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Memorial Day reflections

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May 24, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — Like many World War II veterans, Vergennes native Martin Casey says he was just doing his job when he signed up to fight fascism, a decision that led him to fight under Gen. George S. Patton in Germany and then do post-war service in Japan. 

Although he enlisted to serve in WWII, it took some arm-twisting on the part of officials of Vergennes American Legion Post 14, an outfit Casey has served as commander four times, to get him to agree to act as the marshal of the city’s Memorial Day parade, the state’s largest.

Casey, an accomplished musician and former Vergennes city clerk and shop owner who has also held many other key offices for Post 14, said others are more deserving of the honor. His parting words to an interviewer discussing parade duty with him were, “Don’t make me out to be some kind of war hero.”

But others believe Casey is deserving. Post 14 communications officer Henry Broughton said after years of trying he “practically got down on my knees and begged” Casey, a Bronze Star winner, to accept the honor of being marshal.

“He doesn’t say much about his experience,” Broughton said, “but I do know he has the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and you don’t get that unless you were in combat.”

Casey protested his Bronze Star is “almost automatic,” and said he has a stock response to people who ask him about his fighting experience.

“I tell people if they ask me if I was ever in combat, ‘Yeah, and I was scared the whole time,’” he said.

MAIN STREET THEATER

TO EUROPEAN THEATER

Of course, growing up in Vergennes in the 1920s and 1930s — born in 1924, Casey turns 83 on Saturday — he didn’t expect to trot around the globe carrying a backpack, radio and rifle.

Casey’s dad ran the Green Mountain Power substation in Vergennes, where young Martin learned the rudiments of the electrician’s trade he still works at part-time. His mom used to direct school plays in the Vergennes Opera House, one reason Casey worked for the revival of the city theater.

“It was the only place in town big enough to handle any size gathering,” he said. “My folks were involved and … when they had to build special wiring, special lightings for productions I got involved as a kid in high school.”

In 1941 Casey enrolled at Norwich University to study engineering, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed his plans. Casey didn’t wait for Uncle Sam to come calling — he enlisted.

“It was just a job that needed to be done, and if you were capable, or thought you were, you duffed in to do it,” Casey said.

In the spring of 1942 Casey began journeying all over the U.S. while the military tried to figure out how best to use his skills. After stops in Massachusetts and New Jersey, he went to Nebraska and South Dakota for high-level training as an artillery expert.

But after months of high-level studies the powers-that-be decided they needed more foot soldiers, and Casey went for infantry training in Missouri and then San Diego.

“At that point I was no longer Signal Corps or Air Corps. I was infantry, a dough foot, a mudslinger,” Casey said. “They needed grunts.”

Casey’s company thought they were ticketed for “island-hopping” in the Pacific, but instead orders came for a train trip to New Jersey. After a few days — including one evening he was lucky enough to see his parents and his girlfriend Sylvia, now his wife — he headed for France in late 1944 as part of what was then the largest convoy ever to cross the North Atlantic.

“I saw the Statue of Liberty fade into the distance from the poop deck,” he said.

The convoy took 33 days to cross because it included slow-moving tankers and zigzagged constantly to avoid German submarines. The tactics didn’t always work. 

“We saw this tanker get hit at about 10 o’clock at night,” he said. “It split in two. It looked like two blow torches, flames sticking out.”

ACROSS EUROPE

On landing, Casey’s unit boarded a train and headed toward the action in eastern France and western Germany. Casey caught up with it quickly.

“The locomotive got hit by artillery fire and got blown off the track, and I guess one or two cars. But back where we were it just rattled us and shook the thing and we had to get out,” he said. “It was darker than pitch and they told us not to get too far from the tracks because they were afraid of mine fields. We started walking.”

Before long they came across a bombed-out, virtually empty town, an experience that remains seared into his consciousness.

