|3/10/2020 7:30:00 AM|
Telling it like it is
Rhinelander WWII veteran shares his story
Emily KoesterGeorge Maloney of Rhinelander was, like many members of the U.S. military who participated in World War II, referred to as "the greatest generation," one of those who seemed to skip ahead to adulthood rather quickly.
Lakeland Times Associate Editor
Unlike so many veterans, he was able - and more importantly, willing - to share much of his story before passing away at the age of 93 on Nov. 23, 2019.
George's first son, Tom, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Rhinelander, recently shared some of his father's life.
Tom Maloney has his own experiences to share and they will be in a future edition.
The following is for his dad.
Family military service
The Maloney family's military history doesn't start with George and Tom.
According to Tom, a couple of his father's uncles served in World War I.
"Gordon Maloney fought in Europe from April 21, 1918, to April 30, 1919. He was in the Battles of Alsace and Chateau-Thierry, Juvigny, and Meuse-Argonne," Tom Maloney wrote in a letter included in a book titled "Letters from a Ground-Pounder: The Memories of George T. Maloney. "I believe Irwin Maloney was a machine-gun instructor, state-side."
George's brother, Don, served in the Army during the Korean War era, obtaining the rank of staff sergeant. Besides Tom, two of George's other sons, Mike and Shannon, also enlisted and ended up in the Army.
Meeting Sonja Karlsen
"My dad was at the Minneapolis airport coming back from visiting my brother, Mike, out in Nevada ... waiting to get on a plane to come back to Rhinelander," Tom explained of that meeting on May 11, 2010. George was 84 years old at the time.
"There was this lady, who spotted him with his World War II hat," he said. "So she went over and started to talk to him, and she asked him to relay some of the things he had observed in World War II. She liked the way he explained the stories."
This is where the friendship between George Maloney and Sonja Karlsen began. For two and a half years, George wrote letters to Karlsen, a writer/composer based in New York, relaying memories not only from his time in service, but from before and after that as well. It was all included in "Letters from a Ground-Pounder."
Karlsen did very little editing on the manuscript and the letters paint George's story, from growing up in northern Wisconsin, through memories of his time overseas, to life after the war. George was known for saying "I tell it like it is," and that rings true within his letters as well.
Through this correspondence, Karlsen also realized George was not on the roster of the Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New York and she set out to get him on that list.
"A day before one of his birthdays, I was able to get George on that roster and am happy about that," Karlsen wrote in "Letters from a Ground Pounder."
George Thomas Maloney, Jr., was born by Caesarean section in Antigo on May 7, 1926 to George and Kate Maloney, Sr.
He grew up along the Wolf River near Post Lake, in a log home built by his father and friends in 1910.
Growing up on a homestead, George became proficient at hunting and fishing.
"Living in the woods as I did for my first 14 years, it was natural to learn how to fish and to hunt," George wrote in a letter. He shared many hunting and fishing stories in "Letters from a Ground-Pounder."
He and his brother would also walk two and a half miles out to County Highway K to catch a "bus" to go to school.
"The bus wasn't what you think of as a bus," Tom explained. "It was a flat-bed truck and the fella that would pick up these kids had built a little house on the back."
To keep kids warm during the colder months was a wood stove in the middle, with benches on each side of the truck bed for kids to sit.
"If that truck woulda tipped over, who knows what would have happened," Tom said.
George attended a one-room schoolhouse, and "probably for the ease" of the teacher, twice he took two grades at one time.
"He graduated from grade school at 12," Tom explained.
With most of George's relatives in Antigo, when he graduated from grade school to go to high school, his mother and father would drive him to Antigo where he would stay with his aunt and uncle for the week.
His parents would then pick him up for the weekend and bring him back.
After the family moved to Elcho in 1940, George graduated high school at the age of 16 in 1942.
