D-Day — 66 years laterPals with WWII ties have memories to share

Published 12:31 am Sunday, June 6, 2010

Every morning, hundreds of hurried folks impatiently bustle in and out of the McDonald’s on Iowa Avenue for a quick breakfast or caffeine fix, mostly unaware of the chapters of history chatting and laughing in the booths over by the kids’ play center.

Linn McDuff, Luther Warnock and Joe Gerache — all World War II veterans who served in the Pacific — have been meeting with a loose group of roughly a dozen friends and veterans for coffee each morning, except Sundays, for more than a decade. The tradition began at the Corn Dog 7, but shifted to McDonald’s after the Pemberton Square mall eatery closed a few years ago.

Still calling themselves the “Corn Dog 7 Coffee Club,” the men spend their mornings talking sports and weather, trading friendly jabs, telling old stories and musing about the state of the ever-changing world. Gerache and McDuff are 84 years old — Luther will join them next Sunday — but their spirited conversations and quick wit make them appear decades younger.

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The men banter back and forth in the same manner one imagines they might have during their basic training and service abroad more than six decades ago. They’re not gun-shy about sharing their experiences in World War II, though they said the topic doesn’t come up that often over coffee each morning.

“You should have come to see us 15 years ago when we still remembered some of this stuff,” joked Gerache, a retired pharmacist.

The three veterans are planning to commemorate today’s 66th anniversary of D-Day, the beach landing at Normandy, by visiting the gravestones of Bernice “BC” Smithhart and Marlin Elmo Ellis, two coffee club members and World War II veterans who died last fall. Gerache, who was first drawn to the military after seeing the Vicksburg Sons of The American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps as a boy, will play Taps at the graves.

Getting to war

Gerache and Warnock are Vicksburg natives, while McDuff was born and raised in New Orleans’ now-infamous Lower 9th Ward. At age 17, Gerache and Warnock enlisted. McDuff had turned 18 only a few months before he signed up with the Army, but still felt a little behind the curve for having to wait so long.

“You have to remember that back in those days all 17-year-olds tried to get in the service at one time or another. It’s not like it is now,” he said. “Everybody you knew who was over 18 was already in the service, and you were going to get a draft letter anyway. If you signed up, at least you had a chance at doing something you wanted to do.”

Gerache began his service in the Navy, but as a pharmacist in training, he was transferred to both the Army and Marines before his time at war was over. The constant reconfiguration of troops forced him to take basic training three times before leaving the West Coast for the Philippines in early 1945.

“We were the best trained bunch of pharmacists on the West Coast,” Gerache chuckled, noting the trans-Pacific journey to war took 42 days.

Warnock also entered the Navy, where he was trained to work on repair ships and would go on to service everything from battleships, destroyers and supply ships during the 18 months he spent in the Pacific. Like Gerache, Warnock reached the South Pacific in early 1945, one of a crew of 900 servicemen aboard the USS Briareus AR-12 repair ship.

“We could repair anything on any ship, even one that had been torpedoed,” Warnock said proudly. “When we were in Okinawa Harbor, there were 400 ships there, and they all needed something.”

Warnock said his duties on the ship primarily included procurement. When asked what that meant exactly, his face widened into boyish grin.

“That meant we got whiskey for the officers!” he said, jolting his friends into laughter. “But you can’t put that in paper. Just say we got all the supplies for everyone.”

As Gerache and Warnock made their way to the Pacific, McDuff, meanwhile, was stateside, finishing up his yearlong Army training in chemical warfare. He wound up in a Civil Government Company along the 38th Parallel in what has since become South Korea, arriving in September of 1945 with orders to help the Koreans establish a new republic in the south.

The Japanese, who had controlled all of Korea since 1910, had been flushed out of the country by the United States and Russian forces a month before McDuff arrived and had just surrendered to the Americans.

“We really didn’t know what to expect or what we were going to be doing,” McDuff recalled. “We landed in Korea like we were invading the place. We had been preparing to invade Japan, but by then the bombs had been dropped and they’d surrendered.”

