Geezers at War
Old men did not fight in the century old wars, but fought when they were younger, likely sent into battle by men much older—likely at least one generation older than the young fighting men—and now, women. Over the centuries of humanity, men have fought and been killed and millions of civilians also have been caught up in these conflicts. Here are several examples:
War Military Losses-US Overall Losses
American Revolution 25,000 40,733
Civil War 655,000 800,000
WW One 116,510 13,396,335
WW Two 405,399 36,696,798
Korean Conflict 36,516 1,200,000
Vietnam 58,209 1,743,560
Among the men we spoke with, their wartime experiences differed from some less risky, to others who were wounded or captured. In all cases, wartime for them took years from their young lives and gave them post war lives often influenced by their wartime and conflict experiences. Look at these examples:
Bill Bowles (or William E. Bowles as he introduced himself for this conversation), grew up on a 135 acre farm in Person County, NC. Now, in 2018, the farm still is in the family. During Bill’s youth they grew almost all the food they ate from animals, vegetables, poultry, and fruit right from the farm. They bought only sugar and salt commercially. He and his brother Victor grew up on the farm, attended locals schools until they were drafted into the Army on December 1, 1941, one week before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to start World War II for the U.S.
Bill endured the usual infantry basic training at Camp Croft, SC, then was assigned to Ft. Benning, GA and had two years of mortar training, then was assigned to Camp McCoy, WI for cold weather training. After all the mainland training, he was moved to Boston to be shipped out for England. He and about 5000 other young soldiers were packed on a troop ship—two soldiers to one bunk. He was then in England for some time during which he visited London and even had the occasion to meet the queen mother. All this training and waiting ended when he crossed the English Channel for France in 1944,
His front line unit was the 134th Infantry Division, part of General Patton’s US army. They were near the front lines for about three weeks, then were moved to Belgium during the cold, snowy weather. It snowed every day, and while at this Belgian location, they were awaiting orders and were equipped with only their personal rifles. This is where things began to become complicated. A small German six person squad led by Col. Rudy Schmidt appeared and was captured by the Americans. But no sooner had this small squad been captured, but conditions abruptly shifted, and suddenly a German royal tiger tank unit overcame the Americans and they all became war prisoners. Col. Schmidt, who spoke good English, stayed among this prison unit and helped in the translation of orders from the German commanders.
This began his life as a prisoner of the Germans. One long element of the lives of prisoners was constant walking or perhaps travelling in box cars. Bill did both of these for the long, snowy, freezing months. During these long days and weeks many of the men suffered dysentery and died. Their German guards were mostly older men, since young Germans were in the fighting units of Hitler’s armies. When they stopped near villages, the men were required to clean roads and town walks. In some places the locals would leave food on plates—potatoes, or perhaps some type of bread. The Germans would not actually give the prisoners food, but made it available for the taking. This helped the remaining men survive the long cold and very snowy days and nights.
The next stop on their long prison experience was near Hamburg and a British warplane swooped in, landing on the road to announce that the Americans, British, and Canadians were now free as the war had ended. Bill and the remaining now free soldiers, were moved to a British base in Brussels, Belgium and given clean clothes, showered, and de-liced. The former prisoners had worn the same clothes constantly for five months, not even removing as much as one sock. Ugh! Now, a free American soldier, Bill and his unit returned to Fort Oglethorpe, GA and were discharged on November 11, 1945—a joyous moment for surviving war prisoners. Bill earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and other medals for his wartime service, and still has vivid memories of his long and painful prison life.
Carpenter Chevrolet Company was a well known auto dealership in Durham, NC for generations. The business started in the late 19th century assembling various types of buggies, then as corporate auto makers began to flourish, the Carpenters started selling Dodges, then Fords, then finally settled with Chevvies, until the business was sold to the Hendricks in the 21st century. The building itself finally lost out to the sledge hammers, being destroyed for a potential new police headquarters.
Gordon Carpenter spent most of his adult life in the world of automobiles, following his Marine Corps days during WW II. He was born in 1925, and after the war began, he was drafted in 1943. He had his choice of which military service to join, and chose the Marines. This put him into the Marine air services and he became a navigator gunner in the jumbo B-29’s which ruled the Pacific theater until the war ended. This assignment had him based on several Pacific islands—depending on where his unit was assigned and depending on Japanese efforts to destroy the Americans. After Pearl Harbor, he landed on Guam, then to Saipan, then to his final base on Tinian Island. At one point, between islands, he was on Iwo Jima and the American crews dug fox holes in which to live to avoid Japanese strafing.
