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WORLD WAR II: THEY WERE THERE
In 1935 the first neutrality act was passed, which meant that America would not be allowed to sell weapons to warring nations. In 1939 Americans steered clear of the war that broke out in Europe.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first and only president elected to three terms. He answered all critics with Abraham Lincoln’s slogan “Don?t change horses in midstream”. He was nominated to his third term in 1940. Shortly afterward, in March of 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed us to sell or lend war materials to any country whose survival was vital to the defense of the United States. America was slowly getting involved with the war.
On December 7, 1941, everything changed. Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, was attacked and heavily bombed by the Japanese. The next day Roosevelt, Congress, and the American people declared war on both Japan and Germany. World War II was already two years old when America entered the war. Even though Japan was conquering bits and pieces of Asia, that was not FDR’s main concern. He was more worried about Hitler?s advance through Europe. By 1940 Germany had taken over Holland and France. FDR felt that if he waited any longer, it would be too late to protect the rest of Europe.
At the end of 1941 the United States faced a tremendous task. America had to change its economy into making goods for the war. It was also crucial for America to build up its armed forces. The draft was created. Over 10 Million men were drafted. Another six million men and women enlisted. Even though the war would be fought in many distant places, victory depended on the war effort at home. During the war women were encouraged to take jobs. They were able to gain better pay than ever before. The war also changed fashion. Instead of wearing skirts, many women began to wear trousers. Many think that this was also the beginning of the feminist movement.
In early 1942, Germany seemed almost unstoppable. Most of Europe was in German hands. German soldiers started taking over some of Russia?s territory. But the Russians fought back fiercely. As the Russians retreated from the invading Germans, they burned crops and farmland so that the Germans would find the conquered territory useless. This caused terrible hardships among the civilians, and millions of Russian citizens suffered and died.
On the other side of the world in the Pacific, Japan also seemed unbeatable. Right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overran Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Because America was focusing on the war in Europe, there were few troops to spare for the incredible task of defending the Pacific.
Because America and other Allied countries were fighting the war on three large fronts, the war continued for much longer than everyone hoped for. But by the end of 1942, the tide seemed to be changing. The allies started having success. In October of 1942, major victories were being won on all three fronts, in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Mussolini was having trouble with the Italian people who were getting tired of the war. There were ongoing revolts. The Italians eventually overthrew Mussolini. In September of 1943, the new Italian forces joined forces with the Allies. Things were looking better and better. But the war was far from over.
June 6th, 1944 was D-Day, the day when the Allies launched their invasion of Europe with a fleet of 4000 ships. Troops landed on the French coast at Normandy. They faced immediate gunfire. Americans suffered heavy losses, but they pushed on. On August 25, 1944 the Allies entered Paris. The French were liberated from German rule.
It was election time again, and to no one?s surprise, FDR was running again. He won the election. But five months later while on vacation, Roosevelt suffered a stroke and died. Truman was now the President.
American troops continued making advances in Europe. On May 7th, 1945 Germany surrendered. Now America could concentrate on fighting the war in the Pacific. America used a strategy called Island Hopping. By the late spring of 1945 American bombers were pounding the Japanese home islands. American ships bombarded the coast. The Japanese people were suffering terribly, but the Japanese would still not consider surrendering.
In late July the Allies proposed the Potsdam Declaration. They told Japan to surrender or face prompt destruction. Japan ignored the Allied threat. On August 6, 1945, an American bomber dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima Japan. Japan still said nothing. Three days later the United States dropped another atomic bomb – in Nagasaki. The blast killed 50,000 people. Japan then had no choice but to surrender.
My grandfather, Alfonso Herrera, was born in 1924 in Santa Paula, California. His father was a stone mason. He had four brothers who all went into the Army with him in World War II. He?s now 73 years old and lives in San Fernando, California.
My great-great-great-uncle, Jimmy Snyder, was born in 1916 in Bovard, Pennsylvania. His father was a coal miner. He had ten older brothers who all fought in World War I. Jimmy was the only brother who fought in World War II. He is now 82 years old, and he lives with us in Santa Barbara.
(I interviewed both men in their homes, using the exact same questions. I wrote all of their answers down as accurately as possible. I have only edited their words to eliminate repetition and make things clear.)
Alfonso: I didn?t really think about the war very much until I was drafted. My family didn?t want me to go, but I didn?t have any choice. When the war began, I worked for Sears & Roebuck as a tire recapper. That involved lots of mechanical and automotive work.
