World War II vets' stories keep history alive

Seventh-graders Joe Velazquez and self-described 'B-25 freak' John Smith, with encouragement from Patricia Clarkin-Smith, get autographs from veterans Reamer Cockfield (left) and William Cart at The Citadel's WWII Oral History Project.

They were four members of the Greatest Generation, and for more than an hour they captivated an audience with their experiences during World War II.

One flew B-17 bombers over Germany. Another landed on Iwo Jima. One was a Marine Corps pilot. The fourth almost lost his left arm to a Japanese machine gunner on Okinawa.

The four men, all 80-plus years old, are Citadel graduates who came back to campus Tuesday as part of the school's World War II Oral History Project. Sometimes their stories drew laughter. Other times, the room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

The common theme was that war had changed the course of their lives far beyond what they'd mapped out as young college men in 1941.

"Where's Pearl Harbor?" recalled Burnet R. Maybank Jr., upon hearing that the American fleet had been bombed, adding, "I'd never been west of Asheville, North Carolina."

Months later he'd be flying fully loaded B-17s to Berlin.

Perhaps the biggest life-course change was felt by Reamer Cock- field of Lake City, Class of '45,who was on track to become a doctor like his father, until he joined the Marines and ended up in the far-off Pacific Theater.

After spending a month of non-stop fighting on Iwo Jima trying to dislodge the Japanese, the lingering smells of rotting flesh and gunpowder meant Cockfield would never be able to stomach the medical field. After the war he became an educator.

James A. Grimsley, Class of '42 and the future Citadel president, was wounded on Okinawa, hit in the left elbow by a Japanese bullet. But what affected him most through all the gore was the sight of an anonymous dead American's combat boots sticking out from a covering poncho.

"Under there was some mother's son," he said, before adding that for a dead Japanese, "I had no feeling whatsoever."

The oral project is an effort to record alumni recollections of the war before the passage of years makes it too late. So far, 28 Citadel men have taken part.

Eventually the recordings will be made available for historians and research on students who practically emptied out the school to join the armed forces from 1942-45.

All the men had stories of hardship, of being shipped across the world for training and fighting while thinking of family back home.

Cockfield said his parents worried about him so much — he'd lost 25 pounds by the time he left Iwo Jima — "it hastened their death."

Others spoke of friendships. Grimsley told the 30 or so cadets gathered: "Treasure the first tour you get because you find these are the memories that stick with you most."

Former Marine dive bomber pilot William C. Cart, Class of '44, said the course of war was much different than today, saying that the American public and press is too quick to condemn soldiers for their acts in the current battle theaters.

When he was a pilot, raids were messy affairs with lots of casualties, he said. "I think that's the difference between war then, and war now."

The men's comments hit home for some of the cadets, including one who said he'd already served overseas, in the Army in Afghanistan.

"I felt some of the same things that they have done," said cadet Phil Warner, who is in his junior year at the school.