Ridgefield’s grand marshal battled on beaches of WWII
Amid the white-hot life-and-death chaos of battle, World War II veteran Wally Goodman had a moment of human connection with an enemy he was trying his damnedest to shoot out of the sky.
“The Japanese created suicide bombers, Kamikaze pilots,” Goodman said. “... They’d always come in as the sun was going down and try to blind the antiaircraft fire.”
Goodman, now 94 — and the grand marshal of Ridgefield’s Memorial Day parade this year — remembers that moment he spied a Kamikaze coming his way with the clarity of the young man he was at the time.
He served with a five-man radio operations team and was on a small patrol craft called a PCS, and was assigned to assist one of the gunner’s mates who ran an antiaircraft gun.
“The two of us were out looking way up at the sky and the sun. Coming in, we could see this little tiny speck, it looked like a kind of bird,” Goodman said. “…After it got to a very visible altitude he went into a nosedive and it looked like he was heading for the big ship next to us, the LST. When he was within firing range, we could see the plane very well. We started to fire...
“He was no more than 50 or 60 feet away from us and I saw him very clearly. He was a young man and he has his hands on the wheel,” Goodman said, and mimicked the attitude of the Kamikaze pilot tightly gripping the controls, wide-eyed, completely absorbed in the task of steering his plane to his own death.
“He went right between us and the LST,” Goodman said. “And I thought to myself: ‘There’s a good, decent human being.’ Because he had already attended his funeral. He knew he was going to die. And he decided this was a waste of life and he smashed into the ocean. And I thought to myself if he could do that, he is somebody you could really respect.”
Goodman, who grew up New Rochelle, N.Y., went into the Navy right out of high school. Military training took him from the Finger Lakes of New York to Pennsylvania to Camp Pendleton in California. By the middle of 1944, he was on a ship in the Pacific — part of a five-member combat communications team, or CCT, that included four radio operators and one radio technician.
“Our job was ship-to-shore or shore-to-ship communications,” he said.
Goodman has a vivid memory of his first taste of combat, during the invasion of Saipan.
“It was in June that we landed in Saipan. We went in on the seventh wave,” he said.
“A scene I’ll never forget. The first wave was about 3 o’clock in the morning and we got there at 9 o’clock. As the landing craft came in and lowered the front — lo and behold, on the right side were eight dead Japanese soldiers, their feet on land and their faces in the water. And the same thing on the other side of the gate that came down.”
The team dug in on the beach of Saipan, not far from an ammo dump.
“On the third night it was kind of misty and rainy. The clouds were quite heavy. A group of three Japanese, I guess they were soldiers — the island had about 24,000 Japanese soldiers and their families — these three had no clothes on except for a loin cloth, and their bodies were oily. What they had in their hands were little sticks that caught fire very quickly, and they ran around putting these sticks between the boxes to get the ammo dump on fire, and they succeeded.
“We immediately started to shoot at them and they sensed it, so they ran … One climbed a tree. I’m not sure about the other two, we shot the guy in the tree.”
It was nighttime and dark, hard to see.
“The moonlight would come in and out,” Goodman said. “The reason we knew we got him, the flames would shoot up from these boxes.” Light from the burning ammo dump revealed the body.
“About three hours after this whole thing started, I’m crouching down in the foxhole and once in a while I’d raise my head,” he said.
There was a whooshing sound followed by an explosion.
“I knew something had exploded,” Goodman said “… the sand came up in my face and neck. I didn’t pay any attention to it for a while.”
When daylight came, Goodman could see what had thrown sand in his face.
“It was a shell,” he said. “All of a sudden I thought: I’m here because I was an inch or two away from the track of that artillery shell. And I began to feel close to God.”
Goodman was in the Philippines when President Harry Truman demanded the Japanese unconditionally surrender “or face terrible destruction.”
They didn’t, and Truman approved the dropping of two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The surrender quickly followed and Goodman recalls celebrating with some bottles of sake, the Japanese rice wine.
And he remembers coming home after the service that included Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and sea patrols around the Philippines. They sailed into San Francisco.
He was discharged from the Navy in 1946 after earning a Victory Medal, an American Theater Campaign medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three stars, a Philippine Liberation ribbon, a Personal Liberation Commendation ribbon and a Presidential Unit Citation ribbon.
Goodman returned to school, starting at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, then studying at the University of Missouri and later doing graduate studies in education at NYU, Fordham and Columbia.
At Elizabethtown he met Ruth Adelaid Ehrlen II, who became his wife when both were teaching at different schools in Delaware.
“She was Christian, I was Jewish, and we couldn’t find anyone down there to marry us — except the Salvation Army,” Goodman said.
They moved to Westchester County, N.Y., where Goodman taught high school — subjects including American history, economics, geography and English. He was a department chairman, dean of students and he coached, too — junior high basketball and high school baseball.
Besides teaching, Wally and Ruth Goodman bought and sold antiques, filling their own home and renting space in shops. It’s something he still does.
Goodman has a daughter, Monnie Newman, who works in town for Fairfield County Bank and lives in Danbury, and a son, Larry Goodman, who lives in New Hampshire after a career in advertising.
Goodman moved to Ridgefield from Sherman, Conn., in 1990s. He joined Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3052.
Goodman looks back on his life with a sense of real accomplishment.
“I feel I was put here to do something good, and I did that ... I made better schools, better education,” he said.
Goodman is pleased to lead Ridgefield’s Memorial Day parade as grand marshal and to speak afterward in Ballard Park.
“I’m very appreciative [that] they’re recognizing my work with the VFW,” he said. “I love this town. It’s such a caring community.”