Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day - My Father in Law

By Donald Sensing

This is my father in law, Col (ret.) George D. Stephens of Durham, NC, in the Durham Herald-Sun:

World War II veteran served in Army for 38 years
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DURHAM – When George Stephens graduated from Durham High School in 1939, he went in with some buddies on a Piper Cub J-3 airplane. He was working as a restaurant manager when his Selective Service letter came in the mail, telling him to report to the post office downtown in May 1941.

Stephens had been drafted into the Army. It was six months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into World War II. The course of Stephens’ life changed. For the next seven years he was active duty, and another 31 years in the Army Reserve after that. He’s a retired colonel now.

Sunday is Veterans Day, and Stephens, who has lived in the same Durham home for 57 years, will don his Army dress green uniform for Sunday school and church at Bethany United Methodist Church. During his 38 years in the service, he went to 22 countries and 45 states.

The man who is “93 years young” grew up in East Durham. When he was drafted at age 21, it was supposed to be for one year.

“I came home four and a half years later. That was a long year,” Stephens said. A medical technician in the medic detachment of a signal battalion, he was stationed at Camp Forrest, Tenn., on Dec. 7, 1941. It was a Sunday around 1 p.m., and he had the radio on in the barracks when he heard that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He called out his second floor window to the guys below cleaning up cigarette butts. Then he put the radio in the window and turned the volume up for all to hear.

It was a terrible day, he said. The morning after Pearl Harbor, they were told at formation, “Well fellas, this is war.”

Eight days later, Stephens and his fellow soldiers were on a troop train to California. It broke down five times on the way, and he remembers chasing jack rabbits in Texas while they waited for repairs.

It was exciting because they knew they were in a war, he said, something they played as children.

“But we knew we had a job to do,” Stephens said. He spent Christmas 1941 in a camp right by the Pacific Ocean, guns pointed to the water because they were told a Japanese convoy was headed toward the west coast.

In September 1942, Stephens boarded the USS Mount Vernon to Australia with 10,500 troops on board, plus casualties from Guadalcanal they picked up on the way. When the ship arrived, they prepared to invade New Guinea.

Stephens served out the war in the Pacific Theater, primarily in New Guinea and the Philippines. His medical detachment was connected to the 58th Signal Battalion of the 3rd Army. He became a staff sergeant in 1943 and later received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant.

Stephens doesn’t talk a lot about the specifics of what he saw and did on the battlefield. This fall at a veterans’ recognition luncheon where he was the longest-serving veteran in the room, he said he’d seen more dead bodies than a funeral director.

Stephens was there for the January 1945 invasion of Luzon, the Philippines. The medical detachment took care of shrapnel and bullet wounds on site during a battle, Stephens said. Patients were transported by litter, which is a battlefield stretcher. Stephens said a Jeep could be refitted to take 12 litter patients on the hood, side and top of the vehicle.

After the war, Stephens settled back into life in Durham and married Claudia Boone, who grew up the next street over. Their mothers suggested going to church together one night, and George and Claudia walked back together.

“I held her hand, and of course that started it,” Stephens said. They had three children. Claudia Stephens passed away 10 years ago. Their children were the main reason George Stephens stayed in the Reserve until 1979.

“The pay, primarily. I had three young children and wanted to send them to college. Patriotism, too,” Stephens said. He encourages education, and one of his children is a teacher in Durham. His civilian career was in sales at a trucking company.

“I learned discipline in the Army. Someone’s got to be ahead of you, you gotta have a boss and his boss or her boss. There’s got to be a chain of command,” he said.

What Stephens didn’t like, he said, was “that saluting business.”

“I had an unusual situation, being a private, corporal and staff sergeant all in the same outfit,” he said. Stephens didn’t think he needed to be saluted by men he’d known since basic training. He’d rather get along with people than pull rank, he said.

Stephens said you can’t tell who veterans are, so he wears his uniform to church for Veterans Day.

“I’m proud of the uniform,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many people stop and thank you for your service.”

Read more: The Herald-Sun 

In 2008, my wife, daughter and I took George to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. I posted about that at the time. Here is a video of George narrating his overseas service areas at the campaign pool of the Pacific Campaign side of the memorial. Of the 20 campaign locations engraved into the stones, George fought or served at 10 of them. The ambient noise at the memorial is very high from all the waterworks, so you'll have to listen closely to hear George's voice.


Update: My father, Thurman Sensing  during WW2 - he was a Seabee who served aboard the battleship USS Texas and USS Bougainville, an escort carrier, both also in the Pacific.

My eldest served in Iraq in the Marine Corps:

And just in September I commissioned my second son into the Air Force Reserve while he attends medical school en route to becoming an Air Force medical officer.

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