Edward A. McMurray, Jr., called ‘Mac’ by so many, was an airplane mechanic in the Army-Air Corps (technically in the Reserves though he served on active duty his whole service time). He told his family stories of how the Marines would go in and take one of the small South Pacific islands in fierce battles with the Japanese, the SeaBees would then bulldoze an airstrip, and his unit would be the next to come in to service the airplanes flown in by the pilots. He had wanted to be a pilot himself, but was too young- just 17- when Pearl Harbor occurred on 7 Dec 1941 and brought the US into the War. Although he wanted to join up right away, he also had to help support his mother, so he finished high school and continued working part-time. Ed then started college, hoping to be a doctor like his father, but enlisted two years after Pearl Harbor, in December 1943. By that date the military had already trained a lot of the pilots needed, and had a greater need for aircraft mechanics; additionally, he had worked at a Newton, Iowa gas station so had some mechanical experience, thus the military made him an aircraft mechanic.
Ed’s active duty began in boot camp at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. He went next to a military training school, and then overseas. He spoke of his trip to the Pacific and being packed into the troop ships (converted from passenger ships) like sardines, with hammocks six high- one couldn’t even turn over as the guy above was only inches above- and the heat of all the men and the tropics sweltering. He crossed the International Date line and endured whatever ceremony the sailors enacted upon them- he would never tell us details, as it was supposed to be secret.
Mac was stationed in Australia, New Guinea (where there were still head-hunters in the remote mountains), a tiny island called Biak, which always intrigued him- we did find it later on a map (see above)- and many other small Pacific islands. He said they would bulldoze a wide strip around the camp and barracks on the islands, but you could still hear the enemy rustling out in the forest at night, just beyond that strip. (It must have been terrifying to live like that day after day.) The Pacific War often gets overlooked with the horrors of the Holocaust, but the Japanese practiced similar horrific torture, ‘scientific experiments,’ mass killings, and unendurable POW camps.
There were horrors within the Allied camps too. To get to aircraft engine parts that needed working on, sometimes the mechanics had to clean out those areas first- there might be bodies, body parts, and/or blood and other fluids in those areas, depending on how much fire the aircraft had taken on the latest mission.
Maintaining our military readyness could be a dangerous job even though Mac’s unit was not on the front lines.One of Mac’s duty stations had a big pit dug for them to dispose of the used and mangled aircraft parts, oil, etc., and gasoline would have been everywhere within. Of course, in those days, much of the population and many of our service people smoked cigarettes. One day, Mac was off on a break when someone possibly threw a lit cigarette into the pit; whatever the cause, the pit exploded in flames. He had been working in there and was supposed to have been working there at that time; he always had ‘survivor’s guilt’ that he was on a break when the conflagration occurred. So many of his friends and coworkers died or were burned terribly. They rescued as many soldiers as they could, but the horrors of the day included the smells of burning flesh and screams of the dying; they stayed in his mind forever after.
Being on the other side of the world, so far from home must have been incredibly difficult for all those sweet 19-year old Iowa boys, and those from elsewhere, but their committed service shows the true grit they had, and their determination to save the world from the Axis powers and their planned world domination. When asked why he enlisted, Mac replied that it was his duty to protect his mother, his future family, and the innocent people of the world. These men and women truly were, “The Greatest Generation.”
Notes, Sources, and References:
1) Family photos and oral history.
2) US Landings in the Pacific: “US landings” by General MacArthur’s General Staff – MacArthur, Douglas (1994)  Reports of General MacArthur (Vol. 1 ed.), Center of Military History, pp. p. 432. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_landings.jpg#mediaviewer/File:US_landings.jpg. Accessed 9/1/2014.
3) To illustrate the zeal of the Japanese soldiers, the last Japanese soldier to surrender did so in 1974- he had been holed up on an island in the Philippines for 29 years. Hiroo Onoda thought that reports that WWII was ended were Allied/American propaganda to entice him to give himself up. It required a trip by his former commanding officer to the P.I. to convince him that the war was really over. See interesting articles about Onoda, who died 16 Jan 2014, at http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/17/world/asia/japan-philippines-ww2-soldier-dies/ and http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/17/hiroo-onoda-japanese-soldier-dies.
4) For an American point of view, see Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It chronicles the life of juvenile delinquent Louis Zamperini, who became a track star and participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A favorite of Hitler, Zamperini was on target to break the four-minute mile, but the cancellation of the 1940 games due to the war never gave him that chance. He enlisted and his harrowing life as a pilot and prisoner of war are detailed in the book and an upcoming movie (to be released Dec. 25, 2014) directed by Angelina Joile. Zamperini, who died in July, 2014, also wrote 2 memoirs about his life: Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in Word War II (William Morrow Paperbacks, reissue 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0062118851), and Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life (Dey Street Books, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0062368331), to be published November, 2014. See also:
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