Sunday, May 24, 2009

WWII Veterans from Johnson City Share Grim Memories

NET News Service

JOHNSON CITY — War is much more than notable battles mentioned in history books.
Of course, war has tales of terror, loss, carnage, destruction and other terrible things that happen in the heat of epic battles. But war also takes supplies. Bullets, bombs, parts, gasoline, food and other material must be sent to the front and then doled out as needed. Soldiers serve this function while also facing the enemy in any combat zone today as in the past.

Allen Harris, 89, and Hugh Collie, 85, both of Johnson City, were such soldiers in World War II. Harris was a mess sergeant in the South Pacific. Collie was a buck sergeant with the Red Ball Express in Europe.
“I remember it was a terrible war,” Harris said.
His first experience in the war was in a medical sanitation company, or graves registration. When he arrived at a staging point on an island in the Pacific, he was ordered to unload wounded and dead soldiers being shipped out of the war zone. Some soldiers were blind, others had only one arm or no arms. Harris unloaded soldiers that were burned and missing legs and other parts.
“And that was pretty gruesome for a young fellow,” Harris said. “You know, unloading dead bodies and seeing all of the wounded in every shape you could possibly think of.”
Another lasting impression Harris got from WWII was the smell of death that hung constantly in the battlefield. “That was the main thing you had to get used to,” he said. “And I always associate that smell with war, because once we got out in the field and you’d run across bodies that had been there for a time and they were in different stages of decomposition... I don’t have any kind of pleasant memories of the war to recite.”
The Japanese were terrifying fighters and uncanny masters at camouflage, Harris said. He had to develop a sixth sense to be able to know when an enemy was nearby.
Harris was a mess sergeant. As such he was in charge of feeding the men he was attached to. To do that he had to protect his rations from Japanese attack. He said he would have to arrange the food dump so it appeared as though it was insignificant, placing no guards near it because Japanese soldiers would sneak close enough to lob grenades into the camp. One of their main targets was the food supply.
Even though he was in charge of the food, he did not get out of combat operations. He was part of a group that would patrol the perimeter of camp. Most of the time he was assigned to night patrol because of his duties as a cook. He said the Japanese would set traps for American soldiers.
“You couldn’t tell the earth had been disturbed,” Harris said. “You’re walking through those little fine leaves, you couldn’t tell. And suddenly they step into that trap cover and down they’d go. And they’d have these sharpened spikes that would spit you like you would put a chicken on a rotisserie.”
He saw this happen several times.
Harris said the only way he came back from the war was by the grace of God. Collie, his friend and neighbor, shares the same sentiment about his war experience in Europe.
Hugh Collie got drafted in 1942 and went into the Army in 1943 after graduating from Langston High School. He went to Europe and served as a truck driver in the 3415th Quartermaster Company.
“We hauled gas for what they called the Red Ball,” he said. “We hauled gas for (Gen. George) Patton. You don’t hear too much about the Red Ball, but if it hadn’t been for the Red Ball, Patton would have run out of fuel, too, just like the Germans did.”
He was a buck sergeant in charge of 24 men driving trucks. They hauled everything needed to wage war.
“It was dangerous because a lot of times airplanes would come by and strafe our column,” Collie said.
Most of the time Collie would use the back roads that were more out of sight. At night he would sleep in cemeteries for safety.
He left Europe after Germany fell to prepare for an invasion of Japan, but Japan surrendered after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So he was shipped back to France and got attached to a graves registration.
“We had to go out and pick up bodies,” he said. “And a lot of them had been out two or three months and you’d go to pick them up and the flesh would come from their bones. We had gloves and things on, but it was awful.”
Collie and Harris both think that war is not worth waging. Their experiences showed them what a terrible effect combat has on hum a n i t y.
“I don’t think it benefits anybody... even the winner in the long run,” Collie said.

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