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November 12, 2013

Veterans recall sacrifices, unique experiences

TERRE HAUTE — The lobby of Terre Haute’s Westminster Village retirement community is decorated for Veterans Day with scores of framed black-and-white photographs of residents from younger days. They are pictured wearing sharp-looking military uniforms, sly smiles or brash expressions.

Four veterans spoke Tuesday night with the Tribune-Star just before attending the Westminster Village annual Veterans Day program. Three served in World War II, all in the South Pacific. A fourth, Jean Graf, served at home.

Military service in the South Pacific involved gazing out on vast oceans, long journeys by ship, fighting malaria and mosquitos and fierce jungle combat. The rules of war didn’t always apply, the vets recalled. One Japanese prisoner boasted of killing lots of Americans just before he was shot by one of his captors. In another case, Japanese forces fired on a hospital ship, sinking it and killing the wounded on board. When those same Japanese attempted to surrender, they were mowed down in retaliation.

“We learned a lot of things that saved our lives,” recalled Eli Skorich, an Army veteran who was wounded three different times in more than three years in the South Pacific. At Guadalcanal, one of the most important campaigns, Skorich said enemy forces would shoot Americans they had lured into the open by shouting “Johnny, help me.” Or a sniper would pretend to be shot, drop a false weapon out of a tree and then open fire when the Americans emerged from cover.

Memories of the war become clearer with each passing year, Skorich said. He thinks of his buddies who were killed. “I think about that a lot. It’s been a long time, but it doesn’t leave your mind.”

Ed Llewellyn was in the Army paratroopers. He was part of the invasion of the Philippines and recalls when a grenade landed near his foxhole. A foot closer and he would have been killed, he said.

A small piece of shrapnel embedded in Llewellyn’s leg, leaving a scar that’s still there. A buddy, from the same blast, took about 15 pieces of shrapnel in his rear. Llewellyn’s buddy refused a Purple Heart, not wanting to go through the rest of his life explaining the injury. Llewellyn, who was much less seriously injured, said he also turned down the Purple Heart.

“He deserved it much more than I did,” Llewellyn said, adding that, in hindsight, he should have taken the medal as it would have allowed him to be discharged six months sooner. “It was the dumbest thing I ever did,” he said, laughing.

George Graesch, a Marine, was present at Iwo Jima when U.S. forces famously raised a flag over the island on Mount Suribachi.

“You never heard such a sound in your life,” Graesch recalled. Troops fired guns into the air, cheered and rang bells. It was the first encouraging event in the long and costly Iwo Jima campaign, he said.

Jean Graf served in the Navy during the Korean War at a military dependents’ hospital north of Chicago. Working in the maternity ward, she helped the wives of servicemen deliver children, mostly while their husbands were overseas. It was a difficult time for these young mothers to be without their husbands, Graf recalled.

“I always felt God gave me the words to say,” Graf said of those sad times when babies didn’t survive. At other times, she helped provide support to young mothers who were often totally alone.

“I could be the family that they didn’t have there,” Graf said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes


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