Vet's memorabilia collection preserves WWII history
HANOVER, Pa. — History has been a facet of the life of Charles Caldwell. Studying it, participating in it and memorializing it.
"I had always been interested in, as a kid in the '30s, checking on the veterans of the Civil War. They were in their 90s," said the 90 year-old World War II veteran, speaking from his home in Gettysburg, in front of a floor to ceiling painting of a pacific island. "And I became very interested in history. Especially Civil War history."
Caldwell grew up in Orrville, Ohio, where after graduating high school he moved on to study at the University of Alabama. He was studying for exams in his room in December of 1941 when two fellow classmates came in.
"These guys came and they said 'the Japs just attacked Pearl Harbor.' And it was then we all had to stop and look up where Pearl Harbor was," he explained.
Not long after that he found himself returning to Ohio and telling his parents that he was joining the United States Marine Corps.
"I was nowhere near prepared for these exams," Caldwell said. "I was sweating blood."
He admits he joined the military in part wanting nothing to do with college exams and the steep quarterly fees of $300. But another part of him knew that volunteering to join the Marines was positioning himself to be a part of a monumental moment in world history.
After a short time in boot camp, he and many fellow recruits were assigned to an artillery unit and trained on 155 mm howitzer guns. In October of 1942 he found himself landing on a beach during the Campaign of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater of the second World War. The sounds of the 155 mm shelling were thundering all around, he said.
"When I landed at Guadalcanal it wasn't fear as much as it was excitement about the fact I was taking part in history," Caldwell said making a gesture forward with both hands. "I'm stepping into it."
Caldwell was aware of the significance of the event and made an effort to record and save as many pieces from the war as possible.
"We weren't allowed to keep a diary but we tried to record as much as possible," he said.
Not only did he record a diary and keep it safe, he made sketches and illustrations of his comrades and scenes happening in front of him.
When he returned home, he was able to smuggle military-issued cigarettes, rifle cartridges, a helmet, battle uniforms, a rucksack, boots and medical supplies from the war.
In addition he recovered and kept several Japanese memorabilia, including a flag, uniform, rifle and a small part of a plane fuselage, which later became one of the most important pieces of his collection.
Caldwell had only been in Guadalcanal for several weeks when a Japanese fighter plane crashed near Henderson Field where he was stationed. Using his KA-BAR knife, he cut out a hand-sized piece of metal from the plane's wing that held the colors of the Japanese Rising Sun insignia and kept the piece of aircraft with him throughout the war. He said he had no idea what he would do with the thin scrap of metal later.
It was April, 1962, 36 years later, when Caldwell was living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the leader of the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, was giving a sermon at Caldwell's church as part of a tour across the United States.
"I waited until after the service, until most people had words with him and Fuchida was packing up his bag by himself," Caldwell recalls. "I walked up and placed the piece of the aircraft wing in front of him and he looked at it for a long time without saying anything before asking 'That's one of ours isn't it?' And I said yes and then asked if he'd sign it."