For those who served
On Nov. 11, Americans pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. Here are five of them.
World War II • Army
SYCAMORE – A member of the "Greatest Generation," Pete Johnson served in the U.S. Army in World War II.
"I was just one of 15 million," he said.
Johnson tried to enlist with the Marines with his high school buddy Elmer Nelson in 1942, but since he was attending Northern Illinois University at the time, was advised to wait until the term was up. While in school, Johnson was recruited by the Army, with which he served in the Pacific Theater until 1946.
Although he never landed on an island, Johnson was training for the planned invasion of Japan when it was called off because the Japanese surrendered. Arriving in Japan 30 days after the peace treaty was signed, Johnson said the Japanese were "a beaten nation. The people were starving and living in tin shacks."
Johnson's two brothers also served. Frank flew B-25s for the Marines and Wes was a gunner in the Navy.
"We had the Army, Navy and Air Force covered," Johnson joked. "We were just naive kids. We weren't asking for any glory or any headlines. We did what we had to do. ...When Wes got back, he played high school football."
Near the end of the war, their widowed mother, who had come to this country from Denmark, became ill and was asked if she wanted one of her sons to come home. It was an offer that, in her broken English, she flatly refused.
"She told them, 'Me boys belong there,'" Johnson said, chuckling proudly. "This was the attitude of the country: we had to win the war. ...The immigrants came here and they wanted to defend their country."
Veterans Day brings strong emotions.
"I think of all the kids that were killed," Johnson said, including his friend Nelson, who was killed on Guadalcanal. "Sometimes I ask why them and why me? Those kids could be living my life. We need to honor them. It's a memorial to them. Some of us old people, we remember the sacrifices that people made, and not just the soldiers. Everyone was involved. There was rationing and women went to work. We were a team."
Johnson remembers two specific incidents on troop ships. The first was going out. To avoid being stuck below deck if the Japanese torpedoed his boat, he always slept on deck.
"Of course, it rained every night," he chuckled. "But I still found a lifeboat to sleep under."
The second incident was coming home. Talking with a black soldier about their future plans, Johnson said he was looking forward to returning to college to pursue his dreams of teaching and coaching.
The other soldier just hoped he could walk the streets of his hometown, Atlanta, Ga., without being harassed.
"I was lucky," Johnson said.
– Doug Oleson
Korean War • Army
DeKALB – The Korean War is often referred to as “The Forgotten War.”
“I think most people didn’t know where Korea was and didn’t know the importance of going there in the first place,” said Chuck Crumbacher of DeKalb, who served with the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
Crumbacher volunteered for the draft shortly after his 18th birthday. Within six weeks he was on his way to basic training, followed by a two-week ride on a Navy ship that took him to the opposite side of the planet.
He had never left DeKalb County before he joined the Army.
“I put my name on the draft list,” Crumbacher said. “I was so young I couldn't get a good job with the war going on, and I hadn't decided if I was going to college at that point, so I went in when I was 18. I certainly didn't know that much about that side of the world.”
Crumbacher had worked briefly as a lineman for the DeKalb-Ogle Telephone Company, so when he got to Korea the Army put those skills to work.
“My job was going out in the field in Korea and fixing telephone lines. We made good targets because we sat on top of poles,” he said. “I guess I was kind of naive about being shot at or anything like that. I was more concerned about stepping on a land mine because most of our poles were in rice paddies and you couldn't see where you were stepping. Every rock I stepped on I thought was a land mine. There were a few fellows I worked with that got shot off of telephone poles.”
Crumbacher spent the winter of 1953 in Korea.
“It was terrible,” he recalled. “One of the coldest winters I ever spent in my life was in Inchon Harbor, the site of the big landing that (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur did. I had on every piece of clothing I had and I was still cold. It’s extremely cold, frigid air.”
Earlier this year Crumbacher and fellow DeKalb Korean War veteran Dick Fogel traveled back to South Korea as part of that nation’s Revisit Program, which since 1975 has paid most of the expenses for 28,000 Korean War veterans to revisit the now-thriving nation.
“We were treated like royalty. It was great, and it seemed very sincere,” Crumbacher said. “They were really happy to have us there.”
Crumbacher is keenly aware of the importance the U.S. had in preserving the Asian nation’s independence.
“The South Koreans are looking over their shoulders now. The North Koreans could have easily overrun South Korea, and that’s a fear that the South Koreans have today.”
– Curtis Clegg
Lewis Sheldon Jennings
Vietnam • Navy
SYCAMORE – Lewis Sheldon Jennings was what he called a "bush master."
A member of the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1972, the Sycamore man was a hospital corpsman for the 1st Marine Division, 7th Regiment in Vietnam, 1969 to 1970.
"I wasn't responsible for shooting at other people," he said. "I was responsible for picking up when they hit our guys."
Once he helped a wounded soldier to safety, Jennings packaged them for the helicopter flight to an aid station. He never saw them again, he said, and never found out what happened to them.
Jennings, who said parts of the movie "Forrest Gump" capture his experience, rescued as many as nine wounded soldiers his first day out.
"I wanted to save as many as I could," he said. "We did a good job, but there are still many who are missing an eye or a leg or a hand. ,..I can't change war, but I can change a couple of outcomes."
There was one he couldn't help.