One day a large Navy ship landed at Tinian, and aboard was a large fierce looking bomb-like object which had all the men buzzing. This fierce object was driven to the air landing area on a truck which allowed the stationed Marines to reach out and touch the object. Gossip had this object to be a weapon available to kill anyone within a 50 mile radius. The official announcement came that this was an atomic bomb, and it was loaded into the Enola Gay—the plane that carried it to the destruction of Hiroshima.
The return of the plane safely was cause for a boisterous celebration by all the men stationed on Tinian. This was followed shortly as the second bomb was loaded, which went on to destroy Nagasaki. As these big planes flew toward both destinations, there were weather conditions which caused real concern about placing the bomb, but on both bombing runs, the weather cleared just enough for the bombs to be dropped and photos made of the explosions and the huge resulting mushroom clouds we all have seen of the physical destruction to the cities and their innocent civilian populations. President Harry Truman had demanded the Japanese Emperor to surrender after the first bomb was dropped, but this demand was refused. After the second bomb run and a second appeal by President Truman to Japan’s Emperor to surrender, the Japanese leader realized that continuing to fight these Americans would be futile, so the surrender took place and the official signing of all documents took place on the battleship Missouri shortly thereafter.
Corporal Carpenter still has vivid memories of all the action required to load these fatal instruments of death into their B-29’s and the successful results of their missions and the jubilant responses of the men on Tinian. As the war ended, he then left Tinian and was assigned to Cherry Point, NC awaiting further orders, although the only orders he wanted were to be discharged back into civilian life. His discharge orders ran aground some difficulties with the duty officer at Cherry Point, but help from his Congressional representative, Carl Durham, arrived and he was long gone from Cherry Point and back to the city of Durham—and back in the Chevrolet world for the rest of his now and forever civilian life.
Gerofit is a physical training and exercise program for veterans that was created at the VA Medical Center in Durham, NC. The program includes several classes directed toward a variety of physical stimulation, from strenuous to more modest. Also, in Durham, Gerofit is held at a large fitness center, and the participating vets have full use of the various equipment types available. And a unique feature, just watching the men during their time on site, they josh and tease much like they might have done during their active duty militarydays.
Two vets I talked with, Charlie Brown (his real name) and Barbaza Clement (Clem) both were on bicycles when I was introduced to them by Miriam Morey, the founder and active leader of the Gerofit programs. Just like two young recruits, they were hammering one another with harmless vocal jabs. Charlie Brown, a relatively young geezer, joined the US Marines in 1950 and suffered through the usual strenuous Marine Corp basic training at Parris Island, SC. This was during the years of the Korean conflict and after basic training he was sent to Ft. Bragg, NC to sniper school which lasted for six weeks.
Camp Pendleton, CA was the usual departure base for activity in the Pacific and from there, he was off to Guam by ship. He was moved by air from Guam to a base in Korea from which he was assigned to a Marine reconnaissance unit. We can understand the role of a sniper, but Charlie Brown, like any specially trained deadly sniper, will say very little of their duty time except he and his unit searched for the best and safest locations in order to focus their sites on the North Korean and Chinese (often Mongolian) military. They used M-1’s with a special sighting scope and occasionally a more deadly weapon.
During his one year on Korea, due to the intense nature of the sniping mission, was on duty about one half of the time, but on full active duty four years, then two more in the inactive reserve. That was enough military time for Charlie Brown.
Another of my new Gerofit friends, Clem, joined the US Navy in 1942 at age 20. Navy boot camp was in Newport, RI which was followed by radio school at the RCA in New York, NY. Moving up in his specialty, he was sent to aviation radio school in Memphis (where he learned the word “grits”). It was there also that his color blindness was discovered which removed some of his flying capabilities. On to Lake Washington, WA where his 6’1 frame was stuffed into the 5’2 gun turrets of both dive bombers and torpedo planes for practice runs over the Pacific. He was almost incapable of pulling the triggers of his weapons due to his impossible packed conditions. An alert 2nd Class Petty Officer recognized his plight and had him taken from naval air activity and reassigned to ship’s companies on the water, rather than in the air for the remainder of the war, cruising in large troop and supply convoys both protecting the ships from enemy subs and also on the lookout for subs that might be sunk. He told me that they chased a sub for about 33 days and finally made the kill.
Then back to San Diego, discharged and returned home. His time at war had finished!
As World War II waged on in the European theater of operations along with extensive activity among many islands in the Pacific, the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre had its own world of activity and that is where Bill Gentry spent his active duty time as a field artillery officer and working with the Chinese.
