VJ Day Anniversary: Local veterans share their WWII stories

09/02/2015 5:07 AM |

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Sept. 2, 1945. The day millions of people had been waiting for since the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was Victory over Japan Day, commonly referred to as VJ Day. Japan had officially surrendered. After a total of nearly 36 million casualties in the Pacific, more than 111,000 of them Americans, and two atomic bombs, the Japanese accepted the Potsdam Declaration.

The war was finally over.

Celebrations broke out all across the world as people welcomed home loved ones who had spent years in the military.

Now, 70 years after the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was formally signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, three local veterans reflect on their service in the Pacific Campaign.


Related: How a Riverhead WWII veteran earned his Purple Heart


 

They served in the Army and Marine Corps and were stationed in the Philippines, Guam and Iwo Jima, among other places.

They took shrapnel to the behind, manned the radar station and maintained the military machinery.

They saw the American flag raised at Iwo Jima and helped build the atomic bombs later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

They were forever changed by the events of the war.

The stories of Aaron Novick, William and Pat Hamilton and Thornton Smith, who decided to share their experiences in honor of the anniversary, appear below.

Aaron Novick

Aaron Novick traveled to New York City with a male friend in September 1942 hoping to join the Navy Air Corps.

The men found out, however, that their lack of a college education would prevent them from doing so.

Instead, they were sent one floor down in the building to join the Marine Corps. Mr. Novick, who was 20 years old at the time and needed his mother’s signature to enlist, soon became a member of the 4th Marine Division.

After weeks of training, the young man, who had been working in a defense factory in Flushing, Queens, was shipped off to Maui, Hawaii, where he would spend the next 18 months when not in combat.

“Maui was fun because, first of all, it was a paradise,” Mr. Novick, now 93, recalled. “The weather was beautiful. We had a couple of big towns on Maui where we could go and drink and we could go pick up girls and all that sort of stuff, so it was a good experience.”

When in battle, however, the division fought on the islands of Marshall, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima — places from which Mr. Novick has painful memories.

One experience in particular, which he said took him many years to get over, occurred in Saipan. The Japanese usually attacked at night, Mr. Novick explained. One evening, when it was already dark, his infantry heard noises and began shooting, assuming they were firing at the Japanese military.

When the sun came up, however, they learned that they had mistakenly killed nearly 50 women and children.

“They took the people that lived on Saipan and they pushed. They walked them up in front of the Japanese soldiers and then they attacked,” Mr. Novick recalled. “We knew they were coming, we could hear them coming. And finally, we got the order to open fire.

“It was a terrible experience, going through that.”

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The 4th Marine Division saw its share of casualties, too, losing more than 17,000 men in 13 months.

During the Battle of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, Mr. Novick suffered a shrapnel injury to his rear end. He wouldn’t allow a telegram to be sent home informing his mother of the injury, which he believes cost him the Purple Heart.

“To this day I’m sorry, because I don’t have that particular medal, but one day if I live long enough I’ll apply for it,” he said, eliciting a chuckle from his wife, Thelma.

Accolades are not in short supply for Mr. Novick, who said he has received seven medals and ribbons from his time in Iwo Jima. He also takes great pride in the credit his division has received for having made more amphibious landings than any other ally division during the period they served.

And while many of the memories from his time in the Pacific are painful, Mr. Novick recalls others with great delight, like a joke about the time he and another member of his division were trapped in a foxhole with a priest.

“My friend Al says to the priest, ‘Father, wouldn’t it be much better if we had a couple of girls here and two bottles of scotch instead of this nonsense?’ ” he said.

And, of course, Mr. Novick counts witnessing the iconic raising of the flag at Iwo Jima among his fondest memories.

“It felt good because it showed the end of the fighting,” he said.

Bill and Pat Hamilton

After Pearl Harbor, Bill Hamilton didn’t want to take his chances being drafted.

Besides, it was practically a family tradition to serve: His father and great-uncle fought in World War I, his great-grandfather was a Civil War veteran and he’s a direct descendant of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

“Service in the military was not unusual in my family,” he said.

One month after the Japanese attacked, Mr. Hamilton enlisted with the Army Reserve Corps as a freshman at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

Many of his former high school classmates from New Jersey also joined the war effort, he said. Lots never returned.

“And our class got hit with a lot of fatalities,” Mr. Hamilton said. “A lot of them went into the Air Force. I don’t know what the percentage was, but a lot of my friends, I found out afterward, died in the service.”

