Friday, May 28, 2010

Honoring Issaquah's Veterans

If you haven't seen it yet, you should take a look at the Issaquah Press's special Memorial Day section, "Lest We Forget". This special section profiles the residents of Issaquah who died serving their country. These same people are memorialized on the granite marker outside the Senior Center. The section also features photos and brief biographies for other Issaquah Veterans who have served during peacetime and during war.

The Issaquah Press and the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars worked hard to represent as many servicemen and women as they could in the pages of their special section. One name and face not included (and I regret now that I didn't send the photo and suggestion to them) was Bill Evans, a long-time Issaquah resident and veteran of World War II. I had the opportunity to visit with Bill a few times over the years, and he was a warm, personable fellow and an excellent story teller. When we put up an exhibit called Wartime in Issaquah, he stopped by to contribute his picture and ended up staying for nearly an hour, telling me stories. I was completely captivated, and Bill must have been also, because his wife finally came in to retrieve him -- she'd been waiting for him in the car!

We are very fortunate to have Bill's first-hand account of his time at war, thanks to the oral history project we conducted in 2006. Our oral historian, Maria McLeod, was talented when it came to drawing interesting stories out of subjects. After the interview, Bill suggested that we edit out the World War II stories he'd told, since they weren't "really about Issaquah." I responded that although the stories he told were not set in Issaquah, they were vitally important to telling the story of Issaquah during World War II. They tell the story of a generation of young men who left home to travel thousands of miles, and serve alongside hundreds of other young men. I'm not sure that I succeeded in convincing him, but he gracefully agreed. Excerpts appear below, and I think readers will agree that we are lucky to have these stories. 

Bill Evans passed away in January of 2008. He is missed and remembered.

[interview has been edited for length]


BILL EVANS: So I was shipped from Fort Lewis to Camp Roberts, California, by Paso Robles. I went right into the infantry. When I get there, I thought, Ohgod, the worst possible thing that could happen to me now has happened to me [Evans had wanted to enter the Navy but had been assigned to the Army instead].

I was on KP the following Sunday morning, and the first sergeant came to get me. I said, “Where are we going?”

He said, “Down to get your gear. You’re going to a different barracks.” So you don’t ask any more questions, you just go. They transferred me because of my scores entering into the Army, the test scores, they sent me to message center and code work training. So I thought, Well, at least I’m not carrying a rifle in a foxhole. So I took my training there for three months. Now, I’m shipping out. I had graduated with a diploma and everything, talking about message center and code work.

Then I got to Hawaii for more training. I was there two weeks, and the commanding officer called me in and he said, “Soldier, we’re over-strength. We’ve got too many men in our outfit.”

I thought, Well, this is strange. “You’re a combat outfit and you’ve got too many men? If you get into combat, you’re going to lose men! You’d think you’d be building up.”

He said, “No, our table organization is too high. You’re one of the last guys in our outfit, so I’m transferring you out.”

I said, “Where am I going?”

He said, “Oh, you’re staying in the same battalion, same regiment. But,” he said, “you’re going to be a medic.”

I said, “A medic? The only thing I’ve ever had in the way of training is high school public health, you know? How does that qualify me?”

He said, “Well, you’ll get training.”

So they sent me out to north central Oahu… Two weeks after I joined this infantry outfit, I got my medical training. When I talked to the first sergeant in this company, out at the Dole Pineapple plantation, I said, “When do I get my training? I was told I was going to get training. I don’t know a darn thing about medicine.”

He said, “Oh, you’ll get it. It starts tomorrow.” He said, “After breakfast tomorrow, you report back to your tent.”

They were wood frameworks, but tent top. And he said, “I’ll have another guy go with you. He’s going to take medical training, too.” So they came and got us the next morning, and we went back to our tents.

The guy said, “Now, you straddle this cot, the Army cot that you’re on. And you face him this way, like you’re sitting and looking at each other. Here’s a needle and a syringe. Now, you stick him in the arm till you can learn to hit the veins. Because you can go right through a vein, you know, if you don’t hit it proper. Then you have to pull it back out and try it again, until you get it.”

And I said, “This is the first training we’re getting?”

“Yeah.”

And the other guy didn’t know any more about it than I did… One would stick the other one until he could hit a vein, or an artery. When you’d get sick to your stomach from the needle and the pain and everything, then it’s your turn to stick the other guy. That was the first medical training I got. I didn’t get much more for a long time.

Then we shipped out to New Guinea. That was our first time in combat. I had four amphibious landings from one end of New Guinea to the top end.

Other than the ones we fought on the landings, further up – we mostly set up crews out on the trails. The jungle trails were just like a tunnel. They’d grow right over you. You’d get just off the trail a little bit, and we’d set up machine guns. When the Japanese troops would come along, we’d just mow them down.

Then we’d have to bury them. Some of the guys said, “Well, the heck with this noise.” An arm would be sticking out, or a foot would be sticking out, or something, which would give away our positions.

The rest of us were on the beach – the Japanese would bomb us every night. We did have army cots there, I’ll say that. But right alongside it, we’d have a foxhole. So we’d get to go around the bed into the foxhole.

MARIA MCLEOD: Did you sleep in your foxhole?

BILL EVANS: I did in a lot of them, on those landings in New Guinea. But not at Sansapor, which is the northern tip, when we were ready to invade the Philippines. Then we took off for the Philippines.

…It was a kamikaze that came over. And again, the 5-inch gunner on the front end, when he spun around, he shot part of his tail assembly away. So the kamikaze knew he couldn’t get away. So he just banked around and come from behind us again. Dropped his bombs. But they went between our ship and the ship behind us and just exploded in the water.

