Veterans Day Tribute

by: SUSAN MATHENY/MADRAS PIONEER - Madras resident Helmer Wallan stands next to a display featuring his family's military history.As part of the Seabees 119th Naval Construction Battalion in World War II, Helmer Wallan landed on New Guiney in the South Pacific and helped build air strips and hospitals for American forces, as they fought the Japanese.

Madras resident Wallan, 88, recently reflected on his time in the Seebees and his family’s military history.

The Wallan family lived in North Dakota, where his dad worked in heavy construction. But the economy was bad because farms were going bankrupt during the Dust Bowl years, so in 1936, they moved to Oregon.

“We had an aunt and uncle in Madras, and my mother had family in Bend, and a cousin provided a car for the rest of us to come West,” Wallan said, noting his dad used part of his World War I bonus money to make the move and put a downpayment on a house.

Settling in Bend, his mother found work waiting tables and cooking, while his dad worked on a construction project in Montana.

Helmer grew up in Bend with brothers, Floyd, Arthur, and Luvern. When he was 14, and in high school, he got a job selling shoes at a local shoe store.

When World War II broke out, all the brothers and their dad ended up in the military. Their dad had served in the Army in France during World War I, and then in the Seabees during World War II. Of the Wallan sons, Floyd joined the Army at age 16, and Art and Luvern joined the Navy. Their mother also did her part as a cook at Camp Abbot Army training center south of Bend.

Art had enlisted the day after the Pear Harbor attack and was sent to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where he was later killed in a Japanese bombing attack. Their father also joined right away and received the rank of chief machinist’s mate in the Seabees.

“I wanted to go at the same time. My oldest brother Floyd was already in the hospital in Vancouver, Wash., with noncombat injuries. But dad said, `You stay home and take care of mom,’” Wallan said.

“By the time I was 18, and graduated from high school in the spring of 1943, I had volunteered for Navy duty in the Seabees,” he added.

Oregon recruits took their physicals in Portland, but the area boot camps were full. “We were put on a train and sent to the Naval Training Station in Idaho, but it was full, so we were sent to Minneapolis, but it was full. We ended up at a boot camp in Williamsburg, Va.,” Wallan said.

After boot camp, he had three months of advanced weapons training and was assigned to the 119th Naval Construction Battalion. Their first assignment was in East Port, Maine, where they converted a large vacant homeless camp, used during the Depression, into a naval base.

Next, they traveled to the Port of Los Angeles and did guard duty while waiting for a troop transport ship to take them to the South Pacific. Their ship turned out to be a luxury liner, the USS America, which had been commandeered by the Navy for war use.

“It was a very fast ship, so it sailed alone,” he said, adding that the ship carried 7,600 soldiers, including a deck of nurses and another with officers.

The ship landed at a naval base on the southern tip of New Guiney, near the village of Gamadodo. American armed forces were neutralizing Japanese soldiers on the north end of the island, and the Seabees soon followed, moving to Hollandia, New Guiney.

The day they arrived, there was some excitement when a Japanese kamikaze pilot flew his plane into barrels of fuel the Americans had stacked on the beach and blew them up.

Wallan explained that the Seabees did heavy engineering and building in combat zones. “In New Guiney, we built hospitals and air strips, and strings of monstrous metal containers to use for landing on islands,” he said. The landing ships would drop the containers in the water and then use them like a loading dock.

Wallan was a boatswain’s mate second class. If no officer was around, he would direct the work crew, “like a foreman on a job,” he explained.

In Hollandia, they tripled the size of the military hospital and built an air strip, along with camps for a Navy admiral and Army general.

“While we were there, the troops were fighting on a lot of the smaller islands, hip hopping around and cleaning up several Japanese bases,” Wallan said.

Helmer Wallan, right, and his brother Luvern.When that project was done, the Seabees started loading for the invasion of the Philippines. Their heavy equipment and trucks were loaded onto LSTs (landing craft for tanks) and Wallan said there was no room for the men to sleep but in the truck beds, or under the trucks.

“We had several bombing and air attacks from Japanese kamikazes on the way to the Philippines, and two or three ships were hit,” he said.

The Seabees were the second or third wave of military to land on the beaches of Manila in the Philippines. “When we came into the harbor, there were signs of battle all over. Army Air Force parachutes were hanging on the rocks. The soldiers left them there because they didn’t have time to retrieve them,” Wallan said.

“The area was pretty well cleaned up. But the bridges were damaged and (the Japanese) had destroyed everything they could,” he said of the fleeing enemy forces. Several young men he went to school with in Bend were lost during the fighting in Manila.

“We set up a camp in Paniqui and got the roads and bridges rebuilt and repaired, and worked on one of the hospitals. We also did a lot of transporting because we had trucks,” he said.

The next step in the war was the invasion of Japan. “We were getting ready when, thank God, the war ended,” Wallan said.

The Seabees were sent back to the States on troop ships, and slept in the ship’s hold where bunks were stacked six to eight high. “We were at sea on New Year’s Day and the officers put on a celebration for us and tried to get us unwound,” he recalled.

They docked at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and were given a few days off in the city, then sent home for a month before going to Seattle to be discharged in the spring of 1946.

Back home, Wallan married Bette Davis in 1948. He worked for a short time operating equipment during the building of Wickiup Reservoir, but got injured. Looking for another line of work, he heard the Buster Brown shoe store in Bend was hiring, went for an interview, and was hired on the spot because he was dressed nicely, plus he’d sold shoes before.

When that store expanded to Prineville, Wallan managed the Bend store, and eventually both shoe stores. When the owner sold the stores, Wallan switched to selling refrigerators and stoves in Bend for Oregon Equipment Co.

Then he heard of an opportunity in Madras, where brothers Ken and Walt McCaulou ran a drug store and variety store. They needed someone to help turn the variety store into a department store.

“I came to Madras and it was so different and satisfying here, that we decided this was where we wanted to raise our kids,” Wallan said, noting he worked at the department store for three and one-half years.

When a menswear store across the street came up for sale, Wallan scraped together enough money to buy it with partner Merle Eakin. Combining the first letters of their last names, they called it We’s Menswear. Eventually, Wallan bought his partner out and ran the store for 20 years, featuring shoes, men’s clothing, and some ladies' Pendleton clothing.

After the store, Wallan sold real estate until his retirement. He served as a Jefferson County commissioner from 1980-88, was president of the Chamber of Commerce, and a past president of the Lutheran Church Board of Directors, and was honored with a Senior Citizen of the Year Award.

The Wallans raised their family here and were both very active in the community. Their children are Janice Mallory, James Wallan, and Katie Vroman. After Bette passed away, Wallan married Carol Andrews in 2001. Between them, they have 23 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Today, he is the president of the Senior Citizens of Jefferson County, and enjoys traveling. He and his wife Carol recently returned from a trip to Hawaii.

Wallan attended the original dedication of the National World War II Memorial on May 29, 2004, in Washington, D.C., and later returned on an Honor Flight with his wife to see all the war memorials.

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