By that time the United States was involved in World War II. George recalled the first time he thought about joining the Marines, when he first heard on the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"I could hardly believe it," he wrote in "Letters from a Ground-Pounder." "Right then, I had formed my own opinion of them (Japanese). It's not a very kind one, I must say."
George Maloney realized with his being 15 at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there was nothing he could do about it.
"But I made up my mind, right then and there, that as soon as I could, I was gonna be a Marine," he wrote.
The summer after graduation, George worked as a change boy at Kings Gateway Hotel & Inn, selling coins to the customers of the slot machines. He also would mow the lawns of the golf course or set the pins. That being a seasonal job, in the winter he and a friend, Gordon, worked at a logging camp near Iron River, Mich., hauling pulp wood.
All this time, though, George was waiting for his 17th birthday.
Becoming a Marine
Being younger than his buddies from school, George wasn't able to join the fight when they did.
In early May 1942 - around the time of George's 16th birthday - the Battle of the Coral Sea took place in the South Pacific, the first sea battle in history fought entirely by aircraft.
It was during that battle a couple of George's close friends were lost.
"That really upset my dad," Tom said. "He decided he was going to avenge them ... he knew if he was in the Marines he had a good chance of fighting in the Pacific and that's where his Navy buddies had been killed. He knew he'd be fighting Japanese, not Germans."
But because of his age, George learned from Marine Corps recruiter in Wausau his parents would have to sign a release.
Once he turned 17 in May 1943, he hitch-hiked about 60 miles to Wausau with his future brother-in-law Bert Howe, who wanted to join the Merchant Marine.
George's father was working out in Washington at the time, helping to build the Alaskan Highway.
"The government was worried that Japan would attack Alaska, and they wouldn't have the resources that they needed up there," Tom explained.
Without his father around, George had to hitch-hike to his mother and talk her into signing the papers to allow him to join the Marines.
"Being young and dumb, I never realized, at the time, what I was asking her to do," George recalled. "I feel terrible about it now, what I put her through - a long couple of years wondering if she would ever see me again. How can a person be that stupid?"
But sign she did, and the next day George hitch-hiked the 60 miles back to Wausau to see the recruiter again. With paperwork all set, George just had to wait until "they want you."
Finally George's time came, and after a week's travel on a train from Milwaukee to San Diego, picking up many more recruits along the way, George began boot camp.
"I would much prefer combat to ever going through that again," George wrote of his boot camp experience.
After completing boot camp he was sent to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for artillery training, and then to Linda Vista in San Diego. After a week or so there he boarded a ship.
"After about 25 days on that stinking old ship, we arrived at New Caledonia," George wrote. "Then after a day or so, we got to Guadalcanal in January, 1944. Yes, we were a replacement battalion. Within a very short time, I found out just where I would be. Yep! Yep! The good old infantry! A Ground-Pounder! That scared the hell out of a lot of guys, but not me! That's why I enlisted in the first place!"
'They were absolutely fearless'
While on Guadalcanal, George and the other men went through a lot of training, which he explained paid off in the coming months.
From there George boarded a transport ship and in two or three weeks was in the Marshall Islands for a quick stop and a "couple of beers," before heading back to Guam. While some men went ashore into action that first day, George was among those held in reserve.
He witnessed wounded being brought aboard and the dead buried at sea.
"They were put in a canvas bag, with a big shell for weight, and slid overboard," George recalled. "What a way to go. But, there was no other way. A chaplain said a prayer, and they were saluted with rifle fire and slid down a chute. Yes, really sad. It sure brought tears to my eyes. I guess what really got to me was the fact that their moms and dads didn't yet know that their sons were dead."
The first evening George was ashore at Agat, Guam, a place he described as "a small town that was all shot up," he and fellow Marines were hit by a banzai attack.
"Banzai" was a term used by American and British forces in the Pacific, a reference to Japanese human wave attacks mounted by infantry units.
"They were absolutely fearless," George recalled. "They charged right into the two machine guns that were cross-firing. I think there were about 10 or 12 foxholes, plus the machine guns."
