Wednesday, July 23, 2014

‘Bombs were bursting in the air’

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 11/8/2013

It was pitch black on that midnight in 1942 when Vernon Milburn and thousands of other American GIs set sail from New York City.

“We were kinda zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid any German submarines, and we landed in North Africa,” Milburn said. “We made an amphibious landing on a Landing Craft Infantry.”

It was pitch black on that midnight in 1942 when Vernon Milburn and thousands of other American GIs set sail from New York City.

“We were kinda zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid any German submarines, and we landed in North Africa,” Milburn said. “We made an amphibious landing on a Landing Craft Infantry.”

It was the first of three LCI landings Milburn, 93, Ottawa, would make during World War II, he said.

“We made a trip in train boxcars way across the north part of Africa,” Milburn said. “I forget where we ended up, but there wasn’t too much action in Africa.”

While Milburn didn’t see much fighting in North Africa, he said, the then-22-year-old Army private’s luck would not hold for the rest of war.

“We went to Sicily, and there we had some action,” Milburn, a member of the Army infantry, said. “We were fighting the Italians for a while. It was mainly the whole [U.S.] army would advance across the country. From Sicily, we went to Italy and saw quite a bit of action in Italy.”

Milburn was a member of the Third Division, Seventh Regiment, Company E weapons platoon, he said.

“I fired mortars,” Milburn said. “I was not right on the front line, like the riflemen. We were close behind the front line, so you usually had some protection.”

But Milburn would soon discover while fighting in Italy that the little protection he was afforded was not enough. When he stood to relay a message about spotting a truckload of enemy soldiers at the bottom of a hill, Milburn said, a bullet ripped through his chest.

•••

Ray Carey, who will turn 80 in two weeks, was 22 when the rural Franklin County native was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1955.

“I served at Fort Polk, La., in the First Armored Division,” Carey said. “We were a combat-ready division, but we never got called up while I was in.”

Growing up on a farm about seven miles south of Ottawa, Carey said, his family would listen to radio broadcasts about the thousands of U.S. soldiers like Milburn fighting in World War II.

“We listened to [the radio] because my dad {Grant Carey] served in the first world war,” Carey said. “I was too young to really realize what was going on. You always thought the war was over there. You didn’t realize it could have been here just as easy.”

Serving in peace time, Carey said he did not think he was treated any differently by people than soldiers who had served in World War II and the Korean War, where hostilities had ended two years before he was drafted.

“We all had a job to do, and we knew what we had to do and we got it done,” Carey said.

•••

Milburn knew he had a job to do too, so he didn’t think about the bombs exploding overhead and the bullets whizzing around his mortar platoon like angry hornets, he said.

“Bombs were bursting in the air,” Milburn said. “It was something you had to put up with, you know. Hopefully, it just wouldn’t get you.”

But a bullet did.

“I still have a scar on my [chest],” Milburn said. “The bullet came out underneath my armpit. I was lucky it didn’t come straight through, because it would have been right at my heart, see.”

Milburn recalled being transferred with two other injured soldiers on stretchers from a field hospital to a general hospital, and each one was assigned a nurse. A native of rural Rolla, Kan., Milburn lamented the other two guys got the prettiest nurses.

“I found out, after I got to talking with my nurse, that she was from Kansas, which is my home state, see, so maybe I ended up getting the best one after all,” Milburn said, laughing.

Milburn would be wounded twice more, he said.

“I got shrapnel in my knuckle, and I can’t close my finger any more than that,” Milburn said, holding up his left hand to demonstrate. “I think it was from a bomb bursting in the air. My other wound was in my leg, but it healed up.”

Milburn was awarded a Purple Heart medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters for each of his wounds, he said, and a Bronze Star, a decoration awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement, according to the Army.

The action was just heating up for Milburn, whose unit was transferred to Southern France.

“I think we landed at Omaha Beach,” Milburn said. “We were [Gen. George S.] Patton’s Army.”

Milburn was uncertain what lied ahead, he said, when he hopped off the landing craft into waist-deep water and waded ashore, holding his 1903 Springfield rifle overhead to keep it from being submerged in the lapping waves.

•••

Carey marveled at the blur of men and machines loading trucks at Sharpe Army Depot near Lompoc, in Southern California.

“It was a big shipping point, and it amazed us old farm boys how quick they could load a truck and get it out of there,” Carey said.

The California trip was one of numerous stops Carey made across the country during his 28 years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, he said.

After serving in active duty from 1955 to 1957, Sgt. 1st Class Carey decided to continue his service by joining the Reserves, he said. But that decision did not come without sacrifice.

“We went to different summer camps in California, Wisconsin, Alabama ... They were two-week summer camps every year,” Carey said. “Being in the Reserves took up a lot of time, a lot of weekends [throughout the year]. If you had a family reunion or something, you couldn’t go because you always had a drill to go to. We had a lot of good times when we went on maneuvers while I was on active duty. I enjoyed my time in the Reserves, and I got a little pension.”

•••

Gen. Patton’s army slugged its way across France and into Germany, Milburn, who rose to the rank of staff sergeant, said.

“I fired the first mortar across the Rhone River in Germany,” Milburn said. “I finally ended up in Austria. Then I spent time in England before I was shipped home. I saw Winston Churchill once from a distance while I was in England. I was in the Army for about four years before I was discharged.”

A graduate of Rolla High School, Milburn spent most of his civilian career as a mail carrier, retiring at age 63 from the U.S. Postal Service.

He and his wife, Fay, had three children, Marlyse, Gene and Susan.

Milburn met his wife, Zella Fay Cox, by chance, he said. The couple were married for 55 years until her death, he said.

•••

A 1951 graduate of Princeton High School, Carey worked for 17 years building mobile homes at a plant in Ottawa and another 10 years for a water district while in the Reserves, before retiring at age 63, he said.

“I had perfect attendance all four years of high school,” Carey said. “I like to tell people I graduated in the Top 10 of my class. We only had 10 [students] in the class.”

Carey enjoyed working for the now-defunct Bendix Mobile Home company, he said.

“Bendix was a good company to work for,” Carey said. “They always said, ‘If you don’t want it in your trailer, don’t put it in our trailer.’ When they closed, I was a 53-year-old man, and trying to find a job wasn’t easy. I went to work for Johnson County Water District — a 120-mile round trip every day.”

A squad leader in the Reserves, Carey became a member of the Army Reserves Color Guard in 1975, which traveled to several communities in the area and participated in parades and other ceremonies like those honoring veterans this weekend in Ottawa for Veterans Day.   

“My uniform was just hanging in a closet, so about two years ago I donated it to the Richmond Museum,” Carey said.

•••

Carey and Milburn both worked on farms after they graduated from high school until they were drafted at age 22, and both men retired from the civilian workforce at age 63. The two men have something else in common. They are both residents of Vintage Park at Ottawa assisted living community, 2250 S. Elm St., Ottawa.

Carey’s wife of 35 years, Patricia, also lives at Vintage Park.

“She is right across the hall from me,” Carey said. “I see her a lot, and we eat together.”

Milburn was eager to return home after the war, he said, and see his future bride Fay.

“When we left New York [to sail to North Africa] it was black and you couldn’t see a thing,” Milburn said. “When we came back by boat, I was able to see the Statue of Liberty. That was kinda a thrill. It was a joyful feeling to be back.”

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