Veterans Day is Saturday and I’m saluting the day by showcasing three veterans who live in South Pasadena.
Marshall St. John and Joan Kurtz Moffet, with the help of her daughter, gave their reflections of service in World War II, while Bruce Crum, provided his thoughts about what it was like to serve during the Vietnam War.
You could hear the frustrations Crum still carries about how he was treated after he came home after serving 11 months in Vietnam from 1970-71.
“We didn’t get a welcome home parade that’s for sure,” said Crum, who was in the Army from 1968-71 and was a field artillery surveyor. “The media had a lot to do with it. They painted us in a bad light. We were — for the most part — just worker bees, carrying out orders that we were trained to do.
“Most of us were damn proud we served. But I remember when I came off the plane in San Francisco after leaving Vietnam, there was this guy who yelled at me and called me a ‘baby killer’ and another soldier got spit on.
“But that’s behind us now. At the time, I was pretty angry and so were the people I served with. Now, they have parades for us and do all sorts of things. I had a hard time adjusting to that. Let’s just say I’ve forgiven but I haven’t forgotten.
“But I’ve put my life together and got on with it. Some of the guys didn’t (do that).”
Crum came from a military family. His father served in the Army from 1926 until he retired in 1958, and was in the Marshall Islands during WWII. His mother was a surgical nurse in WWII and served under Gen. George Patton in Sicily; and later in Italy.
Crum enlisted and was in a headquarters company, surveying gun sites, and said he did not spend as much time in the field as other soldiers, although he was no stranger to shells being lobbed at the helicopter base where he was stationed.
He also said that Agent Orange was all around him, and although the government did not say at the time, he does know that he returned from Vietnam with asthma, a heart condition and neuropathies in his feet. He also — for years — awakened to dreams of bombs exploding, but he said those thoughts have pretty much subsided.
Crum also knows that things are different today just in the way returning soldiers are treated.
“When you were a soldier in Vietnam, often you were in the jungle one day, and you were on a plane back a few days later. We weren’t kept on the base and there was no sort of come down. We didn’t get any of that. That’s how we were treated — most of us.
“And you were not the same person when you came back. You tried to be, but you’d changed.”
Now, at age 75, he’s retired as an assistant manager for Metro. He’s been a resident of South Pasadena for 34 years.
“They try and put us in a good light and everyone thinks you are the nicest guy,” he said. “I’ve gotten some certificates, and even was in the Eagle Rock parade last Veterans Day.”
Joan Kurtz Moffet’s memory, at age 99, is fading, so her daughter Ann Close helped her fill in gaps as she told me her story about becoming a nurse and joining the Army. She said her father had fought in World War I “and I thought it was the thing to do. I wanted to do what I could to help.”
So after high school, she was able to take advantage of the fact that the country needed nurses and she got in early into nursing school.
Ann Close remembered her mother telling her that when she went to enlist, she was a quarter inch too short, so she stood on her tip toes to pass the height requirement.
Moffet was placed on a hospital ship — the USS Thistle — and eventually found her way to a military hospital at Clark Field in Luzon in the Philippines.
She treated American wounded military, but also Japanese soldiers who came out of the jungle, often wounded or dying and not knowing that their country had surrendered.
“I remember one Japanese man that they brought in. He had ants crawling in and out of his eyes,” Moffet said. “I tried to help him, but I had to excuse the man who was helping me (because of what he saw). The next day, I came in and the bed was empty. …”
Ann Close told me one story about a man who was in an iron lung that her mother was treating. A black nurse came over to help him and he said he didn’t want a black nurse.
“Mom stood up for her and said that she knew just as much as the white nurses, but they wouldn’t let the black nurses work with the patient anymore,” Close said.
“We were women from different areas and all were very nice,” Moffet said. “Everyone stood up and helped each other.”
Moffet’s desire to be a nurse came from the treatment she got from a nurse when she got typhoid as a child. That empathy carried over to her time both on the hospital ship and in Luzon, where she treated patients who had polio, tuberculosis, and jungle rot.
Marshall St. John enlisted in 1945 and the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima just as he was leaving boot camp.
“I remember at the time that the feeling was mostly disappointment because we wanted to see combat. We wanted to do our part,” said St. John, 96, who is a 12-year resident of South Pasadena, and who I have written about during his time serving during his 90s as a school crossing guard.
He remembers he was moved to enlist by the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I went a few days later going to the marine depot to enlist,” St. John said. “I remember people crying in the street when they heard the news about the president’s death. I still have a reverence for FDR.
“And the most changeful thing that happened to me in my generation was WWII.”
St. John never saw combat, but served in the First Marine Air Wing, and in January 1946, he left for Hawaii and then went to pick up Japanese officers who were on various islands, and were being repatriated to Japan.
“The Japanese were being treated better than the Marines because they were eating in the officers’ quarter,” he said.
St. John said that while in the military, he not only learned the value of friendship, but he also got to see the world, being stationed in China.
He credits the military with giving him the discipline that he had lacked as a youngster.
“I had no ballast,” St. John said. “The military taught be how to be responsible. Even now, if I get up in the morning, and I don’t make my bed, I feel bad.”
The other thing he got out of his military service was that he got to take advantage of the GI Bill, which gave him a chance to get a college education.
“You couldn’t beat it,” he said. “If I hadn’t had the GI Bill, who knows where or what I would have been.”
As it turned out, he ended up in college, and a career in broadcasting.
Now, he proudly remembers his military service.
“People automatically assume you were in combat,” he said, “but I try to disavow that, even if they suggest it.”
I end this column with a special salute to my personal vet — my 97-year-old dad Mort — who also served in WWII, and who also credits the GI Bill for giving him a chance for a college degree which launched him to a career in pharmacy.
He also will quickly disavow any idea that he was a hero.
If you know a veteran, give him or her a call on Veterans Day, which became a national holiday in 1938 to honor those who served their country.
A simple “thank you for your service” is the least you can wish for those who did so much to keep us safe in war and to help in times of troubles both domestically and overseas.
First published in the November 10 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.