Fire support for the Marines in the way of naval gunfire called by the captain seemed to take down the enemy, until another wave of attacks came about an hour later.
Then a third attack, all with the same result.
Once daylight came, the captain picked out three guys, George one of them, to go out and count the bodies. All three men came back with the same number: 498. Only six Marines were lost during the attack.
"There were bodies all over the place, lots of them, blown into half, or worse," George wrote. "That was the most horrible, terrible, longest night I have ever had in my life!"
According to Tom, George explained after the men were moved out of that area, naval support was called in to shoot "big guns" where the battle had taken place, more or less to disguise what had happened there.
"Dad said by the time they were done you could hardly tell there had been a battle there," Tom explained. "Everything was obliterated. I mean, that's just the way it was."
In March 1945, George and his fellow Marines found out they were going to Okinawa, a place he admitted to knowing nothing about.
"It sure didn't sound good to me," George wrote. "We had about 1,000 yards of wide open, level ground to cover before we had any protection at all! That is more than the length of three football fields. Where we hit the beach - it was all rocks for about 20 feet up. It seems like everyone was shooting like crazy. We soon discovered nobody was shooting back at us."
The Marines made their way from the north end of the island, engaging the enemy along the way, toward the southern end, where "the Army was having a heck of a time out there with the Japanese," Tom said.
"We all made it to the tree line and 'crapped out.' Just our way of saying - taking a break," George wrote.
May 13, 1945, was a day when everything changed for George. That morning, 10 volunteers were needed to help a man who had fallen into a well. George and a few buddies were among those volunteers. They went into Naha, the capital of Okinawa, which George described as "nothing but rubble."
"Somehow or another - my dad said he didn't know how it happened - but (George's friend) Mike (Quintana) and him got out ahead of the rest of the Marines," Tom said. "My dad and Mike were down by this large wall, and Mike was against the wall working his way down to one end and my dad was out in the open, more or less."
For some reason, George decided he was going to blow a hole in the wall with his bazooka.
"On the other side of the wall he could see helmets bobbing up and down, Japanese helmets, and they were running toward the end of the wall on the opposite side of the wall where Mike Quintana was," Tom explained. "So my dad hollered to Mike, to warn him, and right about then, as he's about ready to fire the bazooka, a hand grenade comes over the wall, toward my dad."
Two more grenades would fly over the wall.
"I hit the deck and counted to 10!" George wrote. "Still, none had gone off! I knew they have a helluva lot of duds, so I raised up on my knee, and just as I was about to blow a hole in the wall, I got hit with the brightest flash of light and a jolt to my body. I went down. Right at that moment, I thought I was dead! Then I knew I wasn't or I wouldn't be thinking. I thought everything was gone! Hey! That's a helluva thought to have! Well, I started feeling with my right hand and felt my shoulder and my arm. They were still there! Then I felt my face on the left side. It was still there. I could hardly believe it! But I had no feeling at all on my left side. I also had more things to think about. I wanted to blow a hole in that wall and get the Jap that got me. But I just couldn't do it. That grenade had goofed me up pretty bad. I kept blacking out. Then I'd come to and attempted to operate my bazooka. Then I'd black out again. One helluva predicament! I really don't have any idea how long this went on."
George writes that what eventually brought him out of his "stupor" was when he saw a Japanese soldier coming towards him with a bayonet in hand, and George was able to shoot the man down with his pistol while Quintana called for help.
"Mike saved my life," George wrote. "Someone heard him and pretty soon, two guys came."
He was dragged to an emergency first aid station in a cave about a half mile away, on his way giving other Marines his .32 pistol and cartridge belt.
