Men of 'Greatest Generation' recall World War II

2013-05-26T23:30:00Z 2013-05-28T11:00:37Z Men of 'Greatest Generation' recall World War IICarrie Steinweg Times Correspondent
May 26, 2013 11:30 pm  • 

In commemorating Memorial Day, communities honor those killed while serving in the United States armed forces.

It is also a day people recognize those who went to war and lived to tell about it — the worst of the atrocities and the best of the camaraderie, the horror of battle and the satisfaction of victory.

The Times talked to two local World War II veterans about their experiences. They enlisted at the age of 17 and defended the nation in the Pacific.

John Sanchez


'It was a different time'

One of four Boy Scouts who decided to enlist in the Army together, John Sanchez left his home in Chicago’s Chinatown in 1945 to report for training in Texas, learning to shoot everything from small handguns to heavy artillery.

“The (Scout) Troop broke up because there were no adults left,” he said. All four were sent separate ways, but after the war they learned they’d all landed in Japan -- in different locations.

Sanchez sailed out of Seattle with about 1,400 other men, unsure of where they were going.

“I spent 19 days aboard a ship and a week sicker than a dog — or two dogs,” he said. They landed in the Philippines where they spent six weeks as a replacement team.

They were getting ready for the invasion of Japan and had heard rumors that the Atomic bomb had been dropped.

“We found out on the ship a week later, we heard another was dropped and the war was gong to end.”

Arriving in Japan with a different mission, he became part of the 25th Infantry Division. 

“We were working toward teaching them a peaceful way of life,” he said.

As part of a division of about 80, they came across a Japanese airfield. Before they destroyed the planes, Sanchez said he spotted a Japanese flag that became a souvenir with signatures and sketches drawn on it by fellow servicemen. An American flag went up in its place.

Destruction of weapons and anything used in the war effort became the primary responsibility.

“We read in the papers about what would have happened if we didn’t drop the bombs and how the world would have been different,” he said.

He recalls how in the years before he enlisted, many sacrifices were made back home toward the war effort and every part of life was affected.

“None of the moms were home. They were working in machine shops and factories,” he said. His mother worked night shift at a surgical equipment plant and his father worked in a food plant that shifted its production toward canning foods for the military.

Streets were quiet. On his block of 30 homes, 35 men had gone off to war.

“That’s probably why we enlisted,” he said. “It was lonely and there was really nothing to do.”

When he came home from serving, he walked into his home and saw his mother for the first time in nearly two years. She gave him a big kiss, followed by a slap on the cheek.

“You never wrote!” she said. “I was busy, Mom,” he told her.

For the past 24 years, Sanchez has been an assistant Scout master and he gets questioned. Scouts want to know how many men he shot. “I tell them it’s not a nice thing to talk about,” he said.

They ask him about his worst scenario, to which he responds, “You’re out in the dark, it’s cold, there’s nothing to eat, it’s raining, you’re in a hole, the hole is filling up and you have to go to the bathroom. You didn’t stick your head out of that hole. Everyone lived like that, but when you came back, life was good.”

Life after war for Sanchez involved a 40-year career in the vending business, a wife and five kids.

“It was a different time,” Sanchez said about his eagerness to enlist, which necessitated him lying about his age. “When we heard about Pearl Harbor, we were too young then. There was a different feeling back then. If I had to do it again, I would.”

Richard Rucoba


'I probably wouldn’t be here today'

Admiring the ships he saw as he grew up in the Indiana Harbor neighborhood of East Chicago, Richard Rucoba thought he’d enjoy being on a ship if he joined the military. Two weeks after graduation from Washington High School in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy.

“Everyone was enlisting,” he said. “There used to be posters all over retail establishments and the post office that said ‘Men of 17: the Army wants you.’ I thought it’d be a good idea and thought I’d like to be on a big ship.”

His hopes of being a sailor were quickly dashed as he was transferred to the Marines and sent to Camp Lejeune. He was offered three positions: gunner on an airplane, radio man or the medical corps. He chose the medical corps.

Converted box cars served as troop trains with bunks stacked four high for his trip to the West Coast.

As they left the U.S. coast, he was struck by the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It was a huge, immense bridge,” he said.

Sailing across the Pacific took 22 days due to traveling in a zigzag pattern to avoid enemy ships.

After invading some smaller islands, Rucoba’s unit landed in the Philippines. He said he witnessed Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous “I Have Returned” speech.

“It’s something that wasn’t reported in the newspapers," Rucoba said. "He fell getting off the ship and got wet. He told photographers to destroy all the film and went back in the ship and changed.”

In the field, he worked in tents trying to help the injured.

“We lost a lot of men. I was to treat the wounded and give all the help I could. If they were in pain, we gave morphine. Those we couldn’t take care of usually went to a hospital ship.”

Rucoba returned to America and was scheduled to ship out to Japan in September 1945.

“We were getting ready to invade Japan proper,” he said. “I thank God every day that President Truman gave the OK to drop the bomb in August. If he hadn’t done that, if we’d invaded, the casualty rates for us would have been 80 percent,” he said. “It saved many hundreds of men in the military.”

The use of atomic bombs, though unfortunate, was necessary, he said.

“If Japan was invaded, guards were ordered to kill all the POWs,” he said. “People don’t realize how many more were saved by doing that.” He said he is fairly certain that if Japan hadn’t been bombed, “I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Following the war, he earned his doctor of optometry degree, married and had had three children.

But before the war ended and it seemed they’d be taking part in an invasion of Japan, morale remained high, he said.

“We had no reserves. It was our duty. In those days, when you’re 18, 19, 20, you are full of vim, vigor and vitality. You don’t have concerns about dying.”

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