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Skagit County WWII veterans recall service

November 12, 2018
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U.S. Air Force Col. Elwin Vernon, 97, served with Gen. George S. Patton’s “ghost army” during World War II as well as served during the Korean War. He is one of five grand marshals to take part in this year’s Burlington Veterans Day Parade.

BURLINGTON — Between 1941 and 1945, about 16 million American men and women served their country in World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

More than 70 years later, many of those are no longer around to tell their stories.

But those who are, including some in Skagit County, can still recount many of the details.

At Saturday’s annual Veterans Day Parade in Burlington, what may be some of the county’s last WWII veterans were honored as the parade’s grand marshals.

While the parade traditionally has one grand marshal, the committee this year decided to have five.

“It gives (WWII veterans) some acknowledgment that they’re involved and they’re thought of,” said Richard Phipps, who with Tom Sheahan are veterans serving on the parade committee.

As of Sept. 30, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are 496,777 living WWII veterans. The department estimates 348 WWII veterans die each day, according to the most recent data.

Phipps and Sheahan both served in the military during the Vietnam War era — Phipps in the Air Force and Sheahan in the Army.

Phipps said he enlisted in the Air Force only to go home later that day and discover his draft notice in his mailbox.

Sheahan, who was drafted, said many of those who fought in WWII did so by choice.

Of the five grand marshals in this year’s parade, most had to have the approval of their mothers in order to enlist in the military.

“These guys all volunteered by choice,” Sheahan said. “What a great group of guys.”

Sheahan, who lost several friends during the Vietnam War, and Phipps, who loaded body bags onto C-130 aircraft to be sent back home, both said remembering veterans is important and that they are honored to be doing just that.

“I feel rewarded that I can help in whatever way I can,” Sheahan said. “I’m hoping (having five grand marshals) will set a precedent, especially for the World War II guys.”

Here are the stories of five Skagit County WWII veterans:

Elwin Vernon, 97, Anacortes

It was 1940 when 19-year-old Elwin Vernon enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

“I did my part,” said Vernon. “I gave good, and I think honorable, service.”

After attending Officer Command School, Vernon was stationed with an infantry division in Texas.

In 1944, he was sent to England where he became part of the team that was behind Gen. George S. Patton’s “ghost army,” which staged an elaborate plan to deceive the German troops into thinking the Allies were going to invade the French city of Calais.

Shortly afterward, he was sent to Omaha Beach.

“But it was quiet when we got there,” he said. “It had already been captured.”

In the mid-1950s, after serving in the Korean War, Vernon was sent back to Germany to help the country rebuild its army, in some cases serving alongside men he had — a decade before — been fighting against.

“Their stories were very different,” Vernon said. “I learned an awful lot of stories about the war.”

Vernon said the difference between serving in WWII and Korea was there was “unqualified support” during WWII, but “dissidence” during Korea.

After both wars, he said, he was happy to be home.

Like many others, Vernon entered the service as a recruit. But nearly three decades and two wars later, he retired from the Army as a colonel.

His advice to men and women returning to civilian life after serving in the military is simple.

“Remember the past, but put your efforts to the future,” he said.

Ralph Jackson, 94, Burlington

Ralph Jackson prefers not to reminisce about his time in the war.

“That was a horrible experience,” he said. “I just don’t want to remember anything about it.”

Jackson was 18 when he enlisted in the Army in 1943. After enlisting, the Walla Walla native said he spent nine months in New York City for schooling.

“That was a drastic change for me,” he said. “That was a good time.”

After D-Day in the winter of 1945, his unit, the 75th Infantry Division, was sent to the Ardennes region in France to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.

“We got there in time to find plenty of fighting,” he said.

He was discharged in December 1946, returning home in time for New Year’s Day.

Decades later, Jackson looks back on his time in the war as something he had to do, but not something he’s necessarily proud of.

“You can’t be proud of killing someone, even though they’re trying to kill you,” he said. “They’re just people, just like we are.”

His advice to Americans is to find ways to avoid war.

“War is just a terrible, horrible thing,” he said. “There’s no glory in it. Elect leaders that can find another way to solve problems between nations than fighting. They’re the ones that screw the world up and get us in trouble in the first place, but they’re never the ones that get shot at.”