"At the emergency first aid station, these guys sat me on a bench and took off," George wrote of the experience. "At that time, I was still all goofed up. Then a real nice nurse came to me and asked me if I'd like to have a Coke! I said I sure would like one. In about 2 minutes, she brought me one, and I thanked her profusely. I was so grateful to her and to all the people who had helped me that I sat there and burst out crying. Ya! A tough, battle-hardened Marine, crying like a baby! No one can ever imagine how embarrassed I was! That is a fact! I pinched myself, stomped on my own foot, and tried everything I could think of, but I just couldn't stop that damned crying! But you know what? No one laughed at me! Maybe it was because I had blood all over my left side. But I finally settled down."
The nurse cleaned George up as best she could before a doctor came and completely bandaged George's head, leaving just his mouth exposed.
From there he was taken to a field hospital. Besides his entire head being bandaged up, George's eyes were swollen shut so he needed assistance with everything from eating to going to the bathroom. Another doctor removed his bandages to assess the damage.
"I could see real good out of my right eye, but my left was kaput!" George wrote. He also lost his hearing in his left ear.
George was at the field hospital for about two weeks before being transferred to yet another field hospital.
After a few more days George was transferred to a hospital ship, and a week later ended up on Saipan. While aboard the ship, a large, yellow tag that read "BLAST! CONCUSSION! HEAD!" was put on George, and when he got off the ship was "taken into custody" by two MPs (military police), who wouldn't talk to him.
"I had no idea what they were about ... I didn't have a clue why the MP hung on to me," he wrote of the memory.
But George soon found out why.
"That damned tag I wore put me in a 'nut' place!" he wrote.
When George met the psychiatrist, he was asked many questions, to which George remembered, "I don't think he believed any of my answers!"
For three days, a doctor with a couple of assistants went through the rows of cots, giving out two pills to each patient to calm them down. Every morning the doctor asked George how he felt, and every morning George told him his left eye was painful.
On the fourth morning George asked the "psycho" doctor to see an optometrist, who after looking at George's eye, ordered the doctor to have George moved to Aiea Heights Hospital in Hawaii the next day. It was George's first plane ride.
In Hawaii, the optometrist "laid it on the line."
"He said, 'George, we can take that piece out of your eye, but there's a 50/50 chance that you would lose the fluid in your eye,'" George wrote. "'You know what that means? You will have a headache for a long time. So, you decide.' So that's how it's been. I've had that headache so long I hardly notice it anymore."
After his injury, George received $34 a month from the Veterans Administration.
"That wound has actually cost me a lot of money over the years," George wrote. "I had planned on being a state trooper when I got discharged. The fact is, with only one good eye, your job qualifications are really limited."
After the war
Near the end of George's stay at Aiea Heights Hospital, "the biggest happening was about to take place."
"One day the order came down for the injured who could walk to go downstairs outside and stand in formation," Tom said.
"As I looked down the line, here comes an old guy in uniform with a couple of assistants who were pushing a cart," George wrote. "He was stopping in front of each guy as we came down the line. When he came to me, he said, 'Man, you've earned this.' That's when I saw the Purple Heart medal that Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pinned on me! Yes sir, I was pretty proud that the head honcho of the Pacific War had pinned a medal on me!"
A couple days later George boarded a ship to return to the United States, landing in San Francisco. From there he made his way by train to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago, then to Shawano, where he was able to hitch-hike to Tigerton.
From there, George was picked up by an old farmer, who ended up taking him right to his door at home in Elcho.
"He said he was going to Antigo," George wrote. "That was great, only about 25 miles from home. But I was in for a big surprise! When we got to Antigo, he kept on going! I said, 'Aren't you just going to stop in Antigo?' He said, 'Nope. I'm gonna take you right to your home!' He did just that. I opened the door want walked into the kitchen, right into the arms of my dear, loving mother!"
The day after returning home, George was back in the woods duck hunting, again impressing others with his accurate aim. He was convinced by a friend to join the American Legion so he could borrow a hunting rifle for deer season.
On Oct. 3, 1945, just under a month after Japan surrendered, George was honorably discharged at the age of 19.
He had difficulty finding work in the Elcho area, so he joined the "52/20 crowd."
