Clovis News

Valley veterans share their war stories

Nothing can simulate the fierce realities of war. And many who are sent to foreign lands to fight for America are hit with that harsh truth on their first missions.

William D. Holston can attest to that.

Holston, an Army Air Corps pilot, saw up-close how fleeting life can be on his first flight during World War II.

"We were on our target run and we picked up a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft shell," he said. "The waist gunner had one leg that was shot up terribly ... the other waist gunner ... was killed outright. His body was blown all apart; it was scattered throughout ... So, we had to cover that with a parachute and continue on our mission and return home."

Holston said they lost half of the 10-man crew after that flight. One man was killed and two were seriously wounded.

"The navigator and the tail gunner, after we got back, grounded themselves," Holston said. "They refused to fly anymore."

Holston's account of his combat experience is one of nearly 200 collected by students at California State University, Fresno, for the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project.

Many have similar stories of tragedy, witnessed just as they arrived on the front.

On this Memorial Day, The Bee presents the stories of eight of them who now call the Fresno area home:

William D. Holston, 89 Army Air Corps, World War II

Holston didn't have flight experience, but he joined the Army Air Corps anyway. He was part of the 307th Bomb Group of the 13th Air Force, also known as the Long Rangers. He trained for combat and ocean flying in Guadalcanal and flew in the South Pacific as a B-24 pilot.

Born in Georgia, he moved to California after he left the service and lives in Clovis.

Holston, who flew 42 missions, remembered the chaos of bombing runs:

"We were too busy to have anything going through our head. We were so busy watching for the approaching enemy aircraft. We could see them coming in and then when you would be watching them you could see their guns when they'd start firing, and you knew then they were firing at you. We would be under a squadron or a group of four to 16 planes and so we had to watch out for each other. You really didn't think about what was going on."

The basics -- food and death -- were never far away: "We had to have a meal on the plane before we drove to the target, because we'd be flying four to six hours before we got to the target and then we would have to return home after that. We'd have a couple loaves of bread that the mess hall provided, and a can of Vienna sausage or Spam, and a can of fruit. We were issued 2 ounces of whiskey after each mission. And some of us saved our whiskey up and bartered that for canned fruit from the mess hall and things of that sort. If we had a very serious mission, one that they thought would be hazardous, the fellas that were not on that mission would come 'round the night before and ask if we wanted to let them know where we kept our whiskey, so that they could pick that up before somebody else got it -- in case we didn't make it back."

-- Lauryn Moles

Elias Munoz, 62 Army, Vietnam

Munoz moved to California from Texas at the age of 6 or 7 and was drafted into the Army when he was 18. He served in Vietnam for one year with the 11th Bravo infantry unit. Munoz was injured in combat and received a Purple Heart.

After leaving the service, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service and the IRS and is now retired and living with his wife in Fresno.

He recalled the day he was wounded:

"We got closer and closer to the enemy. They were entrenched in the dirt with bamboo branches covering them up, so we couldn't see where the bullets were coming from until we got closer, maybe like 40 yards away, then we could see where they were coming from. During this time, a lot of my buddies were getting ... wounded and I was getting tired of that. I could be next, you know, so I got to do something. So me and this other buddy of mine, I forgot his name, I said, 'Hey, let's go to that left flank and see if we can do something -- finish this up quick.' So, we did. ... We went to the left flank and we were hiding behind this big stump of palm tree. We were shooting from there and I was checking it out, trying to figure out how many guys were still alive from the enemy ... So I stick half of my body out so I can shoot and see what was going on. At that time, one of the NVAs threw a grenade and got me on my hand. My buddy saw me, that I was bleeding, and here goes the medic right away. He comes, takes care of my wound and writes me up for a Purple Heart."

Daylight combat was harrowing, but Munoz recalled nighttime combat was worse:

"In nighttime, it's like in a different world. You're out in space. See, because you don't know the terrain. You don't know the land. Only the enemy, of course, they know all the stuff. We're like blind in the nighttime. ... You don't know what's going to pop up, who's up in the front there at any second, anytime."

The enemy was not always human:

"A big cobra. I had my own encounter. He was coming towards our bunker. We had settled down right there by the creek. We saw this big cobra coming towards us, so I told my buddies, 'Hey, you guys, I'll go to the back, some of us on the left and right flanks, and one of you guys chop his head off with a machete.' So that's what we did and we kept an eye open, make sure maybe the mother or the young baby snakes are coming behind them. There was no more coming, so that was good. So we continued with eating our meal."

-- Alaia Howell

Felix Morales, 63 Army, Vietnam

Morales, who had lived in Fresno since he was 18, was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1969. He suffered from shrapnel wounds in his arm while in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart. He is retired and lives in Fresno.

Morales recalled the sheer terror of his first combat:

"I never got to see the enemy. I got to see the bullets ricocheting off next to me on the rocks. It felt pretty scary. I'll never forget it because it took me awhile to actually get it through my mind that I was getting fired at before I dropped behind a rock. And I was a little uncomfortable and it so happens that there was already somebody there behind that rock and I dropped on top of this guy. And I'm going, 'Excuse me,' and I'm trying to apologize and I'm trying to get off of him and he holds me down and he says, 'It's OK, it's OK, don't get up.' Yeah, so we got up and started moving again."

