When the battle for Okinawa ended, 12,500 Americans had been killed or lost. The Japanese lost more than 100,000.
Fenwick, hailing from southeastern Oklahoma, was a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman, an advanced kind of medical personnel who landed with the Marines. He almost didn’t make the battle when his first landing craft sank with him and his unit. After shedding his equipment, he managed to swim to a troop ship and clamber back up the cargo nets hanging down the sides. Unwounded, he was reequipped and sent back.
The Japanese, having been schooled by the Germans about the Allied landing at Normandy, waited until all the troops landed before opening fire in order to maximize killing. Fenwick found himself hunkered down in a foxhole with another man. A fragmentary mortar round landed near the foxhole and blew them both out of it.
Fenwick awoke covered in blood, with other Corpsmen cutting off his clothing. “I thought I was dying,” he recalled. “They only do that if you’ve been hit.”
But the blood wasn’t his. It belonged to the other man, who died. A piece of shrapnel hit Fenwick’s body and knocked him unconscious, but it miraculously embedded in the hilt of his government-issue K-Bar knife. He still has that knife, its handle wrapped with 60-plus-year-old electrical tape.
Stark images and events still stand out in his mind — the POW camp that the Marines liberated, and the men there he treated. There was a 14-year-old Japanese girl whose gangrenous leg had to be amputated. And he remembers a little Japanese toddler sitting beside the road, crying, his head bandaged; when Fenwick removed the bandage, a piece of the skull came away and maggots crawled in the wound.
“The hate left me,” Fenwick said of that moment. He treated the child, sent him to the field hospital, and to this day is haunted by his fate, which remains unknown to him.
Fenwick survived World War II, Korea and Vietnam, became a medical researcher, raised four children (including this writer) with his wife of 59 years, and now, at 87 years old, finds he’s one of what newsman Tom Brokaw coined the “Greatest Generation.”
So ... why are those of his generation called the “greatest?” “Well, what do they want?” Fenwick said. “We did everything they asked us to. Wasn’t that great enough?”
With this week marking the 71st anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the sizable contributions of those who served in World War II. Memories, unlike people, can live on — provided those recollections are passed on to younger generations.
Meanwhile, the members of the “Greatest Generation” are dying at a rate of 740 each day.
The advancing age of that generation recently prompted a movement to help its veterans visit the World War II memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit Honor Flight Network flies the veterans to Washington to see their memorial, then returns them home. The entire trip takes one day.
“The window of opportunity, for us as a community and as a state, to act on their behalf is closing very rapidly,” said state Rep. Gary Banz, the founder and executive director of Oklahoma Honor Flights. “We still have an opportunity to say thanks before they are all gone. That’s what drives and motivates us.”
At an October ceremony held at Rose State College, 89-year-old Charles Bryant, a soldier who survived the Battle of the Bulge, echoed Fenwick’s sentiment about being called to service.
“You go over and go through what we went through, I guess you could call it the ‘Greatest Generation,’” said Bryant, who lives in Walters.
In 1944, he was in a Paris hospital, recuperating from stepping on a land mine when his unit, the 30th Infantry, advanced into Germany.
Meanwhile, on Dec. 16 of that year, Hitler ordered the German army to throw everything it had into a massive strike in an attempt to take back territory it had lost from the Allied advance through France. The Germans struck under cover of darkness, during a cold weather front that had grounded Allied aircraft.
So complete was the surprise that many in the American units didn’t have coats for the winter. The commanders brought Bryant and other convalescing soldiers up to the front. He was well enough, they said.
“They took me back to the front lines and my outfit was in the Battle of the Bulge,” Bryant recalled. “Oh, it was so cold, I’m telling you. Bitter cold. Some of the boys, their feet froze. They lost their feet. We had to keep moving.”
Bryant said he and another soldier manned a .30 caliber machine gun on the front — a weapon they could scarcely use, because its sound would draw a German artillery assault.
“They could put the artillery right in on top of us,” he said. “The only times we were allowed to fire w
as when our lives were in jeopardy.”
Three times his unit was almost overrun by advancing Germans, causing him and his fellow soldier to open fire, repelling them. In between these assaults, they tried to stay warm.
“One would lay down in the foxhole, and you would cover him up with a raincoat or whatever we had.
Then after a couple of hours, he’d come up and he would stand guard and you’d go down in the foxhole,” Bryant said.
He survived the war with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and his legs intact, with a little shrapnel for a souvenir.
‘Fate made us look good’
For hotshot P-51 Mustang fighter pilot Stanley Newman, the war was often “fun”— with gravity.
a fighter plane in World War II for a kid like me, it’s like having the
family car with 14 cylinders, six machine guns, no real
responsibilities, just trying to stay alive, and plenty to drink. And
the girls love those silver wings. I hate to say it ... but World War II
was fun,” said the 89-year-old Newman, an Oklahoma City resident and
retired major general.
Then again, there was the time he almost died. As the Allies pushed into Germany, Newman and his wingman were flying ground support for what he later learned was the 45th Infantry Division, Oklahoma’s celebrated Thunderbirds.
“As we started on down, I saw a German jet, an ME 262,” Newman said.
The ME 262 was the world’s first operational combat jet, a plane so fast that most of its targets never saw what hit them. It was one of Germany’s secret weapons, a last-ditch marvel that came too late to save the crumbling Third Reich.
“I peeled off,” Newman recalled. “I had my airplane going as fast as it was able — full dive, right up to the red line speed, about 500 miles an hour. Just before I got into range, he took off. He left me behind like I was walking. He was out of sight.”
White puffs of smoke erupted all around Newman and his wingman. The ME 262 carried 30 MM cannons that shot explosive rounds, any one of which could have taken down the plane. Apparently, one jet was below them, but others were above, closing them in a trap.
“[Explosive rounds] were blowing up all around us. I made a real tight 360-degree turn. I just let loose a stream of bullets. It was going so fast I couldn’t set him up on gunsight. I just let fly with the guns. Whether I hit him or not, caused any damage or not, I’ll never know. I was lucky,” Newman said.
Then the Germans were gone.
Years later, Newman learned that he had dived into a nest of crack German war aces, the “Galland Circus.” Its squadron leader, Adolf Galland, had shot down 106 planes, and had hand-picked pilots for his unit who often had as many, or more, kills.
“Two fuzzy-cheeked 2nd lieutenants took on the cream of the Luftwaffe,” Newman said, laughing.
After the war, Newman finished his college degree, married, settled down, raised kids.
Today, he looks back with gratitude, he said.
“We’re a great generation, but we’re not the greatest,” he said. “How about Valley Forge in the American Revolution? How about Antietam or Gettysburg? We just got better publicity. Some generations are just called to do things. I’d do anything for this country. And that’s what I did.
“But that’s also what these other generations did. ... Sometimes fate just made us look good.”