Sixteen million people served in the U.S. military during World War II, and four veterans, of what has been dubbed the “Greatest Generation,” now spend their lunch hour visiting with friends and playing cards at Killeen’s Bob Gilmore Senior Center.
One was a machine gunner, another a typist. Two of them were drafted and the other two volunteered. Despite spending time together, they hadn’t heard each other’s stories about serving in World War II until they participated, alongside veterans of other wars, in a bulletin board that was part of the center’s Veterans Day celebration.
“We’re just trying to get over that stuff,” said Ernest Smallwood, who was drafted in 1943 and went on to serve 30 years in the Army. “We never talk about it. We try to forget everything.”
Now 91, Smallwood said he wasn’t too happy when he was drafted, because he’d just gotten married. He became a helicopter inspector, spending 10 years overseas in Germany, Korea and Vietnam. He eventually retired at Fort Hood in 1973 while serving in the 227th Aviation Regiment, part of 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.
“There’s not too many of us left,” he said of World War II veterans.
While he doesn’t like to talk about the war, he said he always wears a WWII veteran hat and appreciates when people see it and thank him for his service.
“I’ve been to the commissary or H-E-B for food, and people will pay for (the food),” he said.
Women’s Army Corps
Dottie Angus was 21 when she signed up for the Women’s Army Corps in 1944.
“I just wanted to get away, I guess,” she said.
In her basic training, she said they didn’t use weapons, but ran and learned to march in parades.
She spent about a year and a half enlisted, working as a typist for military intelligence at the Pentagon. In 1946 she got married, which at that time meant a woman could no longer serve.
“People usually don’t know I’m a veteran unless I tell them,” Angus said. When they do know, she said they always want to know how it was, where the women lived and other details.
“It has changed dramatically,” the 90-year-old said of today’s military. Even the civilian population’s response to wartime has changed, she said.
“Everybody was affected during World War II. Today, they aren’t.”
Enticed by adventure
Richard Blackman, 86, was enticed by the adventure of war and enlisted in the Navy in 1944 in Beaumont. He found himself aboard the USS Flint, a light cruiser, where he spent most of his time at the bottom of the boat.
“Our job was to stay with the aircraft carrier, and if they dropped a torpedo, we got between them and took it with our ship,” he said.
They were in the Pacific Ocean on a coastal patrol when the war ended, so he said they just headed home. He left the Navy in 1946 and eventually became a teacher in the Killeen Independent School District.
Stuck in Rome
While Blackman was on a ship that simply turned around and came home when the war ended, Rollond Johnson, an infantryman and engineer with the Army, found himself stuck in Rome, Italy, finally returning home four months after the war was over. He didn’t have any “12-pointers,” a term for the point value assigned to children, so he wasn’t able to get out of the service just yet.
“I got to see all the sites of Rome,” recalled the 92-year-old. “I went to St. Peter’s Cathedral; I got to see the pope. I wasn’t Catholic, but I took it all in, all the history.”
His sight-seeing was well-earned. He was drafted in 1941 and was trained as a machine gunner and to dismantle booby traps.
Johnson traveled to Morocco on the luxury cruise liner, SS Monterey, where he said he ate lots of Fig Newtons. After that, luxury was over, as the American forces began pushing the Germans out of northern Africa. He didn’t stay in one place too long, but remembers being in Algeria, Tunisia and Yugoslavia before arriving in Italy.
“We were trying to stay on their heels,” Johnson said. “I didn’t enjoy all the excitement.”
Blackman said he was fortunate that his ship was never shot at and that his experience was very different than that of Smallwood and Johnson.
“I always had a good bunk to go to every night. They didn’t know where they would be,” he said.
The four veterans were among service members of other eras the senior center honored Friday with a ceremony and cake. The veterans’ photos and information on their time in the military was displayed on a bulletin board in the room where lunch is served.
Despite all the fanfare that comes with honoring veterans, each of these four take the day to quietly reflect and move forward.
“I think in World War II we had a goal to accomplish and that was to defeat the Germans and the Japanese,” Blackman said. “We got through with that and we were ready to go home.”