Local World War II veterans honored
By G. Mark LaFrancis
Special to the Democrat
On the day we celebrate our nation’s independence, we also honor those men and women in uniform who helped preserve our freedoms. Two of them — Harold Gardner and Josephine Hopkins Kapke — grew up on rural farms in the Miss-Lou. But in answering the call to serve during World War II, they joined the ranks of those we call “The Greatest Generation.”
“As a boy, I enjoyed hunting, fishing and working in the field,” said Harold Gardner, calling himself a “simple, country fella.”
But his life changed when in 1943 he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 19.
“I sort of enjoyed going in and being sworn in,” Gardner said.
After basic training and advanced schooling as a heavy equipment operator, he was sent to California for his assignment on the island of Tinian, near Saipan, in the South Pacific. Gardner became one of the heralded Seabees – CBs, the Naval Construction Battalion members.
“After I got in (to Tinian), I learned more about what was going on in the Pacific; there was a lot of action in the Pacific during World War II, all the way from Pearl Harbor to Australia.”
His crews constructed massive runways for the B-29 Superfortress, one of the workhorses of the U.S. bomber fleet. He recalls seeing the bomb-laden planes struggle to lift off. “I thought they were headed right for the ocean, but they made it (in the air).
“I’d say there were 10,000 Seabees on Tinian before the war was over,” Gardner said.
He remained on the island from July 1944 through October 1945. “There were some fine boys, some of the best some of the best I’ve ever seen were in the service with me.”
Frequently, Marines were called to clear Japanese soldiers from the cane fields near where the Seabees were working. “It was nothing for them Japanese to hide in them cane fields. There was sugar cane all over Tinian until we built them airfields; we cleaned a lot of them up.”
Gardner, though, remained unflappable. “I ain’t ever been nervous. I never got excited about anything that I know of. I didn’t have sense enough to get scared.”
In the evenings, the crews frequently tuned in to listen to the infamous “Tokyo Rose,” a propaganda broadcaster from Japan.
“She always came on 11:30 12 o’clock, and we’d be eatin’; and she had some good music … Bing Crosby and all that bunch. I enjoyed listening to her; we all laughed at her. Most guys were married; she tried to stir them up on what their wives were doing back home. She said they’re having a good time, and all that stuff, while you’re all over there on them islands trying to win the war.”
His most indelible memory was the first atomic bomb drop in August 1945. The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” was loaded on Tinian onto the B-29 “Enola Gay.”
“I looked into the No. 1 pit where they loaded that first atomic bomb, and I looked at the airplane when it came back. I don’t think very many people even knew when they were going to load it. It was a military secret. It took ‘em a few days to make up their minds when they were going to drop it. All we knew was that word got out that they had a bomb that would kill anyone within a mile. A lot of them (on the island) predicted when they dropped it the war was going to be over with. Then they dropped the second one that killed more people … and the rest is history.”
He cherishes a photograph he has that was taken by Seabee friend of the Enola Gay upon its return.
“A lot of my friends were just like me; they wanted to get it over with so they could go home.” After the Japanese surrendered, throngs of Seabees were sent home.
“The old saying is (I) went to work (March 4, 1946). I was just as happy as a field lark in a 10-acre pasture. I’m glad I got to serve I don’t regret it I don’t regret a cotton pickin’ thing I did during World War II.”
He humbly said, “It wasn’t bad.”
His most heart-wrenching moment came well after the war when his younger brother Charlie enlisted during the Korean War. Gardner became somber, almost sorrowful.
“I begged him not to into the service. I just got out and we were enjoying ourselves fishing hunting and doing what we wanted to do. But nothing could stop him; he had to go in the service. I saw him one time after he went in the service. That was June 1950. He got on the train in Brookhaven … never did see him no more. There was a guy who (served with him) who told me he got a piece of shrapnel in the head. I never did tell momma I was told that … not momma or the rest of the family. I just kept it all to myself.”
He remains strongly patriotic, and is proud of the American flag he displays daily outside his Natchez home.
Josephine Hopkins Kapke
When she was a girl growing up on a farm in Wilkinson County, Josephine Hopkins Kapke loved to tend to the farm animals. She prayed that someday she could be a nurse.
