PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Stitched on his ballcap was his history of military service: World War II, Korea, Vietnam. Many veterans like William Curry who are now in their 90s answered their country’s call to don a military uniform, complete basic training and head to fighting the enemy thousands of miles from home.
Curry, along with 19 other veterans from World War II and the Korean War, recently returned to Reno after completing a whirlwind five-day Honor Flight Nevada trip to Hawaii, the first to Honolulu for the Reno-based organization. At Pearl Harbor, the veterans visited the USS Missouri, where the formal peace treaty between Japan and the allies was signed on the battleship’s deck on Sept. 2, 1945, and the sunken battleship USS Arizona, a casualty of the Japanese sneak attack on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1945, where more than 1,000 sailors died.
THE ARMY BECKONS
At the age of 19, the Buffalo, N.Y., native enlisted in the Army because life, he thought, was better in the military. The years after the Great Depression were still difficult for many people, black or white, but the Army pitched an offer most poor young men couldn’t refuse during the war years. Curry, who grew up in a household with five siblings, said they all slept in one bed. Independence beckoned.
“When the war started in the 1940s, they offered three meals per day and a bed to sleep in by myself,” he recalled. “I jumped for the opportunity to get a big salary of $30 a month. That was a lot back then.”
Curry’s father also served in the Army from 1917-1918 in Bordeaux, France. When his father was 101 years old, France presented him with the French Legion of Honor.
Reports of the war printed in the newspaper grabbed his attention, and he joined the Army, completed basic training and headed to Georgia for infantry training. He also learned two sets of rules existed for soldiers, one for whites and the other for blacks. This, he thought, is not right because he didn’t experience segregation’s harshness while living in a northern state.
The city boy from Buffalo also learned he had a special talent for firing a rifle. At the rifle range, the sergeant directed him to hit a target.
“I aimed the rifle and got a bullseye,” Curry said. “They couldn’t believe it. They took me to the target range many times, and they couldn’t believe how good I was at hitting the target. I never fired a gun in my life before.”
Curry figures his good aim and eyesight lent themselves to his success on the range.
Within weeks, Curry’s training lent itself to his survival in Africa. Curry and other soldiers received training with weapons and with the usage of a bayonet. Immediately, Curry knew the bayonet was used for close contact.
“We were stationed in North Africa and received training with our bayonets on the rifles,” Curry said.
Soon, though, Curry’s unit boarded a ship and headed toward Sicily, ready to assemble and mount an attack on Italy’s southern tip. From there the Allies inched their way toward Italy’s border with France.
Not only was it a test of wills to be the only African American in his unit, but it also was a test to remain alive.
“I got wounded during the invasion of the northern part of Italy,” explained. “I was stabbed with a bayonet and had to go to the hospital— a field hospital — for a short period of time,” he said, adding he returned to his unit. “At that time, they didn’t bring the bodies back to the United States. They were buried wherever they were killed. We lost so many young men.”
Orders came down directing Curry and hundreds of soldiers to move toward Normandy and link up with Allies in the north commanded by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. German resistance began to slow down Curry’s unit, and they arrived at Normandy shortly after the invasion begun.
“We were a small group and we were already near Normandy when the invasion started, and we combined with Eisenhower’s units. We just kept going,” Curry said.
CHANGES IN THE WIND
As the war began to wind down, Victory Europe Day declared on May 8, 1945, would lead to an eventual major change for Curry. He left the military and returned to New York City to work in a post office. Curry, though, missed the military and when the Army and its Air Corps split into two services in 1947, Curry opted to join the new Air Force and was assigned to civil engineering, eager to earn a new vocation and not be in a segregated unit. Curry’s Red Horse team of deployable engineers found themselves in the middle of a new war, though, in the early 1950s.
“We were sent to Korea, Osan, for a year,” Curry said, adding the Red Horse traveled the country near the 38th parallel — which eventually acted as a division between North and South Korea — and built bases.
Osan, now a major Air Force installation south of the capital Seoul, sprung up in late 1951. Curry remembers the hard work and the lack of heavy machinery in a land under fire, much like South Vietnam when he shipped out to another war in the 1960s and faced more problems.
“I was exposed to Agent Orange,” he recalled, without elaborating.
Once he passed a physical declaring him fit to return to the United States, Curry eventually shipped out one more time — a final deployment — overseas to Crete. He spent two years on the Mediterranean island with the 6931 Security Group.
Curry always considered himself a loner. He didn’t drink. He didn’t like cars.
“I saved my money. It was hard-earned,” he explained. “I’d keep to myself, reading my books and doing my exercises. Even now, I exercise seven days a week.”
In 1974, he retired from the military after 27 years at McLellan Air Force Base northeast of Sacramento, Calif., and eventually met the woman there who would become his wife. They later relocated to Reno where they would raise a daughter, and his wife would retire as a master sergeant with the Nevada Air National Guard. His daughter Bayo, a physician with Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center, and her husband have two daughters.
Curry led by example, saying education was important.
“I went to college after the military,” he pointed out. “I was persistent, and I got my degree in education from the University of Nevada.”
For 26 years he worked with mentally challenged children and felt not only was he helping them but also helping himself become a better person.
Curry previously took an Honor Flight Nevada trip to Washington, D.C. several years ago before accompanying fellow World War II vets on their latest journey to Oahu. The memorials impressed him both in the nation’s capital and in Hawaii.
“They’re all very important to men,” Curry said, pausing. “I think of the men who lost their lives.”
Curry is also proud of a signed letter he received from President Barack Obama and Michelle on his 92nd birthday in 2015. The retired veteran, who will have his 97th birthday on April 1, doesn’t regret where his life took him over the years.
“I want people to know that I did my best. I learned while overseas, I’m living in the best country in the world called the United States. I have no respect for anyone who disrespects the flag. This is the best country in the world for anybody. I don’t care what nationality you are. You work hard, go to school and get a college degree.”
Steve Ranson, editor emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News, accompanied the veterans on this historic tour. Look for more articles on the Honor Flight Nevada trip to Hawaii.