The war

The Americans had made steady progress against the Germans in Europe in early 1945, and by April it became clear the Germans would soon be forced to surrender and the entire focus of the war would turn to the Pacific. The U.S. soldiers in the Pacific began preparing to invade Japan, which Gerache said was expected to bring even more casualties than the famed landings at Normandy the year previous.

“They had told us to expect 75 to 80 percent casualties,” he said.

“There weren’t going to be any prisoners,” added McDuff. “They had told us everyone would be fighting in Japan — men, women and children — and you’d have to kill them all if you were going to win the war.”

Gerache eventually found himself on Okinawa Island, off the southernmost tip of Japan, but not before a stop in the Philippines province of Leyte. There, he said all the medical supplies were stolen by Army GIs the day before his unit arrived, forcing them to hike into the jungle to take refuge with another unit. If it sounds disjointed and unorganized, Gerache said, it was.

“Oh, man, I’m telling you, it’s a wonder we won the war, if you want to know the truth about it!” he said, laughing. “But I understand this was the way it was in Europe, too.”

In the jungle, Gerache recalled some Japanese loyalists holding out in the nearby mountain so desperate for food, they would steal U.S. military uniforms from clothes lines at night in a daring scheme to get a meal.

“They were coming down the mountain and getting in the chow line at dusk with U.S. uniforms on,” he said. “They were starving to death. It got to the point where the master at arms had to stand in the doorway and check dog tags.”

Gerache’s unit was eventually moved north, where they caught the tail end of a typhoon in Manila Bay. On Easter Sunday 1945, Gerache’s unit reached Okinawa and was told it was time to head ashore and begin preparing the larger invasion of mainland Japan.

“We started loading aboard those invasion barges and, let me tell you, you’ve never lived until you’ve climbed down the side of a ship along those cargo nets and tried to get into one of those barges as it’s bouncing up and down in the sea,” he said. “The net didn’t reach all the way to the barge, so you had to drop the last five or six feet into them, and some of the boys didn’t make it. They fell in between, and with all their packs and gear on they went straight down and never came up.”

Because American troops were amassing on both the east and west sides of the small island — roughly 5 by 19 miles — Gerache said his unit was able to scoot ashore without incident as the Japanese troops retreated south.

“We went to Orange Beach on the west side of Okinawa… and we walked ashore,” he said. “We got to the center of the island and set up a hospital, where we handled the wounded from the front lines.”

Warnock, had also made his way to Okinawa Harbor by this time, also via a stopover in the Philippines.

“We were getting ready for the invasion in the harbor when they dropped the bomb on Japan,” Warnock recalled. “I didn’t know it at the time, but Joe was on the island whenI was in the harbor.”

“And they were shooting at those kamikazes up over the island, and all that crap was coming down on top of us,” laughed Gerache. “It was 350 miles away, and we felt the tremor of Hiroshima. But we just thought it was one of the earthquake tremors that they had all the time.”

When the Americans dropped the first ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Gerache and Warnock — like most the other soldiers — had no advance knowledge of the weapon or any warning it was going to be used.

“We heard that the U.S. was working on a secret weapon, and what we had heard was it was like a giant flame-thrower,” Gerache said. “Nobody have ever even heard of such a thing as an atomic bomb.”

Six days after the detonation over Nagasaki, on Aug.15, Japan announced its surrender, signaling the end of World War II. The soldiers, however, had already begun celebrating the end of the war, said Gerache.

“The night the second bomb was dropped, the island exploded with celebration,” Gerache said of his fellow American soldiers. “The guys who had never fired a machine gun before got to those machine guns and aircraft guns, and they were firing them off in all directions; throwing hand grenades. It was madness, I tell you, it was absolute madness.”

And was the celebration similar for the American boys afloat in Okinawa Harbor?

“Oh yeah!” said Warnock. “Man, they was drinking that torpedo juice left and right!”

