The end through their eyes

World War II veterans share memories, photographs 70 years after V-J Day

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published August 12, 2015


WARREN — World War II reached its bloody, climactic end in the Pacific on Aug. 14, 1945. The next day, the Allies celebrated victory over Japan and the cessation of hostilities that had claimed tens of millions of lives.

The formal surrender was signed two weeks later, on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Less than four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, American sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen had crossed the Pacific Ocean to engage fanatical Japanese forces and put them on the defensive. The battles raged from island to island. They were fought on, under and over deep blue seas on the far side of the world. The meticulously planned series of engagements to clear sea lanes, dense jungles, volcanic islands and coral atolls stretched the limits of American military logistics.

The price of victory was staggering; the loss on both sides, overwhelming. Americans learned about places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Leyte, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa in newspapers and newsreels. The worst news was delivered by telegrams, on doorsteps by representatives of the War Department, or by devastated neighbors who’d just lost sons, husbands or brothers.

The final end of World War II ushered in a new age, with weapons so breathtakingly devastating that they’ve yet to be used again 70 years later.

As we remember the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, a group of local veterans from our coverage area graciously agreed to share their stories, candid reflections and photographs from their personal collections.

Witnessing history
Albert VanRenterghen saw firsthand what the Allied advance to the Japanese home islands was doing to the crews and equipment of the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a mechanic assigned to the 318th Fighter Group, it was his job to put battered P-47s back together when pilots returned to airstrips on Saipan and Ie Shima from combat missions.

At the war’s end, VanRenterghen — now 94, of Farmington — seized a chance to witness something else. He now has in his personal collection some of the best photographs taken by anyone of the Japanese surrender delegation’s arrival on Ie Shima, on the way to its formal meetings with Allied commanders.

“I snuck in. They knew I wasn’t an enemy,” VanRenterghen said of his unofficial, self-bestowed photo opportunity. “Yes, I knew what I was witnessing.”

Historical accounts detail the arrival of the Japanese delegation on Ie Shima on two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers. The Japanese air crews stayed behind while the delegation boarded a C-54 Skymaster. They later met with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and signed interim surrender documents.

The formal documents were signed on the deck of the Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.

VanRenterghen’s photos of the delegation’s arrival, striking in both composition and clarity, were taken with an “old, folding Kodak camera” that he used throughout the war to take snapshots he’d trade for various things.

While he photographed the delegation’s arrival, he said he didn’t have any face-to-face interaction with the Japanese until after the war ended and former prisoners came to Ie Shima.

“Basically, they were pretty nice guys,” VanRenterghen remembered of those post-war encounters. “We decided we were a bunch of puppets for a bunch of bigwigs, and it’s still that way.”

Bound for the Pacific
Ray Mabarak was serving in the U.S. Army’s 97th Infantry Division in Czechoslovakia when World War II ended in Europe, a few days after a whole battalion of Germans quit and turned their weapons over to his company.

The celebration was short-lived.

Originally formed to fight the Japanese, the 97th went into action for the final push into Germany in early 1945. The men of the division knew they’d be heading to the Pacific as soon as the guns fell silent in Europe, and Mabarak — now 93, of Grosse Pointe City — said anxiety was running high, even after the Germans surrendered on May 8.

They boarded ships five weeks later, bound first for the United States and then to the Far East.

“We were thinking about the invasion of Japan and what took place in the invasion of Europe,” Mabarak remembered. “And frankly, it was not any fun thinking about that one.”

After a few stops at bases stateside, the division was in Fort Lewis, Washington, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They left for Japan soon after and were aboard a ship on their way to the Philippines when the final surrender was signed on the Missouri.

Mabarak arrived in Japan in mid-September, and the division served as part of the occupational force until February 1946. Had an invasion of Japan been necessary, Mabarak said the 97th was slated to be part of the second wave. Casualty estimates calculated by civilian analysts and military planners varied from 500,000 to more than 1 million U.S. servicemen killed, and up to 10 times that many Japanese.

“I honestly feel if they had not dropped the bomb, I wouldn’t be here today,” Mabarak said candidly, 70 years later.

William Sayed left his wife and baby daughter behind while he trained in England for the invasion of Europe. When it came, he was a radio operator with the 294th Joint Assault Signal Company on the tip of the spear that hit Omaha Beach at daybreak on D-Day.

What he witnessed there has stayed with him for a lifetime.

