Ed Wheeler, 94, had to get his mother to sign papers allowing him and his twin brother, Earl, to enlist in the Navy as 17-year-olds in 1943. While the two never served on the same ship, both ended up on landing ship-tanks with Earl serving as a baker and Ed as a gunner.
Their older brother, Albert, was already in the Navy and served as an inspiration for the twins. Both siblings are now deceased. Ed said from his home in Harrison that he was supposed to be assigned "up north, but somebody stole my pea coat and I got sent to the South Pacific. I wasn't mad about it, 'cause it was a lot warmer."
While the weather might have been more agreeable, the action where he was sent was certainly plenty hot.
"It was no picnic," he said of the things he saw and did while aboard Landing Ship-Tank 825. During his two-year tour, he and the crew were sent to just about every island in the South Pacific including Hawaii, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He said he was one of 80 crew members who worked in three eight-hour shifts. Most of the daylight hours were spent standing guard, learning to deal with the mental strain of the ubiquitous sirens that constantly sounded alarms, warning of possible attacks from Japanese fighter pilots.
Nighttime was a different matter altogether because that's when the Japanese tended to attack — usually just after midnight, Wheeler said. On one occasion, the ship became grounded near the shore. On another the propellor got stuck on a cable the Japanese had placed just under the water, and divers had to wait until morning to get it unstuck because of the constant barrage of shells and bullets.
"They shot at us all night long," Wheeler said.
Those were among his worst nights, he said, but he also spent years trying to rid his memory of the shattered bodies, buildings, vehicles and houses he saw during his time in the Navy.
"He went in a kid, and came out a man," according to his wife, Winnie. "He didn't talk about it for many years. I think he was trying to get it out of his head."
Wheeler said that before and after the Japanese surrender, troops from his ship would be dispatched onto the islands to clear houses of weapons and hunt for soldiers and survivors.
"They'd go 20 men at a time and knock on the doors and demand that any guns be thrown out. Everybody followed the orders except one woman. She got the butt of a rifle up against her face."
Name: Edward Wheeler
Branch of military: U.S. Navy
During another island visit, they came upon a warehouse that appeared to have large patches of black paint on its exterior. Once the soldiers saw the patches move, they realized they were cockroaches. Inside were dozens of malnourished children.
Winnie is three years younger than her husband and grew up just a few streets over in the Lakeview area. She spent the war as a student at Chattanooga Central High School doing whatever she could to help the war effort, including going door to door gathering scrap metal.
She graduated a few weeks after his return home and a friend introduced them. They were married a year later in 1947. He went to school on the GI Bill to learn auto body repair and spent the next 50 years running body shops for several organizations, including at Andy Trotter Pontiac and Adcox Kirby dealerships.
"He did very well," Winnie said.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.