Far from home: Yampa Valley native explores remote corner of world during WWII deployment
“I always figured it was just like a job. … It was work, and we worked hard.”
— Rodney Duncan, Yampa Valley native and World War II veteran
Cold, bracing winters.
Nights lit by lamp or firelight, devoid of a town luxury called electricity.
Meals harvested from the family garden and prepared by a mother’s hand.
Rodney Duncan was used to these things.
And hard work — yes, he was used to that, too.
As a young man, Duncan and his father got up every day to farm the family homestead north of Oak Creek. Then, from 3 to 11 p.m., they went to work at the Moffat Coal Co., applying the welding skills they’d learned together at a welding school in Steamboat Springs.
An ocean away, though, another world was waiting.
This place, deep in the Burma jungles, was sweltering and damp.
On the first of March 1944, these disparate worlds collided. That was the day Duncan joined the millions of others who served in World War II, and that was the day his odyssey began.
New location, new experiences
To appreciate what Duncan took away from the nearly 19 months he served in Burma and India, you have to understand the kind of man he was before he left.
He was Yampa Valley born and bred. In fact, the area was all that he knew.
Nearly all the family had they wrested from the land itself, everything from the lumber they cut at their sawmill at home to the meals they grew in their garden. Making a quick dash into town for a meal was out of the question.
“We were 14 miles from Steamboat, and you didn’t run down to the store and get something all the time,” said Duncan, now 86.
Duncan had a knack for fixing things. He and his father welded damaged mine equipment at Moffat Coal Co., and they made their own repairs on the machinery at the family homestead.
In 1944, Duncan had already delayed his entrance into the military twice, largely at the insistence of the mine supervisor, who was keen to keep him on.
“The superintendent there, he just begged me to get my deferments,” Duncan said.
He watched his cohorts leave for the service as he stayed behind.
“By the time I had the second (deferment), there was nobody my age left,” he said. “All the guys was gone.”
Finally, Duncan left too. He entered the U.S. Army, where he would be assigned to the 330th Engineer Regiment and reach the title of technician, fifth grade.
He departed for lands unknown at Los Angeles and sailed to Bombay, India. The troops ate nothing but beans and ketchup twice a day for 31 days during the voyage, he said. The one exception was a turkey dinner served in honor of Thanksgiving that gave many men food poisoning.
The meat didn’t look quite right, “But I went ahead and ate it because that was the first break we’d had from beans and ketchup,” he said.
From Bombay, he traveled to Calcutta, where he had a brush with the unfamiliar.
At home, cattle were food. On the streets of Calcutta, India, they were revered.
“They’d have vegetables out there for sale, and a water buffalo would come up and eat their vegetables, and they wouldn’t even shoo it away, they was so religious about them,” he said.
The road ahead
His trans-Pacific voyage eventually ended in Burma, where he was assigned to help build what would be called the Stilwell Road. The 478-mile-long route connected to the pre-existing Burma road and created a critical road for transporting troops and supplies into China.
The men found ways of adapting to their new lives in Burma, beginning with the food.
Their sole rations for the first two weeks in Burma were corn beef hash and hardtack, Duncan said, and the latter was especially unappealing.
“You almost needed a hammer to break it,” he said.
For a change of pace, he and several men killed and ate a water buffalo.
“It was good, especially after that corned beef hash and hard tack,” Duncan said.
The road they built wound its way through the jungle, exposing Duncan to the hazards of warmer, damper climes.
“The jungles was terrible, and the mosquitoes was worse,” he said.
Rain was common, and there was lots of it. More than 200 inches of rain could fall during the three-month monsoon period, he said.
A young Duncan, accustomed to the biting cold of a Yampa Valley winter, had another factor to reckon with: the heat.
“We drank six gallons of water every half a day and ate salt tablets just by the handfuls,” he said. “That’s the only way we could really maintain our cool.”
This was where leopards prowled and the calls of monkeys echoed through the trees.
Duncan was a long way from home.
‘We worked hard’
Duncan was on a ship that would take him back to the U.S.
He sailed past the Suez Canal and the Rock of Gibraltar before heading into the rough waters of the Atlantic, where the water washed over the guardrails.
“And there wasn’t waves. There were swells. They were just like these mountains here,” Duncan said, sweeping his hand toward the view from the large windows in his home north of Craig.
Finally, he arrived in New York Harbor. The fog was thick that day, he said, and was punctuated with the regular call of the foghorn.
Finally, the fog parted to reveal the Statue of Liberty, a sign that Duncan’s round-the-world trip was over.
He was home.
Well, almost. He still had ground to cover before he reached the family homestead.
Duncan was processed in Leavenworth, Kan., where he received the plastic discharge card he still keeps in his billfold.
“They gave us a bus ticket to Denver, and we were on our own,” he said. “And, of course, we were out of the Army then, too.”
He lived on hamburgers on the journey west, he said, playing the slot machines in bus depots and getting money for his meals along the way.
Once he arrived in Denver, another bus took him to Steamboat, where his parents met him.
“And the next day I went on the tractor and went to farming,” Duncan said. “And it snowed the first three days. And I came (from) that darned hot India, and I like to froze to death.”
Shortly after he returned home, he met a woman named Helen, who became his wife in 1947. She was his companion for 62 years before she died Dec. 13, 2009.
Together, they had three children: Edwin and Kirby, who live near Steamboat, and Sharon Haynes, who lives in Billings, Mont.
After he returned home, Duncan and his father went into the sawmill business, and Duncan stayed in the occupation for most of his life, he said. The home he built for his family was made from logs he cut himself.
Throughout his life, regardless of where he was, hard work was a constant. And, in the end, that’s what his service in the military was, he said: something that simply needed to be done.
“I always figured it was just like a job, if I’d been building road up Elk River or someplace else there around home,” he said. “It was work, and we worked hard.”