“Unfortunately, it never leaves you, and the older you get, the worse it is,” said Sayed, 95, of St. Clair Shores. “I’m telling you the truth. I’ve lived it every day of my life, seeing people slaughtered. It does not leave you.”

Having survived the beach landing and the dangerous days that followed in Normandy, Sayed spent six months on the coast of France, managing the tide of troops, equipment and supplies that constantly came ashore. After that, it was back to the States and then to California, where they lived with the Marines and eventually departed for Hawaii.

With some men from the company already on Saipan, Sayed and the rest were busy sharpening their specialized beach landing skills when word of the Japanese surrender came.

“The war ended. Some of our guys were on Saipan, and they came back, thank God,” Sayed said. “The war was over all of a sudden, so we got away from our last maneuver and came back to our island. The first thing we did was start packing up. I got home, finally, in October.”

‘A Walk Through Tarawa’
Imagine hell on a Pacific island. That’s exactly what the United States Marine Corps found on places like Guadalcanal and Tarawa.

Maury Roche, 91, of Eastpointe, was there.

Roche said he was in a gas station when he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. At the time, he wondered where that was. He said he tried to enlist in the Marines that day, but was turned down several times until he memorized an eye test with the help of a friend.

He shipped out in October 1942, assigned to E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division, bound for New Zealand and, eventually, Guadalcanal.

Roche spent six weeks on Guadalcanal, where the Marines battled mosquitoes, flies and malaria, and fought the Japanese in the thickest jungle imaginable.

“It was a hellhole,” Roche remembered. “Guadalcanal was stinky. It was damp all the time. Your clothes were damp because the sun never came through all the foliage. It was so dark at night. We had to touch our helmets together to find out where the other guy was, and then we would whisper.”

Roche left Guadalcanal in February 1943, and it wasn’t until November that he boarded a transport for the invasion of Tarawa. He said his battalion went in on the second day and began pursuing retreating Japanese troops from island to island.

“We knew when they got to the last island, there was no place else for them to go and there would be a battle,” Roche remembered.

The night before, the Japanese moved up to where the Marines were dug in, and they were virtually on top of them when the fight began.

“We were getting ready to charge and a shell went off, and actually I was moving forward and the shell went off right at my toe, and more or less lifted me up,” Roche said. “I ran over to a tree to see if I was wounded, and I wasn’t. Another shell went off, just on the other side of the tree, and the tree saved me from being injured.”

Separated from his squad, Roche said he ran through the jungle to catch up with them and ended up finding the Japanese instead.

“I couldn’t see them. The jungle was so thick. I came to a clearing and I ran as fast as I could, and there were the Japanese,” Roche said. “I jumped over the heads of two young Japanese. I thought to myself, ‘When your feet hit the ground, move or you’re going to get a bullet in the back.’”

Roche was shot three times during the battle. A bullet hit two fingers on his left hand and tore a finger on his right hand off at the knuckle. He was later shot in the leg and wrist.

He spent an hour and a half alone in the jungle, playing dead to avoid being shot by a Japanese sniper, before the Marines were able to carry him out on a stretcher. The battle took place in the early morning, and he spent the rest of the day with natives until he was finally evacuated by boat at about 10:30 p.m.

Roche spent 16 months altogether in the hospital as a result of his wounds. When the war eventually ended, he said he didn’t join in the celebration.

“There were some fellas I grew up with that never got overseas, and some, they were in the Army and they were really celebrating the end of the war, and I did not celebrate at all,” Roche said. “I didn’t feel like celebrating, and I know why. Because a lot of guys that I was in the Marines with were killed, and the first thing I thought of was them.

“To me, the war was over,” Roche said. “Period.”

Close call at Okinawa
Calvin Quint joined the Navy in 1944 at age 17 with his mother’s reluctant permission. He shipped out from the West Coast, bound for Hawaii as a deckhand on the assault transport USS Marathon.

They left Pearl Harbor with a load of Marines, bound for the Solomon Islands, in January 1945. By late March, they were training for the invasion of Okinawa.

Quint, 88, of Warren, recalled the moment when the Marathon was struck by what is now believed to have been a one-man Japanese suicide torpedo, while at anchor in Okinawa’s Buckner Bay on July 22, 1945.

“As I remember, it was at night. We had seen a movie earlier. I’d been sitting on a hatch cover watching the movie. When it was done, I must have had my stuff with me. I decided to lay down there and go to sleep,” Quint said.