Mr. Hamilton was called into active service during his sophomore year of college and trained alongside thousands of other young men at Camp Upton in Yaphank, which he described as “hot, humid and mosquito-ridden.”

He was then stationed in San Francisco, where he trained in radar operation and maintenance. The coastal defense forces Mr. Hamilton had joined were tasked with protecting the bay from any potential attacks.

“They were so concerned about the Japanese sending ships in,” he said.

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After a few more months’ training elsewhere in the U.S., Mr. Hamilton was finally sent overseas in 1944 to Guam, where the B-29 bombers that raided Japan were based. Though the front line had moved far into the Pacific by the time he arrived, there was still some danger on Guam, Mr. Hamilton said.

“We still had some Japanese troops hiding out in the jungle,” he noted. “The emperor told them to never give up.”

Mr. Hamilton was also frequently reminded of the war raging around him.

“I saw a lot of guys brought in from Okinawa that had been really shot up,” he said. “I frequently saw guys who came in from Guadalcanal all shot up. They were getting us ready to invade Japan.”

Mr. Hamilton said the atomic bombs, despite being horrible weapons, likely saved his life.

“I’m convinced that if they hadn’t dropped the bombs on Hiroshima [and Nagasaki] that we would have gone into the invasion of Japan and would have lost hundreds of thousands of troops, because it was a heavily armed island,” he said. “[The bombs] saved our necks, no doubt in my mind.”

When the end of the war was announced, Mr. Hamilton said he felt one overriding emotion: relief.

He returned home and ultimately met his wife, Pat, who was a member of the Women’s Army Corps at the war’s end. Ms. Hamilton had been a college junior when she enlisted with a close friend in 1944.

She never served overseas, but was instead transferred to an upstate New York hospital as a nurse.

“I was a physical ed major in college, [but] this was different,” Ms. Hamilton said. Instead of going to the troops, they came to her. She treated survivors of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, who were nearly starved; she also spent one late-night shift cooking eggs and “fancy things” for her patients.

The Hamiltons met at the wedding of a mutual friend. The couple had a lot in common, they said, though they rarely talked about the war. Still, Mr. Hamilton said one of his favorite photos of his wife is the one of her in her WAC uniform.

Thornton Smith

Thornton Smith was an 18-year-old studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, leading him to enlist in the Army Reserve. About two years later, Mr. Smith began active duty at a basic training camp in Texas.

The Army sent him to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania after training camp and he remained there until the program closed in 1944 as soldiers were shipped out to France. Mr. Smith’s section, however, headed in an entirely different direction: Oak Ridge, Tenn.

“Oak Ridge was one of the sites that was making the [atomic] bomb,” Mr. Smith said. “So I spent a year down there working on the bomb and almost nobody knew what we were [working on]. It was highly secretive.”

Eight months into that work — Mr. Smith would check welds on the pipes being used — a request came in for five positions to be filled at the Engineer Officer Candidate School. Determined to attend, Mr. Smith went to his superiors and asked to be put on the list. The five positions had already been filled, he was told, but his name could be added as an alternate.

In a stroke of luck, the word alternate never formally stuck next to his name on that list. After talking to all six men, the major in charge decided to take the first five men in alphabetical order. Mr. Smith made the cut as the fifth in order.

After five months training in Kansas in the engineer officer program,he was sent to Batangas, a port in the Philippines. He became a second lieutenant in the engineer aviation battalion, where he was responsible for keeping the machinery — including dump trucks, bulldozers, rock crushers and cranes — running smoothly.

“I had a lot of Japanese prisoners working for me,” Mr. Smith said. “They would be brought every day.”

Some prisoners spoke English. Mr. Smith said he would ask each man if he was a rifleman. Each prisoner responded with the same answer, saying he was a truck driver.

“So you could joke even with the prisoners,” Mr. Smith said.

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After a few months in the Philippines, he was chosen to serve an assistant defense counsel for a court-martial. He said he tried between 12 and 15 cases.

He was still in the Philippines when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was then he finally realized what all his work in Tennessee has been for.

“Well, I wasn’t surprised because I knew this was a very big project,” Mr. Smith said. “They were working double time to get the thing done. It was a very complicated project.”

The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on Mr. Smith, who remained in the reserves for 32 years after the war and retired as a colonel.

“I just knew that the war was going to be over,” he said. “We were in the Philippines and were getting ready to go to Japan and we now know that the estimate of casualties in the landings in Japan would be a million casualties. So everybody going to the Far East assumed he could easily be one of those guys.”

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