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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 09:40 am

Springfield remembers

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Photo by Job Conger

About five years ago, some veterans holding a reunion at a downtown hotel asked Larry Edwards to take them to Springfield's World War II memorial.

"You can imagine how I felt when I had to tell them we didn't have one," Edwards says.

A group was soon formed to remedy that situation, and Edwards,who served in the South Pacific during the war, became its first president.

"We were known as the task force at that time," he says. By February 2000, the organization, renamed the World War II Illinois Veterans Memorial Association, had been granted tax-exempt status by the IRS. It took almost two years to complete arrangements with the city to build the memorial at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Ground was broken for the project on Dec. 7, 2003.

The memorial, which will be dedicated on Saturday, was designed by Champaign architect Jeff Poss. Two wings of a giant V converge at a 12-foot-diameter globe sculpted by Dan Nardi of Bloomington. The wing outstretched to the east displays a chronology of World War II in Europe; to the west, the list of battles in the Pacific theater is displayed. In between are walls of quotes by U.S. leaders of the war. On the ground are granite bricks bearing the names of World War II veterans, as well as sponsoring organizations and corporations. Sod and final touches will be installed when weather permits. The memorial costs about $1.5 million.

John A. Carrigan, 55, joined the organization two years ago and advanced from financial chairman to president. Carrigan's father, Maurice Carrigan, served in Europe during the war.

"When I joined, along with [Springfield City Clerk] Cecilia Tumulty, I became very involved with fundraising. If anyone was to ask me how to raise funds, I have three answers: Stay public, stay public and stay public." Most of the group's financial support has come as a result of a very public community-based effort. The sale of commemorative bricks, a state grant, and other private fundraising have helped defray most of the cost of the memorial's construction, Carrigan says.

Though it will not be present at the time of the dedication, Carrigan says plans include the construction of a kiosk with a computer that will guide visitors to the location of every brick displayed at the memorial.

Theodore Smith, who spent the war on a destroyer escort in the South Pacific, served on the memorial committee.

"They say the war memorial is for future generations, to let them know what kind of war we had," Smith says.

"They have engraved quotes from the admirals and generals. I wrote to the architect and asked what they were going to put on there about the 22,000 Illinois veterans who didn't come back. I got no answers from anyone."

Carrigan says the names of the deceased won't be included because organizers couldn't find a "100 percent true list of every veteran.

"If we must risk leaving one veteran's name off a list, we have a serious issue. We talked about that a lot, and the veterans decided not to have any list. The memorial is for all 987,000 Illinois veterans who served."

Those veterans include Melvin Hale, who was in the Army in Europe during the war.

Hale says the new memorial gives new meaning to his years of service.

"For 60 years now, I haven't been anybody," Hale says. "I didn't talk about [the war] because I never felt I had anything to say that people would want to hear."

Actually, Hale and others Springfield veterans of World War II have a lot to say.

Turn the page to read some of their stories.

Cecil Kenneth Belton, 82
1942-45
2nd lieutenant, 452nd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, U.S. Army Air Corps; Europe

Ken Belton had always wanted to fly, so when the U.S. entered the war, joining the U.S. Army Air Corps, he says, was a "natural choice." Unlike soldiers in the infantry, who found themselves in combat six months after entering the service, Belton trained for two years before going overseas.

Belton was stationed at Deopham Green, in rural Norfolk, England, where his first flights were noncombat missions, testing B-17s after engine overhauls and taking navigation and formation training.

His combat career began in late December 1944, when the group he was with hit a German submarine base at Hamburg. That first mission ended with moderate damage to the plane but a safe return. His fifth combat mission, another bombing run over Germany, turned out differently. His B-17, nicknamed the "Lucky Lady," was hit by anti-aircraft fire and exploded at 22,000 feet. Belton was thrown from the airplane by the explosion and parachuted to terra firma. He was the only member of the crew to survive.

"I was hurt pretty bad in the back when the airplane came apart. Some regular Dutch found me when I landed. They wanted to turn me over to the underground in a hurry because if you were caught with anything indicating you had helped an American pilot, you were in big trouble."

The first priority was getting Belton to a barn, where a member of the underground gave him civilian clothes and a doofstam badge, which indicated that the wearer was deaf and dumb. Dressed that way, and in the company of other Dutchmen, Belton was guided from northern Holland to southern Holland toward Belgian and Allied troops, traveling mostly at night. "The only place we got out during the day was in Amsterdam, which was full of German soldiers. I was riding a bike when I ran into a German soldier and knocked him down. He shouted some choice words at me but didn't do more. It was a close call."

