Last Vet Standing: Tom Williams - The Beginnig - West Virginia Strong

Last Vet Standing: Tom Williams - The Beginning

I start with Tom Williams.  I've made a list, and set up interviews, but Tom is the first guy I go see.  He's on his porch swing watching the last of the summer days. From the looks of him, these are the last summer days he'll see.  There is a clear plastic tube which appears under the screen door, wraps behind the table, comes up Tom's chest, circles his head once and then goes into his nose.  It will be there, he has told me, for the rest of his life. Today he has finished the last of a series of twenty injections into his belly. They are supposed to get rid of a blood clot in Tom's lung, but the oxygen will have to remain.

"Funny," he says, "I got problems with my lungs and I haven't smoked a cigarette since they went to .25₵ a pack."

I'm a little nervous, I've left the tape recorder in the car and I'm just making small talk until I get my courage up. The weather, the view, the cars on the road. "Tom," I say at last, "I'm going to write a book about World War II veterans. I wonder if you'd help me."

Tom turns to look at me. His face pulls into a smile, his eyes suddenly warm. It has just occurred to me that not only do I want to hear the story of every vet in the state, but it's likely they want to tell me, or someone. I tell Tom I have to get the tape recorder out of the car. As soon as I step back onto the porch with the machine, he starts talking. Long before I even plug the thing in.

"I was with the 77th Anti-Aircraft, attached to the 7th Division of the 10th Army…" He's rattling off numbers and divisions like an algebra teacher on speed. I'm wandering around the porch looking for a place to plug my tape recorder in. I don't want to miss this, but I can't find an outlet. I'm so nervous that I figure he might die before I get the recorder plugged in. He won't, but I'm frantic. "Tom," I shove into the flow, "is there a plug out here?"

"A what?"

"An outlet?"

"No. We'll go inside." He picks up his oxygen tube and wraps it carefully around his hand, stands, and heads for the door. I follow him in. He settles into a chair and starts talking again, giving no indication where an outlet might be. He's at least as excited as I am. I find a socket, set up the tape, and we are rolling.

Tom's telling me about the bases he went to during his first days in the Army. It was March 1943 and Tom was mad about getting called up. He was 19 years old and had a job working for a construction company, doing core drilling for a dam. Tom says:

I was making good money! Best job I ever had in my life! Worked six days a week. My daddy was only making $60 every two weeks on the railroad. I was drawing $89 every Friday evening. I started out in the Army making $21 a month, and they took six and a half of that for insurance, and another dollar and a half for laundry. The rest is what you had left to do you for a month. Then you had to go buy toothpaste, toilet paper, and like that. Later, they raised it to $50 a month.

Glena, Tom's wife, joins us in the living room. She tells me that while Tom was in the Army he had two brothers and an uncle serving as well. His brother was a paratrooper. Tom looks at his wife and tells me how by 1943 he had his choice of girls because all the men older than he were already overseas, except the "Four F-ers." "And everybody hated the Four-F-ers," Glena adds, "accused them of all sorts of awful things. Faking illness, being cowards."

I went to Ranger school. Tom starts the war story again. Took me eight weeks. There were 138 of us went through, and we did it to get an extra five dollars a month. Took eight weeks, but I can kill a man in less than three seconds.

He's there in his recliner, wearing house shoes, and spitting into a can, breathing out of a tube, but I don't doubt for a second that he could get up and kill me in some miserable fashion. I ask Tom how he got called up, if he just got home from work one day and there was a letter from the Government? He says:

I come home at eleven o'clock one night and I knew something was wrong cause the lights was still on. There was a letter on the kitchen table saying:

Your friends and relatives have selected you to serve in the United States Military.


Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It's like I told some of 'em, if them boys had carried on like they did for the Vietnam War, like they do now, there wouldn't be no America today. I mean them Germans had the East Coast blockaded- they couldn't even get ships out of there. When the Jap subs tried to blow that oil refinery in the Pacific they pulled us out and put us on coastal artillery guns for three or four months. We had to test those guns every thirty days, send them shells twenty-five miles out into the water.

Anyway, I went to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, first. We got down there at Fort Thomas and we had to strip naked. All of us standin' there stark naked. Then they gave us our shots. We had to stand there with our hands on our hips and they shot you in both arms and in the backside. Some of them would get hit and they'd just pass right out. They'd have to carry them out.