But that’s a bit ahead of the schedule. Bill spent his early childhood in China where his father was a medical missionary working with the Chinese under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal denomination. And that is where Bill became a student of the Chinese language which determined his later role in the Army artillery. Before his days on active duty, he studied chemistry at Harvard and was a member of the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). He completed his Harvard education and went directly to officers’ candidate school at Ft. Sill, OK to begin his artillery training and finally was called to active duty in 1943—two years after the US had entered the war. He had four months at Ft. Sill and graduated on Thanksgiving Day, 1943 as a second lieutenant in the artillery.
With his knowledge of the Chinese language, the army sent him to Yale for four months of more advanced Chinese language study. Thus began his long, but slow journey toward his ultimate mission in the CBI theatre of operations. His departure was from Los Angeles on a freighter which took him 61 days to reach Perth, Australia, then on to Karachi, India (now a city in Pakistan) at which he contracted dysentery which put him in a hospital for a month in New Delhi, and finally to a post in eastern India and officially assigned as liaison officer to a Chinese Artillery battalion. The movement of this unit was along the famous Ledo Road which had recently been reopened to allow for travel between India and Burma.
His Chinese artillery compatriots would get target information from air observation pilots which would be sent to fire direction centers for the locations of the Japanese and only then would they fire their six 105 ml howitzers. These Chinese artillery units under Bill’s command kept moving
along and eventually won a critical battle at Bhamo. Bill stayed with the Chinese primarily in a training role and was a essentially a contact officer between the Americans and the Chinese. As Burma became free of Japanese, the British swooped in to be assured that they had control of this decades’ old colony facing the coming post-war period. Bill then was called to Kunming, China, to continue helping the Chinese troops who were equipped only with American military machinery and poorly trained. The war ended shortly after his move into China and his work with the Chinese under Generalissimo Chang Kai Check came to an end.
American military were released from duty and returned to the US based on the points they had accumulated overseas. Bill had a limited number of points, so had to remain overseas for one full year. His assignment for this time was in Shanghai and his duty was to coordinate the amount and use of coal for the heating of billets housing remaining Americans in relative post-war comfort while still in China. After his year was satisfied, he had a comfortable ship ride to San Francisco and the end of his military career. His life in China had similar duties and life style to that of Arthur Clark, another of our wartime geezers, but their duty lives never crossed. Also, fortunately, they were not involved in the intense island battles which produced so many fatalities as the Americans battled island by island, to take control of the war in the Pacific.
Many years ago, a Methodist minister named George Starling lived for some time with the Pelletier family in Maysville, NC. A young female child in the family was so impressed by Rev. Starling, that when she herself was married and had a son, she named him George Starling Pelletier and it his life in the Army Air Corps that we are focusing on. By the way, if you drive to the NC beaches at or near Emerald Isle on state route 58, you will pass through Maysville and may even be stopped at the one traffic signal. It was in this small rural town that Starling built his entire life around, except during his time in Air Corps.
On his birthday in 1942, Starling enlisted and was accepted in the Air Corps (soon to me re-named “Air Force”). This took him to preflight school in Alabama, then to Union City, TN for primary flight training, followed by both basic and advanced flight training in Malden. MO and Dothan, AL. In roughly ten months he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and ready to actively join the war. This meant actual war conditions training at two separate bases in Florida before boarding the Queen Elizabeth and off to England. Next came some special combat training before going on his first mission on June 6, 1944–D-Day. (Due to the highly secret nature of the allied invasion on D-Day, all military units not involved with the invasion were told to avoid the landing areas, or be subject to court martial).
Pelletier and all American fighter squadrons were flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. One unit of fighters would include the flight commander, an element pilot and two wing men. The squads would be assigned their ground targets and the commander would attack the target first, then the element, then the two wing men, then return to their base in England. Most of his flight activity was toward ground targets, but with several escort flights along with heavy bombers. The P-47’s had four machine guns on each wing and could carry the required tonnage of bombs to accomplish the assigned mission. Due to required fuel capacity, all planes needed to return to base within three to five hours. During his time as a Flight Commander, only one of his wing men lost a plane, and that was due to empty fuel tanks which forced the pilot to bail out over the English Channel, was picked up in time for the next day’s breakfast!
Due to the intensity of flying combat missions, pilots often were taken from front line action and returned stateside to help train replacements. He was sent to both Merced, CA and Victoria, TX to train recruits on advanced flying and instrument flying. This all led him back to NC at Fort Bragg to be discharged on July 7, 1945 at age 23! Thus we now know a young man who had flown 72 missions, 252 combat hours and total P-47 flight time of 490 hours, with total flight hours in excess of 900 hours.
Once a pilot, always a pilot, so this young man and a friend eventually bought a single engine plane, kept it on a farm with a handmade runway and kept him flying until age 62. Fashion all seat belts, please!!
