WWII as seen by poet and historian John Vincent

He was the Downey Rose Float Association's before he was the Downey Historical Society's, John Vincent was, known as the preserver of Downey's history, a poet, and, then and now, raconteur.Sometime back in September, Vincent gave us a copy of his memoir of his part in the war in the Pacific. It's not a book in the ordinary sense of the word but a series of "notes and poetry" he wrote at odd moments during and after a voyage that took him from his basic training days in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to the cusp of the planned invasion of Japan to the exhilarating sight of the Golden Gate Bridge at war's end. Printing was limited to 35 copies, distributed to relatives, old buddies, and friends. (At this writing, he is printing five additional copies, he says). For the Wisconsin native John, the once-in-a-lifetime voyage took a little more than three years, from the time he enlisted on Sept. 8, 1942 as an M.P. (military police) until he was discharged on Nov. 5, 1945 with the rank of corporal. In the main he was a member of the Third Squad, Second Platoon, 211th M.P. Company of the XI Corps. He has a clear recollection of some episodes (both humorous and serious), and otherwise doesn't dwell overmuch on a few incidents. At any rate, John, of a thoughtful poetic nature from the start, is able to paint a faithful picture of the dreary routine of military basic training and guard duty as well as the inanity and tragedy of war. In the very first few pages of his memoir, he right away strikes a note of self-abnegation: he quotes the author Mark Helprin who wrote these eloquent lines in his A Soldier in the Great War: "It was their war. God preserved me, the best stories were theirs, and these were cut short. The real story of war is no story at all. Blackness, sadness, silence…. I describe what I saw of the war, you'll know it from the point of view of the living, and that is the smallest part of the truth-the truth itself is what was finally apprehended by those who didn't come back." Basic training (at Fort Leonard), he said, consisted of "long hikes, full field packs, Springfield rifles and the lot. We had the usual run of odd jobs too, K.P. in regular turns, barracks police-and oh yes routine guard duty in various parts of the post. Pretty routine stuff." Being able to play the clarinet enabled him to become company bugler, and obviated his disadvantage in height and girth ("I was pretty short and slight for an M.P., but I desperately wanted to remain with my friends in the unit"). The next stop was the California Desert Training Center at Camp Young, "some 27 miles due east of Indio located in the Eagle Mountain Range and along the route of the Metropolitan Aqueduct that transports water from the Colorado River to Los Angeles." Here they spent about seven months, allowing them in the meantime to experience some interesting moments. For example, proximity to Hollywood meant first-run movies at the post theatre, seeing Red Skelton do his "Guzzler's Gin" routine in the flesh, passing by orange groves on their way to visiting the Hollywood Canteen, etc. It was said that more than a million and a half troops were trained there in the years from 1942 to 1945. In any case, John says he arrived at the training center "months after Patton and his tanks had left for North Africa." Somewhere along the line, he would learn to sing the praises of Spam, a product much maligned these days. "Until the morning of Jan. 15, 1944 I'd never seen a ship, let alone sail on one," John recalls of the next chapter of his odyssey. His ship, the U.S.S. Monticello (there were 8,500 troops on board) from its embarkation point of san Francisco reached Milne Bay, New Guinea ("in a tropical rain storm") some 14 days later, with most on board getting sick. Then they inched their way to Finschaven, then Aitape. These New Guinea ports are unfamiliar names, but in reality they stood in sealanes that had to be navigated in the face of enemy torpedo planes and suicidal Japanese elements The immediate vicinity bore more historic names, where sea battles were fought: Coral Sea, Solomon Sea, Rabaul. During a lull he wrote a letter to his folks, dated 9/2/44, excerpts of which follow: "Dear Mom and Dad, …I am pretty well satisfied with the job I am doing these days…anyhow a guy always feels better when he knows he is helping the war effort even a little bit. I have been doing a little traffic directing the past few weeks but mostly I do guard duty. It gets sorta tiresome at times but it's a very necessary job…John." The Philippine Campaign portion of their sea trek started when they landed at Dulag, Leyte on Nov. 14 from their staging area in Morotai, "after having survived a number of attacks by Japanese aircraft during the previous afternoon and evening," notes John almost nonchalantly. It was about this time that the Battle of Leyte Gulf raged. Then this paragraph: "Left Tacloban, Leyte on Tuesday, Jan. 23 (1945) aboard U.S.S. Sarasota for the invasion of western Luzon, landing at San Narciso, Luzon and advancing to a village called La Paz. Was on traffic duty all night, and the next morning boarded a navy LCM which took us down the coast to Subic Bay which we entered and debarked at a place called Rifle Range Beach." From here John says, "We motored through Zig-Zag Pass (of Bataan Death March fame) to a series of towns in the central plain of Luzon: San Fernando, Guagua, Pulilan, Plaridel, Calumpit, Malolos (the provincial capital)"-towns with which I am very familiar, having traveled through them innumerable times. It was at Calumpit (the alleged headquarters of the notorious group of dissidents called Hukbalahaps-Huks for short) where somebody pointed out Luis Taruc, who was later to become its infamous head. After a little while, they were sent to the port town of Batangas, south of Manila: it was the staging point for the planned invasion of the Japanese Home Islands which promised to be bloody and "to which," says John, "all our training pointed." "We arrived [in Honshu Island] on Sept., 2, 1945," John says, "and I spent the night there on an intersection doing traffic duty in an otherwise almost deserted downtown Yokohama. As it happened, it was V.J. Day." The planned invasion of Japan Home Islands never took place. "We arrived in San Francisco on Oct. 24. I can still recall the thrill of the pennants and boats and whistles as we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. I was discharged on Nov. 5, 1945," John says. Following the war John came to Downey and became chairman of the science department at Santa Fe High School. He was to teach for a good number of years. "The period which I describe in my memoir," he says, "was the most exciting, interesting part of my life." John celebrated his 88th birthday on Aug. 12.

********** Published: December 4, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 32

FeaturesEric Pierce