Eldridge served in South Pacific
by Samantha White
Kenny Eldridge arrived at the Burns Times-Herald office for an interview on Thursday afternoon (June 12). He was dressed in blue jeans and a button-up shirt, and he was wearing a cap that identified him as a World War II veteran.
After introductions and a bit of small talk, Eldridge reached into the pocket of his blue jeans and pulled out a pocketknife. Attached to the knife was a magnet, which he removed and stuck to his forearm.
The 90-year-old explained that a piece of shrapnel, which has been lodged in his right arm since September 1944, was keeping the magnet in place. The shrapnel provides an unpleasant reminder of Eldridge’s service in the second world war.
Fortunately, however, Eldridge was among the hundreds of World War II veterans who gathered near the Oregon State Capitol June 6 (the 70th anniversary of D-Day) to be honored with a much more suitable memorial.
Oregon World War II Memorial dedicated
The veterans were among the thousands of people who gathered at Willson Park in Salem for the dedication of the new Oregon World War II Memorial.
Weighing in at 20 tons, the 33-foot-tall granite pillar was erected to recognize the service and sacrifice of the approximately 152,000 Oregonians who served during the war.
And a black granite wall, containing the names of the 3,771 Oregonians who were killed in action during the war, stands near the pillar.
Eldridge described the people named on the wall as “the real heroes.”
Giving the ‘ultimate sacrifice’
Lewis H. May is among those who are listed on the wall.
Before serving in the U.S. Army, May worked at Burns Garage and roomed with his friend, Cyc Presley.
May was sent to the European Theater and was among the more than 160,000 Allied troops who landed along the beaches of Normandy, France to fight Nazi Germany on D-Day (June 6, 1944).
About a month later (July 7, 1944), May “gave the ultimate sacrifice,” presumably in the dense hedge groves while pushing inland. He now rests in the American cemetery in Normandy.
Presley later traveled to France to visit May’s grave site. He was accompanied by his family, including his son-in-law, Charlie Schmidt, who is an adjutant for the American Legion Harney County Post No. 63.
“When you walk the beaches of Normandy now, it’s so peaceful,” Schmidt said. “But a long time ago, there were days when it was hell.”
Unlike May, who served in the European Theater and fought the Nazis, Eldridge served in the South Pacific Theater, fighting Japanese forces.
His three-part story was published in the Burns Times-Herald Dec. 4, 11 and 18, 2013 as part of Silent Warriors, a quarterly series of veterans’ stories that Megan Fitzpatrick compiled for her senior project.
Eldridge was drafted into the U.S. Army Nov. 27, 1943, and he began active service Dec. 18, 1943.
He received basic training at Camp Roberts in California. And on June 8, 1944, he was shipped out to New Guinea.
Although he was from California, Eldridge was assigned to the Alabama National Guards 31st Division, 167th Infantry Regiment, Company “B” second platoon, 2nd squad. This division was known as the Dixie division. And Eldridge was appointed the first scout of the patrol.
Eldridge’s friend, Everett L. Farquhar (nicknamed “Zeke”) was also made a first scout.
“They made us first scouts as soon as we were attached to their outfit,” Eldridge wrote in his autobiographical account. “If there was a dangerous mission or patrol that came up, one of us, as first scouts, lead out first for that patrol.”
Eldridge was part of the group that spearheaded the landing on Moratai Island, pushing inland until reaching a village where the Japanese set up a temporary camp.
During this time, a knee mortar hit the riffle that Eldridge was holding between his legs. The riffle was destroyed, but Eldridge’s life was spared.
And a second mortar hit between Eldridge’s legs, as he scrambled toward a tree.
With the exception of two soldiers, everyone in Eldridge’s platoon was injured or killed during the mortar attack. Luckily, Eldridge’s friend, Zeke, was one of the two who were not injured.
Fragments from both mortars, as well as ones that hit some of the other soldiers directly, were embedded throughout Eldridge’s body.
