From Iwo Jima to Sicily

Craig WWII veterans recall experiences

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When Edwin Cromer's grandson saw Cromer's combat helmet and the bullet hole in it, one question came to his mind.

"Do you realize how close we came to not being here?" the World War II veteran's grandson asked.

A few inches lower and the bullet that ricocheted off Cromer's helmet would have killed him.

"Somebody was looking out for me that day," Cromer said.

He was 15 when World War II started. A self-described "rough kid out of the hills of North Carolina," Cromer joined the Marines with his mother's blessing. She was afraid he'd land in jail otherwise, he joked.

Almost everyone was older than Cromer but it didn't bother him much. From the way he talks, not much bothered him, except for the time he saw a Marine named Higgins sitting on a trailer eating his breakfast get shot between the eyes by a sniper. That still sticks with him today.

He was sent to the South Pacific, which was fine with him because he joined out of anger at the Japanese.

The morning the bullet ricocheted off Cromer's helmet was the morning after the Marines took Tianian, an island in the Mariannas.

"It was a bloody mess," Cromer said.

He was a member of the Regimental Weapons Company, 24th Marines, 4th Division, and he'd spent the night behind the guns. In the morning, 500 Japanese lay dead in front of the guns. While Cromer waited for orders, a Japanese sniper hiding among the dead popped up and shot at Cromer.

Like many World War II veterans, Cromer's health is deteriorating. He breathes now through an oxygen tank. But his mind is clear. He can remember the dates of everything, from the date he arrived at training in North Carolina -- Oct. 6, 1942 -- to the day Higgins got shot -- July 4, 1944.

He remembers what he was later told was the end of the war, although he didn't know it at the time. While loading ammunition into a truck after the Battle of Iwo Jima, he looked up and saw the soldiers erecting the American flag above him.

"I didn't think much of it at the time because that always happened," Cromer said.

Like all the other soldiers on Iwo Jima and in the rest of the South Pacific, Cromer thought he would have to invade Japan.

They were only 600 miles away. Knowing the country was so well-fortified, he was not looking forward to going there.

"They dropped the bomb and thank goodness," Cromer said.

He returned home, re-enrolled in high school, and was placed in a class with other students who had left to fight in the war. Afterward, he bounced around the country working for electric companies, before finally ending up in Craig, working for Yampa Valley Electric Association.

This July, he will have been married to his wife, Virginia, for 48 years. They have two sons, two daughters, and "a whole truckload of grandkids."

And he still has the helmet with the bullet hole.

  • • •
  • In his wallet, Ray Wagner carries a worn, slightly torn card. The front identifies him as a member in good standing of the 91st Infantry Division, a unit that fought in both world wars. The back tells how many men the 91st lost in those wars.

In 306 days of combat, 14,583 men died.

Wagner carries the card and attends parades, and he does the whole military veteran thing, but he does it for only one reason.

"The only reason I do all this, all these parades, is because of the feeling I had for all the guys I left over there in the dirt," Wagner said.

Wagner says he joined the Army in his teens. His father, Julius Wagner, was also a member of the 91st Infantry, as was his great-great-grandfather.

After World War I, Julius Wagner started a farm in Iowa and when World War II started, Julius was recalled even though he was getting old. Julius' departure would have left Ray at the neighbor's house with the neighbor's three daughters. Julius decided to head off any potential problems by taking Ray to the Army.

There were no birth certificates. Ray told the Army recruiter he was 16.

A country boy familiar with guns, Ray made expert on the rifle range and he became a sniper. He also trained in explosives. He could set landmines and disarm bombs.

Then there was the war, and when Ray talks about it the years go by fast, from Africa where he blew holes in pillboxes so the infantry could run through, to Sicily, where he strung landmines between trees, hiding tripwires beneath the snow.

During that time, Ray lost much of his hearing when a landmine exploded next to his head. Ray's brother was killed in the military, as were six of his uncles.

"The military has taken the whole family. There's no one left except me," Ray said.

So it's understandable how he runs through those war years fast, saying what he did and then saying he was back home.

But he was only home for 45 days. Then they recalled him to Sicily, where he had to take all the bombs off the trees and collect all the wire.

He picked up the bodies, too, some of which had lain on the ground for so long they were nothing but skeletons.

He cleaned them up along the ocean, all the men who had died invading Europe by sea.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com

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