By Ken Gjerde
Special to the Fairfield Sun Times, http://www.fairfieldsuntimes.com
To Remember . . .
Simms resident Howard Largent 86, recently enjoyed the third Big Sky Honor Flight for Veterans, a tour of Washington, D.C. with focus on the War Memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. The flights honor our war dead who made the supreme sacrifice, and pay tribute to surviving Montana veterans. Those senior in age and veterans with terminal illness receive priority for selection to the flights. Sponsored by Big Sky Honor Flight Committee, which funds the flights, eighty-one male and five women WWII veterans departed Billings Logan International Airport Sunday, April 21st, 2013. This honor culminated what began in 1944 when eighteen year old Howard was drafted. His induction, oath and assignment to a branch of service was in Salt Lake City on 10 January, 1945. Alone from Ulm, he made friends with a Great Falls kid who wanted to be a marine so Howard signed up with him. He got in but his new found friend didn’t, “so there I was all by myself again.” He says he made it through boot camp at the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego, “On the skin of my teeth. It was six weeks of hell. They treated everyone like dogs, called you names, and beat you on the head. The kill or be killed idea kind of screwed with my mind.” Elwood Richards of Simms had boot camp at the same time. Howard was home ten days at Easter and then idle at Camp Pendleton for two weeks before sailing for Pearl Harbor, then to Okinawa via Guam where they expected more training, but received none. “All we knew how to do was close order drill and marching.” So in June, 1945, minimally prepared for war, he found himself in the Sixth Marine Division on Okinawa, in the last Pacific Island battle and final battle of WWII. The trip to Washington aroused things he’d forgotten and he was glad he could focus on the good.
His daughter Marlene, a registered nurse, joined him on the flight to share the experience and assist him with walker and wheelchair. Others assisting were seven emergency medical response staff and other helpers, and members of the all volunteer Big Sky Honor Flight Committee. After their 5:45 a.m. arrival at the airport and 7:30 a.m. departure he found himself thinking about sleep as well as his gratitude. He knew no one but found people with whom he had mutual friends. There were a few “Seabees” (combat engineers) and six ex-marines on the flight, the rest being army, navy and air corps veterans. Arriving at Dulles International Airport at 1:15 p.m., their plane was showered from both sides by fire truck water cannons as it approached the gate. Greeting them were a band playing patriotic numbers, veteran supporters with welcome and thank you signs, various political dignitaries and a group of Vietnam Veterans with shiny Harley Davidson motorcycles ready for their afternoon escort. The Montana veterans became a center of attention for a group of New Hampshire middle school students who questioned them about the war and what it was like.
The Honor Veterans were assigned to three tour buses, and a van for those needing special assistance, and departed at 3:00 p.m. for three memorials. The Korean War Memorial was striking with its nineteen ten foot high stainless steel statues of armed infantrymen posed maneuvering in a field of grass. One veteran saw it as so real he felt he was moving right among them, knowing what they were doing and feeling. The massiveness of the Lincoln Memorial surprised some as did the length, height and stark vividness of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
Montana’s Lt. Governor, John Walsh, a veteran of 2004-2005 Iraq, is the Honorary State Chairman for the Honor Flights and was the lead person on Howard’s bus and counted heads for each boarding. Howard liked getting to know him, found him to be down to earth enjoyable company, had the privilege of him pushing his wheel chair at the WWII memorial and sat beside him at the banquet later in the evening. Following an hour’s stop to settle into their hotel rooms, the hotel’s Potomac Ball Room was the site for their reception and banquet featuring delicious Prime Rib and a program of greetings.
Breakfast Monday morning was early and delicious with time for meeting members of the flight for conversation, reminiscing and recounting experiences. They boarded buses at 8:15 a.m. to tour the city and arrive at the World War II Memorial at 9:30 a.m. A police escort kept the group moving on schedule. The cherry blossoms weren’t their usual dominating attraction, due to frost, as they viewed the U.S. Capitol areas and the 9/11/01 terrorist attack damaged Pentagon. A group picture was taken at the WWII Memorial with a large rectangular concrete pillar and arch in the background. Smaller pillars, named for each state, form a circle boundary to the Memorial.
