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Maple Valley World War II veterans reflect on the greatest war of 20th Century | Veterans Day
They who were many are now few.
Maple Valley residents Jim Welsh, Richard Ludwig, Roger Llewelyn are members of a rapidly diminishing demographic in the nation's population - World War II veterans.
In 1945, when the war ended, roughly 16 million people had served in the United States armed forces. Sixty-seven years later, 1.7 million veterans are still alive, around 10 percent, and that number is diminishing at an average of 850 a day.
"We're a dying off fraternity," Welsh, 89, said.
Ludwig, 88, a seagoing Marine who served in the Aleutian Island campaign, used to attend ship reunions for his Marine detachment every year. That ended in 2002, when there were only four veterans alive and only two healthy enough to attend.
Llewelyn, 86, who served as a sailor on a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) in the Pacific, recently called old shipmates on the East Coast, only to hear from their wives that they had died five years ago.
Welsh, Ludwig and Llewelyn represent a generation whose experiences, attitudes, and perspectives are completely foreign to those of their 21st Century 17-18-year-old counterparts. Having been raised during the Great Depression, it was a time when having three square meals a day was just as much of a motivation for them to join the Navy as patriotism.
It was a time when young men were so eager to enlist they would hide a flat foot in order to be accepted into the Marines, or take a bus 300 miles to the nearest enlistment office.
"We were depression kids is what we were," Ludwig said. "We were used to not having very much. I’ll be honest, when I joined the Marine Corps I thought it was wonderful. I thought, 'I’m going to have a good time. I’m going to have three meals a day.'"
To them, names like Okinawa, Leyte Gulf, Manila, and Guadalcanal are actual locations in the South Pacific, not mere names and places on a map or globe. General MacArthur was an egotistical prima dona or a great leader, depending on who you ask, and not just a historical figure.
Additionally, the proposed invasion of Japan, which was estimated to have cost 1 million American casualties, was not a what-if scenario, but a reality until two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in August 1945.
"When I was in high school, early 1944, the whole idea was to kill Hitler or Tojo," Llewelyn said. "I was afraid the war would be over before I could get a chance. At that age it was a matter of 'Boy I want to get into the service.'"
For men like Ludwig, whose father served in the Army in France during World War I and whose grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War, it was also a family tradition.
"When I come home and said I’m in the Marines, tears run down his (his father's) eyes," Ludwig said. "Because he was with the Marines in France. He was proud."
THE ALEUTIAN CAMPAIGN
Ludwig joined the Marines after being initially rejected due to flat feet. When he went in for his second exam, he realized the same man was examining him as before. This time, however, he knew how to fake an arched foot.
"You could put a feather or knife under my arch and it was there," Ludwig said. "He didn’t even remember me."
Ludwig almost didn't make it to a ship, though, when a bomber plane crashed into his training camp in San Diego after it failed to take off properly. When it came time to choose which in the Corps to go into artillery, flying or seagoing, Ludwig knew the last place he wanted to go was ashore onto the beaches.
"Nobody wanted to be a grunt, I can tell you that," he said.
He ended up serving with a Marine detachment aboard a Naval command ship in the Aleutian Islands campaign, where the Japanese had invaded. According to Ludwig, his ship, after making port at Pearl Harbor, brought back the first Japanese prisoner captured by the Americans to San Francisco.
The prisoner had served in a mini-sub that ran aground near Bellows Field, mere hours before the surprise raid on Pearl Harbor. The prisoner, Ludwig said, was so carefully guarded and hidden they never saw him.
According to Ludwig, his ship was a former German luxury liner seized by the American government and converted for war purposes. Its original purpose of the ship meant the interior was rather lavishly decorated, which meant it ideal for when the USO came aboard while the ship was stationed in Cold Bay Alaska.
Aside from the conflict, Ludwig said they also had to contend with the harsh, unforgiving sea weather. In one instance, so much ice accumulated on the ship that they were within several degrees of capsizing. Forced to tie themselves to the ship, they began throwing the ice overboard to lighten the load.
Meanwhile, the USO, which had previously tried to get back to the States without traveling on board the ship, suffered from severe seasickness.
"It was quite a trip for the USO," he said.
The ship, Ludwig said, had so much gambling aboard that it became known as the "Casino of the Pacific," where crap games were held in the latrines.
