World War II vets remember the end of the war

By JEFF WILKINSON | The State | Published: August 30, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) -- On Sept. 2, 1945, 1st Lt. Murray Price was visiting his grandparents on Clark Street in North Columbia when he heard on the radio that World War II had officially ended with the Japanese signing the instrument of surrender on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Price, a Lexington native, had just returned home after piloting 40 B-24 bombing missions in the Pacific, 20 of them over the grim, battle-scarred island of Iwo Jima.

Upon hearing the news, he jumped into his recently-purchased 1941 Ford with his future wife, Frances Addy; his cousin Marvin Amick, who had just returned from Italy; and Amick's future wife, Essie Medlin.

They intended to drive to the State House to celebrate the historic victory with a few thousand other service members and others who had packed the Capital City because of nearby Fort Jackson and the Columbia Army Air Base.

"We headed down Main Street," said Price, now 94. "We got to Elmwood Avenue, and it took a solid hour to get to the State House. Everyone was yelling and having a good time. Everyone was blowing their horns. I blew the horn so much I had a dead battery."

Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, arguably the most momentous conflict in world history. The American men and women who served in the war are referred to as the nation's Greatest Generation. But it is a generation now quickly fading to memory.

Frances Price died in April. Most of Murray Price's friends from those days are now gone. They used to gather regularly to swap stories and share memories.

"Now it's hard to find someone to have lunch with," Price said.

'They made this country'

World War II began Sept. 1, 1939, when Adolph Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded unsuspecting Poland. America entered the war on Dec. 7, 1941, when Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. naval base and airfields in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

It was the most all-encompassing war in history, directly affecting more than 100 million people from more than 30 countries. It was also history's deadliest war, resulting in an estimated 50 million to 85 million fatalities -- soldiers and civilians -- including 11 million Jews and others exterminated by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, the result of the simultaneous defeat of the Nazis by America and its allies -- Britain, France, Canada and others -- from the west, and the Russians from the east. It was called V-E Day, meaning victory in Europe.

The surrender of the Empire of Japan was announced on Aug. 15, 1945, after the United States had detonated atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9. It was called V-J Day, meaning victory over Japan.

About 419,000 American soldiers were killed in the war. German deaths, both civilian and military, are estimated at 4.2 million. The Russians lost 20 million.

"World War II was a social, political and economic revolution across most of the world," said University of South Carolina historian Fritz Hamer, a former curator of history at the S.C. State Museum. "It made the United States the superpower of the world. And it signaled the beginning of the Cold War, which existed for four decades."

As for American men and women who served in World War II, he said:

"They wanted to go back to the lives they had left before the war; that didn't happen," he said. "But they wanted to return to stability, to have families and good jobs. The G. I Bill helped them achieve that. And they made this country the huge industrial, innovative society it became."

'The only thing that saved my life'

Vernon Brantley was one of those who survived the war.

Now 90 and living in Forest Acres, Brantley was a private first class in the 75th Infantry Division during World War II. He was drafted, but passed up a deferment to go fight anyway.

The Kentucky native was wounded -- "blown up by a mortar," he said -- during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 in Belgium. To this day, tiny bits of shrapnel occasionally pop out of his face when he is shaving.

Brantley later rejoined his unit and fought through Germany. On V -- E Day, he was checking fleeing civilians and surrendering German soldiers at a bridge near Dortman, Germany.

"We were processing hundreds of German soldiers and displaced people trying to get home," he said. "Checking passports. Things like that. They were trying to get away from the Russians."

Three months later, he was being processed himself, at a huge, sprawling tent city, one of many called "cigarette camps" because they had names like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and Old Gold.

There, some soldiers who had earned enough points for things like length of service, number of engagements, decorations, etc., were preparing to return home for good. Others, like Brantley, were being given 30-day passes home before being re-trained and shipped to the Pacific for the inevitable invasion of Japan.

The atomic bombs made that invasion unnecessary.

"The atomic bomb was the only thing that saved my life and an estimated 4 million other lives," Brantley said. " I can't emphasize that enough. The bombs killed thousands of people. They were horrible. But they ended the war.

"Otherwise, we would have had to take Japan island by island," he said. "And it would have taken years."

'Our ranks are gettting thin'

Leif Maseng also came home after the war. He was an Illinois native who had joined the famed and elite 82nd Airborne Division.

Maseng, now of Columbia, was one of the first men to parachute into France on D-Day. He would later fight in the Battle of the Bulge, until being disabled by frozen feet.

He was in England on V-J Day, recuperating, and helping process soldiers with less points than him to go home, which made him angry and resentful.

"Thank God for Harry Truman," he said of the U.S. president who made the decision to drop the bombs. "Being paratroopers, we would be the first ones sent over there. We were frightened to death."

But returning home was surprisingly uneventful.

Maseng remembers seeing the famous photograph in the newspaper of the sailor kissing the girl in Chicago. That wasn't his experience.

"I remember my daddy told me to get a job, which was tough to do," he said. "It was pretty much, 'I know what you did, but what what are you going to do now?'"

World War II veterans like Price, Brantley and Maseng toiled away in anonymity for decades, building the country. Only in the past 10 to 15 years did they begin to receive recognition. "It was really a gift," Maseng said. "It was totally unexpected. I credit it to God."

He said that he hopes that when his generation passes, "that we would be remembered as an example for young men and women nowadays. That they would engage in positive, life-affirming activities. Serve their country."

Bomber pilot Price feels the same.

"Our ranks are getting thin," he said. "I have a very few years left. But I'm good with the Lord and I have no fear. I'm going to meet my sweetheart again.

"We did what had to be done for the benefit of those who followed, for our children," he added. "And I hope they do the same thing right on down the line."

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