The WWII Memorial offered time for individual pictures and time to reflect on the veteran’s own experiences. For Howard this was being one of 11,000 marine replacements. The First and Sixth Marine Divisions had cleared the northern portion of Okinawa and the Sixth was joining the battle for the southern portion when he was assigned to its Fourth Marine Regiment, Second Battalion, George Company. “I came in the last part of it. I was an assistant BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man and a stretcher bearer. We had to go up in the lines and get the wounded. A lot of kids with me as replacements were killed.” The night before Howard landed on Okinawa the marines were fed all they could eat of steak, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings, evoking the usual jokes about it being their “last meal” before the “execution”. The core of his Fourth Marine Regiment was the men of the renowned Carlson’s Marine Raider Battalion. He remembers times when his squad leader was a PFC instead of the normal Sgt. or Cpl., so rapidly were marines being killed and wounded. He says it was a place where you “grew up fast.” Moving up, a man was shot right in front of him, but with the shot fired from behind he guessed he had been the target. Elements of the Sixth Division participated with others in some of the fighting for Sugar Loaf, a key hill closely supported by two other hills giving each hill triangulated fire support. It took ten days to win the hills and clear the caves with 7,547 killed and wounded. He and Gene Converse, who was in the Navy aboard ship in support of the Okinawa battle, were friends. Gene lived in Fairfield from late childhood until his death in 2001 and they had talked about seeing an ammunition ship blown up by a kamikaze plane in the harbor off Naha. Readers may remember that Ross Peace was also aboard ship at Okinawa at the same time. Howard was on Okinawa until 8 July, 1945.
After Okinawa the Fourth Marines were based on Guam preparing for the invasion of Japan which included digging a long latrine trench between Quonset huts being readied for barracks. At a movie it was announced that the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and “we didn’t even know what it was.” After the Japanese surrender the Fourth Marines went to Japan with Task Force 31 occupation group at Yokosuka Naval Base. They docked beside the USS Missouri. A big sign, “U.S. Navy welcomes U.S. Marines to Japan” greeted them. Howard said he was the nineteenth Marine to set foot on the Japanese homeland. One job he had was supervising a group of Japanese in a boiler room (See photo). His eleven months in Japan included much Military Police duty with time in Sasebo and Yokohama. He toured Nagasaki and found the devastation hard to believe. At Yokohama he saw Japanese in American clothing and learned they had been born in the U.S. and had asked to be returned to Japan. He remembers racism where a USO show with a minority performer, was boycotted. He endured seven troop ship ocean voyages and was seasick on every one except the last one home to San Diego where he was discharged on 26 August, 1946.
General Simon B. Buckner, overall commander of the four Army and three Marine divisions in the Okinawa Battle, was killed by artillery fire while observing the fighting on 18 June, 1945. By 21 June, the official end of the battle, 8,277 Sixth Marine Division marines were killed or wounded, with total U.S. military casualties of 49,151 killed and wounded in the 82 day battle for Okinawa. These numbers accent the enduring meaning of Arlington National Cemetery to our nation. The ceremonial changing of the guard at Arlington impressed all with its uniformity of participants in size, slow pace, dress uniforms, crispness and precision of movements. The presentation of arms also reminded Howard of “M-1 Thumb”, a condition where the bearer of the standard issue WWII M-1 Rifle gets his thumb caught in the breech as the bolt action snaps closed. From the cemetery at Arlington he could see General Robert E. Lee’s memorial residence as the cemetery lies within the boundary of General Lee’s original plantation.
After a very good lunch on the bus they set foot at the Iwo Jima Memorial. This very large bronze monument depicting the marines raising the American Flag on Mount Surubaci moved them, but no monument can tell the story of the dying suffered by the 25,851 killed and wounded marines in the battle for Iwo. However, the symbolism in the flag raising scene evokes a tribute to all who have fought in all our nation’s wars, fighting for the freedom our flag represents.
The Memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, built featuring large white blocks of granite from South Dakota, displays famous quotes of FDR. It includes scenes of the depression era with life-size statues of farmers, bread lines and other scenes.
Air traffic at Dulles International is stopped when Air Force One or foreign leaders are landing or taking off. The same discipline, privilege and tribute was accorded the Honor Flight. No other planes moved on their landing, taxiing and takeoff. Senators Max Baucus and John Tester and Representative Steve Daines each made at least one appearance to the tour and addressed the Honored Veterans. Representatives of their Washington and Billings staffs saw the veterans off and welcomed them at the Dulles and Logan airports. Thank you and welcome back signs adorned Logan International upon their return.
This past April eleventh, Howard and his wife Jean celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. They live in Simms and have three daughters, Marlene Largent and Sharon Wheeler of Simms and Carol Graves of Missoula; and one son Jim Largent of Simms. Howard grew up in the Cascade and Ulm areas and spent many years in county road maintenance. He was not allowed to keep a diary or have a camera on Okinawa and he regrets forgetting so much. Jean, nee Speer, was raised in Conrad. She managed the Sun River Truck Stop for thirteen years and cooked many years at the Cozy Corner in Fairfield and the Lazy B in Augusta. Howard was one of many veterans featured in the Simms High School English and U.S. History Classes Heritage Project a few years ago. We extend our appreciation for information for his story, to Howard and his family and to the Simms Public School and the Heritage Project for their gracious willingness to grant access to their interview with Howard.