"Three English soldiers, two Dutch women, and I traveled down a river to rendezvous with a boat sent to take them the rest of the way to freedom further south. Two nights and they didn't show, so we knew the launch had been intercepted and we were out of luck. Each time we had to row back to our hiding place before daylight, or we would have been caught. The third try, we decided to go the rest of the way ourselves, and we silently rode the river south. We ran into some French Canadian troops near Antwerp and were transported first to Brussels, later to Paris."

When the Germans surrendered, Belton was already back in the United States.

His war experience gave Belton "a much greater appreciation for what we have in this country. After seeing the atrocities and starvation in Holland, I was glad I had this country to come back to. I was also thankful to God that he let me come back."

George Cordier, 87
1943-46
Corporal, telephone specialist, 3rd Joint Assault Signal Company, 12th Artillery Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps; South Pacific

George Cordier was at the beginning of what would become a 45-year career as a bus driver when he received his special letter from Uncle Sam. At the time, he had been married for almost two years, and he and his wife had one child. When he was drafted on Sept. 8, 1943, he chose the Marines: "I figured the Army would be sent to Europe, and it was cold over there, and I figured the Marines would be occupied in the Pacific, where it was warm."

Any hope that his time as a soldier would be comfortable was quickly dashed when he showed up for boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. "It was an experience," Cordier says. "I lost 20 pounds in six weeks."

Given his bus-driving experience, Cordier assumed that he'd spend the war driving trucks. Instead, he was sent to telephone school at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and then to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he joined his unit and shipped out. He ended up in Guam in July 1944, driving a jeep off an LST [Landing Ship, Tank] into shallow water, carrying a telephone switchboard.

"We were pinned down early on Red Beach by Japanese in a cave on a hill overlooking the area. It was pretty grim -- there were dead Japanese all around us. That first night, my buddy and I had to string a telephone line from our switchboard to a group of Seabees. I had to climb, and as I did, I could see the Japanese with their machine gun almost at my level, looking at me as I was looking at them. It did not take me long to get down to the ground!

"On the morning of the third day, we had a telephone line out of service, and we had to find it and fix it. As the two of us were walking down a road after hearing no gunfire, he [Cordier's friend] said to me, 'Here comes one' and I said, 'Here it is.' When I woke up, they were taking me back to treatment for my wounds and about two months of recuperation. I never knew what happened to my buddy. I never saw him again."

While Cordier was healing, he was put to work in a mess hall and found his way as a cook striker. "None of the more experienced cooks wanted to cook for the officers, so I volunteered because I was the low man," he recalls. "My type of service was changed from telephone work to cook because my injuries left me unfit for combat."

Today Cordier receives a disability pension.

Lawrence C. Edwards, 84
1942-45
Master sergeant, 41st Infantry Division, U.S. Army; South Pacific

If you don't count the time he spent on transport ships between decks, Chicago native Lawrence C. Edwards didn't sleep under a roof from the time he departed the U.S. in July 1943 until October 1945, when he was billeted as part of the Allied occupation force in Japan.

After departing Camp Stoneman, Calif., in July and arriving in Brisbane, Australia, Edwards continued to a staging area in Finschaffen, New Guinea. On April 17, 1944, he moved to a combat zone in Hollandia, New Guinea. "We were scheduled to hit the beach at eight minutes following the first wave," he recalls. "Before we landed, destroyers cruised off the beach between our LSTs and the shore, and when a Japanese machine-gun battery opened up on us, the destroyers returned fire and knocked them out so we wouldn't have to deal with them after we landed. We came ashore on smooth sand, and I walked off the LST through about eight inches of water. I barely got my feet wet. Once ashore, we encountered nothing but sniper fire. I saw only two prisoners during my time in combat."

"My next deployment was to Biak [an island in the Dutch East Indies], which was full of caves. Rather than shoot their way in, our soldiers lowered explosives in through ventilation holes in the top and got them that way . . .

"The Japanese didn't want to fight in daylight. They preferred the night, when they'd crawl in and bayonet you. They didn't even fire guns at night. A lot of our guys, when they heard motion around them, would fire on anything that moved, and more often they hit wild hogs that roamed around. We got into our foxholes at night and stayed there until sunrise.

"No matter what outfit you were with, you could be on the front line any day."

William Allen Goss Jr., 82
1942-45
Petty officer third class, transport ship USS W.P. Richardson AP-118, U.S. Coast Guard; Atlantic Ocean

Springfieldian Bill Goss and 99 friends and associates were sworn into the U.S. Coast Guard at a mass ceremony on Dec. 18, 1942, at the post office on Monroe Street. He had enlisted while attending Washington University at St. Louis.

