nd Division served as an occupying force in Nagasaki, Japan. Earlier, the Marines had found a substantial amount of Japanese currency which they used to play poker with. Worthless to them at the time, it was later voluntarily turned in to their superiors to help the war effort. Now in Japan, it was a move Whitney regretted.
“If I’d of kept it,” he said, “I could have bought a truckload of Kimonos. I couldn’t have cashed it in, but I could have spent it there.”
Whitney said he never got too excited, even in the heat of combat.
“Some fellas would get really excitable,” he said. “You know, a Jap behind every tree and everything like that. I never was excitable. A friend said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything will work out.’”
The war was kind to Whitney. Except for the dengue fever, he went through his entire enlistment without a scratch – a result of his genes, he claimed.
“Run fast and skinny.”
Like most veterans, Whitney has his stories. He also has a story about another veteran – Virgil Kirkham – a young man he went to school with in Corbett. Whitney said a girl named Sylvia Scanlon had been going with Kirkham’s older brother, Marion. The trouble was, Marion wasn’t much taller than she.
“When I came home,” Whitney said, “I was tall enough that she could wear high heels (he was six feet, three inches at the time), so she married me. I was skinny, though.”
Along with losing out to being the brother-in-law of Sylvia Scanlon, Kirkham has the dubious honor of being the last Allied combat aviator to be killed in action in the European Theater during World War II.
According to Mershon, Kirkham enlisted in the Army specifically to become a pilot. After commissioning in the summer of 1944, he was sent to England for training, and assigned to the 377th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group, to provide ground support for the advancing Allied armies. The aircraft of choice was the P-47 Thunderbolt, designed specifically for air-to-ground combat. Kirkham flew 83 missions to harass, interdict and destroy enemy formations and traffic, Mershon said.
“On April 30, 1945, out of Frankfurt, the 377th flew its final combat mission of the war,” writes Mershon. “Though he had completed his required missions, Virgil volunteered to fly this mission. He was to strafe the target while his wingman carried a bomb to use against any target of opportunity. As Virgil made his run, his fighter was hit by ground fire, struck a tree, and cartwheeled to a stop, bursting into flames. Later his family learned that a bullet had pierced the cockpit, and Virgil was likely dead before his aircraft crashed. The war ended just eight days later.”
Kirkham was 20 years old.
A thankful country
The story might have ended there except for a 14-year-old Czechoslovakian girl named Zdenka (Dena) Sladkova. Moved by Kirkham’s sacrifice, Sladkova established a memorial at the crash site, a memorial she has lovingly taken care of for 67 years.
Gus Fitch is a 70-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corp colonel, who flew F-4 Phantoms during Vietnam. Fitch had the recent opportunity to visit Kirkham’s memorial, an experience he won’t soon forget.
“Physically, the site is incredibly underwhelming,” Fitch wrote on his blog. “Spiritually, emotionally and patriotically, it is a sounding brass not a tinkling cymbal. This pilot was just a kid. Younger than I when I went to war, much younger. The whole scene starts to press down on me. The cold, the rain, the dark and unfamiliar forest of this west Czech province and my own imagination force me to struggle to keep my voice from cracking when I ask George (guide) to tell Dena thank you for taking good care of this American pilot’s place of final commitment.”
The site is near the little town of Ujezd, which is about 35 miles southwest of Plzen, a city where the commitment of Czech citizens to honor America’s sacrifice during World War II is amplified even beyond the simple determination of a young girl.
According to Fitch, Patton’s 3rd Army approached Plzen in the spring of 1945. The Czech Resistance movement negotiated with the garrisoned Germans to refrain from a fight over the city, resulting in little loss of life as Plzen was liberated by American forces.
“This liberation has never been forgotten by the citizens of Plzen,” Fitch said via e-mail, “so each year they conduct a weeklong celebration of their liberation and have been doing so ever since the Russians left the country in ‘68 or ‘69.”
Fitch said there are wreath-laying ceremonies at various monuments, a parade in which visiting American World War II veterans ride in restored period jeeps, and lots of love from the citizens of Plzen toward any American within reach.
“Part of the celebration is a show of WWII vehicles and uniforms that the Czechs collect and lovingly restore,” said Fitch. “You would be hard pressed to find this many period vehicles to include tanks and armored personnel carriers, trucks, ambulances and 1945 authentic uniforms anywhere in the U.S. The Yanks are given a wonderful reception. Each vet was overcome at one time or another because of the genuine love given them by ordinary Czech citizens who believe, correctly, that the U.S. is responsible for their freedom. To genuinely understand how this would feel is hard, if not impossible.
“I know of no other country or city who provides this kind of affection for the U.S. There is no comparison in the U.S. for such an activity.”
Fitch made it clear that we don’t need to worship the men and women in our military – we just need to simply recognize their contributions – and that this is becoming more difficult as time goes by.
“They (most Americans) have no vested interest in the conflicts that these men and women (military) face every day,” he said.
According to Fitch, less than one percent of the American population has any sort of connection to the military, and most don’t even know anyone who’s been killed or wounded in the Mideast conflict. If so few people care about what’s happening now, they care even less about a war that happened more than 60 years ago. These things aren’t taught in schools, he said, and some segments of our society even scorn any notion of patriotism.
“Perhaps this is the way it is and nothing can be done,” Fitch said, “but it seems to me that these memories need to be preserved and respect shown to those who have served.”
Whitney thinks that America’s appreciation for its war veterans is growing.
“The attitude’s changing now, a lot,” he said. “You know how the soldiers, when they came back from Vietnam, they didn’t get any recognition – they got ridiculed and everything else, but it’s changed now. I’ve noticed this in the last few years. People’s attitudes are changing, and it’s for the better.”
As proof, Whitney mentioned the Honor Flight program, which flies veterans – at no cost to them – to Washington D.C. where they visit the memorials that stand in their honor.
Whitney’s Honor Flight takes wing next month.