Torpedo juice, for those who have never strained a strong drink through loaf of bread, was a Navy innovation during World War II that lightened the load for many servicemen. The seamen took the pure grain alcohol used in the torpedo motors, strained it through bread to get rid of most of the impurities and usually mixed it with a little pineapple juice for flavor.

Though the war was over by the time McDuff got to Korea, he stayed there until the spring of 1946. He never did set foot on Japan, and said he’s thankful he never had to.

“In the service, small things happen to you that change your life forever,” said McDuff, who rattled off a string of simple twists of fate beginning with his basic training that likely saved his life throughout the war. “If (President Harry) Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb on Japan, we’d still be over there — six feet in the ground.”

With most estimates ranging from 50 million to more than 70 million soldiers and civilians killed worldwide, World War II was by far the deadliest conflict in history. Of the more than 16 million who served the U.S. forces, more than one million were killed, wounded or left missing in action. According to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report released last fall, approximately 2.2 million U.S. World War II vets are still alive today, their average age being 86.

Back home

When Gerache and McDuff returned from the war, they’d had enough of life in the service and opted out of re-enlistment. Warnock did, too, at first, but after working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, he eventually jointed the Army, retiring as a brigadier general with 34 years of service between the Navy and Army. He and his wife of 63 years, Elizabeth, have three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“I got called in during Korea, but I didn’t go overseas,” he said.

Warnock also worked for the Corps’ Waterways Experiment Station and Mississippi River Commission through the 1990s before retiring — at least he thinks that’s about when.

“Well, let me see,” he said, mentally sifting through the years to pinpoint his retirement. “You know, I don’t know exactly when it was.”

“You don’t know the year?!” McDuff said, surprised.

“No… he wouldn’t know that,” Gerache said, clearly searching his own memory for the date.

“Well, go ahead and tell him, Joe!” McDuff quipped back, and the men fall into yet another round of youthful laughter.

After leaving the Army as a staff sergeant with 29 months of service, McDuff went back to work for meat-packing-giant Swift & Company, for whom he had worked before enlisting. He began back in New Orleans, but followed transfers to Texarkana, Jackson, Mobile and finally, in 1946, Vicksburg, where he’s stayed ever since.

He retired in 1989 after 47 years with the company, but went back to work on a part-time basis after just one weekend off the clock. He stayed on for another 16 years, and said he would have worked even longer if the company hadn’t begun being sold off and re-organized. He and his wife, Lou, have been married 45 years. They have six children, 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Gerache returned to Vicksburg in 1946 and began working for his father at the family pharmacy, People’s Drug Store on Washington Street, alongside his sister, also a pharmacist. He had spent three years in the service, leaving with the rank of pharmacist mate, second class, in the U.S. Marines. Even with his experience in the war, Gerache needed some schooling to become a civilian pharmacist, and eventually graduated in 1950 from pharmacy school at Loyola University in New Orleans — where his father had also graduated in 1911.

He eventually took over his father’s business, and expanded to include a second pharmacy in Vicksburg. A widower, Gerache remarried, and he and his second wife, Ann, have a combined nine children, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A bypass surgery forced Gerache to retire from the family business in 1986, but about 10 years ago he began giving presentations at schools and local events on surgical practices of the Civil War, which he still enjoys doing a few times each year.

“Every time I give a presentation at a school, kids always ask me: were you really in the Civil War?” he laughed.

When asked what else the veterans do after they have coffee each morning, McDuff gives a deadpan look.

“What else?” he asked. “At 85 years old, I’m just glad I can still do this!”

“Do you know that last yea, 1,800 World War II GIs were dying every day?” Gerache is prompted to ask. “And this year it’s going to be 2,000 a day?”

“I already told him I don’t want to hear that anymore,” McDuff said.

As the veterans’ friends finished off their coffees and began leaving McDonald’s Friday morning, they shook hands with McDuff, Warnock and Gerache and fired off one last round of jokes at them. When the laughter dies down, someone asks, “See y’all tomorrow, then?”

“Oh, sure,” said Gerache. “We’ll be here.”