Wild Bill Begley survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp for more than three years by eating snakes, lizards and monkeys.
“We had a joke: If it eats or crawls, we eat it,” said Begley, a World War II veteran.
The Fresno man and his fellow prisoners of war were often on the verge of starvation. Thousands died on the infamous 60-mile Bataan Death March in 1942.
Yet, somehow, Begley lived to tell about it. After the war, he continued his career with the Army Air Corps and was part of a team that helped develop the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
Begley’s story is one of 88 recorded by students at California State University, Fresno, for the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project. The men and women interviewed — veterans from World War II up through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — included foot soldiers, a blimp pilot, a sonar operator and a code intercepter.
In the years following the wars, they blended back into society and worked in professions that included teacher, park ranger, librarian and salesman. But they always carried with them the memories of their days serving their country.
On this Memorial Day, The Bee presents the stories of eight of them who call Fresno home:
Wild Bill Begley, 88
Army Air Corps, WWII
Begley (Wild Bill is his legal name) enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was sent to the Philippines just days before the Japanese invasion. He survived the Bataan Death March and more than three years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
“We got beat and they used us for slave labor. And during the march out of Bataan, on the first day, we lost about approximately 1,500 personnel. And the second day after they had us in the prison camp, we lost about that much again. And from then on, we were in bad shape.
“We were starving and we didn’t have very many clothes. … Bad situation. The thing about it is, the American — the average American — is innovative and we can contend with a lot of things, unexpectedly and purposely. Like, guys used to — they’d get a blanket and make a suit of clothes out of them.”
Begley talked about one particular atrocity:
“I was on detail in a prison camp in Mukden, Manchuria. For some reason or other, I got separated from detail. I don’t know if I did it deliberately or accidentally. I was just curious. I went to a barracks — half covered in sod, and the other half in the ground. That way it made it warmer and they didn’t have to heat it. Nevertheless, I opened this barracks. I looked in there and I was surprised. They had all the — I’d say, about a hundred more bodies of dead American servicemen — and they were naked. And they had a tag on their big toe to identify them. And this was during the winter, so they didn’t deteriorate as fast. … But I saw all these guys stacked up there. They had marks on them — I mean — tags on the toes. And according to the Geneva Conference, they were supposed to be humanitarian — treat us. But they didn’t.”
-- Interviewed by Anna Jacobsen
William Crumpacker, 86
Crumpacker joined the Marines at age 18 and fought in three major Pacific battles: Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian. Twice wounded, he was left with one arm that was 2 inches shorter than the other. After the war, he taught elementary school in Fresno.
He recalled the landing at Tarawa, a 1943 campaign that cost the lives of 1,085 Marines:
“They were firing at us from the pier. They were firing at us from the island. … I thought, ‘My God, the Marine Corps just wants to see a suicide committed for everybody.’ And then what happened was, they called in the dive bombers, our dive bombers … and half the bombs missed and landed among the American Marines. It was just — you couldn’t believe it — I get out on the reef and the water was about up to my chest. And you wouldn’t believe what I was worried about. I didn’t want my cigarettes to get wet. I was in total shock.
“Then, guys were going down. My lieutenant went down. I guess this was like “Saving Private Ryan” or something. I don’t go to war movies. But the water is turning red, and I thought, ‘I might not need any cigarettes pretty quick.’ ”
Crumpacker talked about a serious injury he suffered on Tinian in 1944:
“Tinian wasn’t much of a battle at all. We didn’t do much of anything for four or five days … and we weren’t even on the front lines. Either a mortar shell or a light artillery shell dropped in and got me, got my arm. I went down, my helmet fell off upside-down and there was probably 2 inches of blood in the helmet, just from the flash, and my head was ringing. … This upper arm is about 2 inches shorter than this upper arm. Yeah, it just blew hell out of this arm.”
— Interviewed by Daniel Ward
Patrick Douhan, 87
Douhan joined the Navy in 1942 and served as a sonar operator in the South Pacific. He was onboard the USS Hull when it capsized in Typhoon Cobra. After the war, he came home and worked in the agriculture business. Douhan now volunteers as a bugler for the Madera chapter of the VFW.
He recalled when the typhoon hit in December 1944:
“When I came out of the hatch, I didn’t have my life jacket. There was a spare life jacket tied to a gun. Somebody up there (pointing up) put it on for me. I had a praying mother. I slipped that life jacket on and was swept midship. The ship was over on its side then. There were people in the water and everything else.”
Douhan described the harrowing aftermath:
“During the night, something hit me right in the neck. … Of course, you know, you’re in shark and barracuda water out there. So it hit me and I reached around and it was a broom — how it got there, it was probably from around the wreckage someplace. But you know, somebody put that there for a reason. If you’re hanging in the water for hours, your legs and feet get pretty numb. I was able to hold that broom … and rest my feet on the shoulder of the broom.
