By Pam Dudding
As two important patriotic holidays have passed, I’d like to share with you some stories I had the honor of listening to as I personally spoke with Veterans, remembering World War II and D-Day.
First, I will say, none spoke of regret, and all said they would do it all over again, to serve our United States of America.
Marion Noel, from Eagle Rock in Botetourt County and a World War II Veteran, served in the Navy. His family members that served were two brothers in “career Navy,” his brother-in-law and his first cousin. He served from 1943 to 1946.
As he sat at the 78th Anniversary of D-Day celebration in Bedford, along with his son, who also is a Navy Veteran, he quietly shared, “D-Day doesn’t mean as much to me as it does to some of the Vets here today and those that served in D-day. I was in the Navy in the Pacific, and this is to be remembered, and I will attend each year, as long as I can.”
Noel said that he enlisted because the war was on and “there was little else to do. I had just gotten out of high school and graduated, and the next year I was on my way to boot camp in New York.”
Noel was on the landing craft, and it was the first large ship to go in on what he calls “D-plus 1” (a day after D-day).
“We served from there to different places in the Pacific, went to the Philippines to load up to make an invasion of Japan,” he shared. “We went back and could not go to Japan until after the atomic bomb had been dropped as it had to clear out completely before we could go in. But we did go in with lots of support from other military branches.”
However, he had no idea that part of his mission would be a historic memory as he told his “claim to fame” story.
“The type of ship that I was on was amphibious. It could also go up to the beach, open the doors and let the equipment out. We landed on the little island of Iwo Jima on D-plus 1. On D-plus 4, we were going back-and-forth. They needed a large flag to put on top of the mountain, so they came to our ship because we were the closest to the mountain. So, we were the ones that furnished the flag that was in the famous raising of the flag of Iwo Jima.”
He continued with a slight grin, “Yes, this brings me back to a little young whipper snapper in the Navy that was on the ship living there.
“We did not think that flag will become iconic at the time; not even when the photographer made the picture,” Noel said. “We did not know it was gonna be made famous.”
I overheard one gentleman ask him what he ate when he first got home. Noel replied, “There weren’t any fast food then, so I had a hamburger that was homemade!”
When Noel came out of the service, he took on odd jobs here and there until he was hired at the Post Office. “I worked 35 years there, so I guess you could say, I stayed with Uncle Sam for a lifetime!” he added with a smile.
Noel’s son, Donnie, served in the Navy from 1969 until 1972. “Joining the Navy was something that was in me. Dad served the Navy and his two brothers, his brother-in-law and his first cousin, so I figured they must know something that I don’t,” Donnie shared. “Besides that, I did not feel like digging a fox hole in a rice paddy in Vietnam.”
Noel added, “He was a radio talker, the one who wore the Darth Vader helmet.”
Donnie said he was a Motor Mac, or an MMM – a motor machinist mate.
“Our ship had big diesel engines or steam turbines and I stayed in the engine room while we were underway until we got to general quarters and then I was called to top side with a 20 mm gun on the battle station,” he added.
He went to the Mediterranean twice, Caribbean and also off the coast of the U.S. out of Norfolk onto the USS Forrestal, “the ship that had been battle worn in Vietnam where there was a loss of 134 men,” he said.
“It had gone to the yards and had been refurbished and I got on about a month before it came out of the yards,” Donnie noted.
Noel added that the younger generation needs to know our history, adding, “We need to let them know what our ancestors went through so they can have a memory today.”
Later that day, I sat near Noel at the eating post. The 29th Division Band was playing, and the 97-year-old Noel stood up to dance. I joined him and we had a grand time. Needless to say, he danced for another 20 minutes, enjoying the day, as other ladies decided to dance with him as well.
At almost 98 years of age, John Eakin , from Catawba on Blacksburg Road, shared that he served from 1944 to 1945 in the 5th Army. When I told him I was from Craig, he smiled and asked with a big grin, “Is that in the United States?” We Laughed together.
Though the music was loud, I tried desperately to hear his stories. He asked me if I knew the old game warden in Craig, John Eakin.
“Ralph the state trooper was his brother,” he said. I met him on top of Potts Mountain when I was deer hunting.” He explained that the trooper approached him while hunting and asked him his name and he told him John Eakin.
“Well, I’ve been aiming to take somebody in all day!”” Eakin shared with a grin. “I asked him what for and he said he didn’t believe I was John Aiken (I didn’t know that was his name too). So, I pulled out my license and showed it to him and he laughed. From that day on we became good friends. He’s since passed.”
Eakin said he had a lot of fox hole stories and proceeded, “Once we had to go over a mountain on a narrow trail with mines and booby traps on each side at dark, then down the mountain about 300 yards, through a corn field and into a hole about waist high where machinery was set up with two hand grenades around the hole and a few other things. There was two of us that did it all the time. We would take turns sleeping two-hour shifts. I was supposed to be sleeping and I woke up early and he was asleep too! Patrols were coming through, but we made it ok.”
“Another time I was down there, and we were supposed to get off and get over the mountain before daylight. We had to walk through the cornfield and we were late getting out. It was getting daylight. I thought… oh we’re in trouble… and about that time they opened up machine guns on us!” Eakin continued. “They mowed those corn stocks down all around us as we zigzagged away through and ran as hard as we could. We made it over the mountain, and they didn’t get us, but it sure did scarce us.”
He added that one other time, there was a machine gun left in the hole for them but when the boy went there it was gone. “The Germans got it,” he said. As I walked away, allowing others to speak with him who were in line, he sweetly encouraged me to come visit him some time.
From Hamill, West Virginia, Bob Vandelinde served in Korea from 1950 to 1951. He now lives at Smith Mountain Lake. I shared with him that I was born in West Virginia also, and he quickly exclaimed with the biggest smile, “Well, that makes us cousins doesn’t it!? Guess we have the same DNA and dental records!” We laughed.
He spoke of some young veterans who had never seen such death and war as D-day. “No wonder some could not handle it,” he shared with deep emotion in his voice.
He shared a little bit of a story of one young veteran who was crawling through enemy mines. “The guy in front of him was hit!” Vandelinde said. “I will never forget the look on that guy’s face of surprise and resignation.”
Many of us have heard stories of our veterans who fought with broken bones, bleeding to death from being shot, parachuting on bad terrain being shot down from trees, and sadly our captured POWs who suffered great torture.
Those of us in the USA have such a privilege to live in this freedom that the blood of our military men and women provided. Our lives of enjoying TV, cell phones, vacations, and eating out, etc. came and continuously come at a huge and priceless cost.
May I suggest you always thank any military person you may meet. You never know the pains of their story, even behind their smile and laughter.