Friday, Nov. 10 — Americans will recognize the service of all veterans on Saturday, Nov. 11, in honor of the Armistice that ended World War I (WWI) on Nov. 11, 1918.
President Woodrow Wilson created Armistice Day in 1919 on the one-year anniversary of the end of WWI, and the holiday was renamed Veterans Day years later in 1954.
The connection to WWI may seem simply a matter of history to most of us, but to 96-year-old Florence-area resident John Weiser, it is a matter of personal history.
John was born in 1922 and the distant memories associated with the time immediately following WWI were the experiences of his youth.
“I saw too many movies that showed trench warfare. And it didn’t make sense to me,” John said. “Somebody yells ‘Charge!’ and you jump out of the trench and run. And the bad guys mow you down with machine guns. The guys defending their trenches have the advantage over the guys running at them. I did not want to be drafted into the Army and end up in a trench somewhere, in some miserable stinking hole, so I enlisted in the Navy.”
John signed up to serve his country right after graduating from high school in Los Angeles. John now lives with his youngest brother Bill, who is 84 and also a veteran.
The two men share a warm, tidy home in Glenada, having moved in together in 2007. The brothers have each lost their wives and two more brothers who also served in the military.
John’s eyes lit up when he discussed the time he served as a machinist and gunner in WWII. He worked on a supply vessel and his ship was torpedoed as it made a run in support of the battle of Anzio.
Anzio is one of the most infamous of battles of WWII, due in large part to the casualties endured by both sides. In all, 12,000 combatants were killed in this battle for Italy, and 60,000 soldiers, from both sides, were wounded or went missing in action.
The battle for Anzio was brutal and bloody and was so poorly fought by the Allies that the original commander of the operation, Major General John P. Lucas, was replaced after being outmaneuvered by his German and Italian counterparts.
John remembers not being overly concerned when the first torpedo struck his ship.
Bill sat nearby, listening intently and gently clarified times and places for his older brother as John related his stories of WWII.
“I was on the 8 p.m. to midnight watch in the engine room that night,” John said. “I got off at midnight and went to my bunk, which was the lowest one, and they were all stacked up above me. I remember I was glad to get to my bunk. I was tired and, at about 2 a.m., there was a big explosion. All the chains on the bunks above me broke, and they all fell down on top of me. I couldn’t get out.”
He continued, “But we weren’t worried, we thought it was a mine, not a torpedo. We had seen two ships that had hit mines and we thought we had run into a floating mine.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a mine — it was the opening salvo from a submarine that was pursuing his ship.
“They announced over the P.A., ‘Boat crews, man your boats.’ I was the diesel mechanic for the boat, so I went up there, but there was nobody around,” he said. “I started walking through the superstructure where the officers quarters were, and that’s when we got hit again. I don’t remember anything after that.”
John would not be involved supplying the ships that were involved in the Anzio battles — the second torpedo knocked him unconscious. He would spend the next month in a drug-induced coma to facilitate his healing and the next few months recovering from the burns he suffered in the attack.
After that recovery, he was sent home for a short time before returning to the Pacific Theater.
There, he would deliver supplies to Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, supporting many important battles against the Japanese, particularly the invasion of Okinawa. His time in the service ended a year or so later and he returned to California.
Bill, the youngest of the four brothers, would also spend time in the Pacific Theater but in the next “war” America would become involved in — the undeclared war that would be called the “Korean Conflict.”
He served the Navy in a similar capacity as had his brother, working on a ship that resupplied larger vessels with fuel.
He regards his service as less dangerous than his older brother’s.
“Nobody ever shot at me …at least that I know of,” Bill said. “It was a lot different than WWII. We were in kind of a peacetime war, if you want to call it that. ... We would go down to Taiwan and we would stay there for a while and the destroyers that were going out to protect some little islands somewhere in the Pacific would come in. We would refill their ship and they would head out.”
Bill’s time in the Navy was not at all like John’s. Korea was smaller in scale and less destructive. The forces involved were less sophisticated militarily.
However, war is war and Bill feels fortunate to have made it through unscathed. He served from 1952 to 1956.
“We would take fuel and go up the east coast of Korea and ships would come out to meet us and we would fill ‘em up and they’d go on their way. We never really had any problems.”
His time aboard the U.S.S. Guadalupe allowed him an opportunity to memorialize the ship, crew and off-duty time through photographs. Bill and several other crewman are pictured aboard the ship, doing mundane tasks such as laundry or drills, and on shore leave in Taiwan, Japan and other locations.
The Weisers are both friendly and engaging men, but with different personalities.
John is very outgoing, sharing his thoughts easily, with a direct energy. Bill is more reserved and thoughtful, with an attention to detail.
This trait becomes more apparent when viewing the hundreds of photographs he has taken over the years, which he has framed and displayed or incorporated into scrapbooks.
Besides John and Bill, their two brothers also made it through their years of military service alive and well. One served in the Army and one served in the Air Force.
The two remaining Weiser brothers have pictures and documents of the deceased brothers, acknowledging the good fortune the four had to make it out of two different wars alive.
Mementos, documents and photographs from the service of the Weisers can be seen at the Oregon Coast Military Museum, 2145 Kingwood St.