“Well, I was there about midnight, and the storm had calmed down … I saw this little light and I yelled at it. They said, ‘Who is it?’ and I said, ‘Pat!’ Well, it was some of my shipmates on this life raft. … the bottom of it was broken and we didn’t have any food or water on it. … So they pulled me into it, and there were 12, 14 guys packed in that thing. “Well, the first thing next morning, dorsal fins — 12- and 14-foot sharks circling us. And they make passes. They could take our legs any time, if they wanted. They would make passes like that at us all the time. A couple of guys died from drinking salt water, and we let them go. The sharks tore up one guy’s arm pretty bad. And, you know, we got a little bit on the nutty side at times. Some of the guys really wanted out. One guy got out and swam around — and the shark tore his arm up. But we got him back in and wrapped it up with some of our clothes.”
After hours in the treacherous waters, Douhan and his shipmates were rescued:
“These two fighter planes came over, but a man down in the water looks about as big as your thumb — or a group does. Our hearts just sunk because they went over. And we figured they didn’t see us, but, boy, they banked and came right down at water level and made their wings wiggle, and we knew we had been saved.”
— Interviewed by Kelly Mason
Hilda Johnson, 91
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, WWII
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnson joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps) in 1942. She did public relations work, such as recruiting and attending bond rallies. After the war, she worked for 18 years as a library technician at the Clovis Unified School District office.
“When I first joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, we were absolutely forbidden to do any kind of combat. In fact, in all the time I was in the service … we were told never, ever to be caught holding a gun in your hand because we were not combat soldiers. … We were new to the Army. We were trying to prove to the government that we could do a job.”
Johnson recalled when the women’s program was restructured:
“When we changed from the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps to the Women’s Army Corps, we had to be sworn in all over again. I was out on the road. I was down in Hudson, N.Y. And when I got into the office they were like, ‘You’re finally here!’ The mayor was there and a general and the newspaper reporter — they were waiting for me to get there. They said we’re going to be sworn in again into the Women’s Army Corps. I said, ‘I’m not going in.’ I had made up my mind to go over to the nurses. You were still a part of the Army, but you went to the hospital to work as a nurse.
“They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘But I already made up my mind and I’m not going to change.’ The reporter already had the article written up about us all joining, all together as one. He said, ‘I already got my article written up. You have to do it.’ I said no. Then they kept yelling at me … so finally I said OK, and was sworn into the Women’s Army Corps.”
She talked about her brief modeling career with the Army:
“Well, when they got ready to adopt a new uniform, they got this uniform shipped to my department and they had instruction to have me wear this uniform for five days out in public and to ask what people’s opinion was, then send it to Washington. So I put on this dress, which was an off-white, [silk] material, short sleeves, and we had a hat that matched. So I went to as many places that I could be seen — maybe a bar at night, but I didn’t stay long. Just long enough to get them to ask what the uniform was, and I would ask them what they thought then hurry to my hotel to write it down and send it to Washington. … I was later told that only six women wore that uniform, and I was one of the six.”
— Interviewed by Ashley Hampton
Penny Mirigian, 88
Navy WAVES, WWII
Mirigian shocked her parents when she joined the Navy WAVES while a senior at what was then called Fresno State College, during World War II. Her job in the military was to intercept Japanese codes. After leaving the service, Mirigian finished her degree and taught for 23 years.
She talked about the difficulty she had breaking the news to her parents:
“So when we were driving home in the car … I told my dad that I had something to say. He said ‘what.’ I said I’ve done something, I signed up for the military. He didn’t say anything for a couple of miles. Then he said, ‘Have you told your mother?’ I said no, I’m afraid. I want you to help me tell her. He said, ‘Well, all I can advise you is, remember how your mother and I brought you up.’
“My father had been in the military. He was in World War I. So at that time, if there was a woman around in the military, it was assumed she would be a bad woman. Not that she was, but there were prostitutes, I’m sure, following the servicemen, but that’s another story. So we go home to tell my mother and my grandparents, and of course they said, ‘Oh! You’re going to turn into a street girl.’ They were pretty upset about that. I said ‘No, I’m not.’ ” Knowing a second language — Armenian — and having an ear for music led to Mirigian’s assignment as a code interceptor. She recalled the secrecy and the stress of the job:
“So I was put in the school to learn and train in Japanese. Now, we also had to vow that we would not tell anybody. They said, ‘You don’t tell anybody what you’re doing, not even your folks, not your closest friends. You keep it secret. If they ask you what you do, you said, ‘I’m a radio operator. I’m learning how to do code.’
“A lot of the girls went code crazy. Because we had the sound of the code in our heads and if you hear that 8 to 10 hours a day every day, you can go crazy until you get used to it. Girls had just broke down mentally and they’d have to go to the hospital and they’d come back. I went through that for a while. I just thought, I can’t stand this anymore, I’m going crazy. … I think 99% go through that period when they think they’re going to go crazy.
“And they give you rest and medicine, but then you go back. They won’t let you leave because you know too much. You know the code of the enemy. But you’re doing something positive. We were born and raised patriotic. We were doing something for our country.”
— Interviewed by Megan Morales
Don Potts, 86
Potts was a blimp pilot stationed at Guantanamo Bay, escorting convoys of ships in the Atlantic and protecting them against German submarines. After the war, he worked as an insurance agent, seasonal park ranger and as a school administrator.