Jim Neff, 93, Burlington

Nov. 29, 1943, was the day Jim Neff got called to active duty.

Like many others, Neff was 17 when he enlisted earlier that year — and needed his mother’s permission to do so.

She wasn’t thrilled about the idea, he said, but she signed off anyway.

“It was something that I didn’t have to do it, but I wanted to do it,” Neff said. “Otherwise, I would have been branded a slacker. It was the thing to do then. We had been beset upon by a foreign country, and if you weren’t patriotic, why, you just weren’t a man.”

Neff remembers being sent to Colorado one winter to what was then called Buckley Field.

“It was a mile high,” he said. “Colder than sin.”

After training, Neff was slated to become a bombardier. But with a long wait for that position, Neff said he eventually joined a squad to learn how to be an engineer on a B-29 aircraft.

He was days away from beginning flight school when the war ended.

“It was an honor and it was a duty,” Neff said, looking back on his experience.

Since then, he said, many of the men and women returning from conflicts overseas haven’t been treated as well as the men and women of his generation.

“I don’t think the veterans who are coming back today are being treated fairly,” he said. “We were favored because we had been beset upon.”

Neff said he wants Americans to remember one thing.

“You live in the greatest country on Earth,” Neff said. “And don’t you forget it.”

George Miller, 93, Sedro-Woolley

Sedro-Woolley High School alumni might know George Miller for his decades as a teacher at the school.

But while he was busy helping students achieve their high school diplomas, Miller — who earned several college degrees — had yet to receive his own.

Miller was 17 when he enlisted to serve during WWII.

“There wasn’t any choice,” Miller said.

Miller, who spoke German thanks to his immigrant father, was sent to Germany. After the war, he spent much of his time visiting German residents to ask them what they needed.

“The main thing was they needed food,” Miller said. “I did what I had to do. It was a matter of helping and hoping the whole thing would be resolved.”

Being stationed among the German people, Miller said, made him feel for them.

“The German people aren’t too much different than you and I,” he said. “All the people weren’t war-minded by a long shot.”

After the war, and because he spoke German, Miller attended the Nuremberg Trials where many high-level Nazi officers, including Hermann Goering — once named Adolf Hitler’s successor — were found guilty of crimes related to their roles in the war.

During the war, Miller said he wrote his wife nearly every day, but when she received the letters they had all been redacted in some form.

“They took words out every time,” his wife Gladys Miller said. “I just replaced them with words from my head that I liked better.”

In 2006, after nearly three decades of teaching at Sedro-Woolley High School, Miller received an honorary high school diploma, thanks to a 2002 state law allowing school districts to award diplomas to those who enlisted in the military during WWII instead of graduating.

Like many of his war-time brethren, Miller cautioned Americans against war.

“I would say, stay out of other people’s business,” he said. “We don’t need to be involved in every war.”

Adam Heller, 91, Mount Vernon

Adam Heller was 17 in 1944 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps to be an aviation cadet.

When that program shut down, Heller was sent to Buckley Field in Colorado to train to be a gunner on a B-29 bomber.

“The war ended while I was there,” Heller said.

Heller went on to be stationed at Bolling Field near Washington, D.C., where he decided to enroll in Officer Candidate School. He said he graduated from the school about 1946.

After staying on to teach for a while, he said he was sent overseas to assist in the ongoing post-war occupation as a supply officer.

“Which I knew nothing about,” he said. “Back in those days, a second lieutenant did whatever you told him to do.”

Eventually, Heller became a member of the Air Force’s Special Forces and served two deployments in Vietnam.

He retired in 1975 after achieving the rank of colonel.

“It was an interesting career,” he said.

When asked if he was proud to have had the career he had, Heller’s answer was quick.

“You bet I am,” he said. “It’s something I earned and something that was appreciated by lots of people.”

Heller’s advice to younger veterans is to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them for their service, especially when it comes to education.

When he left the service, Heller earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in political science from Western Washington University.

“You’ve earned them,” he said of the benefits awarded veterans. “My advice is to go your own way and do your own thing, but earn it.”

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