In an open car port with the sounds of children playing in the nearby school yard, an older man was recalling his role in the world’s deadliest conflict.
The Coral Bay fire station was one interview location last week, as three World War II veterans who call St. John home contributed to the U.S. Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, thanks to St. Croix residents Joan Keenan and Jean Picou.
A part of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, the Veterans History Project was launched in 2000 to collect and preserve the personal accounts of American war veterans to make it possible for future generations to hear first-hand accounts of the Great War.
Keenan and Picou filmed interviews with Willard Wallace, Bob Davis and Renee Servant on Wednesday, November 19. Seated in the conference room at Morris F. deCastro Clinic in Cruz Bay one day after his 93rd birthday, Wallace shared stories from his three years of service in the U.S. Navy hospital corps.
Wallace chose the Navy over the Marines and Army for a simple reason.
Too Old for the Marines
“I was too old for the Marines and I didn’t want to go in the Army, so I signed up with the Navy,” he said.
After enlisting in Ohio in 1942, Wallace was shipped out to the Great Lakes for boot camp and then on to a Naval hospital for further training. It was not an easy time for the young serviceman.
“I was on night duty all the time working on the highly contagious ward, and then had to go to school at the same time,” said Wallace.
Wallace was eventually transferred to California and then on to Treasure Island. After spending a brief time on Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands, the young Naval hospital corpsman was shipped out on the destroyer “Piedmont” and finally the carrier “Hornet.”
The “Hornet” was responsible for shooting down more than 300 Japanese fighter planes and was one of the only vessels in the Pacific theater which didn’t suffer a direct hit. The ship did have a close call one time, Wallace explained.
Close Call Aboard the “Hornet”
“I was up on the flight deck manning the aid station and I was walking from elevator one to elevator two,” he said. “They had all kinds of bombers and planes and missiles on the flight deck there. I was walking along and there was a Japanese plane, right overhead — it was so close I could feel the heat off the plane.”
Had the plane succeeded in landing onboard, the ship would have definitely been blown to pieces. Instead a gunman on the fly bridge took aim and the enemy plane was shot down just off the Hornet’s deck.
The “Hornet” rode out a typhoon north of the Philippines in almost unbearable seas and wind after which Wallace received a welcome surprise.
Typhoon Near Philippine Islands
“We came into the Philippines after the storm and I found my kid brother who was in the Army,” said Wallace. “I knew he was in the Army but I had no idea where he was. We talked for about 25 to 35 minutes.”
“It was a very pleasant surprise,” he added.
The “Hornet” suffered damage from the typhoon and had to pull into Hawaii for assessment, which is where Wallace sat for a tattoo. Shortly after, the carrier was forced back to California to dry dock for repairs and the war ended. Wallace was discharged in San Francisco and returned to the Midwest where he settled back into civilian life and raised a family.
Out in Coral Bay, Davis got in front of the camera and recalled his days in the U.S. Marine Corps where he became a demolition expert. Davis enlisted in the Marines on his 17th birthday in his hometown in Oklahoma.
Still in High School
“I had just finished my junior year in high school and it was the patriotic thing to do at the time,” said Davis. “It was partly to get out of Oklahoma City too. I went with my mom down to the Marine recruiting station and they put me directly on a train to boot camp.”
The Marines were eager to get young men ready for battle in 1943 and Davis was shipped to Camp Pendleton for training and quickly on to New Caledonia.
“I had five weeks of boot camp,” said Davis. “They ran us through fast in 1943. They wanted some young Marines in the Pacific at that moment.”
Davis was shipped to Guadalcanal, which is where he learned the fine art of demolition duty.
“I was a rifleman and I did something or other so they sent me to demolition school as punishment,” said Davis. “Being a demolition expert I had to carry an additional 50 pounds on my back. It was punishment.”
The young Marine took part in the liberation and occupation of Guam and then landed on Okinawa, where coming ashore was not as difficult as it could have been, Davis explained.
“The Americans had made a false landing on he eastern side of the island the Japanese went there to fight them,” he said. “We landed in the west pretty much unopposed. We were on Okinawa for 46 days and that was a battle.”
“Our forces were way superior and we had a Navy sitting out there,” Davis said. “From there on out it was just war.”
Injured By Shrapnel
North of the city Naha, the Japanese had a line of defense and Davis was one of the many injured in the fighting. While being carried from the area after taking a hit in the leg, a hand grenade exploded at his feet.
“If you got a wound into the bone, you got out of there because there was no penicillin so infection was certain,” said Davis.
The Marine was sent to Navy #10 hospital in Oahu to recuperate and was almost shipped back to the Pacific.
“They were getting ready to send me back to my unit when they dropped the bomb,” said Davis. “I guess they were ready to get rid of me anyway. I was discharged on November 22, 1945.”
After being discharged, Davis returned to Oklahoma where he had some unfinished business to settle.
“My high school sweet heart and I hadn’t been intimate before I left,” he said. “I think she conceived about 10 minutes after I got off the plane.”
A proud father and grandfather, Davis went on to photography school and continues to enjoy being a photographer today.
Davis looked back on his days in the military with pride.
“I was a kid and I was performing as a man — it was pretty cool,” said Davis. “I was never any braver or any more fearful than anyone else. It was a good experience for a 17-year-old kid to be out there kicking ass with the men.”
Renee Servant was only a 17-year-old kid as well when he enlisted in his hometown of Washington, D.C., in the Army Air Corps, which eventually became the Airforce.
Born in Paris, Servant was raised in D.C. by his hardworking immigrant parents. While he could understand French, he never mastered the language, which foiled plans the Army originally had for the young enlistee.
Spy Plans Scrapped
“The Air Corps was interested in me because they thought I could speak French and they wanted to drop me in Paris to be a spy,” said Servant. “When they found out I couldn’t speak French, they forgot about those plans.”
With a love of flying, Servant chose to enlist so he could pick his branch of service.
“I didn’t want to be drafted and I had a love of flying,” he said. “Also I wanted to be able to be able to bathe every day so I figured the Air Corps was my best bet.”
After training in Miami, Servant was shipped to pre-flight school in San Antonio and finally Big Spring, Texas. The Army’s training was strict for the would-be fighter pilots, Servant explained.
“Before we could fly, we had to prove we knew a lot of things,” said Servant. “We trained and trained and trained. A lot of them got sick of it and dropped out, but I stuck it out.”
Although the war ended before Servant was cleared to fly, he was proud to have served the country.
“I couldn’t tell you enough about this country — it’s beautiful,” said Servant. “I am very proud to have served in the Army Air Corps. It was a very valuable experience.”
“I was a young kid and being treated as an equal gave me a great deal of confidence,” Servant continued.
Servant went on to study at the University of Wisconsin and eventually settled in St. John with his wife and son.