Potts recalled a pet name the crew had for the blimps, which were kept in hangars at night:
“As the evening cooled down, the helium would cool down and contract, so you had to pump air in to keep the shape of the blimp. And, of course, if you put too much air in, it had a valve … and they’d sit there and sound like they were letting gas go all night long. So the nickname of ‘poopie bag,’ that’s where it came from.
“It took, generally, two pilots to fly — the command pilot would use the elevator, and we’d have another person actually on the rudder to control that. They’re rather difficult to control … a lot of people got seasick in them.” What were you to do if you came across an enemy sub?
“You’d make a pass, drop your bombs, and move out of the area and call in help if there were any service ships to go in … I don’t believe there was ever a ship that was torpedoed while they were being escorted by a blimp. They have a pretty good record on that.”
But it could be a dangerous job:
“I was involved in one crash: We came back into Guantanamo one night and we were landing, and a gust of wind caught us and blew us up — we were already down on the ground. We had the ground crew that already had us down on the ground and were hanging on. A gust of wind caught us, carried us up over another blimp, and we looked down and saw the shadow of three fellows hanging on our handrail. So we immediately put the thing in a dive and dove right back down the runway and crashed, and got the three fellows off. One was pretty badly injured. The other two were fine. But in the process, we tore the wheel off of the blimp and did quite a bit of damage to the car.”
— Interviewed by Mike Eiman
Vern Schmidt, 84
Schmidt, still a teenager, was pulled out of basic training early and sent to Europe during the Battle of the Bulge. When the war ended, he worked as a salesman at a farming equipment company for 42 years.
Along with the fierce battles he saw as the Allies advanced into Nazi Germany, he recounted a heartwarming story:
“In our quest for moving east, we seldom found any civilians living in any homes. They’d been evacuated by the order of the local mayor for their own safety. We came into the first home that had civilians in it and normally our way of making sure we were safe or [that] we wouldn’t have any problems was to toss a grenade in the house first.
“This particular house for some unknown reason — and I can only credit it to my humble belief in God, He’s in control — we entered this home without firing a shot. We went inside and found nobody on the ground floor. But there was a cellar and my sergeant walked down the stairs, carrying his M-1. As he walked down the stairs, not knowing what he was going to face, he found 25 civilians … they were sitting on the floor, their eyes were as big as saucers, wondering what in the world is going to happen.
“My sergeant stood there. He hardly knew what to say, but as he saw all these people that were anywhere from 60 years old down to little kids, he [noticed] a crucifix hanging on the wall and he just stopped and looked and he [asked], ‘Are you Catholics?’ The senior man of the house … [answered] ‘Yes, we’re Catholic.’ My sergeant reached in his field jacket and pulled out a rosary and held it up and says, ‘I’m Catholic, too.’ “And just that meeting, seeing the crucifix, and what he said and holding up that rosary seemed to put an immediate bond with us and those civilians. They were told we would kill them. That’s what they were told, and they saw something different.”
— Interviewed by Kimberly Sheard
James E. Wulf, 63
Army, Vietnam War
Wulf was drafted in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. He served with the elite “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division. About four months into his 12-month tour, he was hit by bullets and shrapnel while in combat as an M-60 machine gunner. Later, while in the Reserves, he was an Army bugler, primarily playing taps at the funerals of 2,138 fallen servicemen and veterans. Wulf was an entrepreneur, owning several small businesses, in civilian life.
He recalled his first impression when arriving in Vietnam in 1970:
“I flew into Cam Ranh Bay, and as I was flying in I thought it was beautiful. It was almost like the tram ride at Disneyland, when you look down and all the water is so clear and pretty. That was my first impression of Southeast Asia … how beautiful it was. Then the reality set in when two F-4 fighters, set up for battle, pulled up on each side of us and escorted us in, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Uh-oh, the seriousness is hitting.’ ”
Wulf described his first experience in combat:
“Well, it wasn’t practice anymore. There was one guy killed and another guy wounded, and that brought me to the reality of how this stuff is — and can tear a human body up — and what was really going on out there … that was my first experience with real bullets — real projectiles flying around me and over me and quite closely. They sound like a whip snapping as they go by you, so you know, that’s pretty close. It’s quite an eye-opener.”
Wulf was struck by the intensity of warfare:
“There is no situation that I know of that is any more tense than sitting there and knowing that you’re trying to hunt down the enemy and kill him and he’s trying to hunt you down and kill you, too, until your governments come to an agreement that you don’t have to kill each other anymore. I guess that’s what I got out of it. But it was extremely brutal and very violent and I’ve always told everybody that asked me that I think it was the biggest gang fight on the face of the Earth at the time.”
Playing taps at military funerals required strong composure, Wulf said:
“I was there to do a job, and I did a very emotional job, and the last person to be breaking down was me. So basically I approached it as a profession, and I did it the best I could, just like I did everything else in the military.”
— Inteviewed by Joshua Shirley