God bless Wallace Berry, and other soldiers’ stories
I was born on July 29, 1941 in Amboy, Ill., a small Midwestern town of 2,000 mostly straightforward and happy souls comfortably isolated in the center of the country, oblivious to the rest of the world. War would soon change all that, but I was too young then to realize how.
In fact, my first memory of World War II came near its end. People were gathering in the streets and intersections of Amboy because they’d heard of Japan’s offer to surrender, and my mother took me outside to see. It was the night of Aug. 10, 1945. I vaguely recall that people seemed subdued — adults talked through smiles, children were half asleep.
The big celebrations — the drums and bugles and speeches — came a few days later, when Japan’s surrender was formally announced, marking the official end of World War II. Then, after the jubilation and joy, people returned to work, because work is what they did.
Years later, I would gather up stories of the war years from my family.
Both of my uncles joined the Marines immediately after Pearl Harbor. Ed was 19; John, 18. They would end up with very different experiences.
On their first day in boot camp they were one behind the other in a long line of new soldiers getting “shots” — inoculations to prevent yellow fever, smallpox, typhus, and several other diseases. The method then was to walk between “medics” on both sides of the line who would jab large needles into each arm.
The single line soon buckled, as recruits succumbed to the pain of the jabs or the heat. A second line was formed to speed things up, but more “medics” were needed. John was given a syringe and an orange, and told to practice. After about two minutes of jabbing the fruit he was declared “a medic in good standing,” and was ordered to start jabbing his fellow recruits. For the rest of the war, John remained in California, administering shots — though he never got any of his own. Later, he was a steel mill worker and a good one.
Ed was in the invasion of the first Pacific island to be liberated, and fought in most every other island campaign during the war. He was on a troop ship, preparing to invade Japan, when President Truman decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war Ed was a bricklayer and a good one — and to him, Harry Truman was a god.
But Ed said little about the war and nothing about combat. That was true of many other veterans of the fighting: Only after they reached their late 70s and early 80s could they bring themselves to tell what they’d endured. Ed died at 72, too young to give his account.
My cousin Wallace Berry was 16 years old when I was born. Wallace lied about his age, joined the Navy and was killed in the Philippines. He is buried over there. He was the only child of my Aunt Freda. I have a picture of Wallace in his sailor’s uniform; he’s posed in front of a crude nautical background that looks as if it were painted by a not-so-talented 10 year old. No one knew much about Wallace — including Wallace himself, I suppose — because he lived only 17 years.
After Wallace was killed, Aunt Freda (in a time before “divorce”) divorced her husband and moved (in a time when single women stayed close to family) to California where she worked in a defense plant. After the war ended she stayed in California and became a waitress. She lived to be 93 and never much (if ever) again talked about the war or Wallace. She was a striking woman, with beautiful long-and-thick red-auburn hair.
My father, Ray “Razz Matazz” Bybee, was married with two children when the war broke out. He was too old to be drafted, so he volunteered! Only a week into boot camp he fell ill and spent the next six weeks in a military hospital where they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) figure out what was wrong. So they sent him home and wiped his slate clean — no military record notes that he had ever been there.
Once home, civilian doctors immediately found stomach ulcers, cut him nearly in half, and removed the ulcers — at no small cost. It would take Ray seven years to pay off the medical bills at $2 a week. Forever after, he would claim that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the Antichrist.
God bless ’em all — especially Wallace Berry. — Doug Bybee
Bybee is a retired state-government employee in Springfield, Ill., and columnist. He is currently writing a book about his memories for his grandchildren. “It’s not really difficult,” he says, “for I have saved up words all my life – where once I put ’em in a jar, I now put ’em inside a machine.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.