Three vets view war

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

When four jets plowed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11, some of Juneau's war veterans saw the terrorist attack differently than most people. They saw the tragedy through the lens of their wars.

Three Juneau veterans who fought in separate wars had a lot to say about America's war against terrorism. They all applauded the effort and believed the U.S. military would prevail if Americans supported the endeavor.

But some questioned the willingness of Americans to support the battle over time. It is a seed of doubt planted during their wars wars they will never forget.

Bob Anderson, veteran, Korean War

Bob Anderson fought the so-called "forgotten war" 50 years ago, and he is still trying to forget it.

When a man has seen fellow soldiers blown to bits by enemy mortar, the memories come in nightmares.

"I've seen artillery shells where people just disintegrated there was nothing to find. I've seen that," said Anderson, who earned a Purple Heart in the Korean War. "I'm 70 years old, and I still haven't forgotten."

The memories came again on Sept. 11, as the Juneau bus driver watched two hijacked jets crash into the World Trade Center on television.

"I know that those airplanes loaded with fuel it just disintegrated the people that were there," he said. "To kill innocent people women and children who had no malice toward those people in any way. I thought it was worse than anything I'd ever seen."

He has seen almost too much to bear, and he hopes America learned a lesson from his war.

In 1949, Anderson, then 17, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, following the path taken by family and friends before him. One year later the United States went to war in Korea, and he volunteered for combat. Although highly trained, he was not emotionally prepared for the horror of battle.

"Life can be just snuffed out next to you. Instantaneously," said Anderson, a former Marine sergeant. "That is the biggest shock. You think, 'Why him, not me? We're 2 feet apart.' "

America entered the war to fight communist North Korea, which was threatening a rival government in South Korea supported by the United States.

The United States and other United Nations forces dispatched troops after North Korea invaded South Korea at the 38th parallel, the boundary between the two sides.

The terrain was mountainous with a lot of close-quarter fighting, said Anderson, who served with the Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

One time Anderson's unit was storming a ridge, and as he ran by a camouflaged bunker an enemy soldier rushed from behind and thrust a bayonet under his left arm. The blade had plunged a half-inch into his side when another soldier blew the enemy soldier's head off, saving Anderson's life.

"It would have went right through me," he said.

Another time he was on a hillside when enemy mortar "disintegrated" two men next to him and wounded Anderson. He almost died that day and spent three months in the hospital, later returning to battle with no feeling below his left knee.

U.N. troops beat back the North Koreans to the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and communist China. Anderson still has nightmares about the Chinese soldiers slaughtered while crossing the bridges to help the North Koreans fight.

"I've seen Chinese fall to the point the machine gun had to be brought up on dead bodies to get a new field of fire," said Anderson, who estimated 4,000 Chinese died trying to cross the river.

The Chinese and North Koreans launched a successful counterattack and drove U.N. troops back into South Korea. The war ended where it began at the 38th parallel with communist North Korea intact.

Although troops succeeded in driving the enemy out of South Korea, the United States did not win the war because it withdrew before it rooted out communist forces to the north, said Anderson, adding that made America look weak and led to other conflicts.

"We never had a surrender, a real surrender," he said. "If you're going to go to war, you have to complete the mission, or it's going to come back and haunt you."

Now he worries that the United States will end the current conflict before it eradicates terrorist cells worldwide. That could happen if public opinion turns against the endeavor, said Anderson, who worries that a truce will make the United States look weak again and set up the country for another terrorist attack.

"If you stand up and put your arms in the air and say, 'I give up' ... you're going to get stuck," he said, applying a lesson learned in bayonet training.

Although polls show that Americans strongly support U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan, he is not convinced the sentiment will last. Americans who never fought in war don't understand that true victory takes time, Anderson said.

Americans "want you to fight a war but want it over within six months, and that's just not reality with the kind of aggression that we're facing," he said.

"A lot of the 20-, 30-, 40-year-olds in this country don't understand that because they've never been in a war. They've had it easy. ... They've paid no price."

*****

Tim Armstrong, veteran, Vietnam War

 

Tim Armstrong believes the United States would have won the Vietnam War, if not for the "cowards" of America's anti-war movement.

The Juneau salesman served eight months of bloody combat in the war, only to learn the hardest lesson from Americans at home: Public opinion as much as military might determines the outcome of war.

If people are afraid to fight, they will find a reason to oppose war, and their rhetoric can sway the nation, he said.

"People say we lost the war in Vietnam. It was not militarily lost; it was given up by civilians," he said. "They were so eloquent at defending their decision" not to fight. "A lot of people misunderstood and didn't believe it was cowardice."

He believes the U.S. military can win the war on terrorism but worries that civilians eventually will undermine the effort. He is not convinced the majority of Americans will support the war for the long haul.

"It has to be proven to me."

Armstrong did not want to fight in Vietnam, but he thought it was his duty. He was drafted in 1967 at age 20 and went overseas a year later to serve in the 1st Air Mobile Calvary Division, a ground troop outfit reliant on helicopter transport.

He was next to his machine gunner when the soldier was killed, so Armstrong became the machine gunner.

 

"You're scared to death 24 hours a day," he said. "You've got hours of boredom injected with a few moments of stark raving terror."

"Your first firefight where you actually exchange fire with the enemy face-to-face, that's a pretty traumatic thing. You're real happy you survived that and at the same time almost psychologically devastated at what you had to do to survive."

