In memoriam: Veterans from The Greatest Generation
LVN Editor Emeritus
Every year our nation loses thousands of World War II veterans. The Greatest Generation, which endured hardships yet persevered during both the Great Depression and then war, made an everlasting mark.
While the number of veterans rose during the past decade because of Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of vets who have served during World War II and the Korean War keeps declining. Some of the latest estimates show that about 21.8 million veterans still are alive in the United States, but in 2016, about 600,000 World War II vets out of 16 million who served remain, followed by 2.25 million from the Korean War and another 1 million from Vietnam who actually served in Southeast Asia.
….. Two veterans I interviewed for our newspaper group passed away in 2017, Robert McHaney and Roland Christensen. McHaney, who spoke at a presentation in April on the Holocaust and its liberators, reminded me of Clint Eastwood as a man very confident of himself. The 94-year-old Christiansen died in July at Highland Manor. I had met him several years before he told his Pearl Harbor story when he, along with others, were recognized on Veterans Day for their unwavering service to their country.
….. Here’s one more look at their heroism and their stories as these two men clearly define The Greatest Generation.
The 20-year-old Army sergeant and his company moved swiftly over the western part of Europe in the waning weeks of World War II. As the American Army moved east across Nazi Germany in a race against time, the Russians marched to the west, first liberating Poland and then Germany’s eastern border.
“It was a very forested area. We were moving along quietly with ammunition falling on us,” said infantryman Robert McHaney of Reno as he described the dense Bavarian woods. “We were told there was a prisoner of war camp in front of us and told not to call in artillery. Very carefully we started to move forward, and then we started to smell death.”
About a half-kilometer away, said McHaney, soldiers arrived at the gate of the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany northeast of Munich, the first one built by the Nazis for political prisoners. When his unit arrived, McHaney, who had also stormed Omaha beach at Normandy during the June 1944 D-Day invasion and weathered the winter during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, said a company arrived before them, trying to snap open the gate’s lock.
McHaney scanned last’s holocaust-remembrance crowd of over 800 people from one side to another, dressed in his olive-drab World War II uniform with a medal hanging from his neck and his garrison cap tilted to one side.
McHaney said he was astounded by man’s inhumanity toward other each other with their stories.
“All the bravery weren’t wearing uniforms. I thought how brave they were in the camp,” McHaney said.
On that late April day in 1945, American soldiers and the remaining men and women who had been held at Dauchu stared at each other through the wire fence.
“The prisoners were standing there with very hollow eyes,” the 93-year-old McHaney remembered with remarkable detail. “They wouldn’t come out and take a step toward freedom. Anyone wearing a uniform, they were terrified of us and wouldn’t come out.”
What McHaney, who spent 25 years in law enforcement with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and his comrades didn’t know was the horror many prisoners faced daily over the months, perhaps years. Many prisoners before their arrival were put to death, while others had witnessed their loved ones being killed at the hands of SS guards or Nazi soldiers.
ARRIVAL AT PEARL HARBOR
A converted, pale white troop ship that once sailed the seas with civilian passengers slowly passed Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row, a grouping of eight Navy warships that endured armor-piercing bombs from an attack of Japanese torpedo bombers more than two months prior.
As the Marines crowded on the deck and pressed against the railing, they saw the USS California followed by the Maryland and Oklahoma loosely wedged side-by-side and then the Tennessee and West Virginia. Astern to the Tennessee lay the Arizona and then last in line the empty quay for the USS Nevada, which steamed out of the harbor during the attack before suffering major damage that caused the captain to beach the battleship. The USS Pennsylvania, the fleet’s flagship, remained in dry-dock at the nearby Navy Yard.
Oil oozed from the twisted wreckage of the damaged battleships into the dirty water, while the stench — however faint — of oil and ship fuel still permeated the air, Ship apparatus remained strewn on the decks or bobbing in the water alongside the ships or hull.
Roland Christiansen and the other Marines stared at the Arizona, which sunk as a water-sealed tomb with more than 1,100 sailors aboard. A portion of the ship remained above the water line, but most of the former great warship had sunk 45 feet below surface.
“They hadn’t done anything to the ship … not enough time,” Christiansen said when he saw the Arizona and the other battleships. “There hadn’t been enough time.”
According to numerous historical accounts involving the USS Nevada, “the Nevada was moored singly off Ford Island, and had a freedom of maneuver denied the other battleships present during the attack. As her gunners opened fire and her engineers got up steam, she was struck by one torpedo and two, possibly three, bombs from the Japanese attackers, but was able to get underway. While attempting to leave harbor she was struck again. Fearing she might sink in the channel, blocking it, Nevada was beached at Hospital Point.”
For Fallon’s 94-year-old Roland Christiansen, a young 19-year-old Marine, the sight of heavily damaged battleships — some beyond repair — became etched in his mind not only for the time he was stationed on Oahu but also for the rest of his life.
Christiansen grew up in Montana and had already enlisted in the Marines in 1941 but had to wait for his boot-camp assignment.
“When I enlisted in the Marine Corps during the summer, there were so many recruits and not enough training slots,” Christiansen recollected.