"I had one very bad night – I still have flashbacks – because I couldn't stop a man's death," he said. "He was just married. He and his wife were leaving Florida. Why he told me that on the night he died, I'll never know, but he did. He died before midnight. We never called a helicopter at night for a death. We only called for a helicopter at night for a serious (wound). They owned the night and we owned the day."
Jennings also had the responsibility of making sure a fallen Vietnamese soldier was actually dead by feeling for a pulse. If there was none, he put a card on them to indicate they were deceased.
"War is not normal, normal, normal, that's all I can say," he said. "In war, you would do things you would never imagine here. Never."
Although he "wouldn't change anything," Jennings admits that once, after several nights of duty, he asked himself: "What the heck have I gotten myself into? And how do I get out?"
Once discharged, Jennings said soldiers had to change into civilian clothes because they would be spit on in their fatigues. That happened to him once.
For at least 10 years after his service, Jennings suffered flashbacks. It took another seven years, he said, before he fully adjusted to life back home.
For Jennings, Veterans Day can bring up a lot of bad memories, but August is worse. It was in August a lot of bad things happened to him overseas.
"I used to have a beer for one of the guys that died, but I don't drink anymore," he said.
Occasionally, Jennings will reunite with fellow soldiers, but none from his old outfit. While it was hard to find information on them for years, the Internet may change that.
After leaving the military, Jennings, now retired, was a trauma nurse at Delnor-Community Hospital in Geneva for 30 years. He and his wife, Linda, settled in Sycamore 37 years ago and raised three children.
When he passes away, Jennings will be buried in Abe Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, similar to Arlington National Cemetery.
– Doug Oleson
War in Afghanistan • Marines
SYCAMORE – Bill Becker had to make sure he was allowed to discuss details of Operation Cobra’s Anger, a previously-classified military operation in Afghanistan.
“It was basically one of the first major operations in Afghanistan after Obama took office,” Becker said. “We drove through the city of Now Zad and then went behind it and attacked it.”
Becker was one of 900 U.S. Marines, sailors, British troops and Afghan soldiers who advanced on a remote Taliban stronghold in November 2009 as part of a larger effort to disrupt supply and communication lines, secure the city of Now Zad and allow most of the city’s 10,000 residents, who had fled, to return to their homes safely.
“During my tour we started integrating people back into the city,” Becker said.
The 2006 Sycamore High School graduate enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2008 after briefly attending Kishwaukee College. He told his recruiter that he wanted a combat job for the challenge and because “I didn’t want to join just to do paperwork.” He did not get his first job choices as an infantryman, combat engineer or tank crew member, but he did get a job doing something the Marines desperately needed at the time.
“They had an emergency class for being a scout observer and I had all the right test scores, so they put me in there,” Becker said. An artillery scout observer operates as part of an eight-man team to monitor the movements of civilians and enemy troops, to watch for unusual traffic patterns or suspicious activity and to call in artillery or attack aircraft.
“We have caught guys planting IEDs and we would call for fire,” Becker said. Improvised Explosive Devices have caused a majority of coalition casualties in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001.
Becker's team once found a cache of Taliban explosives.
"We found one that was like 1,400 pounds of HME, which is the explosive they use to make IEDs," Becker said. "I was told it was one of the biggest finds in Helmand Province.”
Becker was discharged from the Marines last year with the rank of corporal, but he will remain on active reserve for four years. In January of this year, he was invited to accompany Congressman Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, to the president’s State of the Union Address in the U.S. Capitol.
“Everyone treated me great,” Becker said.
Since his discharge from the Marines, Becker has returned to Sycamore and is studying engineering at Kishwaukee College.
– Curtis Clegg
Iraq War • Army
DeKALB – Trevor Elliott was a sophomore at DeKalb High School when the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington occurred in 2001. Although his primary interest in school was art, he enlisted in the Army shortly after graduation.
“9/11 happened while I was in high school and I had this sense of pride,” the DeKalb native said. “I felt (military service) was something I had to experience, especially as an artist. I had seen a lot of artwork about the wars and about combat, and as an artist I wouldn’t feel right portraying it in a piece or trying to make a political statement without experiencing it.”’
The budding artist ended up in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, serving two tours in Iraq from 2005 to 2008 – the first near Tikrit, and the second in Baghdad. His job was to maintain computer, radio and tracking equipment for vehicles that delivered supplies to the outlying infantry units. But even with the rigors of Army life near a combat zone, he never lost the desire to make art.
“I really wanted to chronicle the deployment. My first deployment, I didn’t have my camera with me, so I didn’t focus on taking pictures,” Elliott said. During his second deployment, his camera was never far from his side.
“It really started off with taking the camera with us because we’d go to places like the embassy in Baghdad in the Green Zone,” Elliott said. He also photographed fellow soldiers’ promotion ceremonies, landscapes, trips to the Euphrates River and Iraqi people. Fortunately, he was never in a position where he had to decide whether to pick up his camera or his rifle.
“My unit was pretty fortunate. We didn’t have any major incidents,” he said.
Elliott has exhibited his work in Nashville and Watertown, Tenn. and most recently at the Art Box in DeKalb. Since returning to DeKalb, Elliott has focused on raising his family, started a landscaping company and is studying landscape design at Kishwaukee College.
Elliott hopes to someday run for public office or start an art therapy program for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I always want to serve my country and help out when I can,” he said.
– Curtis Clegg