One time a rat bit him on the face while he was sleeping, and he had to get 15 shots in his stomach to prevent rabies. Another time a flare went off in his hand, burning off the skin.

On his last day in combat, Armstrong and eight squad members were waiting for a helicopter north of Saigon when enemy mortar exploded nearby, hurling metal fragments at the men and wounding them all.

"I just sort of went numb. It's not as painful as most people think because your body throws you into shock," said Armstrong, who still has 26 pieces of shrapnel in his body.

The injury took him out of combat and he was discharged in 1969. The Army advised him not to wear his 1st Air Mobile Calvary patch in the U.S. to avoid confrontations with hostile Americans.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said. "I had family and friends who were extremely supportive."

The war changed the way he saw his fellow citizens. Armstrong believes most people feel strongly about the Sept. 11 attack because they saw it unfold on television. But the emotion won't last because television is not real life, he said.

The people who were there and heard the destruction, saw the bodies or smelled the carnage likely will support the war for the duration, he said. But Americans who experienced the attack through the media probably will not have the stomach for a protracted war, he said.

"People lose interest. They have a very short attention span unless they are physically involved," he said. "The bodies that were destroyed, they can't even find parts of them ... The smell of death is something you never forget.

"They have not experienced it if they just saw it on television. They can only imagine it."

*****

Doug Wahto, veteran, World War II

 

Anyone who believes Afghanistan's Taliban troops are more formidable than America's most highly trained ground soldiers has never met Doug Wahto.

You would not know it by looking at the small-framed, soft-spoken grandfather, but Wahto was one of the country's fiercest warriors in World War II.

As a U.S. Army sergeant and squad leader in the 1st Special Service Force, Wahto and his team of highly skilled combatants stormed German machine gun nests on mountainsides, sometimes climbing by rope to take enemy strongholds.

Wahto's U.S.-Canada unit, known as the "Devil's Brigade," was renowned for its ferocity and unconventional warfare tactics. And it was the inspiration for the U.S. Army Special Forces one of the outfits military experts say will play a key role in the war against terrorism.

The United States learned the value of special forces during WW II, said Wahto, sitting in his kitchen at his Douglas home. And Americans should not underestimate those highly trained warriors, for they are as formidable as the terrorists ready to die for their cause, he said.

"They won't give an inch of ground. They'll die fighting," said Wahto, 81, who has met current members of the special forces and believes they will figure prominently in the campaign.

"They're a different breed they don't have to be in there. They're in there because they want to be."

He would be there too if he were a young man today.

Wahto watched television in anger as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, killing thousands of civilians. Although some people immediately compared the attack to Japan's assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wahto thought this was much worse.

"This was against civilians," he said. "I didn't think they could ever do anything like that to us."

The terrorist attack rallied the same anger that drove him into battle nearly 60 years ago. After Pearl Harbor went up in flames, Wahto enlisted in the Army and endured six months of "torturous" training in skiing, parachuting, mountaineering and hand-to-hand combat to join the fledgling 1st Special Service Force, which had about 2,000 men.

He emerged from training a warrior eager to fight in some of the most dangerous campaigns. Wahto fought mostly in Italy, and the brutal mountain training proved critical during the unit's first major clash atop Mount La Difensa in 1943.

U.S. troops had taken the mountain from the Germans only to lose it in a bloody fight. Wahto's outfit was dispatched to retake the lost ground.

The men climbed the mountain by rope in the dark and lay against the hillside for hours in freezing temperatures waiting to attack at daybreak.

"Your clothes were freezing to the rocks and you couldn't make any noise because we were close to the top," he said.

At dawn, the men topped the mountain and ambushed the Germans, who eventually surrendered. As Wahto scaled the summit, he saw two U.S. soldiers face down in a foxhole, shot in the back of the head with their arms around each other. The Germans had executed the men after the first failed attack, Wahto said. His unit didn't take any prisoners after that.

The men then fought their way along the mountain range, engaging in a fierce battle on Mount Majo, where Wahto was hit by shrapnel and developed blood poisoning and jaundice. He broke his ankle in the rocky crags, but set the bone with tape and returned to battle in pain.

His unit sometimes climbed mountains knowing they were not carrying enough ammunition to defeat the foe on top. The strategy was to kill the enemy by using their own weapons against them.

 

"You had to use all their weapons because we could only carry so much ammunition up these big mountains," he said.

Wahto said U.S. special forces in Afghanistan probably will engage in mountain combat similar to what he endured. But modern troops will have some advantages over their WW II counterparts, he said.

Today's special forces can jump from 35,000 feet equipped with oxygen tanks and survival gear, paraglide hundreds of miles, and be ready to fight within minutes of landing, he said. They also have more efficient weaponry.

"They're tough. They're good. They have all these sophisticated weapons and they use them."

And Wahto scoffs at the notion Taliban ground troops will drive out U.S. special forces as they did Soviet soldiers in years past. He said the Soviet Union sent poorly trained ground troops to fight in Afghanistan, not units equal to the U.S. special forces.

"There's no comparison," he said.

Wahto still has nightmares about his war, particularly the "horrible" battle at Anzio in central Italy where he suffered a head wound and had his closest brush with death. His unit played a lead role in the Italian campaign but took so many casualties it was disbanded in France toward the end of the war. Wahto then volunteered to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.

Wahto left with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and other medals earned in the 1st Special Service Force, the most decorated unit in the Army. And he has an enduring belief in the young men serving in the special forces today.

"They will be supreme. I know they will. They'll sustain. I know it."

*****

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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