Eventually, the ship was sent to the southern Pacific to Okinawa, but by the time they reached the island the war had ended. It was only years later Ludwig realized they had sailed there to join the Fleet Marine Force and take part in the invasion of Japan, which included the southern islands close to Okinawa.
Though they didn't have to face the wrath of hardened Japanese soldiers in October 1945 their ship nearly sank after a typhoon arrived they were forced to sail around the island to avoid it.
TAKING NOTES IN BATTLE
Meanwhile, Llewelyn joined the service at 17, which required his parents permission. Like thousands of other high school boys in 1944, he wanted to see some action before the war ended. At the same time, he joined the Navy after he decided it was the best place to get a full stomach without eating a bullet as well.
"We were smart enough to know the Army wasn’t for us," Roger said. "The Marines were crazy because they wanted to die like heroes. The Navy was good because somebody said you got three meals a day."
After basic training, Llewelyn was shipped to New Guinea in 1944. There, he and a friend waited for their ship to arrive. When the shipped finally arrived, they were relieved when it appeared as though they would be serving on a mailboat headed to Australia.
"He said 'That’s a beautiful mailboat, it's going down there (Australia), it’s the greatest beer, it’s the safest place in the Navy."
When it docked, however, they realized it was a LCI, used for bringing infantry to the shore during a beachhead invasion. Sailing to the South Pacific presented a few cultural shocks to Llewleyn, who had always envisioned islands as being round and flat.
To his surprise, they came across island after island with looming mountain peaks dominating the horizon.
Llewleyn's ship would take part in five major landings as part of campaign to retake the Phillipines. During each invasion, the ship would sail directly up to the beach, sometimes under fire, and unload their troops before hurriedly sailing back within the safety of the destroyers.
"We had no idea what resistance we’d get on this beachhead," he said. "So we’d get them in there, drop them off and get out of there."
During the invasion of Legaspi, however, they had a close brush with death when their LCI got stuck on the beach. While explosions occurred all around them, the captain radioed one of the destroyers, which was able to send a line to attach to the ship and tow it off the beach.
Despite several close calls, Llewleyn said there was much humor to be found even amid the chaos of war. Like most 18-year-olds, he was young, impressionable and somewhat gullible.
Before one of the landings started, he approached his captain and asked what his orders were for the landing.
The captain told him to write down every time and place the ship was struck by a bullet, shrapnel, or flak.
As Llewelyn put it, he didn't quite detect the sarcasm in the order. As the invasion commenced, he did just as he was ordered.
"I’m up there not caring where the ship is going and I’m waiting to see shots," he said. "I did that during the landing on the top deck. If you had any brains you’d get out of the top deck."
Another humorous incident occurred he was working inside the radar room, which he described as very cramped and tiny.
During a rough storm, a seaman from New York entered with a handful of sweet rolls and teased Llewelyn as not having the stomach to eat them without getting seasick.
Later, Llewelyn left the radar room, only to find the same seaman with his head over the guardrail puking.
Naturally, Llewelyn couldn't pass it up. By the time the seaman had recovered, half the ship had heard about it.
"I passed it on to anyone who would listen," he said. "I think they isolated this guy from thereon in."
After the invasion, Llewleyn recalls their ship transporting Chinese troops from the mainland to an island called Formosa, where Japanese troops were still holding out. That small island would later be renamed Taiwan and become a refuge for Chinese escaping the communist regime after it overthrew the national government in 1949.
At the same time, in Manila, Llewlyen saw the toll the war taken on the civilian population, where 100,000 civilians had been killed during the battle for control of the region.
"The people of Manila were starving to death, carrying dead babies around," he said.
Llewelyn was also present at Okinawa during the massive typhoon that arrived and almost overtook them.
"I’m 18 and figure 'Isn’t this interesting?" he said. "That water, no exaggerating, was completely overwhelming us. It was coming over our ship onto me. And I didn't have a fear in my mind. Today, I’d probably die. I didn’t know enough to have cared."
While his ship managed to avoid the wrath of the typhoon by remaining on the lee side of the island, when they returned to Buckner Bay they found it was full of broached ships that were a part of the invasion fleet for the cancelled invasion of Japan.
GASOLINE ALLEY AT LEYTE GULF
Welsh was 20 and in college when he decided to join the war out of a sense of duty. He joined the Navy, however, simply because it was the first branch to get his paperwork done first.
