Our generation of high school students are going off to college, but in the 1940s they were going off to war.
This really struck me as I was listening to testimonies about three brothers who participated in World War II. They were in different theaters (one in the Pacific and the others in the European), but all scared for their lives.
The one man, named Chep, was 19 when he left home. He said he volunteered because he knew he was going to be drafted.
Chep said he immediately went to Tennessee to train as a paratrooper for 18 months. He described his first jump as terrifying, and although he got used to it after a while, the more he jumped, the more he worried.
“When the first day of actual combat arrived, it felt like a football game,” he said. “But then I looked all around me and just saw men who were lying there – dead. That’s when things really hit me.”
“When they prepare you for combat, all they talk about is military plans,” he added. “They don’t talk about everyone who’s getting killed and the number of wounds there are.”
Besides the horror of seeing his friends get wounded and some even killed, Chep endured a shoulder injury in Belgium which he received a Purple Heart for, catching Malaria in the tropics, and another memory he said was especially terrifying.
One particular day, Chep was jumping down into enemy lines to blow up the place with dynamite. But to his surprise, he jumped straight into a Nazi campfire, surrounded by three Germans who were eating and talking.
“When I landed, their mouths just dropped,” he said. “We were all just in total shock, but I quickly took my machine gun and fired.”
Chep said he was thankful to have made it through that experience alive, but it wasn’t the only one which would haunt his memories for years to come.
Later, when he was in Southern France, he and his other paratroop members had cut trees down and put sandbags on top of each other to make a hut for about 7 or 8 guys.
All of a sudden, the hut was hit twice. Chep said the enemy was hitting them from the other side of the mountain, and they all jumped back inside.
“There was this one guy who was still standing in the doorway and we all wondered why he wouldn’t jump back inside like everyone else,” Chep said. “Then he suddenly just fell down and we realized he was dead.”
While Chep endured numerous traumatic experiences, the letters he wrote home weren’t filled with the events of the war but rather with optimistic, loving thoughts.
Although Chep’s brother Pete also wrote cheerful letters, his war experiences were far from joyous.
Pete was in the Pacific theater the day Pearl Harbor was attacked – a moment he said he will never forget.
His job was to set up radio stations so the troops could communicate, something he never had basic training for.
On December 7, 1941 Pete was enjoying an early breakfast when he was surprised to hear aircraft bombs going off.
“I looked up and just saw all of these planes going over me,” he said. “I thank god to this day that they didn’t drop any bombs on me.”
Pete went over to the radio when he suddenly came to the realization that it was the Japanese who were attacking Pear Harbor.
“I just thought, my god my god, this is real,” he said.
After he realized what was going on, Pete was sent to a supply room where he drew out his 45 caliber pistol and got to work on a communications station, hooking up antennas to get radio stations on the air.
“I was scared but there wasn’t a lot of time to worry,” he explained. “I wanted to do everything in my capability to help, and I was just happy to be one of the people that made it out alive.”
While Pete and Chep both had harrowing experiences, their brother Hammond had distressing experiences of his own.
While Hammond was not available during the interview, his brothers Chep and Pete were able to comment on his experience from the first-hand account they heard from their brother.
Hammond helped liberate some of the concentration camps, they said. After the camps were liberated, the villagers were asked to come out and view the piles of dead bodies.
“Hammond never really liked to talk a lot about his experience in the camps,” Pete said. “We all understood – I can’t even imagine how horrifying it would have been to have seen something like that, you know?”
The last brother, Randall, also fought in the European theater but wasn’t available at the time of the interview.
When the war was finally over, and victory was declared, Pete and Chep said everyone was just cheering loudly, and honking their horns through the streets.
And while it was a tremendous victory for the allies to win the war, it was a miracle that these men’s mother lived to see all four of her sons return home from one of the largest wars in history.
Want to know more about Chep’s unit? Visit http://www.517prct.org/overview.htm