Jimmy: I didn?t give it much thought until it started. That?s when I was transferred from the Navy to the Merchant Marine. My father and my ten brothers had all been in the service in World War I, so they were rather opposed to me entering the Navy in the first place. But when I entered the Navy, it was just about the only job around because of the Depression. Ever since the fifth grade, I?d heard about the Navy, and since I was a lifeguard when I was a teenager, I knew that I?d be able to swim if anything ever happened to a boat I was on. So the idea of being out at sea seemed pretty nice to me. Besides, it was either go in the service or go to work in the coal mine with my father, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. So when the U.S. entered World War II, I was already in the Navy.
Alfonso: I was 18 when I was drafted. I didn?t choose anything. When they drafted me, they just put me in the Army?s Ninth Armored Division. That was March 19th, 1943.
Jimmy: I was 19 when I entered the Navy, but I was 26 when the war started. At the very beginning, they needed more ocean-going transport than they needed sailors. We were already involved in some of the lend-lease stuff, moving supplies to Europe and across the Pacific, and I guess they needed more transport at the very beginning, so I was transferred over to the Merchant Marine.
Alfonso: By the Spring of 1945, I was in Buchenwald and Dachau Germany with the Ninth Armored Division. I was transported there by the Army, first by train across the U.S., then across the Atlantic aboard The Queen Mary.
Jimmy: In the Spring of 1945, I was in Port Au Prince, Haiti, aboard a Standard Oil tanker, a real rust-bucket. We had been transporting oil between the States and the other Allies and were on our way to the Panama Canal and the Pacific battle zones.
Alfonso: We fought the Nazi SS Troops as well as the German Infantry. Everybody?s fighting tactics were determined by the weather, which in the Winter of 1944-45, was extremely cold. The Nazi tactics were purely defensive at this point, as the Ninth Armored Division was clearly on the move toward Berlin. One of the things that still stands out in my mind about the Nazis, particularly the officers, is that even in the struggle of wartime battle, they were very stylishly dressed. Their uniforms were perfect grey flannel with nice buttons and beautifully shined black boots. The other thing I remember about the regular troops we came across is that they were extremely young, much younger than most of us.
Jimmy: Whenever we were in the Atlantic, we were always worried about the German U-boats. We didn?t have radar on board most of the ships working the Merchant Marine, so we did a lot of dead reckoning which wasn?t too dependable.
When we were in the Pacific, there was always trouble with the Japanese fleets, especially toward the end when the kamikaze planes were used. Once we had three transports in a fleet, cruising in pretty tight formation when the Japanese came after us with everything they had. Our sister ship just off our starboard side took a kamikaze hit right on deck. Missed us by about fifty yards, I?d say.
Our tactic for the kamikazes was to shoot them down before they could get to us. The one enemy that stands out in my mind is this Japanese kamikaze pilot who didn?t go for his target, but ditched in the sea instead and was captured by us. I met him after we took Okinawa and he told me how they flew their missions. One shot of sake wine and a long lecture about dying for their emperor. They had a pretty strong believe in the afterlife and honor, I guess. Anyway, I guess this guy had a stronger belief in the here and now.
Alfonso: The most action I ever saw was in Bastogne, near the Luxembourg borner. We were trying to relieve the 101st Airborne Division under General McAuliffe. The 101st was being pinned down and forced to surrender by the German Army. McAulliffe is the one who was supposed to surrender to the Germans. Instead, he sent them the famous message: ?Nuts?. We came in with of Gen. Patton?s Third Army under Col. Blanchard. Our tanks and men traveled 150 miles in 19 hours, which was sure a surprise to the Germans. That was all on the day after Christmas, 1944. I was personally in charge of our company?s bazooka squad. They were great weapons, but very heavy and bulky. I was riding on the back of a halftrack as we were trying to create a defensive position. There was a tank in front of us. Once we had our defensive perimeter, we broke for lunch. There was a lot of noise nearby with rocket shells landing in the vicinity. But you could tell by the noise whether or not a shell was going to come close enough to worry about. We were all pretty calm about it until we heard one coming down right on our position. Suddenly, eating lunch wasn?t quite as important as it had been. There was a sudden explosion about 20 yards away, and I went diving off the halftrack. I felt a pain in my foot, and when I got up and saw about 15 of my guys dead on the ground all around me, the pain in my foot became pretty bad. I fell down and covered my head when more shells started to land all around us. I was calling out for the Medics, but nobody was around. Pretty soon, things got quiet again, and I jammed my rifle into the ground and hung my helmet on the butt so that anyone coming would know I was there and alive. About two hours later, the Medics showed up. Before putting me into their truck, they tried stipping my rings and bracelet off me, along with anything else of value. Luckily, I was conscious enough to prevent that, but it sure gave me an idea of how people can act at times like that. I don?t blame those guys, really. It was just part of surviving in a pretty bad situation.
