Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 11, 2012

Recollections (of war)

Veterans remember defining moments


---- — On Veterans Day, as the United States commemorates those who have served in the military, three area residents share their recollections.

Day one: D-Day

Jeanne Maas was 23 and living and working in Detroit as a hospital dietitian when she enlisted to serve in World War II.

"I had a couple of friends who had gone in and they said they needed us desperately, so I quit my job and joined," said Maas, who began working with the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1944. "I was excited."

After six months of training in Massachusetts, she shipped out to Europe accompanied by a fleet of destroyers. From Scotland, she made her way to a large general hospital on the outskirts of London, where her first job was on D-Day.

"After D-Day, we had all these poor fellows who had been wounded," recalled Maas, now 93 and living in Acme. "They all came from the European continent through London before they could go home. They hung together in all kinds of casts, hurt in one way or another, but they were quite wonderfully brave.

"There were a lot of things wrong with people's mouths and throats, they had trouble eating. You can't believe how busy we'd keep. We had a great huge kitchen and we had to feed 2,000 people. When I got home I got married and my husband used to tease me because when I started cooking I'd divide my recipes for 2,000 for two."

Back in London, Maas lived in a Nissen hut with seven other women, many of whom she kept in touch with after the war.

"We were right outside London during the (Little) Blitz, several months when they were trying to obliterate London," she said. "You'd get (V1) buzz bombs all the time and you didn't know whether you were going to get hit. We just hunkered down in our barracks. We were all in the same boat, so I didn't think much about it. But it's sort of a weird feeling when you think those people are trying to kill you if they could."

After her discharge in 1946, Maas returned to the Detroit area to marry and raise a family. Eventually she and her husband built a summer home on Elk Lake.

Though she's outlived most of those she served with, she hasn't forgotten the war.

"It was one where everybody knew that we had to win and we would change the world," she said. "Unfortunately we still are having these ridiculous wars. They're not doing any good and we're wasting a lot of money, lives, time and everything. War is one of the worst ways to solve questions."

A defining moment

Gene Dixon of Traverse City is a career military man who spent 20 years with the U.S. Marine Corps. Of all the action he saw in the Korean War, he said the Chosin Reservoir episode of 1950 stands out most.

"It was one of the first battles that the Marines saw in Korea," said Dixon, a communicator in a weapons company with an infantry battalion. "It was 35 to 40 below zero and we were trapped. We were surrounded by the Chinese forces and we had to fight 35 miles down a narrow road to get to freedom."

The episode started shortly after the Thanksgiving meal, when his unit was ordered to relocate west of the frozen reservoir to provide support to other units that were encountering stiff opposition. When they arrived in the area after dark on Nov. 27, "all hell broke loose," Dixon wrote in his memoirs.

"The Chinese were coming at us from all directions. Units of our battalion had barely gotten organized before bullets started flying," he said.

The fierce fight continued through the bitterly cold night, during which the Chinese yelled and blew bugles to intimidate U.S. troops. Instead of going on the offensive, Dixon said, his unit could only hold their ground.

In early December, the unit was ordered to fight its way out through extreme weather conditions that included snow, wind and poor visibility. Troops were told to get rid of excess items — some even threw their sleeping bags on the fire — that would weigh them down. Once they started, there would be no stopping. Supplies like ammunition, water and food — often frozen and chipped out bean by bean — would be dropped by air.

On Dec. 10, 1950, after waiting out a delay to build a new, airdropped bridge to replace one the Chinese blew up, Dixon celebrated his 21st birthday by walking out of the Chosin Reservoir alive. He believes his division of 20,000 lost about 4,000 men. Most, including Dixon, suffered from frostbite.

Though he spent 15 more years in the Marines after the Korean War, he calls the Chosin Reservoir episode a defining moment.

"I think it probably made my life more complete," said Dixon, 82, who in October received the Ambassador for Peace medal from the South Korean government. "It made me appreciate the things we have today more than I might have. It makes you really have to think about how fragile your life is because there are people out there who want to kill you.

"War is war, and the only way you know how it's lived is to live it."

Military turning point

Don Hendrick grew up on a farm in Cass City and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1982 after a year of college.

Nearly 20 years later — a few months after the Twin Towers went down in New York — he was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. A year after that, he left for Iraq under Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"They were much alike as far as my role with aircraft maintenance," said Hendrick, 50, a propulsion flight chief who oversaw a large engine shop for jet aircraft. "For the average Air Force individual, we were on a base, we were somewhat protected. We weren't going door to door, kicking the door in. We sent the aircraft out."

Still, Hendrick endured plenty of hardships in Afghanistan, including weather extremes few Midwesterners can imagine.

"It was extremely hot the first place we went, but when we got to the second it was a record cold," said Hendrick, who lives in Lake Ann. "Like all the water in the shower tents was frozen. The tents we lived in had heaters but they would only heat the air 25 degrees. With it being 15 degrees below, the air was only about 15 degrees. It might be 130 degrees on the tarmac. So extremes on both ends. You just deal with it."

He also saw combat, even if from 10,000 feet above.

Now retired and a seasonal employee with the National Park Service and Cherry Republic, Hendrick said he'd do it all over again.

"People ask me now do I miss it, and the answer pretty quick is yes, most of the time," he said. "You meet people all over the world. You have friends in almost every state and lots of different countries."

He said the wars of his generation marked a turning point in military history. Aside from drastically more advanced technology, operations since 2000 have benefited from initial air campaigns.

"In the last couple of wars, a lot of it was done from the air in the beginning, which makes all the sense in the world to me," he said. "Why send a couple thousand troops in when you can send in a few aircraft? It's a huge difference. From Desert Storm on, air campaigns at the onset of these wars was huge in the success and saved a lot of American lives as opposed to our ground wars."

And there's one more big difference, he said: "I think there's more awareness, understanding of what the military goes through. The support for the military is tremendous, where in past wars it was not. I really feel for those in the Vietnam war and before where they were treated pretty negatively. Now if you're walking in the airport, if you're in uniform, a lot of people will stop and shake your hand. That meant a lot."