Visitors to South County Library Saturday were treated to stories about World War II first hand from members of the Greatest Generation who fought in various battles. The event was organized by members of the Roanoke 8th Air Force WWII Historical Society. Earlier this summer, the group held an event where aerial combat veterans reminisced. This time it was mostly group troops.
Wes Bower was a member of the 4th Marine Division. He turned 17 in July of 1943 and said his parents had to sign his papers to join the Marines.
“My father signed for me but my mother wouldn’t sign for me. It was October before I convinced her that she should sign.”
During his tour of duty, Bower took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima. He said there were no breaks in the 36 day invasion. “They told us that it would be a simple operation.”
“On Iwo Jima, it wasn’t going back to the barracks at night. After you got through (for the day) you dug a fox hole. You got down below the level of the ground.”
Bower said the soldiers came up with code words to distinguish themselves as friends and fellow soldiers at night. Once “oak” was the code word. One person would say oak and the other would have to respond with another type of tree and so on. “And here come three Japanese down through there to surrender and they was saying, ‘Oak, oak, oak, oak.’ He said only about 90 of the 20,000 plus soldiers surrendered during the invasion.
Richard Horner was a medic in Iwo Jima for a year. He arrived about a week after combat was over. Horner tried to join the military in high school but was 4F because of his eyes. He tried again a couple of years later.
“When I was tested for my eyes, I cheated that time. I memorized the eye chart while I was standing in line.”
John Kessler was a paratrooper with the 509th and the 82nd Airborne Division and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He joined the National Guard in 1932 when he was 17 years old. He’s 92 now.
Kessler told how he went AWOL from the hospital where he was sent after a tank ran over his ankle, to join his outfit and go overseas. But he found and told he was to report to OCS (Officer Candidate School) instead.
He recalled fighting in snow up to his waist and spent seven weeks in the hospital “thawing out his toes.”
“The 509, the outfit I was assigned to, was the most decorated battalion in the whole United States Army.” They had 25 firsts; such as the first man killed, the first fort named after a man, the longest and shortest jump. He even saw the spot where Hitler committed suicide.
Some of the men said they weren’t very comfortable speaking to groups but did so to pass on the legacy of the war.
– Beverley Amsler