By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Dan Wegmueller: Wartime hobbies, and survival
Placeholder Image
"I was always interested in electrical work, wiring and radios, even when I was in high school." My friend Jerry continued our conversation with insight into one of his lifelong passions, a hobby that would be his calling during World War II.

"I built my first radio from a diagram from Allied Radio in Chicago. I had a lot of earphones and radios and stuff given to me, because people knew I was interested in radios. In fact, that's the only time I got A's in physics, is when we had the section on radios and electricity. In all the other chapters the girls were so smart and got A's, and they could never believe it when I'd (do so well) in the radio and electrical work!"

Thus, it made perfect sense for Jerry to be with the 132nd Engineers, attached to the 77th Infantry Division. In fact, thanks to his passion and expertise in electrical work, he was made Camp Electrician. Jerry remembers some oddities about his training in Hawaii:

"We used to go downtown, and my big thing was that I liked ice cream so well. They had the best thick malts in Hawaii, the best I ever had, for 10 cents. Nice big thick ones. That was a common joke with the guys and with my brother - they'd say that when we got back from Japan, when we finally got discharged, the first order of business was to get Jerry some ice cream and malt. We had pretty good food in Hawaii."

"You know, another funny thing I remember was one time we were in these landing boats. I told you about getting in these landing boats from the ships, well, those would be going up and down and everyone would be getting sick. Well, there was this one little Jewish fellow, a real nice guy, and we were all in one of these landing boats, all getting sick, when he says, 'Stop de Boat! Stop de Boat! I'll buy de damn boat!' He says that, right when we were bouncing around about to go in for an invasion!"

The first invasion Jerry and his brother Ike participated in was Guam. From Guam, the Engineers took part in General MacArthur's island-hopping campaign through Tokashiki, Ie Shima, Leyte, among others. Folks, it is important to remember that when men like Jerry and Ike landed on beaches in the Philippines, they were re-taking land America already had lost to the Japanese. Just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan launched a sneak attack on the American air base in Pampanga. Four months later, the remaining U.S.-Philippine force surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula, turning some 80,000 prisoners of war over to the Japanese. This incident led to the iniquitous Bataan Death March, where American and Filipino prisoners were force-marched by their Japanese captors some 65 miles north, to a prisoner camp. When we speak of the Geneva Convention and POW rights, consider this:

It is estimated that some 10,000 Filipinos and 1,200 American soldiers died along the 65-mile route. In James Bradley's "Flyboys," Bataan survivor Lester Tenney describes a typical scene of the Bataan Death March, "As we passed a group of Japanese soldiers, our guards ordered us to stop. When we looked over to where the group of soldiers were, we saw an American soldier kneeling in front of a Japanese officer. The officer had his samurai sword out of a scabbard ... Up went the blade, [and] with a loud 'Banzai,' the officer brought the blade down. We heard a dull thud, and the American was decapitated. The Japanese officer then kicked the body of the American soldier over into the field, and all of the Japanese soldiers laughed merrily and walked away" (Flyboys, 115).

This was the force that men like Jerry and Ike, and the 77th Infantry Division would come head to head with on MacArthur's Pacific island-hopping campaign. Typically, as Jerry described it, the Marines would land in two or three waves, then the Engineers would follow to set up communications. The reality of a World War II beach landing is as far-removed as possible from the peace and tranquility of the life we enjoy today:

Well-fortified and prepared Japanese positions fired point-blank at the oncoming Americans in their bobbing, seasick-inducing landing craft. Literally, men, equipment and boats would vaporize or explode into flame under a direct hit. Men could plunge into the surf and drown under the weight of their own gear. Once on the beach, those able to run would attempt to move inland, through minefields and interlocking machine gun positions. If wounded and unable to move, a man could get crushed to death under the treads of incoming Am-Tracks. By the time the engineers arrived in the third or fourth wave, the beaches were awash with burned-out vehicles, scattered equipment and the bodies and limbs of fallen soldiers.

What was most haunting for some, were the personal effects that accompanied a casualty. After all, it is just a body - that is, until a handwritten letter, or a photograph is half-buried in the sand, next to it. A toothbrush or a comb means that the distorted and twisted figure lying there had a life; an identity - just like anyone else.

More than 60 years later Jerry smiled as he recalled his and Ike's journey, "We went down in the (landing craft) together, set up our radio together, shared a foxhole, and never got hurt!"

"I don't know how we were so fortunate."

- Dan Wegmueller is a columnist for The Monroe Times. He can be reached at