“When the harvesting was over, I decided I had to do something,” Kapke said. “I went to the recruiting station and she (the recruiter) told me they were organizing the women’s auxiliary army corps … I almost ran to get there I was so excited. Oh, I was skipping around. Never in my life did I ever dream I’d be going in the Army.”
On New Year’s Day 1942 she was on a train to New Orleans to camp. She soon learned about Army life.
“So at nine o’clock that night, that sergeant, she yelled, ‘Fall out, fall out.’ I thought we were going to take a shower and go to bed. We got in the barracks, and she yelled (again), ‘Fall out.’ Old stupid country gal (me) told her, ‘Sergeant if you don’t let up on us, we’re are going to fall out.’ And she said to me, ‘If you don’t keep your big mouth shut, I’m going knock you out.’ That was my first day in the Army.”
After basic training, Kapke was sent to Bakers and Cook School in Arkansas.
“I got down to the mess hall; the mess sergeant came in and he gave me some pinto beans, a slab of bacon, and a sack of meal, and some vegetables to make a salad out of. He asked us if any of us knew how to use a wood stove. That’s all I ever used being out in the country; we didn’t have electricity. When I told him I did, he said I’m going to appoint you first cook.”
Her new title was short-lived when she was selected for nursing school. “That was the happiest day of my life.”
Her first assignment as an Army nurse was the Fort Dix military medical hospital in New Jersey, where she remained until her discharge in 1945. Soon after Kapke arrived at Fort Dix, American prisoners of war began arriving, including the soldiers who survived the Bataan death march, a horrid forced-march in the Philippines by Japanese captors. Scores of American prisoners died not only from the march, but the inhumane treatment.
“They were beaten. They told me the Japanese would knock them down and run over them. They went through hell.”
One former prisoner refused to eat.
“The soldier had a baby, and they wouldn’t let the baby on the ward. I told the doctor, ‘I believe if he could see his baby, he might eat and have some will to live.’ He (the doctor) said, ‘I think so too Hopkins. I’ve tried to get permission but they wouldn’t let children on the ward.’ I said, ‘I’ve got a way he can see his baby: the window in the ward.’ I said, ‘If you could tell his wife to bring the baby to the window, I’ll shut the door (to his room) and turn him around so he could see his baby.’
“I told him (the patient) to look out the window at the sunshine; he looked out the window; he went to crying, and said, ‘Oh, if I could only put my hands on him.’”
Kapke had already devised a plan. “Up that window come; I reached out (the window) and set him (the baby) on the bed. He (the patient) played; he smiled; he cried. I said, ‘This needs to give you an incentive to live. That baby needs you.’ He said, ‘I’ll promise you I’ll eat. … In six weeks, he was discharged.”
Kapke said, “That was one special moment of my life.”
Her benevolence was called upon in another situation, the Bataan death march survivors’ occasional raids of the camp’s kitchen.
“Those poor boys; they were really rowdy. Ten o’clock they’d go in there and mess it up. If I had been locked up in a prison camp hungry and malnourished for three or four years, if there was any food around, I would have loved to help myself. They had corn flakes on the floor with milk on it.”
After the patients went to bed, Kapke cleaned up the mess to prevent the soldiers from getting into trouble.
“They told me all of their stories; they had scars where the Japanese put the bayonets in them.
So many broken soldiers, broken hearts, but I found out what real love was. You loved those people, you loved those boys; you didn’t resent having to wait on them during holidays. Soldiers are special to me because in know what they went through, I saw firsthand.”
Kapke said, “I was doing something for my lord Jesus Christ I was taking care of his little sheep he left behind.’”
Recently, Kapke was rewarded for her dedication during World War II when she was selected for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight. She traveled, all expenses paid, to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial, along with other significant patriotic sights. She and the other World War II veterans were accorded a tremendous welcome home at the Gulfport Airport, where more than 1,000 well-wishers, including bands, cheerleaders, veterans, active duty personnel, dancers and community residents, came out to thank the World War II veterans.
“This is a dream come true,” she said, breathing a deep sigh.