Remembering World War II: Local veterans recall their service

Clifford Johnson (right) listens as fellow World War II veteran Robert LaConto describes his exploits on a B-24.
Clifford Johnson (right) listens as fellow World War II veteran Robert LaConto describes his exploits on a B-24.

It was almost 70 years ago, but Don Mosher can still feel it.

"I can still feel my skin crawl as we climbed down those rope ladders," Mosher, 96, of DeKalb, said as he remembered being one of the first American soldiers to enter Japan after its surrender ended World War II. "It was scary. If they wanted to open up on us, they could have."

A captain in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, Mosher spent four years in the service, serving in both the European and Pacific theaters. While in Europe, he supplied Gen. George Patton's tanks with gasoline during the Battle of the Bulge.

"The gas would come in trucks, and we put them in five-gallon cans and sent it to Patton," he said.

Near the end of the war in Europe, Mosher said the Germans would drop weapons and other supplies to German soldiers in Allied prison camps. The prisoners turned everything they received over to their American captors.

"They didn't want to go back to war," he said.

He also recalled a group of prisoners who refused to leave their camp after they had been freed because the Americans were feeding them.

Perhaps Mosher's most memorable moments came in Japan, which he almost missed because of the weather. Mosher was playing in a softball league when a dust storm kicked up during a key game, causing his team's center fielder to miss a fly ball, resulting in a 1-0 loss. If it hadn't been for that, Mosher said his trip to Japan would have been delayed.

While in Japan, Mosher visited Hiroshima about six months after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb.

"I'll never forget the devastation," he said. "At that time, we didn't know that much about radiation. But after the war, I had two daughters, so I guess I was all right."

Longing for action

"The atomic bomb saved millions of lives," fellow veteran Robert LaConto said. Although some have since questioned the wisdom of using it, he said there was no question about it at the time.

LaConto, 90, was also in the Pacific, serving three years with the Army Air Corps. Originally assigned to be the drummer in the U.S. Air Force band, he said he was in an ideal place – except he yearned to fly. He asked to be reassigned.

"Flying was in my blood," he said.

After a grueling six weeks on a troop ship, he ended up in India as a radio operator/gunner on a B-24, bombing Japanese installations in China.

"We played cat and mouse with the Japanese," he said. He recalled spending Christmas Eve in a foxhole awaiting a Japanese aerial attack that never came."They were good fighters."

LaConto, who flew 34 successful missions without being shot down, said his planes bombed the bridge made famous in the 1957 William Holden movie "The Bridge Over the River Kwai." He was training to be a part of the attack on Japan when the surrender came.

"I can't tell you how relieved I was about that," he said.

'I wish I had been there'

John Hubert Dunn, 92, just missed seeing action in the Pacific. Dunn, who participated in the D-Day invasion in Europe, was in the hospital healing from an injury when his destroyer, dispatched to the Pacific without him, was attacked by three kamikaze planes, killing 51 of his shipmates.

"I regret that," he said. "I wish I had been there."

Dunn, who spent four years in the Navy, was a senior at Southern Illinois University when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He enlisted in the Navy, where he served four years and was commissioned as an officer as a Lieutenant Junior Grade despite not going to the Naval Academy.

Putting the war on film

Ivan Prall of Malta was a student at Northern Illinois University who also enlisted right after Pearl Harbor, driving to Rockford in a 1933 Plymouth he bought for $90, which he still owns.

"There wasn't much else you could do about it," he said. "Everyone was in the same boat."

A photographer for the Army Air Corps, Prall, 92, spent four years recording the war on 15 islands in black and white with a 4x5-speed graphic camera. His most memorable moment was the time he and a Marine were scouting out a cave on Iowa Jima. A shot rang out, going through the Marine and lodging in Prall's right knee. Although he dragged the Marine to safety, he doesn't know what happened to him.

The only treatment Prall ever got for the bullet, which is still lodged in his knee, was a sulphur pill. Despite his wound, he wasn't awarded the Purple Heart.

"There's no pain," he said.

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