"For the first time the Navy got its paperwork done in a hurry," he said. "It wasn’t for glamor or prestige particularly. I had suffered from pneumonia my freshman year in college and my eyes were a little bit below standards. I volunteered for everything except the Army."
After going through boot camp in Idaho in 1943, Welsh became a quartermaster/signal man which, he likes to point out, is not the same as a quartermaster in the Army. A Navy quartermaster is a navigation assistant at the wheel and also signals to other vessels.
He participated in the Solomon Islands campaign and first served on a Consolidated PBY Catalina, a seaplane commonly known as "Black Cats." As the fleet worked its way up through the So,on Islands, his Black Cat would fly over an area where an offensive operation had taken place to look for any survivors in the water to rescue.
The last offensive Welsh took part in, ironically, turned out to be the Battle of Leyte, which had followed the Battle of Leyte Gulf, largely considered to be the largest naval battle in the history of warfare.
Welsh's ship did not take part in the actual fighting, he said, but acted as a floating fuel station for the single engine reconnaissance planes launched from the aircraft carriers.
The planes would act as the "eyes in the sky" for the ships either shelling other vessels or navigating.
After several days, his ship then patrolled the coast of the Leyte in the evenings, where they sometimes encountered Japanese PT boats.
Several days later during another landing, a Japanese kamikaze, suicide planes, made a run for his ship.
"He had us in our sights and stayed right on us until the last minute our skipper, who was a real knowledgeable guy, at the last moment he turned into the line of attack rather than be broadsided."
The kamikaze missed the ship by less than 50 yards. By then, Welsh's ship had their five inch and Bofors 40 millimeter gun in their sights and returned the favor.
"He was shot to pieces," Welsh said. "When he was just a beam he blew up completely. One of the motors landed on the deck of our ship. Guys got burned from the explosion of the airplane. I was sitting up head above the deck watched the whole thing. We were glad it turned out like it did."
According to Welsh, despite the injuries sustained, his ship didn't suffer any deaths.
Like Llewelyn and Ludwig, Welsh also got his share of humor from the war. One of commanders on board his ship, a lieutenant commander, had come out of the Naval Academy in 1933. A naval aviator and instructor at Corpus Christi, as an ensign he had, as Welsh put it, "The misfortune of bringing some disciplinary action against another ensign named William Halsey."
Ensign Halsey later became Admiral Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet in the Pacific. And the lieutenant commanding in question became, as Welsh also put it, "The 'senior' lieutenant commander of navy," whom Halsey, he claimed, ensured was never promoted.
"It became a permanent rank," he said.
As it turned out, Welsh's ship came to port in Puget Sound on VJ-Day, Aug. 3 1945.
As news about the USS Indianapolis came out eventually, he said he and his shipmates realized they come within 100 miles of where the ship had sank and might have been able to rescue the sailors in the water had their mission not been top secret.
AFTER THE WAR
Welsh, Ludwig and Llewelyn eventually settled in Maple Valley and are members of the Maple Valley-Black Diamond Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5052.
As the years go by, too fast, they joke, they find themselves in agreement on a lot it. All three of them think the GI Bill was one of the best decisions the government ever made. They also believe General MacArthur, who commander the Marine Corps in the Pacific, was egoistical and overly concerned about his image. They also approved of Truman's canning of MacArthur during the Korean War.
"As a lifelong Republican that's the best thing I ever saw a Democrat do," Welsh said.
The decision of whether or not to drop the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed thousands of civilians, has proved to be very controversial in the decades following among historians. But despite the massive loss of life, to them it not only spared their lives, but the lives of countless Americans and Japanese who would have been killed in the ensuing invasion.
"If we had gone into those southern islands it would have changed everything," Llewelyn said. "The bomb dropping saved us all."
While off the coast of Manila, Llewelyn said they had prepared for the invasion off the southern Japanese islands, a plan they had anticipated with dread. The tenacity of the Japanese soldier, demonstrated at battles such as Okinawa, indicated they would fight literally down to the last man.
"Frankly the Japanese were a non-surrender type of troop," he said. "Those people jumped off the cliffs in Saipan. They didn’t want any surrendering at all. We thought the American troops were going to get creamed. They knew the land and it was a lot bigger than Okinawa."
In spite of the hardship sometimes endured, the three veterans considered the war to be, at least in their own personal lives, a positive experience.
"Fate has to do with whether you survive a war," Llewelyn. "It was interesting. "I look back on it very favorable. I survived it. I look back and remember the good times."