Then the pilot tried to drive his plane down the stack because then we’d have gone up, the whole ship would have blown up. But he missed it by about 25 feet. But he got the whole deck on fire, gasoline and everything. And twenty-three sailors were killed, right at their gun mounts.

Two days later, we made our landing on Luzon. I was in the fourth wave hitting the beach. I almost drowned because the medics have something like a jacket without sleeves. Their bags on either side had all their medical supplies in there.

MARIA MCLEOD: How much did it weigh?

BILL EVANS: Well, it didn’t weigh a lot in itself, but when I got into my first combat, where I came close to getting it. We even took our Red Cross armbands off our arms because they’d pick the medic first. The snipers would aim at the armband and get you in the chest someplace, went through your body, anyhow and killed an awful lot of medics that way. Then they’d go after the troops. So I didn’t wear an armband. I wasn’t going to give them any more chances than possible. But I went down after my first combat, I went down to the supply office, and I insisted in getting a carbine.

MARIA MCLEOD: What’s a carbine?

BILL EVANS: A carbine is a small rifle. Holds 15 shells in a bracket on the gun itself. I think it’s a .32 caliber.

And then you always have a case on the gun, too, holding other brackets. You’ve got them on your belt. So you’ve got about a hundred-and-some cartridges on it. Semi-automatic.

MARIA MCLEOD: Were medics usually not carrying guns?

BILL EVANS: No. They weren’t supposed to. By, I guess, a Geneva law or something from World War I.

MARIA MCLEOD: People weren’t supposed to kill medics. You weren’t supposed to shoot at another’s army’s medics, were you?

BILL EVANS: No. You had rules to play by, but the Japanese didn’t honor that. And so I carried it through the whole war. But when I landed in Lingayen Gulf in the fourth wave, we almost drowned. In my outfit, we lost about 28 men. Because there was a sandbar that nobody knew about. The coxswain didn’t know any more about it than we did, running the landing craft. A lot of them came in and hit that sandbar, thought it was the beach, and lowered the ramp. Guys went out with all their equipment on, and drowned.

But our coxswain, we were lucky because he came to the same sandbar, but he didn’t lower the ramp. He might have seen something, or else somebody else radioed him or something. He gunned it when he hit it and went over the sandbar. And hell, we went another probably 100, 200 yards before we finally did hit the beach.

We were still up to our waists in water. But I was so loaded down with my medical equipment, and my ammo, and my gun and other stuff that if we didn’t have the beach under us, we’d have been in real trouble. Might not have got ashore.

MARIA MCLEOD: Tell me about the first time you were in combat, and you were dealing with actual wounds, what that was like.

BILL EVANS: Well, I wasn’t much more educated than I told you about. I got to New Guinea and I appealed to my commanding officer, who was a medic, a doctor. I said, “You know, I haven’t had any training at all yet, except this episode with my arms.” I said, “Can’t I get some training if I’m going into combat?”

He said, “Yeah, that makes sense. I’ll send you down the beach about 20 miles.”

There was a station hospital, and down there they had a series of big squad tents. That’s a station hospital. They’re all tents.

He said, “We’ll get you some training at the hospital.”

So I said, “Fine. Great.”

And he said, “You’ll be down there about two months.”

I said, “OK.”

So I packed the gear I needed to go down there. Still took my rifle with me. And got down there to the station hospital.

But they had so many wounded. Broken bones caused by gunshot. These guys are coming back from the Marshall Islands and those places that were invaded before we got to the Philippines – not by our outfit, by other outfits.

You get wounded and shot with rifle shot or shrapnel and so forth. A lot of times, you get broken bones as well as the wound itself. So they were having a lot of them coming in by the boatload to the station hospital down there – Navy men, Army men, everybody.

And so what did they do? They sent me into cast surgery.

MARIA MCLEOD: What’s cast surgery?

BILL EVANS: Well, I thought I was going to learn something about surgery that would help me. But no, what they had me doing was making casts out of plaster of Paris on people who had back wounds – their backs were broken, or some part of it. We had them on ropes – lines. Their feet were down, and their back and shoulders were down, but their body was up in the air, like making an arch.

So all I was doing was wrapping plaster of Paris, learning how to make a cast for a broken back, but who’s going to do that in combat? In combat, you get somebody who you’ve talked to a half an hour before, and thirty minutes later, he’s laying on a litter, covered with blood, or lost an arm, or ribs are all shot up or whatever.

You couldn’t put a cast on. You would do what you could to bandage him up, stop the bleeding, give him a transfusion or whatever, and put him on the back of a Jeep and send him out of the jungle. So I learned the hard way.

MARIA MCLEOD: You said something interesting. You said when you came back to Seattle, you were afraid of people. Is that true?

BILL EVANS: See, my folks, as I told you, still lived on Beacon Hill. They could see out in the bay. It was right across from the Veterans Hospital on Beacon Hill, on Beacon Avenue. My folks bought it. Had the home built in [19]42. And so when I got in the bay, I could see my house from there.

I got out of the service right before Christmas. So I was downtown, buying my folks a Christmas present ... And the signal lights … I’d been three years in the jungle [chuckles] and I was just afraid of people. I’d stop at the intersection and I was afraid to cross the street. I thought, You’ve got to get a hold of yourself!

MARIA MCLEOD: When you were in the jungle, did you think of home? And when you thought of home, did you think of Seattle, or did you think of Issaquah? What were some of the things that kept you going?
BILL EVANS: I’d only lived, all my life, in Issaquah and then Seattle, so yeah. But, you know, when you’re in combat – and seeing death all around you, and being a medic – I was involved with it every day, hour by hour – you didn’t dare think about going home. You thought about making it through another day.

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