Fighting in a foreign land required constant vigilance:

"In a sense, there was no front. You couldn't sweep an area and say, 'OK, it's ours now,' because as soon as you went past through they would circle around or hide and we'd go right over them. They used to have what they called spider holes, where they go down in, they had them all camouflaged. Basically, we could walk right past them and never see them."

Morales summed up what he thought about combat:

"Nothing really prepares you for it. There's a big difference from thinking about what you're going to do and then actually seeing the carnage of people torn apart by gunfire. It's a little worse when it's your own kind that get killed and torn apart."

He remembered an unforgettable person:

"One name that stays in mind was old Doc Rogers; he was one of our medics. Our medics used to go out with us in the field for half the tour. In other words, six months out of the year they [would] either serve us in a base camp, aid station or hospital. And the other six months, they would go out with us in the field. And Doc Rogers was going out on his last mission. ... And he was all excited before we went out, and he ended up getting killed on his last mission. That was pretty sad. And the irony of the thing is that, I don't know why, but it seemed like most of the fatalities or the badly injured happened to people who were either new in the country or short-timers, what we called them, people who were getting close to finishing their tours."

-- Ciara Norton

Carolyn H. Tanaka, 75 Army Nurse Corps, Vietnam

Tanaka was living near Pismo Beach and in first grade when she and her family were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz. She lived in the camp for three years during World War II. She later became a registered nurse and, after eight years, decided to serve in Vietnam.

After Vietnam, she returned to Fresno and was head nurse in the emergency room at Fresno General Hospital (later known as University Medical Center) until she retired 32 years later.

Tanaka talked about what she would do for patients in the Army field hospital who knew they were going to die:

We "stayed there and held their hands and listened to them tell us about their families and their loved ones at home. If they asked, we promised them we would write to their mothers and tell them how brave they were at the end ... I wrote many letters home for the soldiers that asked me to write to their mothers."

She recalled the patients she cared for and the dedication of the nurses: "We took care of many soldiers with their faces messed up and their heads half gone off, you know, blown away. It was a very difficult thing for my young nurses to deal with, that kind of trauma. What we see in stateside, we might see a gunshot wound in the emergency room, but nothing like the injuries that we see in Vietnam. And, so, I was just totally amazed with how well they coped ... I didn't have one nurse that jumped ship and went home. They all served their time in Vietnam and did very well."

-- Nicole Smeltzer

Charles Thomas Daniel, 86 Army, World War II

The Army opened Daniel's eyes to the world. He left Merced at the age of 18 and was shipped to England and then Belgium, where he found himself in the Battle of the Bulge. He will never forget Dec. 16, 1944, when the German army closed in on American troops and Daniel was captured. He endured frostbite and malnutrition before he was liberated.

Daniel, a widower, now lives in Merced.

He remembered the pandemonium surrounding the Battle of the Bulge:

"We didn't know at the time the Germans had some MPs that could speak English. They had some of our American Jeeps with our insignias all on them. And they were driving around spotting every gun position. And during World War II, you didn't have the walkie-talkies like you do now. You had to string phone wires in the trees or on the ground or wherever. They knew where all those key places was. And so an hour before they attacked, about two o'clock in the morning of December the 16th, they went through and started cutting a lot of that, and then all of a sudden the artillery and everything cut loose on them. And the guys was sleeping and the few guys on guard they tried to call and see what was going on and they couldn't get in nowhere because MPs had cut all the communication. It was chaos."

After their capture, Daniel and other POWs were crammed into boxcars:

"It was cold -- freezing. Ten or 15 below zero. And all we had was just our clothing on. And there wasn't enough room in there for us to sit down or lay down. You'd kind of have to hover together, lean against the walls -- you'd get up and kick the walls to keep your feet from freezing -- a lot of guys got frostbite. Even lost some of their feet. And I've had damage on mine ever since I was over there."

He observed the Nazi death camps firsthand:

"They had their gas furnaces which you could always tell when they was burning bodies. The smell that was in the air -- if you was downwind from it ... And this one day we was marching out. We started to go through this place and our guards stopped and told us to go back, get behind the buildings. The SS came in there and started hollering, running up the stairs -- old people, kids, whatever -- pushing them, shoving them down the stairs. Even throwing them small kids over the banisters -- got them all down there in the middle -- gave the word and mowed them down. They were Jewish people. They drove off and left them.

"They used horse-driven wagons with dead Jewish bodies stacked like wood across ways. Men, women, children, and it was always they never had clothes on. The [German] guy get on one side, get a arm and a leg and a guy on the other side, throw them into those places. This one time -- I don't know if it was a man or a woman -- they was, you know, jumping and bucking ... Still alive, they throwed him in the furnace."

-- Katherine Ayala

Richard Rey, 58 Army, Vietnam

At just 17 years old, Rey had not even finished high school when he tried to join the Marines, as his older brother had done. He recalled he was told he was too tall and skinny. Rey joined the Army instead and was sent to Vietnam in October 1970.

