It is Memorial Day and, as such, I thought it appropriate to share some recollections of West Virginia soldiers. My doctoral dissertation, “Soldiers and Stereotypes” dealt with the experiences of West Virginians who served during World War II. What follows are a few direct quotes from interviews and letters written by actual West Virginians concerning World War II. I’ve not provided any analysis of these passages (for that you can read my dissertation or simply wait until the book is finished). Today, however, I thought I would let the words of these West Virginians speak for themselves. I encourage everyone to read them, take a moment, and reflect.
James Weekley (Bridgeport, WV) on Pearl Harbor:
My next door neighbor and friend Martin Foley came out, and he
was the same fella that told me about when Hitler invaded
Poland. He came out and he says, “Pearl Harbor’s been attacked
by the Japanese! I just heard it on the radio!” And my first thought
was where and what is Pearl Harbor? And so, I told my Dad
when he came out and we went downtown and it hadn’t come
out in the news yet. I mean the newspaper. But, as we came back
we turned on the radio, and that entire evening, and the next day
and the next and hearing how many people were killed, estimates
and everything. Looking back to it, it’s hard to compare it to things
that have happened since. I believe it was one of the most exciting
nights of my life. I didn’t think about the blood or the gore. All I
thought of was the other stuff like, “were gonna get ‘em, and it’s
Patrick Ward Gainer (Parkersburg, WV) in a letter to his wife:
Each time I write I think about our coming anniversary and
wonder whether you will receive this letter on that day. I am
sorry I could not send you something, but all I can send you
now is my love. I’ll make up for everything some day. If
we can just pull through this period of separation and then
be together again always. I hope we never quarrel again.
Goodnight by beloved wife. I love you with all of me.
Rudy Barie on combat:
People ask, what is it like to be in combat? This is a difficult
question to answer. With combat comes many strange feelings.
You know that at any moment you might fall dead or be seriously
wounded, but you haven’t the time to worry about the death that is
whistling around you. The time of serious thoughts of life and death,
home and the future come before and after an attack. The moment
before actual fighting you’re scared, scared stiff. Your thoughts are
a mile a minute – home, the objective, what to do, when to do it,
did you get the plan across to the men, will the attack be successful,
your tongue is dry, what time is it, glad you wrote that letter last night, wish this was over, time to go…
Rudy Barie describing a Japanese attack in the Pacific Theatre:
Amid the bomb bursts I saw one of my friends crawling towards
my pit without the use of his right arm. Blood was pouring from
his side as if someone had hit him with an axe. There were
screams of pain all around me as I jumped up to help my buddy
into the pit. Then I saw another fellow running across the field
toward another shelter. Just then another blast came rolling in
over us. After the dust cleared, where that kid was I saw a
shoe lying on the ground where he was running and hoped God
would have mercy on his soul. Then it was quiet and I knew
the raid was over. I yelled for a medic who helped me carry
the fellow with the missing arm to the first aid tent. I never
saw him again. I can’t explain why, but I went away so no
one could see me and tried to hide the tears that were rolling
down my face. Once again my Mother and Dad had been
spared their son. I guess I’m not so tough after all.
Daniel Kessler, after finding a Nazi Concentration Camp:
We arrived the day the camp was taken by American troops. The
Germans had tried to do away with the camp and prisoners. Dead
men tell no lies and they did try to kill them all but we surprised
them and took over the camp before SS troops could do too much
of their devilish work. Dead bodies were stacked on wagons in
long rooms with running water over them. There was at least
3,000 dead bodies around the place. The dead had been shot,
gassed, beaten to death, put to death with shots in the head, and
any other way that would cause death. This I will never forget
as long as I live.
Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Hershel Williams (South Charleston, WV), on Iwo Jima:
When we went overseas a fellow of the name of Vernon
Waters, who was a huge Swede who lived in Montana,
northern Montana. He and I became really close friends.
He was six foot six. I’m five foot six. You know, I had to
look up to him whether I wanted to or not. But we became
very close friends and, when we got over to Guadalcanal
they put Vernon and myself into a special unit, which kept
us together. At that time until we got to Iwo Jima, we
were closer than any brother than I have had, and I had
several brothers. . . .
Each of us wore a ring and mine was a ruby that
probably came from a dime store because it turned my
finger green. But Ruby is my wife’s name and at that time
we were engaged. So I wore what she gave to me to
remind me that there was a Ruby waiting for me. Well,
he had a ring on his right hand that his father had given
him in the Marine Corps. It is absolutely a Court Martial
offense to remove anything from a deceased marine’s
body . . . but Vernon and I, we didn’t know there was
such a law when we made the pact that if anything
happened to us I will give his ring back to his folks and
he will give my ring back to Ruby. And then, on Iwo,
on March 7, he got hit with a mortar and he got killed.
I ran to him and soon as I got to him, I knew he was dead.
But, I saw that ring on his finger and that pact struck me.
This is what I promised to do. So, I jerked the ring off his
finger before anybody else got there. But, having been in
the sun, and for the South Pacific we had lots and lots of
sun, and under that ring it was as white as snow. And,
they would know that somebody would have that ring.
So, in order to camouflage that, I grabbed some old black
sand which we had lots of around – old, volcanic black
sand. I spit in my hand and rubbed that sand and made a
little bit of mud out of it and I rubbed that on [his finger]
and you could sort of see all the whiteness was still
there but, it wasn’t what it was before.
So I stuck the ring in my pocket, kept it, and never
said anything to one person about it. As I got home in
January 1946 my wife to be and I drove to northern
Montana about as far as you can go to the Canadian
border, and I delivered that ring to Vernon’s father. That’s
the most memorable thing I can remember.
Joseph J. Mueller (Wheeling, WV) in a letter to his sister:
I could tell you tales which would wring your heart. But
what’s the use? [The soldiers] and we will just have to
sweat out the mess, and hope for better things to come.
You should thank God that none of your boys are old enough
for this war. For it is not pretty, this war, any aspect of it.
Some of the things I have seen would have made me sick
two years ago. Now, no. But I can never be hardened to
the thought that the poor lad in question had all the hopes
and dreams of the rest of us, and perhaps a mother or a wife
or a sweetheart watching the mail box every day. What a
rude shock must be the news that finally comes of him!
What everyone thinks he knows from reading and hearing
takes on a new reality when you see. But, whatever started
me on this? This is a heck of a birthday letter! Please
excuse it. I am really not depressed. I know that these things
must be. I only hope that those who make the peace
remember what price was paid for it, and they make it
Lloyd Kennedy on the impact of the war on his life:
I entered the army with high hopes and still greater aspirations.
I was a member of that generation of frustrated, heroic, pig-
headed youth which laid in the gutters, wallered and slept in
mud, snow, and rain actually thinking we were accomplishing
something for our home and nation – for democracy. I dreamed
of returning a conquering hero. I wanted to help preserve those
freedoms so many were dying for. As I see it now – all was in
vain. While helping to protect those many aspects of our
security, our freedom, and of our peace. I lost something more
vital than any hypocritical peace could ever mean to a bunch
of money hungry gluttons, flag-waving, patriotic boosters at
home. I lost my peace of mind, my own confidence in our
government, and worst of all, I learned to doubt God. My
doubt in the existence of a God and a Faith, which had been
driven into me since I was old enough to distinguish
between right and wrong, good and bad, drove me to
committing acts that only now do I realize and feel I am
suffering for. The sword and the metallic thunder of the
cannon made me conclude that there were more powerful
things here on earth, than even my own blind faith. Now
I wish I had remained blind, absurd, yet quite believable.
- C. Belmont Keeney
- I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.