In service of their country: three local men reflect on times during WWII | NevadaAppeal.com

In service of their country: three local men reflect on times during WWII

Steve Ranson
LVN Editor Emeritus

Under the protective shadow of the Washington Monument to the east and the watchful eye of President Abraham Lincoln to the west, the nation's World War II memorial honors millions of servicemen and women who fought the Axis Powers … and those who were killed.

The war became the bloodiest and costliest in United States history during its four-year span when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress declared war on Japan and Germany on Dec. 8, 1941, a day after Japanese fighter planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in the early morning hours of a quiet Sunday.

On a recent Honor Flight Nevada trip in November to the nation's capital, three local veterans who saw action in WWII had the opportunity to lay wreaths during a Veterans Day ceremony to honor all combatants. Authorized in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and dedicated the following year, the World War II memorial honors 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. military. According to the memorial's website, "more than 400,000 who died, and the millions who supported the war effort from home. Symbolic of the defining event of the 20th Century, the memorial is a monument to the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the American people to the common defense of the nation and to the broader causes of peace and freedom from tyranny throughout the world."

43 MISSIONS IN SOUTH PACIFIC

Robert Whalen of Gardnerville served in the U.S. Army Air Corps Thirteenth Air Force in New Guinea and the Philippines during the latter stage of the war. He assisted with the placing of a wreath honoring Scottish-American Military Society. Once the official party carried the wreath to its designated place, Whalen looked forward and saluted. Whalen spent most of his military career in the back of a B-25 bomber that carried a crew of five to six aviators, eight 250-pounds bombs and a torpedo under the fuselage. Established in 1942 on New Caledonia, the 13 AF engaged in wartime operations over a wide expanse of the Pacific Theater to include attacking enemy forces holed up on many small, remote islands in addition to waging campaign over the Philippines.

"I flew on 43 missions as a radio operator and gunner," said Whalen, describing his military service aboard an aircraft known for both its low-altitude strafing capabilities and bombing runs to sink enemy ships. "It was the same type of plane Doolittle used in its run over Japan, a two-engine bomber. I thought I was lucky to get out of it. We lost 11 men in three years."

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In 1942, Gen. James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle led a bombing raid over Tokyo, the first American aerial attack on the Japanese mainland. Because of the complexity and distance of the mission, which required the planes to carry additional fuel, the 16 B-25Bs Mitchell bombers assigned to the mission dropped their bombs on and near Tokyo and then, lacking fuel to return to their aircraft carrier, flew toward China and the Soviet Union where they crash landed. Only one B-25 landed intact, and that was in Siberia.

As a radioman and gunner, Whalen, who was born in South Dakota, occupied a perch on the right side of the aircraft in the aft between the main and tail wings and near a bomb bay. Whalen manned a M-2 Browning .50 caliber heavy machine gun.

Enlisting out of high school

Kenneth York graduated from Reno High School in 1944 and joined the Navy. At his high-school graduation, he said many graduates who left early for boot camp returned to receive their diplomas while in uniform. Except for the war years, the teenage Reno sailor said he attended the University of Nevada, Reno and was a prominent businessman for more than 50 years with Mt. Rose Sporting Goods, that began downtown on Virginia Street and eventually moved to Park Lane.

During the WWII ceremony on Veterans Day, York assisted with the placing of the American Veterans wreath.

"I spent a lot of time in the Philippines and then to Okinawa," said the 91-year-old York. "I assumed Okinawa was the jumping off point to invade the mainland."

Those plans included a worst-case scenario whereby hundreds of thousands of military personnel from Allied forces would've lost their lives. York said he was grateful those plans never materialized because the United States dropped a pair of atomic bombs on two major Japanese cities, Emperor Hirohito surrendered. York said VJ (Victory Japan) Day occurred on Aug. 14, 1945, his birthday.

"That was quite a birthday present," he said, grinning.

During 1945 and 1944, York served on a supply ship, the USS Devosa, which carried both troops and equipment. Before the Army Air Corps dropped the two atomic bombs, the USS Devosa set sail from Saipan with battle casualties and headed toward Okinawa to return the men to their units.

"The Devosa was a victory ship," York said, adding the vessel carried amphibious tanks that would have been used for the invasion. He described the Devosa as being a bigger ship than an LST (landing ship-tank) but smaller than the warships.

During the war's final months, York said ships and their crews kept a vigilant lookout for Japanese kamikaze pilots hell-bent on diving their planes into American ships and trying to cause as much damage and casualties as possible.

Because of the Verdosa's size and mission, York said the larger ships — aircraft carries, battleships and cruisers — suffered more damage than supply ships. The Reno resident remembered the beating the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise took during the last five months of the war.

Supporting the Okinawa operation, the USS Enterprise was damaged on April 11, 1945, by a kamikaze pilot and returned to Ulithi. A month later off Okinawa, he said, the Enterprise encountered additional kamikaze attacks. In mid-May, she suffered more losses when a kamikaze pilot slammed into the Enterprise, destroying the forward elevator by killing 14 sailors and wounding 34. After the war York said the Devosa changed it mission and began carrying occupation troops between Okinawa and mainland China.

PLACING THE MARINERS' WREATH

Carson City resident Charles Montanaro, who assisted in a solemn ceremony in late September to bury 27 veterans whose remains were recently identified, was also recognized for his WWII tour as a Merchant Marine mariner during Memorial Day observances in May at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Ceremony. Montanaro was one of three veterans from Nevada who took part in the WWII observances at that war's memorial on Veterans Day by assisting in the placing of the Merchant Marine wreath.

"Let the rest of the guys know they weren't forgotten," said the 96-year-old Montanaro afterward, his voice shaking.

Montanaro said he considered it an honor to remember his fellow mariners in the wreath-placement ceremony. He didn't know what to expect when asked to participate, but Montanaro said it was a complete surprise. The Veterans Day ceremony at the WWII memorial brought tears to Montanaro, though.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "It means so much to be part of that wreath ceremony."

Just after the breakout of WWII, the Cleveland native said he wanted to enlist in one of the other military branches, but because of his color blindness no one would take him. Undaunted by their refusals, Montanaro joined the Merchant Marines shortly after WWII began 76 years ago in December. Being on a ship without a military escort or weapons was dangerous for men such as Montanaro. Between the aggressiveness of Japanese and German submarines to disrupt the shipping lanes, they sunk more than 700 ships that resulted in the deaths of 8,651 mariners.

Montanaro, who also visited the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., and looked at a special section for the Merchant Marines, said serving on an unarmed ship also became nerve wracking since the main cargo carried from port to port was ammunition. Near the end of the war, Montanaro's ship was anchored near Okinawa, the designated staging area for invading the mainland.

"The dropping of the bomb ended that … and all the pre-stages that went into that (preparing for the invasion) in WWII," Montanaro said.