Sunday, November 28, 2004
Serving across the decades
Duty calls many Southeast Volusians
By MELANIE STAWICKI AZAM | News-Journal Staff Writer
NEW SMYRNA BEACH — Throughout the past century, Southeast Volusia veterans have served their country in many wars — World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and twice in Iraq.
Although new technology has changed the battlefield, in some ways war remains the same. Cities are leveled and lives are lost. Families worry about loved ones fighting far away and pray for their safe return.
“War is scary, no matter what time of the century it was fought,” Vietnam veteran Rick Cassady said.
Returning soldiers are left with a lifetime of memories of friends lost, battles won, lasting wounds and medals of honor. This week, local vets share some of their wartime experiences.
WORLD WAR II
Lee Johnson was drafted when he was 21 and served as a paratrooper in WWII.
“When you drop in, you’re on the front lines,” said the New Smyrna Beach man. “We jumped in the dark so you didn’t know where you were going to land.”
He mainly fought in France and was in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He said he saw a lot of destruction, particularly in Belgium.
Johnson, 85, said he parachuted only once in combat over Southern France in August 1944. Otherwise, he said he fought on the ground, recalling early morning attacks when it was so cold the guns would freeze up.
His paratrooper outfit was awarded the French Legion of Honor but, after four years in the military, he said he was ready to get out.
“We fought a lot bigger battles (then) than today,” he said. “It was closer combat and the enemy had big tanks and were well trained with mortar.”
Decades later, Korean War veteran Russell Powell still remembers the bitter cold and seeing the South Korean city of Seoul leveled.
“This boy, I’ve never forgotten, was between 10 and 12 years old, going through the rubble,” he recalled. “His leg had probably been blown off and he had crutches.”
The Holly Hill man, an employee of New Smyrna Beach City Hall, served from 1952 until 1955 in the Army’s Second Division, 38th Infantry Regiment. Originally from Massachusetts, he enlisted shortly after his high school graduation.
Powell, 71, still lacks feeling in his thumb from frostbite he suffered during time spent in the mountains of Korea. But he said he feels lucky he survived the war and came home uninjured.
“At night, all you could see was the fire that was going through the air,” he said. “It was like the Fourth of July.”
Land mines were particularly treacherous, Powell said, killing soldiers at random.
“I remember five guys in our outfit would boil water to shave and they hit a mine,” he said, adding all the men died.
Powell said he met few Korean civilians on the front lines and troops were instructed not to go into villages. However, he said he was struck by the barren landscape and seeing people living in sewers in war-torn Seoul.
“We weren’t liked,” he said. “They hated us for being there, just like we’re hated over there (in Iraq) now.”
But Powell said the war going on today is so different. Technology is more advanced and the frontline is everywhere with terrorism.
“It’s almost like, how do you stop something like this?” Powell said.
The Vietnam War came quickly after the Korean War, he said, and really overshadowed it.
Only in the past five years have people really remembered Korean War vets, he said. He has organized many events in Volusia County honoring them, saying he feels all soldiers should be honored for what they’ve given.
“There’s not a lot of Korean War veterans left but I’m glad that they’re finally being recognized,” Powell said.
Rick Cassady’s 21st birthday was the day he got wounded fighting in Vietnam and nearly lost his life.
“I looked down and saw one boot,” recalled the 58-year-old New Smyrna Beach man. “I thought I lost a leg.”
Cassady had spent four months patrolling the jungles of Vietnam and his infantry company was being airlifted in to assist other troops. But North Vietnamese soldiers hit his helicopter with a grenade and he was blown out.
His leg was badly broken but still there. He also had a fractured skull. Later, U.S. troops found him and he was taken to a military hospital, where he nearly died of an embolism.
“I wasn’t supposed to make it, but I did,” he said.
After another nine months in a military hospital in Pennsylvania, he returned home to Michigan. Certain things remain etched in his mind more than 30 years later.
“Each picture takes me to a different situation,” he said, leafing through the pages of an old scrapbook.
Cassady pointed out friends from his unit, many of whom never came home. He paused at one photo, where a smiling Vietnamese boy sat on his knee, commenting that the child was killed in an attack later that day.
“We didn’t understand it,” he said. “We liked the kids and the people and they were dying, too, because they were in the way — they were casualties of war.”