When we were gettin' ready to go overseas we had to go down to the medics for short arm inspection. They looked at yer privates and what not, but when we were comin' back there was a bunch of nurses on their way to get inspected. Well, we weren't wearin' nothin' but our raincoats and the Sergeant passed back the word, 'When we meet the females, open yer raincoats.' Why, we got up to 'em and flashed 'em good. Them old girls didn't miss a beat, they just opened their coats right up, too! It wasn't indecent, everybody was into the spirit and you just went along with the crowd.

They didn't ask you nothin' when they started handin' you yer clothes. Never asked what size, but, by God, they fit. Only thing was, I got size twelve shoes and I wear ten and a half. I had to wear them until I found somebody to trade with.

And then we went to California. We went through Basic Training and then they gave us ten days off. I came back here, then went back to California. They took ten of the guys we'd trained with and sent them overseas. We kept training, all over California, trained for amphibious assaults by jumping off ships three stories high; hit that water with your helmet on, it felt like it would tear your head off when you hit. I don't know how far ya went down underwater with all that gear on, but you learned to survive. Then we went to Marysville, California, then back to Camp Cook, then a train ride to Seattle, then a boat to Hawaii.

I made it all the way to the rank of Sergeant in training, but when I found out we were going over to fight, I turned my stripes in. I didn't want to be in command. The Japs tried hard to kill officers and non-coms. Not me, buddy. If the Japs wanted to kill me they were going to have to hunt me down. And our own guys didn't like officers much either. A guy could get killed by his own men for being in charge. I knew it to happen. No, I didn't want none of that. I came home a Private First Class, and that was fine with me.

Hawaii was a staging area. We'd go out and fight and then come back, they called it 'going down under,' I think. We'd fight on some island and secure it, and then they'd send in troops to occupy it, then send us back to Hawaii to get replacements and new equipment. We went to Ulithi, came back, then we got ready to go Okinawa.

Suddenly it's 1945, the tape player has been on for fifteen minutes, Tom has been in the Army for eighteen months, the war's just about over and Tom is still telling me the barest of facts just slow enough for modern technology to record them. The whole Pacific War in twenty minutes or less. But when Tom says "Okinawa" his whole demeanor changes. He stops for a second, catches himself up through the oxygen tube, and looks off across the room, remembering. "Okinawa." Just saying it takes him there. He rings his hands and looks back at me.

We waterproofed everything and headed out. I don't know where we were, somewhere in the Pacific. Tom's style is changing; he's no longer rattling off place names and dates, but rather telling the story. Suddenly there's detail.

The water was like a mirror. You could see forever. The sea was so blue and smooth. The next morning there were so many ships you couldn't even see the water. It was the rendezvous point, I guess. We left there and went to Okinawa. We started the invasion of Okinawa at daybreak on Easter Morning of 1945. We pulled out on the 10th day of June. No bath, slept on the ground, knew a guy that didn't lie in a proper bed for twenty-five days. Just slept on the rock, or a pile of wood.

Never in all my life have I seen so many fleas and rats as on that island. You'd lift the trap on some old hole and the rats would be squirmin' around like maggots. We kept all the food in metal boxes, had to, if we wanted to keep the rats out. And the mosquitoes…We took quinine everyday for the 'squitoes, and three salt pills a day for the heat.

Nobody can tell me about war. I've been in artillery fire, navy fire, anything you can think of. I've been shelled for twenty-four hours a day, eighteen days straight. And all the while the ground just shook. When the shellin' was done you couldn't even walk right because you were so used to walking on shaking ground. No, I know about war. War is the rich man's game and the poor man's fight.

But you learned to survive. I knew that as long as I could keep the enemy in front of me I'd be OK. All I really had to call my own was my M-1, my dog tags, and a big knife the Army gave us. It was pretty long, had brass knuckles incase you got in real close, and it was weighted so you could throw it. I got a lot of use out that knife. After the war the Army took them all back up, I guess cause of the brass knuckles.

I had a best pal over there and we watched each other's back. I knew as long as I was with him nothin' was gonna get me from behind. And I watched his back. We survived 'cause of that. If you were going to survive Okinawa you had to have a real friend watching yer back. Couldn't nobody sneak up behind me.

Glena says: "I met Tom in 1948 and he really wasn't bothered by the war even then. The only thing he didn't like was having his back exposed. If we stopped on the street to talk to somebody Tom would back up against a tree or a building, took him years to get over not having someone to watch his back."