“I believe I had 28 wounds from my eyes to my lower legs,” Eldridge wrote. “I had some of these fragments removed later at sick calls over in the islands that were bothering me; when I bent my legs and arms, they pulled tight against my skin.”
Eldridge had other pieces of shrapnel removed later in life. Yet some pieces, like the one in his right arm, remain lodged in his body.
After Moratai was secured, Eldridge’s group spearheaded the landing on Mindanao Island.
While on the island, Eldridge was first scout on a mission to retrieve a walkie-talkie radio that was left behind by a platoon leader during a battle the previous day.
“We, the U.S., could not afford to let the enemy listen in on our walkie-talkie radios,” Eldridge explained.
While attempting to recover the radio, Eldridge spotted a booby trap. And in the events that followed, he was hit by concussion by friendly artillery shells that landed short of their targets.
“I remember flying up in the air. But I don’t remember coming back down,” Eldridge wrote.
His knees and elbows were also burned by phosphorus, which was set off to notify a pilot of their position. The pilot was directing the artillery from the air.
Eventually, word was received that the Japanese surrendered, and the war was over.
“This day was the happiest day for us since the war began,” Eldridge wrote.
He had spent 329 days on front-line combat.
After the war, Eldridge helped clean up Mindanao Island and waited to go home.
Part of his duties were to dig up the shallow graves and carry the dead back out.
“I still have nightmares about this, and I can still smell the smell,” Eldridge wrote. “Sometimes it makes me sick to my stomach, then I cry the rest of the night.”
Finally, a troop ship came in for the group, and Eldridge was sent back to the United States.
Unfortunately, by the time the ship docked in California, Eldridge contracted malaria and had to be transported to a military hospital for treatment.
He stayed in the hospital until he was released, and was then sent to Fort McArthur, Calif. for discharge a few days later.
After the service, Eldridge resumed working for Douglas Aircraft Company in California, which was the job that he held before he was drafted.
Eldridge worked for the company for 18 years, eventually earning a supervisory position. While working, he also attended night school.
Eldridge moved to Harney County in 1993, stating, “God sent us here.”
He began writing an autobiographical account of his military service when he was in his 80s.
“I have started this story many times and messed up, rewrote pages, then started over,” Eldridge wrote at the beginning of his account. “I have scrapped and burned more pages than I have written.”
He added, “Since the war, I have tried the best I know how to not say one word about it, thinking that one day I could forget it all…I think in my own mind that if I am around other people, they will downgrade me because of what happened to me in the war.”
A lasting legacy
However, Eldridge eventually started to share his story. And he now emphasizes the importance of teaching younger generations about the war.
“The kids have got to learn about it, and the teachers have got to know about it, so they can tell the kids,” Eldridge said.
Schmidt agreed, stating, “Us young kids need to hear those stories that these men and women have.”
Schmidt, who attended the memorial dedication with his wife, Linda, said the ceremony may be the final recognition that some World War II veterans will receive for their service (as most are 90 years old or older). However, he added that the Oregon World War II Memorial will serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by the servicemen and women of the “Greatest Generation” for many generations to come.
A welcome home party
Eldridge said the dedication ceremony made him feel “at home.”
He added that even traveling to the ceremony was special.
Eldridge and his wife rode over to Salem with some friends in a caravan of vehicles that were escorted from Central Oregon by a group from the Oregon Veterans Motorcycles Association.
Eldridge said he learned about the caravan from Lyle Hicks who owns Jake’s Diner in Bend. (Eldridge travels from Burns to Bend almost every week to attend Central Oregon Band of Brothers meetings, which are held at the diner.)
The caravan was not required to obey regular traffic laws.
“We went through red lights and everything,” Eldridge explained.
He added that, when the caravan reached Sisters, the veterans were greeted by school children of various ages who lined the sides of the streets, waving American flags.
“Flags were flying everywhere,” Eldridge said. “It started with big kids and went down to little kids…all up and down that road.”
Eldridge said it felt like “a welcome home party,” adding that he received no such celebration when he returned from the South Pacific almost 70 years ago.