Jimmy: The worst action I ever saw was when we had two guns on deck, one 5-inch forward and another 5-inch aft. Once we had a new deckhand who was supposed to be a gunnery specialist. He took the forward 5-inch in the middle of a kamikaze run and he went through an entire magazine of ammo, but when it came time to change magazines, he couldn?t let go of the trigger handle. The guy was frozen stiff, scared out of his mind, his whole body rigid. We had to pry his fingers loose and get him out of there. Some specialist. He wasn?t even a very good shot.
Alfonso: At the time, I was just scared. We were fighting day and night. You never knew when the fighting would stop or if you?d be around when it did stop.
Jimmy: At the time, I didn?t really mind it. I figured it was just the way things were.
Alfonso: The 9th Armored was often put into situations where we were told our chances of survival were very slim. We didn?t have a chance to think about it much, because the cold and the snow was just about all you were dealing with it. There were guys who would go to the latrine area to squat and relieve themselves who died there, squatting just like that when they froze to death. From then on, nobody was allowed to go to the latrine alone. Two-man details to the latrine didn?t do much for morale at all. Luckily, my tent-mate was an older guy?around 25, I think?who was from Louisiana and knew a lot about camping and surviving out in the woods. He taught me a lot about keeping it together out there.
Jimmy: I?d say most of the guys I was with were hard-heads. Stubborn, mostly. I don?t know about courageous, but stubborn as hell. We were always cramped for space with four men to a cabin. You could stand in the middle of the cabin and touch all four walls, but it was better than the hammocks we had when I first went in back before the war. We spent most of our time keeping things running. On board a ship, maintenance is the main thing. Sometimes I?d be the man on the 5-inch, other times I?d be crew chief. There was always plenty to do. Sometimes we?d find a life jacket floating around in the middle of the ocean and we?d use it for target practice. Like I said before, the guns were supposed to be manned by the gunnery specialists on board, but those guys would go through a whole magazine of ammo without hitting anything. I once bet this guy I could hit it before he could, and I got it on the second shot. Won that bet, but I forget how much it was for.
Alfonso: We were all worried that the Germans would figure out how to attack American soil, and we knew that what we were doing would at least help prevent that. We were told that without us, the Nazis would have all of Europe and Africa and then it would just be a matter of time before they?d be in the U.S.
Jimmy: We were all volunteers in the Merchant Marine, so it was like we felt a little more righteous than regular draftees. The thing was, we weren?t in combat much, but everything we did got the soldiers and their supplies where it had to go. Without us, nothing would have happened.
Alfonso: We saw the enemy all the time. We didn?t really stop to feel anything about them. We just knew we had to kill them before they killed us. I saw so many of my friends killed that pretty soon it seemed kind of normal. It was sad, but there wasn?t really any time to be sad when it happened.
Jimmy: Sometimes we saw them, but usually, it was reports of enemy ships in the area. The kamikazes, you just saw the planes and the explosions. But there was this boy from Pennsylvania on board when we were in the Pacific. His name was Jack. He was about 16 or 17, I think. We had safety rails all around the main deck and I told this kid to keep the hell off the deck because it was always awash and slippery as hell. Most of us older guys had seen all the horizon we needed to see so we stayed below as much as possible. Then one day we heard some machine-gun fire above and we ran out there just in time to see a Jap Zero pulling away. And that kid Jack was on the deck, dead. When we finally went home, I had to tell his mother what happened. That was pretty damned sad. I never wanted too many close friends on those ships. The odds were somebody was going to get killed and if you were tight with them, it was hard. It was better not to get too close to guys. I think I had maybe two other good friends during the whole thing. We?d keep moving from ship to ship just to keep ourselves lucky.
Alfonso: I knew there was plenty of danger because I saw lots of good guys get killed. And when I was wounded by the shrapnel, I felt lucky that I was only wounded in the foot. As dangerous as it was, and as bad as it was, it was definitely worth it to keep the Nazis from attacking America.