He recalled noticing that he was under the edge of a canvas cover above him, and he opted to return to his bunk to avoid getting soaked by the frequent overnight rain.

“An hour or so later — boom! The biggest blast woke me up. I jumped up, climbed over the railing on the passageway and walked forward,” Quint said. “I looked over the railing at the No. 2 hold, and I heard all this water running off of the well deck into the bay.”

The torpedo had blown a hole 50 feet long and 8 feet high in the Marathon’s hull, near where he had been trying to sleep an hour before. Men were blown off the deck, landing overboard and in the bottom of the hold. Dozens were killed or injured.

“We had a big mess to clean up,” Quint said. “They repaired that ship right in the water.”

The Marathon and its crew also weathered typhoons and transported liberated American, British and Australian prisoners from Nagasaki to Okinawa after the war ended.

“I believe there was quite a few of the Bataan Death March prisoners in that group,” Quint said. “They all looked really bad. They were mistreated.”

He recalled how many prisoners who had suffered from starvation, malnutrition and disease became sick from overeating aboard ship.

“It’s just one of those things you remember that sticks in your mind,” Quint said.

He returned to the Detroit area a few days after Christmas in 1945 and met his would-be wife, Marion, on New Year’s Day in 1946. They celebrated 69 years of marriage on June 20.

The ‘great adventure’
George Olshove remembers exactly where he was when he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“On Georgia and Helen Street, in a candy store across the street from the Cooper School,” he said. “It was on the radio about 1 o’clock in the afternoon in Detroit.”

Olshove, 95, of Eastpointe, said he’d already been drafted by that time and knew he’d be going into the Army. But he never could have imagined the places he’d go and the jobs he’d be asked to do with the 340th Engineers.

After training, they assembled at the Army’s Vancouver Barracks in the state of Washington. From there, they took a train into Canada, where they boarded a ship bound for Alaska. By then, it was the spring of 1942, and they were going to work on sections of the Alaska Highway.

The 340th Engineers spent nine months, through the winter that followed, building parts of the 1,550-mile road through the Yukon Territory, conceived as an overland supply line for the military’s operations in the Pacific.

“What were the conditions? Where we were in there, there was nobody there,” Olshove remembered. “That’s where the Earth, I think, was born. It was all wilderness. We went into the wilderness.”

The working conditions were probably the toughest imaginable. The men lived in tents while temperatures ranged from 90 degrees in the summer months to 70 degrees below zero in the winter. They contended with rivers, swamps and mud, and endured swarms of mosquitoes and flies when they weren’t blanketed by the ice and cold.

“We were a working outfit. It was a bunch of young guys,” Olshove recalled. “Great adventure.”

When the road was finished, the 340th was kept in the north for a time to keep it open.

But duty eventually called them to the Pacific, and Olshove said they were moved to South Carolina for training before they were sent to Australia. The 340th Engineers later made combat landings in New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines.

Olshove worked as a mechanic for a battalion responsible for preparing airfields and clearing invasion areas. Working alongside combat troops, he said, they had to constantly be prepared to defend themselves from Japanese attack.

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Olshove said he knew he’d eventually be going home, but he didn’t get there until Christmas 1945.

Photographic memories
John Hinds was in his first year at Lawrence Technological University, studying to be an engineer, when his country called and pulled him into the U.S. Army Air Corps.

After training in Texas and spending some time as a flight instructor, Hinds — now 92, of Warren — was tapped to fly a B-29 and sent to the Pacific.

He left in the summer of 1945, not long after he was married, and flew missions out of Guam until the end of the war.

On at least a few of those runs, a government photographer he’d befriended flew with him to document the experience.

His daughter, Cathy Hinds Thomas, of Detroit, said her dad told the story of how he approached the photographer and asked him to capture images of her uncle’s final resting place on Okinawa. The photographer, now unknown to the family, apparently jumped at the chance to photograph bombers on the ground and in the air for Hinds.

Hinds Thomas happily agreed to share the stunning images from her dad’s personal collection for publication on the 70th anniversary of V-J Day and the end of World War II.

“The pictures, I felt, are just fabulous,” Hinds Thomas said. “I want them to be shared with anyone who has an interest in looking at them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re worth it. I’m really proud to be able to contribute them, because they’re wonderful photographs.”