"That was 52 weeks at $20 a week for vets who couldn't get a job," he explained.
George was finally able to secure a job for $.45 per hour working for a paper company, loading green popple logs onto flatbed trucks and then a railroad car.
During this time George had also started seeing his girlfriend, Gloria Howe, who he had met when they were both 16, before he joined the Marines.
On Jan. 25, 1947, the pair eloped and were married in Kimberly by a justice of the peace. After continually struggling to find decent work, George was hired by an auto repairman in Racine for a starting rate of $1.75 an hour. So, while Gloria lived with his parents in Elcho, George would drive 225 miles back home every weekend, eventually earning enough to rent a trailer home. When his pay was lowered, he left that job and through the V.A. got a job learning auto body work.
This was just the beginning of many years working in the auto body industry.
Within two years, George became a qualified auto body repairman, earning enough money to finally able to build his own home. Gloria and George's first son, Tom, was born in July 1948, just before the little family was able to move into their new home.
After working for various employers around the Northwoods and the southern part of the state, and even as far away as Wyoming, George and his family returned to Elcho after hearing his mother was ill.
Over the next several years, four more children would come into the world for the Maloneys, a daughter, Maurine, and three sons, Mike, Dan, and Shannon.
Sadly, Maurine passed away as a baby from sudden infant death syndrome.
In 1966, George was able to purchase his own body shop in Rhinelander and with the kids growing, a larger mobile home was purchased two years later.
George still lived in that home when writing his letters to Karlsen in 2010. Gloria had passed away April 12, 2000.
Throughout the years since his service, George continued to show off his shooting skills, having successful hunts well into his 80s, even duck hunting with sons Tom and Mike in North Dakota in October of 2016.
Over the years, George was also able to go on two Honor Flights. He attended a Never Forgotten Honor Flight from Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, as well as an Honor Flight from Rochester, Minn., with a Marine he knew from his time on Guam and Okinawa during the war, who couldn't be talked into going on the Flight without George.
"Bud told me about this particular trip," George wrote. "He also told me he wouldn't go on it. I worked on him for about three months, and I finally got him to go. Those trips are fantastic."
George had also been looking to reconnect with fellow Marine, Miguel (Mike) Quintana.
"I received a letter from the son of the guy who saved my life when I was hit with that grenade on Okinawa!" George wrote to Karlsen. "I have been looking for Mike Quintana for about five years."
George's son, Shannon, was able to help him get in contact with Quintana's son, Sam, who informed George his father had died in a car accident when Sam was just 10 years old.
"He said, 'You probably knew him better than I did,'" George wrote. "Yes. I did. I did know him pretty good. Mike Quintana was a true and honest friend ... I am real sad to say that I never saw Mike after he had saved my life. Of course, I feel really terrible that I didn't ever try to contact him after the war was over. About the only lame excuse I can think of is that I really wanted to try to forget everything. But I guess that don't work out too good either, as I can remember quite a lot of stuff, like it just happened."
George wrote in the letters to Sonja Karlsen there wasn't a way he could "describe the personal feelings I had." "And there is no way I can describe the personal hardships that so often occurred," he wrote. "Like going bathless for weeks, without even getting out of your stinking, clinging clothes all the time. Personal hardships too personal to describe. About the only consolation you have is the fact that everyone else is the same way."
"Even though he had a lot of bad things happen to him, both while in the military and afterwards, he still had a pretty good attitude about life," Tom Maloney recently said of his father. "When he was young, he probably didn't talk much about the war, but I grew up knowing he was a Marine and that he had gone through a lot. And I was always proud of that."
"Yes. Life is good! It's what you make of it. That's what really counts," George wrote in his final letter to Karlsen. "And to anyone who reads this, I do wish you a good, happy, healthy life. At least as good as mine, or preferably better. Most of all, keep or have faith in the Good Lord.
This writing is from the Old Ground-Pounder, George Maloney! (Your "Old" Friend.)"
Emily Koester may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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