History in Focus: Of War and Life
The mid twentieth century was a roller coaster of economic upheaval followed up by a catastrophic war, and the life of Craig resident Walt Cisar landed smack dab in the middle of these powerful forces. In an interview on April 17, Walt shared memories of the Depression, World War II, and coming of age in such a tumultuous time period.
Born in Dante, South Dakota in 1924, Walt was the oldest of four children of Czechoslovakian immigrants. By 1930, his father’s work as a blacksmith had evaporated, and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Seeking help from relatives, the family traveled back to New York City. Unfortunately, Walt’s mother had to be hospitalized, and his father labored tirelessly to keep the family intact.
In 1931, Walt’s Dad brought the children back to South Dakota. Without much work, they quickly moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in time to pick corn during the fall harvest. As a teen, Walt began working with his father on various construction jobs. Pondering his future Walt thought, “You know, there’s gotta be a better life somewhere else.”
At the tender age of sixteen, Walt hitchhiked to Montana, but he quickly headed south before winter. One evening in Wyoming (where it was illegal to hitchhike), a kindly local Sheriff picked up Walt, fed and housed the hungry teen, and returned him to the highway’s edge in the morning. His hobo sojourning finally landed him in Kim, Colorado once again picking corn.
While in Kim, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but for young Walt the war still seemed far off and distant. Always seeking opportunity, Walt and two buddies headed to Denver in 1942, and he landed a job at a machine shop. He quickly moved from clean-up work to rebuilding engines.
The war’s insatiable need for men finally found Walt, and he was drafted in 1943. After basic training at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, he became a tank mechanic. Due to a conflict with a fellow soldier, Walt requested a transfer and was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, 1st battalion, 27th Regiment in the Headquarters Company. Walt was tasked with maintenance of 30 jeeps and six trucks. After further training for amphibious landings, the 25th set its course for the reconquest of the Philippines.
On January 9, 1945, 175,000 American forces came ashore in Lingayen Gulf on the island of Luzon. Part of the second launch, Walt came ashore as Japanese Zeroes strafed the beach and shells exploded everywhere.
As Walt recalled, “Well here we are, rifle in hand, wondering what we were supposed to do…I thought, ‘Well I gotta do something, I just can’t stand here.’” On the beach for just fifteen minutes, he took shrapnel in the right arm but found cover under an armored bulldozer. “You know, I was lucky. it could’ve been bad, but it wasn’t. God was with me,” reflected Walt.
Through injury, harsh jungle conditions, and witnessing death, many soldiers lose hope and develop a fearful premonition of their own demise. Not Walt.
“I never figured I wouldn’t make it. I always figured I’d come home.” Along with his will to survive, Walt leaned heavily on his Catholic faith by attending battlefield masses and praying daily.
As the 25th worked their way inland, Walt relayed messages to the Command Post and transported ammunition all the while he was exposed to snipers, mortars, artillery, and Japanese Zeroes. Though over 76 years ago, Walt’s memories provoked strong reactions, raw emotions, and tears that were still difficult to express with words and discuss openly during our interview.
On June 30, 1945 the 25th Division was finally taken off the front lines. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki canceled the looming invasion of Japan, and Walt celebrated with his fellow soldiers. “We drank a lot of Three Feathers (whiskey) that night,” smiled Walt indicating his joyous relief.
Transferred to Japan in a Liberty ship, Walt was part of the occupying force of the small seaport town of Nagolia, just outside Tokyo. His unit was tasked with destroying the nearby factory for the Japanese Zero. While there, Walt realized the humanity and plight of the defeated Japanese.
“They were people just like us. They didn’t want that war. I mean, they had nothing to say about it…Hirohito was running the show.”
The Japanese civilians would scurry inside and lock their doors when his patrol passed by.
“They were scared,” observed Walt.
Unlike other soldiers, he had enough of war and declined to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to see that. There was nothing left. It was all demolished.”
Discharged in January of 1946, Walt’s next challenge was adjusting to civilian life. Luckily, he returned to his job as a machinist in Denver. However, plagued by stomach ulcers Walt spent two months at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital. In 1946, he purchased a ranch near Canon City on the GI Bill. After two-and-a-half years, his searing red-hot memories of the Philippines cooled down and the ulcers subsided.
“It’s hard. Very hard.” said Walt referring to his return home. “You have to be pretty strong or else you go cuckoo…I made that part of it, but my stomach didn’t.” Walt decided he had to live in the present and for the future; the war was now in the past.
He met his first wife Betty and the family grew to six children. In 1952, they returned to her native Yampa Valley. While memories of the war never fade, Walt’s next seven decades were brimful of the joy, heartache, and trials of raising a family, building a business, ranching, and living for the moments furnished each day.
Special thanks to Walt and Peggy Cisar for sharing and hosting our interview and discussion.
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