WASILLA — Nearing the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the pivotal battle that ultimately helped the U.S. and allies win World War II, four Valley veterans residing in the Primrose Retirement Community of Wasilla talked about their service.
Their stories covered several chapters of history, from WWII to Vietnam. No matter the saga, they are American soldiers who fought for their country. These men all served when people were drafted, no matter their race, wealth, or social status. U.S. Army veteran Walter Brennan said that he thinks there still should be a draft.
“They all had to work together and work to get by,” Brennen said.
Bob Murry joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943, in the midst of WWII. He said that he originally joined to be a fighter pilot but he “washed out” and served as an armorer instead. Murray and his squadron armed fleets of planes, loading them with machine guns and bombs.
Murray was stationed in Africa for two months then Italy, where he spent most of his time during the war. He loaded 200-pound and 500-pound bombs used against Germany in northern Italy. He said they were hitting Germany from below in Italy, leading up to D-Day. Then on that fateful day, troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, which is in northern France so they had the Nazis wedged.
“Then D-Day happened. Germany was being hit from both sides,” Murray said. “They were dug in and we were bombing them left and right.”
D-Day is regarded as one of the most important milestones of WWII but it was made possible thanks to the U.S. and Allied efforts across all fronts, both before and after June 6, 1944.
In 1945, Murray went to the National Guard. He served for six more years and retired as a Corporal Sergeant. He said the thing he misses most about his time enlisted was the sense of comradery and all his travels. He said that he grew up during the Great Depression so travel wasn’t a very common luxury.
“It was exciting as hell and adventurous,” Murray said.
Walter Fergus is the only living veteran in Alaska who was a POW during WWII. He’s 94 years old and he has trouble recalling details of his service, especially the parts he doesn’t really want to remember.
“I try not to remember that part of history,” Fergus said.
Fergus was an air gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps, shooting at enemy fighters in Italy, about 40 miles away from Murray.
“I didn’t see where we were going. I only saw where we were,” Fergus said with a laugh.
Fergus’ plane was shot down over Italy and he was taken to a German POW camp. He was in the prison camp until U.S. and Allied forces shot through a lock and busted him out of there. During his time in the “barbed wire hotel,” he said that food was scarce and after the war, he couldn’t stand seeing food wasted. He feels the same way today.
“That’s something that followed me,” Fergus said.
Despite being held prisoner in Germany, Fergus later returned to Germany with his wife, Lila. He said that he shared his story with a group of curious Germans, young ones between 17 and 20. He said they were interested in his story.
“We had a good time when we got back to Germany,” Fergus said.
Fergus was “career military” and served 30 years, even touring Vietnam. He retired as a Master Sergeant.
“They finally said, ‘you’ve been here long enough. It’s time to go,’” Fergus said.
Fergus said that he has no regrets and was glad he got to see a lot of places around the world in his lifetime. Like Murray, he enjoys travel.
“That’s why I’m in Alaska,” Fergus said.
Ron Pluta served 22.5 years in the U.S. Navy. He joined in 1966, amid the Vietnam War. He spent his first three years as active duty in the Seabees battalion. He was stationed in Scotland and oversaw the nuclear store room. He also spent time on nuclear submarines. He spent his remaining 19.5 years on reserve as a supply officer. He eventually retired in 1989.
“I worked with a good bunch of people. I learned a lot,” Pluta said.
Much like Fergus, Walter Brennan was career military and he too spent 30 years in the U.S. Army. He served from 1961 to 1991 on active duty.
“It was a way out of poverty,” Brennan said.
Brennan did a lot of work with war strategies, having a lot to with conflicts in the lasting Korean War, a war he said never truly ended. He said that he helped develop strategies like Team Spirit, a joint military training exercise held by the U.S. and South Korea between 1976 and 1993. He said that with people’s lives on the line, he learned the value of efficiency early in life.
“It taught me from a very young age: if you’re going to do something, do it right,” Brennan said. “We had some of the best military people in the world.”
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org