The only Marine basic training facility on the West Coast was in San Diego. Orders to attend boot camp came in December for Christiansen and other recruits. Christiansen, who grew up in Montana, took the train from Butte, Mont., to Los Angeles via Salt Lake City and Las Vegas during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Christiansen first hopped on a train in western Montana along with 11 others then traveled to Salt Lake City in one day as more recruits boarded the train, and from there, they rode through eastern Nevada to Las Vegas and finally to Los Angeles, where security police met the recruits and transported them 120 miles south to San Diego.
“The SPs lined us up right there,” said Christiansen of their arrival at the train depot before heading to boot camp. “We went down there and immediately went into a platoon and all of the people who came from Butte stayed in the same platoon. We went into boot camp on Jan. 1, 1942.”
Because many of the Marines and soldiers who boarded the train between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas were under age, and because the war had started, he said civilian passengers offered to buy the recruit drinks in their honor. Christiansen remembers the recruits and civilians “had quite a lot of partying going on.”
To say the attack on Pearl Harbor surprised Christiansen was overstated. He and friends knew something was wrong in the months leading up to the Dec. 7 attack.
“Everyone knew something was going to happen. I really do,” he said. “The Japanese had moved many of its envoys to Japan. Every individual … except a few powers to be … didn’t believe an armada (of six Japanese aircraft carriers, battleships, heavy and light cruisers and destroyers) was sailing toward Oahu.”
The Marines left San Diego and arrived in Honolulu in several days. Christiansen and the others aboard the troop ship saw the destruction that originated from the Japanese Imperial Navy when they first saw the wreckage. An eerie feeling overcame the Marines, a silence sweeping over Pearl Harbor except for small waves splashing on the quays. Because Pearl Harbor had few facilities for the hundreds of Marines and sailors arriving to the Oahu, Christiansen’s detachment left Honolulu and trucked to Lualualei after staying aboard the troop ship for a few days before splitting up.
Assigning the troops to duties, however, took little time as Christiansen remembers:
“I was sent out to guard duty. They lined us up alphabetically, and the sergeants went down ABC and that’s where you were stationed.”
Whatever letter of the alphabet was assigned to a Marine determined his assignment. Christian drew his ammo, combat rifle, gas mask and rucksack and waited for orders to move out. Because other Marine units were smaller than the Army’s, Christiansen said it was easier for them to head to the other side of Oahu less than an hour away from Pearl Harbor to establish a defensive position. The Japanese never returned to Oahu with the size of force that bombed the island just months before.
Yet, Christiansen said it became apparent the Marines would ship out to a hot zone, and during the spring of 1942, thousands of servicemen found themselves traveling to a small atoll west of Hawaii called Midway, the first stepping stone military planners knew the United States had to win, and the second being at Wake Island.
“The ship I was on, unbeknown to us, was headed for Midway Island. It was not a pleasant ride because the little ship that we went on from Pearl Harbor to Midway had been a tour ship on the Hudson River in New York State, and we hit a storm,” Christiansen remembered of the 1,300-mile trip. “We got to stand bridge watches if we wanted, and if we didn’t, we got to eat with the crew, which was much better food than the passengers got … it was a pretty bad storm, but we made it. “
Christiansen said the Marines were in Midway about a week before the Battle of Midway commenced.
The Battle of Midway became the turning point of the young war between the United States and its allies and the Japanese military complex. Between June 4-7, the U.S. Navy sunk four aircraft carries and a cruiser that had been involved with the Pearl Harbor attack. Along with the Guadalcanal campaign and the Battle of Midway, the Japanese navy retreated and never became the threat it was at Pearl Harbor and Midway.
Before Christiansen saw the battle unfold, he was originally assigned to an anti-aircraft unit that had 3-inch guns. Upon their arrival at Midway, he said all the guns were 90 mm.
“The Battle of Midway was a turning point said the historians,” Christiansen recalled. “The Navy and Marines destroyed most of the Japanese Navy ships … destroyed enough that Japan had to reconstruct their outfit.”
During his four years in the Marines, his unit jumped around the various South Pacific islands. Christiansen also remembers when the command sent Marines to the Marshall Islands to provide anti-aircraft support.
“We knew it was an atoll of its own — we were sent there and made the landing on Roi-Namure Islets which were in the northern most portions of the Marshall Islands,” he said. “Kwajalein, in the Ralik Chain of the Marshalls, was to the east of us. It was a pretty big island — had a landing field and everything.”
Near the end of the war, the Marines offered Christiansen an opportunity to attend the University of California and to obtain a commission as an officer; however, Christiansen left the service and returned to Montana for less than two months before returning to California. He married his girlfriend Ilene on Feb. 23, 1946. Christiansen received his degree in 1948 and was hired by the Bureau of Land Management until he left the government agency in the 1950s. The Christiansens moved to Fallon in the 1970s where he ranched. His beloved Ilene passed away in 2010 after 54 years of marriage.
LVN Editor Emeritus Steve Ranson reports on military and veterans’ issues for the Nevada Appeal and the Lahontan Valley News.