“I only recall meeting only one very elderly lady who was obviously in a state of shock. She was poking with a stick in the remains of what I assume had been her house, a stone building, and I don’t think there was a wall left over four-and-a-half, five feet high … and all she was saying was a German word I’ve never forgotten, ‘meine kartoffel (my potatoes), meine kartoffel,’” he said. “But the thing that was outstanding was the stench. It’s an experience that I wouldn’t want anyone else ever to have, the smell of the flesh that has been rotting for I don’t know how many days … It just absolutely just turns your gut inside out.”

Before long his company saw its first action, an artillery barrage. 

“We were obviously spotted. We had tanks in support, and some idiot brought the tanks right up to the crest of a hill,” he said. “They started this artillery barrage at 1:30, 1:45 in the afternoon, and I found a dead furrow in the edge of the field and I started digging myself into it … That lasted until about six in the afternoon, and we couldn’t move. We just stayed there and took it. They finally brought in an air strike that stopped it … Those Air Corps guys, they’ve got a soft spot in my heart, because they really saved our fannies, not just that once but a number of times.”

Before long Casey’s company was assigned to Patton’s Third Army, which drove relentlessly across Germany toward Czechoslovakia. By then Casey was a communications sergeant carrying a radio and responsible for mapping.

Casey believes Patton’s tactics saved lives. He said coordinating rapid assaults with air power gave enemies little chance to resist, ending battles quickly.

“(The planes) would come in right over the treetops and we’d come in right behind them, and nobody in their right mind stuck their head out when those planes were going through, because they just blanketed it with lead. And then we went in,” he said. “I think it saved a lot of American lives and I think it saved a lot of German lives because he knew how to do it properly.”

Still, his company of about 180 had about 100 casualties, although Casey said most of them were wounded.

“There were a great many more wounded than killed,” he said, “but I lost a good many friends over there.”

ON TO THE PACIFIC

When Germany surrendered, there was still business in the Pacific. Casey’s unit shipped home, but after a month off they crossed the United States and headed out for another month at sea.

“I remember seeing Diamond Head off of the starboard rail,” he said.

He only got off the ship once, and that was without permission. He paid Caroline Islanders in an outrigger canoe to drop him off for an afternoon on a deserted island near Ulithi, in the far northwestern reaches of the Carolines.

“It was the most beautiful, idyllic spot in the world, a beautiful beach. All I saw were some monkeys climbing around in the trees and birds,” he said.

By then the two atomic bombs were dropped and Japan capitulated. Casey, like many of his peers, believes the bombs averted a bloody, prolonged invasion of Japan.

“I’ve told people a thousand times that two people, both dead, are responsible for my being here today: George Patton and Harry Truman,” Casey said.

In Japan Casey worked in Chichibu on the “demilitarization” of the nation. He drove around in a jeep and a trailer and collected war material, and used his skills to set up a communications system for his company.

He enjoyed those duties, but calls his stint in Japan “the best duty I guess I ever had in my military service” because of the warmth and politeness of the Japanese people.

 “Of course I hit Japan with a chip on my shoulder that would heat the house for a year. We were propagandized against these evil slant-eyes, you know. I thought all this bowing and scraping was hypocritical,” he said. “But it’s their culture, and it’s perfectly sincere, and I fell in love with the Japanese people.”

In fact, Casey had much the same impression of the German people.

“By and large they were just like our neighbors here. But it was a case of how do good people let something like that happen. It shows you what a militant minority can do to an apathetic majority. It was some famous Englishman who said that the only thing that makes evil prevail is that good men do nothing,” he said. “And the same was true in Japan.”

As much as Casey believes he did the right thing by signing up in 1942, this week he still had qualms about his upcoming parade duty. But he said one way of thinking about it is that as a World War II veteran he is there representing many who are no longer with us.

“That’s the only way I’ve looked at it,” he said, “that I’m substituting or standing in for a lot of guys that can’t be there and a lot of guys that should be there that did a lot more than I ever did.”

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