Jimmy: Anytime you?re on a ship in the middle of the ocean, it?s risky. The Pacific can whip up some pretty nasty typhoons and the ships would make so much noise groaning and popping you think she?s going to tear apart. We used to pull the fleet together in those typhoons which just seemed more dangerous to me. I was always worried about some other skipper letting his ship drift into ours. Was it worth it? I guess so. It had to be done. Besides the Marines, we had the greatest number of men lost in the war. But people don?t seem to know much about that.
Alfonso: Hitler would have taken over the world. The Nazis would have killed everybody with any ethnic background, including us Mexicans. Hitler would have probably turned on the Japs at some point and tried to wipe them out too. I knew that if we won the war Hitler wouldn?t have had a chance. I?m just very happy we did win.
Jimmy: I didn?t have any hard feelings toward the Japanese or the Germans. I knew they didn?t want to be there either, any more than I did. I never once thought we?d lose. It was kind of like going into a baseball game. If you think you?re going to lose, you will for sure.
Alfonso: When the war ended, I was on the German coast, trying to get my ?points? so that I could get shipped back to the States. You were given ?points? for various service duties, including bravery in battle, wounds suffered, things like that. While I was waiting, we saw how few things the German people had left. I had a Mickey Mouse watch that my sister had sent me. She?d paid five dollars for it, and I sold it to a German guy for $1,000!
Jimmy: When it ended, I was in the Persian Gulf, heading for Okinawa. We didn?t know anything about Truman dropping the bomb.
Alfonso: Afterward, the people of Germany were very thankful that we defeated the Nazis.
Jimmy: After the war was over, I was in Okinawa. The people there were very frightened of us. I guess the fighting there had been pretty hard on everyone, not just the military. It was obvious they thought we were there to punish them. But all we wanted was to get out of there and get home.
Alfonso: I was the last one of my five brothers to come home, so it was like a family reunion. My parents had been praying to God for our safe return, and their prayers were answered.
Jimmy: All I remember is feeling total relief when we finally got home. We were so happy to be home. Now we could take time off, get a break whenever we wanted. During the war, there was no such thing as taking time off. Now we could get all the time off we wanted. It was a good feeling to be able to relax.
Alfonso: Everybody I knew felt that Roosevelt was a very good man, that he was always looking out for the little guy and the working man. His leadership during the war was strong, and we were all very surprised when he died before the war was over.
Jimmy: Roosevelt was the right man for the time. We had been in pretty bad shape before the war and during the Depression. I?m not sure that FDR had anything to do with my branch of the service, but after the war we had a chance to see him in person and he made this little speech about how valuable the Marines had been in the Pacific, and we new that meant us too. I don?t really give it much thought now.
Alfonso: When he became president, we didn?t know much about Truman at the time, but when he made the decision to drop the Atom Bomb, we all knew that it was the right thing to do. It was really the only way to end the war with the Japanese.
Jimmy: I liked Old Harry. He stepped into the worst job in the world and did a hell of a job with it.
Alfonso: We?ll never have another war like that one. The Atomic bomb will be used and we won?t need huge armies to fight each other any more.
Jimmy: Another war like that? Never. We won?t have to use ground troops again. We?ll just go to the air and use missile power. Any military losses will be right here at home. We won?t have to go anywhere to get ourselves blown up.
Alfonso: There isn?t much I would do differently if I was sent to war again. Our battle unit had it pretty good compared to a lot of other infantry divisions.
Jimmy: Nothing I would change. I liked the way things worked out. After all, I made it, survived. Got to be pretty happy about that.
Alfonso: The world is much better now. There aren?t any serious threats to America anymore, although if we get into another war, the Atomic bomb will be a problem because other countries have it now too.
Jimmy: I often wonder if the world really is any better off now than it was during the war. I know the economy is better and life is better for a lot of people. Obviously medicine is better with penicillin and the operations they can do now. But I?m not sure.
Never did I think that by doing a project in history would I realize how important a part my grandfather and great-great-great uncle played in the history books. Interviewing them enabled me to spend extra time with them and gave me a personal account and some specific insights on World War II. I also came to the realization that these two men were very different from each other in almost every way possible, but they both nonetheless were helping America strive for the same goals and contributed to the war effort wholeheartedly. Talking to both men, especially my grandfather, helped me understand the thinking and war mentality that these soldiers had.
They took me to several different countries and made me realize the huge role America played in the war. Even though war is not always good, World War II was good for the United States economy, and kind of snapped much of the world out of the Depression.
I am proud to have Private Alfonso Herrera and Seaman Jimmy Snyder as members of my family. These men bravely fought for the freedoms that we Americans now enjoy.
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