Okinawa was 120 miles long and 60 miles wide. The Japs had the whole island tunneled, like a wagon wheel. They could disappear right in front of you and then come up behind you. So, we'd fight all day long and then get pushed back each night. We'd dig in and set up tripwire flares. If you hit them, the whole place would light up. And then we'd take little tin cans and put a little gravel in them, tie them to the trip wire. That way we'd hear the cans rattle just before the flares went off and we'd know exactly where to shoot.

But them tunnels all had doors on them. And the Japs had everything they needed down there. They could live, sleep and eat down there. Didn’t have to come out if they didn't want to. But when they opened those doors, two of our bombers would fly up and "skip-bomb" gas tanks into the opening. The first airplane's gas tank would skip right through the door of the tunnel and then the next plane would fire his machine guns into the tank and the whole place would explode, just as red as you could imagine.

Besides the tunnels, there was caves all over the island too, and they hid out in them. Boy, we'd get up to those caves and unload our big machine guns into them, and then we'd shoot the flamethrowers down the hole.

There is no remorse in Tom's voice, no sorrow in his eyes, but no great joy either. I do not get the sense that Tom is glad he killed the Japanese, but rather that he denied them the chance to kill him.

Them Japs had a big gun, so big that it was on tracks, like a railroad car, and they could roll it in and out of one of those caves. They'd roll it out and blast ships way out in the water. Well, we had to stop it, but as soon as we'd get near the gun the Japs would roll it back into the cave and then shut these two huge steel doors. We tried everything against those doors, but we couldn't do nothin' to 'em. They'd just keep that gun inside until we quit shootin' at it.

Then somebody got this idea. We laid off those doors for awhile and sure enough the Japs wheeled that sucker back out. Oh we let 'em have it then. Everything we had! And they wheeled that gun right back inside. Then the Sea-Bees come up and welded those two doors shut! Boy that got 'em! Trapped that gun and them Japs inside!

Tom slaps his thigh. He's beaming again. The story is funny and Tom's mirth is infectious. Still, I keep thinking about the flamethrowers.

Another thing we had was what they called the 'Bouncing Betty.' It was a 500-pound bomb with a stem on it, looked like a huge hand grenade. Well, when that bomb dropped that stem would stick in the ground. When it was all the way in the dirt, that bomb went off and bits of jagged metal shrapnel would fly out just above the ground. That way the Japs could hardly get away from it. And we had tanks, too. Lots of times when the Japs saw one comin' they'd just up and run.

But, like I said, we was anti-aircraft. There was eight guys to each gun section, four to a battery. We had A, B, C, and D batteries, and then Headquarters. Each section towed a .40mm gun behind a half-ton truck. The truck itself had four .50 caliber machine guns on it. We could fire all four at once, and we kept them going almost all the time. The ammunition for the machine guns was stored in the floor of the truck. There was 18,000 rounds for each gun. The .40mm gun fired 120 shells per minute. When you wanted to fire, you'd have to raise the wheels so the gun sat on the ground, then drive these four pegs into the dirt. To aim it you'd pick out a target, like a plane, and then get it into the crosshairs. One guy would have to work the horizontal sight, another the vertical. Then you'd lead the plane about 5 degrees and let him fly into it. We could set up and fire in five seconds.

We always carried four barrels with us for each gun. The barrels would get so hot in a fight that they'd turn white-hot. We'd have to stick the tip of it in the salt water to keep it from warping. Basically, we had some giant wrenches and a huge pair of pliers. All you had to do was turn that barrel a half turn and she'd pop off, then stick the new one on, half a turn, and you're back in action. In the middle of a battle, the whole operation took three or four seconds.

I ask Tom if they ever got any enemy planes.

Ohhhh yea, yes sir, we got 'um. In fact, them Jap pilots carried a pistol we called the P-38. It was a big thing to get one for a souvenir. I had one for awhile. We shot down a plane and I ran right up to it, me and a buddy, and we climbed in and got those guns just before that plane caught fire. Someone stole it out of my duffel bag on the way home though.

We carried our ammunition in shell chests. Each chest held thirty to thirty-six rounds. Some of them were tracers; white, green, orange, red, and blue. Even though we were anti-aircraft, we'd shoot anything that got in front of us. With the phosphorus shells we could blow up a tank. One time there was a sniper way off up in a tree, it took us four shots, but the top of that tree came right off and we never had no more trouble out of that guy.

