WWII Marine comrades reunite here|[10/20/05]
Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 20, 2005
On Oct. 19, 1945, World War II was coming to an end and the men of the 21st Company B 3rd Marine Amphibious Corps Signal Battalion were spending their final weeks overseas. For two years, the men had been setting up communications all over the South Pacific and China for the U.S. military.
On Oct. 19, 2005, a group of the same men, from all over the country, gathered in a colorful hotel room in the Isle of Capri Casino in Vicksburg to laugh with each other and enjoy the company of friends and family at their 21st reunion while eating home-baked desserts.
It was a very different scene from the one 60 years earlier and the men preferred to talk about the events of today.
“They went through one of the worst experiences imaginable,” said Voneda Burke of Fairfield, Calif. “They don’t talk about it.”
Burke’s husband died in 1991, but she continues to come to the reunions, held since 1979.
“They treat me like family,” Burke said.
B.J. Cox, 81, of Hattiesburg, is hosting the five-day event this year with his family. Cox said the group prefers to live in the present.
“We never mention the war,” Cox said. “It’s just fellowship.”
Memories of the two years that brought the group together creep into the conversation from time to time, but the memories usually focus on the unusual or humorous elements and the achievements of their time oversees.
Al Torretta, 84, of Walla Walla, Wash., wore a white polo shirt with the words “Guam Liberator” on the top right. He said the shirt was sent to him by the people of Guam.
Joan Grim attended the event with her father, A.B. Croce of Madison, Tenn. She said the veterans still call each other nicknames they gave one another during the war.
“Somebody’s named ‘Shoeless’ and somebody’s named ‘Dad’ because he’s older,” Grim said.
When asked what sticks out in his mind about his time overseas, Hank Roback, 83, of Utica, N.Y., said, “The Paramount Night Club.”
All joking aside, the men could vividly describe the sight of the tall coconut trees in the South Pacific and the destruction of Okinawa.
“We were there to take care of the surrender of the Japanese,” remembered Roback, who, along with his wife, Ellie, helps coordinate reunions.
He said the group installed towers and wires for communication systems.
Richard Parks, 83, of Sutter Creek, Calif., said when the battalion reached Okinawa it was “blown apart.” He remembered the rain and the mud that covered the Jeeps up to the windshields.
The group had to contend with more rough weather on their trip back home. Parks said a typhoon delayed their trip to the United States.
Many of the men at the reunion told of entering the Marine Corps before their 18th birthdays, which would not be allowed today. Some of the men were even younger than 17 when they left for war.
Cox, who’s called the “kid” of the group, was 17 when he entered but told of the time he realized the young age of one of his comrades.
Cox said during the war one Marine from Maryland asked him to open a letter sent from the Marine’s mother back at home. Cox opened the letter and read it.
“She was congratulating him on his 15th birthday,” he said.
Many of the men said they entered the military so young because job opportunities were few at home at the time.
“I was raised up fast, so I felt I was older than that,” Cox said.
One of the group’s favorite topics of conversation is why they chose the Marine Corps.
Parks said he chose the Marines “because we’re tough.”
Roback laughed and said, “The Navy is the best part of the Marine Corps.”
The group has met in a different state for each of the 21 reunions, and this is the first one in Mississippi.
Walt Curtis, 89, of Kingman, Ariz., said this is his first trip to Mississippi and he has enjoyed the green landscape.
“This is nice down here,” Curtis said. “The people have been real nice.”
After a few brief glimpses into the past, the group’s conversation reverted into happier thoughts of the week’s events, such as winning cash at the casino and eating fried fish at the Tree House Cafe.
The group arrived in Vicksburg Monday and will leave Friday after touring historic sites in the area.
Parks said it has been good to get together with his comrades.
“It’s good to see them,” he said. “We’re pretty much like a family.”