Cassady went to Vietnam in December 1966 after volunteering for the draft when he was 20 years old. He said he had to kill as a soldier and has to live with those memories the rest of his life. “What most soldiers do, and what I did is, they put a wall around themselves, an invisible wall,” he said.
Cassady said he got no warm reception upon his return from the war. He also said while he supports the troops in Iraq, he does not agree with the war there. He said he sees many similarities between the war in Vietnam and Iraq and it troubles him.
“There were no front lines in Vietnam and there’s none over there (in Iraq) either,” he said.
WWII, KOREA, VIETNAM
For Bill Donnelly, the military and war has been a big part of his life. He spent 33 years in the Navy and served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
“Each of these wars was different,” he said. “World War II, from my point of view, is the war that had to be fought.”
He joined the Navy at age 18 and left to fight in World War II in 1942. He became a pilot but flew no combat missions in that war.
“I loved it. I loved being in the Navy and flying was my life,” the 80-year-old New Smyrna Beach man said.
During the Korean War, Donnelly served as a landing signal officer on a ship. Later, at 41, he headed to Vietnam and almost didn’t return.
“It’s a series of what I call miracles,” he said. “I think, by the grace of God, I’m here.”
In March 1965, he was flying a bombing mission when a shell hit his plane. He lost control of the aircraft and barely managed to eject before crashing into the Gulf of Tonkin. A rescue plane flew over but missed him as he drifted a raft having suffered a broken shoulder and leg, two busted vertebrae and three fractured ribs.
“I was almost dead,” Donnelly said.
Heavy fog rolled in the first night, as North Vietnamese boats searched the waters for him. He survived on a bit of water made with a desalinization kit and a packet of gumdrops in his pocket.
After 44 hours, two Navy fighter planes spotted and rescued him. At this point, Donnelly said he couldn’t even raise his head and needed to be helped to the rescue craft. In his haze, he said he noticed that several soldiers were pointing guns at him as he was hauled from the sea and he asked why.
“They said, ‘You’re in the biggest school of sharks we’ve ever seen,’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “I never even knew they were there.”
At the military hospital, Donnelly met General Westmoreland, who pinned the Purple Heart on him. Six days later, the injured pilot returned to his ship and crew.
“That’s my home and that’s where I wanted to be, ” he said.
After returning to the United States for further medical treatment, he returned to fly for another six months in Vietnam. In his 14-plane squadron, five pilots died and two were prisoners of war, he said.
“Every mission, I was scared to death but I never showed it,” Donnelly said.
He said his children were protesting the war in Vietnam while he was fighting it. But he said it was their right to have their own opinions and he has doubts himself about the war today.
“I think, first of all, that the Vietnam War, from our point of view, was a mistake,” he said. “The way we conducted it, we lost so may people.”
Shellie Lewis is looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with her family this year. The Edgewater Fire Department paramedic returned home in April after serving a year with the National Guard in the Middle East.
“This is my first holiday home,” she said this week. “Holidays (there) were like every other day. Every day was the same there.”
Lewis, 39, served with a medical unit in Kuwait. She said she feels lucky she wasn’t stationed in Iraq, which was a more dangerous assignment. She visited a team in Baghdad for a week and recalled seeing a lot of destruction.
“You could hear gunfire and stuff,” she said. “They had it a lot rougher than we did in Kuwait.”
Lewis said she’s not sure how her experience compares to other veterans and conflicts but she said it feels good to not have to carry a weapon all the time or fear a terrorist attack.
“I guess, to me, I feel like I was in a war,” Lewis said. “It was nice to just be able to come home and go for a walk.”
With terrorism, she said it’s a different type of war. Children would wave and give soldiers the thumbs-up, she said, while later, Iraqis would be shooting at American troops.
“You don’t know what you’re up against,” Lewis said. “You don’t know who likes you, who doesn’t.”
Lewis said she wasn’t expecting the National Guard to call her up to serve overseas but she was prepared to go. However, she said it’s tough on family and employers to be gone that long.
She said she was very thankful when she came home but it’s always in the back of her mind that she could be called up again.
“You had a new family when you got over there — a new group of friends,” Lewis said. “But yeah, it’s hard being away for that long.”