I like to think that I know something about World War II, and I want Tom to think that too, so I ask him if they had to have spotters to direct their fire when they shot at ground targets.

Spotters? Oh hell, we knew exactly where the enemy was-- Too damn close! If we were shootin' at him, we could see him.

I was tellin' you about those shell boxes though, well on a good day, when we could, we'd take the shells out of them shell boxes, fill the boxes with water and take a bath. Then we'd dry out the box and put the shells back.

The headquarters part of each section was in charge of communications, I did a lot of that work. I had an old crank phone I carried with me. The phone lines were just strung across the ground and when you wanted to make a call you had to splice into the line and make contact. When you were done, you patched the splice, waterproofed the whole thing, and moved on.

I also had to go out and look for cuts when the phones went dead. The line would get blown up, or run over, and I'd have to go and find where the trouble was, then patch it up. I'd just start up the line and every now and then call back to headquarters. When I got to a place and couldn't make contact, well, I knew the trouble was between me and headquarters, then I'd walk back until I found the trouble.

We stayed there on Okinawa after the fight and stockpiled equipment for the invasion of Japan. It was set for the eleventh day of November.

Again he pauses, breathes, remembers. This is what I'm looking for. I want to ask, "What did it feel like to be getting ready to invade Japan? Did guys lie awake at night sweating and vomiting out of fear? Or were you all cool, smoking Luckys and chatting it up about broads and beer?" But I'm too chicken to ask. Besides, I've asked a lot of dumb questions already. Tom goes back to the shooting dates and places at me.

We left on a boat and went to Inchon, Korea. The harbor was mined so we had to get some Jap officers to guide us through. The war was over now, we just had to get the Japs out of Korea. They made us MPs and said we'd be home by Christmas. We had enough points, but we had this dumb-ass Colonel who volunteered us to go to some other town, I don't remember the name, and then he went home in a month and we stayed in Korea.

We were sitting in a mess hall one night near Christmas when this Captain comes in, calls us all to attention, and asks us what we all want for Christmas. All of the sudden everyone is shouting "BEER! BEER!" I don't know where he got it, but he got each man a case of beer. A case for each man! Them Koreans sure had a mess to clean up the next morning!

We left there and came back into Seattle, then down to L.A. They had a meal for us there. It was the best meal you ever saw. Fresh milk, we never saw none of that. They had eggs, and steaks, and ham, and ice cream. They said you could eat as much as you want, take as much as you want, just don't come back again. We didn't have nothin' like all that at Okinawa. We had that powdered milk, dehydrated eggs, everything out of a can.

Now, once on Okinawa, this Navy officer come over, saw how we were eatin' and he invited us to his camp. They had steak, made their own ice-cream, and he let us have some, some of 'um raised cane about it, but that didn't stop us.

So from L.A. we got on a train to Indiana, then to Fort Daniels, and I was discharged on February the 11th, 1946. Thirty-five months to the day after I joined up.

I ain't seen none of them boys I fought with since. In fact, this one old boy from Kentucky got off the train when we stopped somewhere in Colorado. He bought up a whole bunch of liquor, got drunk, and then busted out every window on that train. The MPs got on the train in St. Louis, took him off, and I as far as I know nobody saw him again for a long time!

Glena points out a photograph of Tom hung on the wall. You really can't miss it, it's hung at eye level and facing the front door. You see it the moment you walk in. It is Tom sitting on a low stool in his Army uniform. It has pure 1940's color. His uniform is Boy Scout green and his cheeks are soft, rose pink. You'd think it was a Norman Rockwell, except that in one hand Tom has a drink and in the other a cigarette. The portrait above it is of Tom's mother. Tom says, looking at the picture:

Anyway, there was this song that come out during World War II called Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola. Well there I was in Honolulu drinking rum and Coca-Cola and I had that picture made.

Tom laughs here, his cheeks pushing way up toward his ears. He was twenty or twenty-one then, you can see him recalling that day. He's ten feet away from the picture, a continent and an ocean away from Honolulu, and half a century between it all, but not for Tom. There is nothing separating those two points in history for just that fleeting moment. Tom lets it go, the smile recedes, I notice the oxygen again.

Tom died January 11, 1999.

To read Bil's first "Last Vet Standing" interview with WWII Veteran Merle Martin click here

Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content click here. 

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