March 30, 2011
John Mitchel tried to enlist when he was 20 years old, but the Army wouldn’t take him without his parents’ consent.
He brought the papers home, had his father sign them and returned to the recruiting office. He was denied entry again because his mother didn’t sign them.
By the time he returned home, his draft card was in the mail. This posed a problem because his brother had already enlisted. That summer the boys had laid out 85 acres of corn. His brother left on Aug. 10, 1942.
“I asked for deferment long enough to get the corn out. But the draft board replied, ‘The government wants you in. They don’t give a damn about corn,’ ” he said. “So, I went out the door and went home and went to shucking corn. I had 65 acres of corn shucked by the time I answered draft call.”
He started shucking corn around Sept. 10 and was sworn in Oct. 5. He was told that anyone who had unfinished business to take care of had 15 days to get it done. Mitchel returned home and shucked corn until Oct. 19.
He was sent to Corvallis, Ore., for basic training. He was trained to be a heavy machine gun gunner. The .50-caliber machine gun and tripod weighed about 100 pounds. It broke down into two parts. The gunner and assistant gunner each carried a section. Then there were five ammunition bearers. It took about a minute and a half to put the gun together, but sometimes that wasn’t fast enough. According to Mitchel, the gun shot about 250 rounds of ammunition in about three minutes.
Mitchel said the place he was sent — Leyte in the Philippines — was “pure hell.” He was part of the 96th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Deadeyes because of their exceptional marksmen.
“When MacArthur went back into the Philippines and said ‘I have returned,’ I was in there eight hours ahead of him. Been nice if I could have said I was in there rolling out the red carpet for him. It wasn’t quite like that,” he said.
He spent 134 days on the front lines. “I guess you just say, you finally got numb to it,” he said.
He went all the way through the Leyte campaign with one gun. When they got done, the barrel was burned up and warped.
“When you’re shooting that much ammunition and that fast, your gun wouldn’t last very long,” he said.
He was surprised to see it passed inspection and was told to take it on to Okinawa. He was told it would be replaced when he really needed it. He was among the first 50 Americans to set foot on the island the morning of April 1, 1945. This wasn’t only April Fool’s, but also Easter Sunday. He was in the first wave of infantry and the lead-off man for his small boat. It was an open-top tank outfit.
He spent 83 days in Okinawa. After 10 days, his gun was shooting more like an old shotgun. He couldn’t adjust the gun fire on it. He was asked to do some precision firing.
He said, “Now look, I’m not refusing to do the firing. But I’m refusing to use that gun.”
He told them it was burned up and they insisted on seeing it. He sat down on the ground and pulled the trigger. The lead ran out about 75 to 100 yards and hit the ground. He finally received a new gun.
The hardest part of his service was detecting the enemy. In Okinawa, the enemy set up in an old maneuver area. They had pillboxes that were dug in with trees that stood about 30 feet tall growing out of the top them. When the sun came up in the morning, the trees shaded the aperture of the pillbox. The Allies couldn’t see the smoke that came from the gun after it fired. This made precision firing difficult.
Though Mitchel was faced with numerous obstacles, he never lost hope.
“I always maintained the idea that somebody was going to get to go home and I hoped to be one of them and I was,” he said.
Toward the end of his service, battle fatigue started taking over.
“I was so wore down at the last that I was sitting up in my foxholes at night and hollering out at the men in my sleep,” he said. “It took me quite a while to recover from it — the battle fatigue — but that wore off in a year’s time or so. I’ve spent the last 65 years or so trying to forget about it.”
Once he got jaundice so bad his eyeballs were yellow. He was sent to a field hospital and was surprised by the doctor’s orders. He was given a gallon of hard candy and was told to eat all that he could. He ate candy for a week before being allowed to return to his outfit.
When he got discharged from the service, he returned to farming. His brother also came home after serving in North Africa and Europe.
Mitchel now lives at the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg.
“I just did what I had to do, came home and hope it was satisfactory,” he said.