After basic training at Manhattan Beach, N.Y., Goss was selected to train with boxing champion Jack Dempsey, whose autographed picture he still cherishes. "He was one of the nicest fellows you'd ever want to know," he says. "He sat us down, said, 'Gentlemen, this is no sports affair. This is war. I want you to understand you are being trained to protect yourself. It's either kill or be killed.' "

Goss' duties included the inspection of incoming ships, guard duty, and undercover work. "When stationed in Miami we did a little anti-submarine patrol duty," he says. "Later I was on the crew that commissioned the Richardson, took it on its shakedown cruise, and hauled troops. We made 13 round trips, but I consider it 26 voyages." The ship visited ports all over the globe, including Southampton, Le Havre, Marseilles, Naples, Trinidad, and Karachi.

Two of those trips brought British troops under the command of Gen. Bernard Montgomery from North Africa to Marseilles. "We arrived during the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, and we took a shipload of patients back to the States," he recalls.

Life on the transport ship was no pleasure cruise. There was no air conditioning, and passengers' activities were strictly regulated. "Weather and seas permitting, they came outside to the decks at specific times of day. They ate standing up from large trays between poles that accommodated six men." The ship, which was equipped with sonar, depth charges, and anti-aircraft guns, didn't run with an escort, and speed was a priority. "Anyone who accidentally fell overboard was left there. There was no stopping."

Though Goss had been trained as captain of the port, he became the ship's baker and led a crew of 48 sailors who made bread. "I also manned an anti-aircraft gun," he recalls. "I never saw a face of the enemy."

After the war in Europe ended, the Richardson was scheduled to transport troops to Okinawa for the invasion of Japan. "About 36 hours before we were scheduled to transit the Panama Canal," Richardson says, "the captain got on the intercom and announced the war was over. The soldiers were so excited, I thought they were going to sink the ship. Booze came out of everywhere. I don't know where they got all that stuff. The next day, we changed course for New York."

Melvin Hale, 82
1942-45
Telephone specialist, technical sergeant, 74th Signal Company Special, U.S. Army; Sicily, Italy, France

Springfield native Mel Hale was 21 and secure in his career as a lineman for Illinois Bell when he was drafted in 1942. After basic training, he was trained as a field-wire chief at Camp Crowder, Mo., and did so well that he was offered a position as an instructor -- an offer he declined. "I told them I had a beautiful redhead named Emily in Springfield, Ill., who I was going to marry when the war was over -- and I came in to get the war over." Hale completed amphibious training and was shipped overseas in June 1943.

Just over a month later, Hale was in the first wave to go ashore with the 45th Infantry Division at Gela, Sicily. "Normally landings we made were in daylight, but this was made in the dark," Hale says. "We had 20 men and a jeep in a Higgins boat. We fought our way in."

Throughout the war, Hale was in the first waves that went ashore: "My job was to set up and coordinate communications on the beach with each other and sea and air operations."

On Jan. 22, 1944, he landed with the 3rd Division at Anzio, a beach that would be his home for about six months. Anzio was one of the most contested battles of the war, and Hale was wounded. "I didn't put in for a Purple Heart because the day before, my buddy got his head blown off," he recalls. "When a lieutenant reminded me I qualified for one, I told him that the only thing my friend's family was going to get for him getting his head blown off was a Purple Heart, and I said, 'No way.' I healed my wound with talcum powder."

When the infantry broke out, they went as far as Rome. "We rode weapons carriers, but we walked a lot, too," Hale says. "A buddy and I decided to take a nap in the Coliseum, so we curled up in a little nook there out of the weather. I woke up feeling something gnawing at me, and we discovered we were the main course for a bunch of giant black ants. Needless to say, we were back on our feet pretty fast."

After departing that part of Italy, Hale contracted malaria and was hospitalized in Naples. "I was in the hospital when the company commander told me my men were leaving for another invasion," he says. "I asked him to get me out of the hospital so I could rejoin my crew of five men. I did not want them going in without me -- and he made it happen."

Hale was with the 45th Division again when they landed at St. Raphael, on the southeastern coast of France, in August 1944. Things moved fast -- "The Germans were surrendering en masse," Hale says -- so fast that Hale's communications specialists became backups for the 45th, which had its own communications specialists: "Soon after Paris was taken, they sent some of us to VHF-radio school in that city -- very new-tech." Hale was with the 45th when they liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

For the record, Emily did wait for him. They were married on Dec. 27, 1945 -- and they're still together.

