IN?HONOR… Saluting area war veterans

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.

Training at Fort Ord

In the summer of 1945 after finishing Basic Training and enduring a 10-day delay, Elmer Crowell was again hustled onto a train. After a stop or two, he was off to Fort Ord on Monterey Bay in sunny California. For four straight days, he sat on a plain and watched the scenery change as he moved from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Fort Ord, which closed in 1994, is where Army soldiers trained for overseas tours. Each soldier would learn specific skills for his T.A.O.R. or tactical area of responsibility. Therefore, each soldier’s training was individualized.

Crowell looked around him and saw more soldiers in one place than he had ever seen before. Every 20 minutes another bus arrived, with dozens of clean-cut young soldiers pouring out of its doors and onto the lot. Soon, Crowell knew why. An announcement was made that Fort Ord was being used to train every soldier who would be sent to invade Japan’s mainland.

As daunting a mission as this seemed, Crowell and the other soldiers knew that an invasion of Japan’s mainland would mean the end of World War II. They understood that it wouldn’t be easy; Allied losses at Iwo Jima and Okinawa had shown the Japanese soldiers’ dedication to their emperor, how they didn’t think twice about giving up their own lives in kamikaze plane crashes if it meant killing a few Allied soldiers. Landing on Japan’s mainland would cost many lives. Each soldier training at Fort Ord knew he might meet his end there.

To ensure that they were ready for the fight ahead, the soldiers at Fort Ord trained vigorously. Learning how to swim well was essential. It seemed to Crowell that every day he was forced to swim harder and longer than the day before. When the soldiers swam, it wasn’t like doing leisurely laps at the community pool. They were forced to swim while wearing heavy wool uniforms, with all of their equipment strapped to their backs. Difficult as this was, the soldiers knew they had to simulate the conditions they may find themselves in while invading Japan.

More soldiers arrived. Then more. It wasn’t long before the buildings were full beyond capacity and the base bulged with its residents. Tents had to be set up, first within the camp’s walls, then beyond them.

While the soldiers assembled and trained, the U.S. tried to warn Japan that its surrender to the Allies would save lives. Germany had signed its Instrument of Surrender on May 8, but Japan stubbornly kept the war alive in the Pacific. On July 26, the U.S., together with the United Kingdom and the Republic of China, issued the Potsdam Declaration. This was a final threat: surrender now or you will be destroyed. Sealing the fate of its citizens, Japan ignored this most serious of ultimatums.

Word came over the commanding officers’ intercom that the United States, in a daring and controversial move, had just dropped “Little Boy,” a new style of bomb, over a major Japanese city. This new bomb, called the atomic bomb or “A-bomb” for short, had been dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, destroying the city and killing over 40,000 people instantly. Most were civilians. Three days later, the U.S. dropped another bomb, this one nicknamed “Fat Boy,” on Nagasaki. The total number of Japanese casualties caused by these two bombs, both on the days they were dropped and in the months following, is estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000.

In the days following the bombings, the soldiers waited and wondered what would happen next. The men crossed their fingers, ate little, talked less. They all shared the same thoughts: Would Japan surrender? Would they get to go home? If Japan refused, would they drop more bombs or invade the mainland as they had been training to do? Would these bombings make things better or worse? Each day of waiting in the quiet camp seemed to last more than its allotted 24 hours.

The wait ended on Aug. 15, when Japan announced its surrender. The thousands of soldiers at Fort Ord seemed to exhale collectively. The cheers were deafening. The men jumped and shouted, clapping each other on the back, wiping away tears of joy that sprang up unbidden and evaporated in the California sunshine. Their minds turned away from Japan and death, and they began to focus on happier things: going home, seeing their families and sweethearts, eating homecooked meals and sleeping in their own beds.

Heading farther South

For Crowell, this idyllic picture of domestic bliss wasn’t so near at hand. He hadn’t been in the service long enough to count himself among those on their way home. His new orders were to report to Clark Field in the Philippines. Landing in Manila, still wearing his heavy wool uniform, the temperature was over 100 degrees. This new climate wasn’t kind to Crowell, and after only a week, he was sent to the sick bay with a terrible sunburn. The burn was so severe that Crowell could barely move. He was in intense pain. After recovering, he was reassigned to the 100 Headquarters, Company Eng. West Pack.

His new duty was being the dispatcher in the motor pool. The vehicles were Jeeps, and he was in charge of keeping 125 of them in running order. He also had to be able to account for each and every one of them – who had it, where it was going, and how long it would be gone. Every soldier wanted to get his hands on a Jeep. It meant having a little bit of freedom, some time to himself away from the camp. It was common to hear story after story from the enlisted men, most of them made-up, excuses for why they “needed” to take a Jeep for the day.

One day, while Crowell was at the Enlisted Men’s Club, he saw a famous VIP. It was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was visiting the Philippines. He had stopped to have a talk with some of the enlisted men.

With the war officially over, things were calmer and the men rested easier. In 1946, Crowell was elated to find that he had been reassigned to Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was heading towards home.

It wasn’t long before Crowell was discharged. He was relieved to hear that he wasn’t assigned to any Army Reserve units. He was ready to be a civilian again.

Back home

Coming home with all of his motor vehicle experience, it wasn’t hard for Crowell to land a job with the Dunkirk Unit Parts store on Lake Shore Drive East. This time, all the parts Crowell dealt with were for civilian vehicles. With the war over, the auto industry began making more than just Jeeps. Family sedans became more popular, and there were no longer the limitations on fuel use. People were free to drive as much and as far as they wanted. They took weekend pleasure drives and family road trips. With rubber available again, they had their choice of tires. A new era of luxury dawned on post-war America, and its citizens were in a festive mood.

Eventually, Crowell landed another job with better pay and benefits at Great Lakes Printing. He was now a pressman, and his only complaint was the shift work. Crowell would work at Great Lakes until his retirement in 1985. Three years later, the plant closed.

In 1949 amidst the post-war boom and celebration, Crowell married Patricia Harrington. In the following years, they had four children: Judy, Gary, Janet and Kristin. To date, they have two grandchildren, Erin and Matthew.

Aside from his career and his family, Crowell stayed busy with hobbies. He has always been an avid hunter and outdoorsman, and for years ran the New York State Certified Hunters Training Institute training program. He taught hunter safety courses for over 40 years. He was also the Deputy Town Clerk for the town of Hanover and served on the Forestville Board of Education for four years. As a veteran, Crowell was always active in the Pine Valley VFW Post 2522 and held the position of Commander. This position is so esteemed that when addressed at any VFW function, Crowell is still called “Past Commander.” Along with being the Commander of the VFW, Crowell was also a Commander for the Forestville American Legion. Clearly meant for a life of service, Crowell is a proud life member of the Forestville Fire Department.

The story of Elmer Crowell is another tale of a local hero who answered the call of duty. He served his country honorably and selflessly, and his selflessness is still evident. He called me to do his brother’s story, since his brother was the first veteran from this area to graduate from a military academy. Crowell was so concerned with honoring his brother’s service that he didn’t care to talk much about himself. I had to explain that the reason we do stories on our veterans is to let people know who these brave local people are. Because of them, we still live free. Our country still has problems, and it seems like we have more all the time, but the fact remains that this is a great nation with a great history.

Our heartfelt appreciation goes out to Elmer Crowell and his entire family for their devotion to our country and the sacrifices they have made in the name of patriotism. The United States is a nation built and maintained by local heroes, men and women from small towns and big cities who unite with one common purpose, and that is to ensure our flag keeps flying over free soil and to keep our allies safe from tyranny and persecution.

If you see a vet today, be sure to say thank you. You owe them more than you may realize.