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WW II veterans in Michigan recall the war

Jul 3, 2015

World War II ended 70 years ago in September. Here are three stories from veterans who live in Michigan.

We'll start with a love story.

Bill Berkley, U.S. Navy, Pacific

Bill Berkley served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Bill Berkley was just a kid without a care in Paducah, Kentucky until December 7, 1941.

“I was 14 years old, but I can remember that day just like it was yesterday. We had been playing football and I got home and mom was crying,” Berkley says, recalling when he first learned of the attack and the death of so many sailors.

All his life, Bill Berkley wanted to join the Navy. It was a family tradition.

At the beginning of the war, he wasn't old enough. He had to be 17. Even then he would need his parents’ permission. Berkley would have to wait.

He eventually went to work as a railroad brakeman on a steam locomotive. In peace time, there’s no way a 16-year-old would get that kind of job, but there was a shortage of workers because of the war.

Every day Berkley would take the bus to and from the rail yards. Coming home, he’d be covered in grime, wearing a sweaty red bandana around his neck, and his face would be covered in coal soot. There was a pretty girl on the bus and every once in a while they’d exchange glances. One day he decided he needed to make a better impression. He dressed up and walked to the bus stop.

“And there I was, looking like a Philadelphia lawyer in my Sunday best. She had never seen me cleaned up. And I said, ‘Hi, there.’ I said, ‘Are you wondering if I’m the railroad guy?’ She said, ‘Yeah. I never saw you looking like this.’”

Bill Berkley and Clara Odelle Gilbert started dating. He always just called her Odie.

Berkley kept working with the railroad, even after being scalded badly during an accident in the locomotive. But, he knew he would not be on the rails too much longer.

The U.S.S. Zeus was a battle damage repair ship on which Bill Berkley served.
Credit U.S. Naval archives

“I joined the Navy on my 17th birthday, still with bandages on my leg from being scalded,” Berkley says.

By that time in the war, the military was taking just about anyone, injured or not.

After brief training in Williamsburg, Virginia, he got a short leave before shipping out for the war.

“I went home for seven days. That’s when I proposed ... to my Odie,” Berkley recalls, his voice cracking. "And, she promised to wait for me. And looking back, that was a terrible thing to do to a young woman, leaving her. But, she was true,” he added.

Leave was quickly over and Berkley had to catch a troop transport headed for Hawaii. Just two and a half years after hearing about the terrible attack on Pearl Harbor as a kid, Berkley was actually there.

The U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor after a Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.
Credit archives.gov

"And I saw firsthand. We went right down Battleship Row. I remember these big battleships laying over on their sides. I remember very distinctly the Arizona sitting down in that water, twisted guns and metal. That was a terrible sight to a 17-year-old.”

2,400 people were killed in that attack. Half of them were on the U.S.S. Arizona.

The young Navy man was assigned to the U.S.S. Zeus, a battle damage repair ship. It anchored at a small atoll named Enewetak (spelled "Eniwetok" at the time) in the Marshall Islands that the U.S. had invaded a short time before.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Berkley says the crew spent the days repairing ships, and nights trying to shoot down Japanese bombers who flew just above the reach of the anti-aircraft guns. Suddenly, the battle ships and carriers started coming in with damage from a new Japanese tactic.

"The Kamikaze planes," Berkley explains. "You take a perfectly good-looking Japanese young man, they had brain-washed him into killing himself in a plane full of dynamite."

He lost a boot camp buddy named Jim Gorman to a Kamikaze attack.

But throughout his time overseas, Berkley says he had an advantage over his shipmates. He had Odie.

“She wrote me every other day. We’d have the mail call and that mail clerk said, ‘Damn, Berkley,’" he recalls. "‘That woman really loves you, don’t she?’ I said, ‘Yes, she does.’ Every other day I’d get a letter.”

After the war in Europe ended in May, some resources were shifted to the Pacific. No one was sure how much longer the war would continue, how many more soldiers, sailors, and marines would be killed.

Then everything changed when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That was in August. The Japanese formally surrendered in September. Berkley's ship didn't leave the Marshall Islands until December. He called Odie as soon as he reached the west coast. 

Keep in mind, Bill and Odie dated for less than a year before he left for the war. Her father barely knew Bill. So, Odie, who was 18, concocted a little story about a trip she planned.

“She told him she was going down to Arkansas to see his brother. She had no such intention. That train didn’t even slow down in Arkansas. Headed for San Diego,” Berkley chuckled.

Her mom knew what was going on. She even signed permission for the 18-year-old to get married. But first Odie would have to find Bill in the overcrowded train station.

Bill and Odie shortly after getting married.

"I saw her before she saw me. It had been over two years since she saw me. And, she walked down the steps of the train, looking around. Nothing but soldiers and sailors and Marines. And when she turned around right in front of me, I put my arms around her. She turned around and I said, ‘Lady, are you looking for me?’ And she just jumped up and down, yelling. I’ll never forget it. Prettiest sight you ever saw. My darling. Sixty-nine years. Sixty-nine years," Berkley says.

"She’s in the nursing home now. She’s doing pretty good. We got married in San Diego April the ninth, 1946,” he added.

He says when he visits his Odie in the nursing home, she does remember him, despite the struggle with dementia.

As for Bill, these days he gets around in a motorized chair. He gardens a little.

He doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the war. He talks about his kids, his grandkids, his great-grandkids, and about a lifetime with the teenage girl he met, who waited for him, and who married him. He talks about the things that matter in life for those who survived WWII.

Arno Whitbread, U.S. Army, Europe

Arno Whitbread while serving in the U.S. Army. He was part of the D-Day invasion.

Drafted in 1942, Arno Whitbread ended up as part of the D-Day invasion. Instead of storming a beach, Whitbread was put in a glider with other infantrymen and a jeep, landing behind enemy lines. They worked to find paratroopers who were also dropped behind lines to put together a fighting force. Their job was to protect bridges that the Allies would need to push the invasion into Germany.

Whitbread's experience closely follows the path of another company in the 101st Airborne Division, which was featured in the celebrated TV series Band of Brothers.

Whitbread says the most vivid memory he has about fighting in WWII was near the Belgian town of Bastogne during a famous offense by the German forces in the winter of 1944.

Raymond Mabarak, U.S. Army, Europe and Japan

Mabarak signed up for the Army Air Corps, but the Army needed infantrymen. He was trained in amphibious assaults in the Pacific. But troops were needed in Europe. The 97th Infantry Division became part of General Patton's 3rd Army. Mabarak was among the very few soldiers who served in Europe and then Japan. Toward the end of the war in Europe, Mabarak said a German soldier on a motorcycle arrived, carrying a white surrender flag. The U.S. forces were not sure whether they were walking into a trap.