Walter Harris, 78
1944-46
Sergeant, 90th Division, 359th Infantry Regiment, Company A, U.S. Army; France to Czechoslovakia

The worst winter of Walter Harris's life was spent fighting German tanks and infantry during the Battle of the Bulge, officially remembered as the Ardennes campaign. Europe had not experienced a colder winter in more than 100 years. It was a harsh introduction to war for a Chicago kid who, just over six months before, had been a high school senior.

"In December 1944, I was in the south end of the Bulge in the Ardennes offensive," Harris remembers. "The 3rd Army under [Gen. George S.] Patton was going to go east, but it swung north. We were supported by his tanks. What hurt us so bad was that we had no infantry officers. The highest-ranking people we would see were captains or majors. The 712th Tank Battalion, which supported us, was great. Our relationships with the tank crews were very close. They carried our C-rations."

Harris lived in foxholes all his time in combat. There were no tents.

"I was wounded Feb. 5, 1945," he recalls. "We were trying to clear pillboxes, and one shell from them took three of us out. My rifle and glasses were gone. I walked back to a company aid station. They bandaged my hand and took six of us to Luxembourg city for a week of hot food and hot showers. From there they sent us for R and R at Metz in France for two more weeks. It was the good life. Then all of a sudden your name would be called out and you'd head back."

Harris rose to the rank of sergeant, assistant squad leader, in March 1945. One of his most lasting memories was the taking of a building packed with Hitler Youth: "We were 19-year-olds calling out to 14- and 15-year-old kids to surrender to us at the end of the war."

By April, Harris was in Czechoslovakia with another tank unit, supporting local partisans. In April, the order came to hold a crossroads. "There was a one-story brick building on one side where the Germans were firing at us," Harris says. "They hit my friend Norman Brooks, 19, in the chest, and he died because the medics didn't have any plasma." Tears well up in Harris' eyes as he recounts what happened. "Our medic picked up Norman Brooks' rifle, chased down the German, put eight rounds into him, threw the rifle away, and ran back to us. They buried him [Brooks] in France."

Theodore Smith, 79
1943-46
Seaman, U.S. Navy, DE 696 USS Spangler; South Pacific

When Ted Smith turned 18, he registered with the local draft board. "I told them I wanted to go in the next call," Smith says. "I requested Navy because my dad, who served in the Army, told me the Navy eats every day and has a place to sleep every day."

Smith was a member of the original crew of the USS Spangler, a 306-foot-long destroyer escort built in Bay City, Mich. The ship went to war by way of the Chicago River to the Illinois River to Mississippi River to the Atlantic and, eventually, the Pacific. Smith says he started as a seaman first class and finished as a seaman first class: "I didn't want a stripe or anything to do with going up in rank. I got in there because the war was on."

The Spangler made 68 voyages in the Pacific -- to Bougainville, Saipan, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. Some missions involved escorting combat ships to relieve others waiting on station. They also stood by waiting to pick up crews of aircraft who made emergency landings at sea. Trips lasted one to eight days. "We were powered by steam electric power," Smith recalls, "and once we made it up to 27 knots." No matter how fast a destroyer escort could go, they were never faster than the slowest ship in the convoy.

Most of Smith's time was spent on sea watches, as a mess cook, and, occasionally, steering the ship. "We had a variety of guns and depth charges, and three torpedoes that we never used," he says. "Our job was to protect the ships in the convoys transiting from island to island. We had firing practice all the time. I was stationed on gun No. 1. Someone would hand me a shell, and I'd hand it to the loader. We never fired guns at anything in combat."

Smith, on the Spangler, sailed in the company of sister ships, also destroyer escorts, including the USS England, the USS Raby, and the USS George. The ships functioned as a hunter-killer group, sometimes briefly leaving convoys to track down an enemy picked up on sonar but always hurrying back to their escort positions. Often, though all ships might be attacking an enemy sub, only one ship would be credited with the kill. The Spangler dispensed many depth charges in the course of combat in the Pacific. "It all depended on what the captains reported," Smith says.

The Spangler was in dry dock for repairs when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon after, the ships departed for Pearl Harbor.

Smith was one of three Springfieldians on the Spangler. The other two were Edison Garner and Raymond I. Stephens.

"I'm thrilled I served," Smith says, "but if you want to know how my life was changed by the war, I have to tell you that marriage changed my life more than my time in the war zone."

For more information about the dedication ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 4, see the Night & Day article.

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