After his foot, leg and arm were injured by a booby trap, Rey was sent home to Madera where he worked for Madera Glass Plant for 32 years.

Rey recounted his arrival in Vietnam:

"When I got to Vietnam it was at night ... as soon as they opened the door there was a heat, a heat wave hit us, and a smell. Oh! It smelled like pee. That's what it smelled like. And we were walking down the steps off the [airplane and] there's a Vietnam guy under the airplane and he's flipping us off. We just left him alone. But that was my first impression about Vietnam: What the hell?"

Reality hit Rey when he found himself in combat:

"My worst combat experience was ... called the Snake Patrol. ... where you stay up all night and just look -- see if you see any movements. Well, we went and we were in the rice paddies area and there's some dunes. ... Well, we were up there and we made ourselves comfortable ... two of us laying back to back and just whispering. And then that's when the sergeant goes, 'OK, cut it off. Keep your eyes open.' And the next thing you know ... ka-boom! That was scary. I mean all you saw was a flash and then a big old boom and then they fired at this jungle area and it had trees and it had vines everywhere. I mean it was so thick that you don't think nobody could fit in there, but yeah, they were in there. They threw a couple grenades at us and we fired back at them and since they already knew our position, the sergeant said, 'Let's go back' ... I think that's when I really realized I was in a war."

-- Erica Sanchez

Ben Hagans, 81 Army, World War II

Hagans grew up in the Philippines and was just a boy when Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941. His father immediately ushered him into the Philippines army, figuring he would be safer than as a civilian when the Japanese invaded. But he was captured within months when the Philippines fell, and spent three years as a POW, enduring inhumane treatment and near starvation. He was liberated in April 1945.

He is retired and lives in Exeter.

The teenager froze the first time he encountered a Japanese soldier:

"We came to this clearing and no more than 50 feet in front of me was this Jap soldier. And I looked at him and he looked at me and I got buck fever -- I couldn't do anything. I couldn't bring my rifle up. 'Wow, this is the enemy.' And same thing must have happened to him. I must've been the first American that he'd ever seen. And I could hear the sergeant about 15 feet away -- 'shoot him, shoot him, shoot him.' I heard him; I couldn't do it. Of course, he started swearing and he shot him and killed him. So I went over there and I searched him. There were some papers, but I got his dog tags and to this day I still have his dog tags."

Even as a POW, there were days that brought Hagans a laugh:

"We'd broken into their storeroom -- we found some of these 37-millimeter shells ... One of the fellows says, 'I know what we're going to do with these things.' We had outhouses, so did the Japs. So he picked about six or seven of us and he says, 'Most of you are going to be lookouts to make sure ...' He says, 'I want you next to me to tap me in case anything happens ... We're going to take this shell ... We're going to activate it ... I want you to find some string ... We're going to lower it in this outhouse.' ... That night at tenko, which is roll call -- boom! This outhouse blew up and there came this Jap soldier -- why it didn't kill him, I have no idea, but it literally blew the pants off of him and he's running around screaming ... We didn't get food that night and the next morning ... but they let it go at that."

Hagans recalled the first night of liberation after he had been starved as a POW:

The U.S. Army "opened up this kitchen. I had my coconut shell [a makeshift bowl] with a wire on it. And the first thing that was there was oatmeal. Filled it up. I got one of those Army plates. I got two pieces of toast, got a piece of ham, got four pieces of bacon, scrambled eggs, an orange, an apple, coffee, and canned milk, and two cookies. I gorged myself. I went through that line nine times. A bunch of us did. And got sick from overeating ... When I enlisted in the Army on Dec. 9, I weighed 105 pounds ... The day after we were liberated, I weighed 56 pounds."

-- Hannah Richardson

Charles F. Noll, 87 Navy, World War II

Noll dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy, believing that was his only chance to leave Lehighton, Pa. He became a parachute-rigger and was in combat missions as a turret-gunner and radio operator.

After the war, he moved to Fresno, where he and his wife have lived for the past 50 years.

Aircraft carrier landings could be horrifying, he said:

"The thing that sticks out in my mind was the scariest thing, and that was landing on that little carrier. Because you would be going this way, and you'd see the carrier down there going that way and they'd come around this way. Pretty soon you can't see anything, and you look down and you can see the wake, the ship's wake starts. Then, all of a sudden, the ship goes by and everything. It happens in seconds. It's just bang, crash, smash, boom. You're there. That's the end of it. Yeah, if you don't catch that cable, boy, you're finished."

Once his plane sustained critical damage, preventing the lowering of the tail hook, essential to catch the cable during carrier landings:

"We got hit one time and it knocked out some hydraulic lines. We get back to the ship and couldn't get the hook down; the hydraulic line was out so we couldn't get the damn hook down and they were going to make us land in the water. And I knew that wasn't a good plan for us. Eventually, we stayed up and fooled around awhile and we had a good pilot; he got [the hook] down with some manipulations, and we got down on the ship."

-- Daniel Ward