Five wars, from World War II to conflicts in Iraq, changed five local veterans, forcing them to mature into adults and leaving them with memories most civilians can’t comprehend.
World War II veteran Wayne McGee fought in the South Pacific directing the fire of aircraft and ships on the beaches as part of a radio crew. It was “hairy” work, but he would do it again, he said.
He wanted to enlist because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“I was angry, those people gave us a dirty punch,” he said.
Eric Greene escaped from Germany during the Holocaust and later returned during the Korean War to help deter the Soviet Union from moving farther west.
As Memorial Day approaches, the veterans will reflect on wars that took millions of lives and shaped our history. All five will share their stories at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Durango Public Library, 1900 East Third Ave., as part of Durango Dairies, The Durango Herald’s bimonthly storytelling series.
Red Mesa resident fought for Marshall Islands in WWII
Wayne McGee, 95, was in high school in Kirtland when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, where his brother was serving.
The attack put his brother at risk, which angered McGee. He decided it was time to enlist in the armed forces.
McGee was told his eyesight wasn’t good enough for the Navy. But a short time later, in 1943, he was drafted into the Navy and deployed to the South Pacific. He was a member of a radio team, in charge of transcribing orders for where the ship was meant to go.
“The static would be terrific,” he said. “... I had a knack to dig that code out of that static.”
During battles for the Marshall Islands, his team worked on the beach and communicated with the ships and the aircraft, directing their fire, he said.
In the fight for Roi, an island home to a Japanese airfield, he saw a Marine shoot down five Japanese prisoners taken captive by Marines. He shot them yelling, “You SOBs killed my friend,” he said.
McGee recalled: “He was wanting revenge, and he got it.”
His time in the service changed him completely and helped him grow up, he said.
“I had seen the worst of it and I just wanted to forget it,” he said.
On Memorial Day and on many other occasions, McGee said he remembers his friends, both those who made it back and those who didn’t. He is the only one still living from his circle of WWII friends, he said.
Holocaust refugee returned to Germany during Korean deployment
Eric Greene, 90, was deployed to West Germany with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The deployment took him back to the country he fled as a Jewish child during the Holocaust.
The deployment allowed Greene to visit his family’s former home in a village called Hellstein.
“Everybody that was there that had lost a son told me that they were all lost to the Russians. Everybody fought on the Russian Front, nobody fought against the Americans, we were friends,” he said.
The arrogance he had seen previously in the Germans was gone.
“In those days, being defeated ... they laid down, rolled over and played dead,” he said.
Greene was one of 100,000 troops deployed to West Germany to deter the Soviet Union from expanding and give the appearance of American strength, he said.
“We were never allowed to leave base without being in uniform, shoes shined, hair cut,” he said.
He was well treated wherever he went. It was a stark departure from his childhood when he was denied an education and forced to flee for his life.
Greene left for France with 50 other Jewish refugee children on March 8, 1939.
He recalled shouting to his father as the train left the station: “Don’t cry, Papa, we will see each other again soon,” in an unpublished autobiography. He never saw his father again.
Greene discovered what happened to his parents and sister when he visited Auschwitz in the 1990s.
The meticulous record-keeping showed his parents were immediately put to death when they arrived, and his sister starved to death.
Greene never had nostalgia for Germany after losing his family to the Nazis. He became an American citizen as quickly as he could after moving to Chicago and changed his name from Grünebaum to the more American name, Greene.
“My homeland is Chicago,” he said.
Vietnam vet started service with top psychiatry experts
Stan Crapo, 74, was drafted into the military in 1966 and chose to join the U.S. Navy to stay out of Vietnam and see the world.
His first assignment was as a hospital corpsman at a naval hospital in Rhode Island where he cared for patients in the recovery and intensive-care unit and then in the psychiatric ward.
While at the hospital, he worked with some of the top psychiatrists in the country. The psychiatrists were caring for military service members, including many returning from the Vietnam War with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.
“It really helped me grow up a lot,” he said.
As a corpsman, he gained nursing skills and also learned how to care for his own mental health.
He was deployed to Vietnam in December 1968 to provide medical care for U.S. Marines.
He also cared for civilians who were killed and wounded indiscriminately by the North Vietnamese Army.
“As a corpsman, you have to set that stuff aside to do your work and then it hits you afterwards,” he said.
When he left the military in 1969, he returned to school at Ohio State and graduated with a degree in psychology. He found school was far easier the second time around.
“I was ready to assume responsibilities,” he said.
He considered pursuing a doctorate in counseling, but found his niche in small business. He has owned Star Liquors since 1984.
Medic struck by civilian suffering
Shoshona Darke, 49, enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1988 because she was interested in the educational benefits that would help her go to nursing school. It was peacetime, and she never expected to be deployed.
“That wasn’t even on my radar,” she said.
As a medic in the Gulf War, she was struck by the violence civilians of Kuwait endured.
In one case, she was passing by a home in Kuwait with her ambulance crew when an explosive device went off in the courtyard of a simple cinder block home. It was common for children to bring home unexploded devices to play with because they didn’t know what they were, she said.
The residents chased down her crew because of the red crosses on their vehicle.
“They came running out, begging for help,” she said.
Darke bandaged up a 4-year-old girl badly injured by shrapnel, so she could be transported for more care by a helicopter.
“I’ll never know whether that little girl survived or not,” she said. “... I want to believe ‘Yes, she survived because we helped her.’”
The event was one of the most atrocious and traumatic experiences she went through.
On Memorial Day, Darke said she remembers not just those who died in conflict, but also those who experienced traumatic events and are still living with those experiences.
“It’s like a wound to the heart that happens,” she said.
Darke left the National Guard in 1994 and became a nurse in Durango.
Sept. 11 motivated Marine recruiter to enlist
Gunnery Sgt. Nathaniel Burford, 34, enlisted in the Marine Corps during his senior year of high school in 2002. He was motivated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He had always been interested in military service, and his older brother joined the Marine Corps a year earlier.
He thought at the time: “If I’m going to serve, it is a time of most need,” he said.
After joining, Burford specialized in repairing electronics used in communication, such as radios and satellites. He decided to turn his military service into a career.
“It’s made me a lot more of an outgoing person, a lot more confident,” he said.
Burford has been deployed three times to Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, and Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2011.
While he was in Afghanistan, his unit helped push out the insurgency and provide enough security to allow the civilians to reopen their marketplace and their school, he said.
“For us, it was about No. 1 breaking up the insurgency that was threatening the U.S. and creating stability for the people that live there, putting an end to the violence,” he said.
Burford is currently a recruiter in Durango and expects to return to working in communication electronics repair in September. In 2022, he will likely retire from the military and plans to pursue a master’s degree in physical therapy.