Military life during any war is not designed for safety or comfort and Dick Means had neither. He was drafted at age 19, was assigned to a special unit for his basic training. This took him to Kalamazoo College in Michigan, then on to Medford, Oregon to finish his stateside basic. Like many in the Pacific theater, he then went to Hawaii and lived in a tent city for ten weeks and was trained in jungle and night marches and practiced beach landings. All this training did him well over the next months, since he was being prepared for two very tough assignments. In the meantime, he was aboard ship for 40 days enjoying warm beer and waiting to be deployed.
This happened when he and the landing craft he was assigned to invaded the beaches of Leyte, the Philippines. At that time he was among 12,000 men in the 96th Infantry Division. The 96th was the reserve division for this invasion, so they were not subjected to the initial Japanese defense. Nevertheless, after landing they were safely on the beach and dug in. They suffered drenching rain at the end of a cyclone and their fox holes were full of water. Still, their mission was to re-take Leyte so they found many old trails through the thick jungle foliage. It was close to hand-to-hand combat and the Japanese used mortars as their main weapon of defense. His own company commander fell into a ditch and was killed by a mortar shell. Dick spotted the mortar sight and was able to put it out of commission. That ended his Leyte assignment, so his unit was ordered to retreat and leave the island.
Leyte trained his unit for the largest water borne landing in the Pacific war—the invasion of Okinawa. Dick’s unit was taken by an LST (landing ship-tanks) from Leyte to the beaches of Okinawa. The fighting on Okinawa was close warfare, with assignments coming from unit commanders to take assigned ridges, dig trenches, and be ready for the next nearby assignment. The Japanese were determined fighters and used heavy artillery to stop the invaders. American tanks approached and were driven off by the defenders. Dick once again survived in his fox hole, but nevertheless was wounded and had to be evacuated on a litter as his foxhole buddy lost a leg in the heavy battle. American casualties were very heavy on Okinawa. The island was of heavy value, since it was scheduled to be the springboard for a physical land invasion of the Japanese mainland which never happened due to the atomic bombs ending the war.
As a result of the wound, Dick was flown to Guam, then on to Hawaii to recover, then discharged from the Army at the young, but battle-hardened age of 21! His battle experiences were brutal, but his reward was that the GI bill put him through Duke studying chemistry which led him to a long career, mostly with Liggett & Myers right in Durham.
Arthur C. Clark, I call him General, which is the rank he earned during his many years in the active Air Force reserve which followed his active duty during and for many years after World War II. His war time active duty settled in mainland China in a remote area from which he and his reconnaissance crew operated.
Before China, however, he is a native of Lake Washington, WA—now Bellevue, the bustling suburb of Seattle. From Washington, he migrated east and south to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 1942. As a young married father, he enlisted in the Air Force and trained to become an aerial intelligence photographer. This training sequence took him to Yale, then to Harrisburg, PA, then in preparation for an overseas assignment, as yet to an unknown location. His overseas trip was on a rickety Liberty Ship, of which several thousand had been slapped together to ship men and material overseas to fight and win the war.
China was to be his ultimate location and the trip there took several interrupted months, including a first stop in Oran, Algeria, then transferring to a British ship for a trip to Port Said, Egypt, then across the Red Sea and on to Bombay, India. He and his now “teammates” then boarded a stop and start train ride across India. The train was totally without bathrooms or other comfort needs. Their time in India made them aware of the abject poverty and misery among thousands of the Indian population. They remained in India for several weeks until the US military was able to ferry them by air across the “hump” into China. The famous Burma Road into China had been commandeered by the Japanese, so the only way into China was by air over the Himalaya Mountains—known as the “hump”. During the war, there were hundreds of “hump” flights across the miserable arctic/like terrain which gobbled up dozens of planes and their crews, most never to be found.
The military life in China was away from the fighting elements of the war, but his photo intelligence unit was responsible for flying into areas where the Japanese were, taking photos, analyzing them and reporting conditions to the fighting men. The air war in China was under the command of the now famous General Chennault and the Flying Tigers, so when General Clark wrote a book about these experiences, the title was “Eyes of the Tiger”. The photos were taken by cameras mounted in P-38 fighter planes which were the fastest planes flying at that time, then Clark and his specialists analyzed the photos so the military could better engage the enemy.
During these long months in northeast China, the Americans were given continued assistance by the local Chinese—including eating many Chinese meals plus assistance in managing the makeshift American bases. General Clark is quick to recognize the help given by the Chinese and in several post-war visits, continued to recognize the personal values exhibited by the Chinese toward their land and their family connections.