Five years before Ray Mann would sign up for the United States Army, before he would travel across the country and world and see signs of poverty that would stick with him into his old age, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor became an unexpected catalyst that sent the U.S. reeling headfirst into World War II.
At the time, Mann, at 13, didn’t fully understand what the attack meant. After years of collecting scrap metal with his brothers and campaigning on the homefront, he joined the military in May 1946 fresh out of high school and allowed only by parent permission, and the reality began to sink in.
Nearly 80 years after the Dec. 7 attack on Peark Harbor, Mann is one of a handful of Finney County World War II veterans still living in Garden City, now that many of his fellow members of the “Greatest Generation” have either died or moved away.
The local American Legion roster, which tracks all local Legion members but not necessarily all veterans, lists seven World War II veterans still living in town, and another five have since moved across Kansas or to other states, said Jim Arwine, American Legion Post 9 adjutant.
There have been several strides in recent years to preserve the stories of local veterans, said Steve Quakenbush, executive director of the Finney County Historical Society. In 2002, the historical society published a detailed record of over 200 Finney County veterans’ stories, capturing the experiences of those that served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.
That book, “Those Who Served” and The Garden City Telegram’s book, “Called to Serve,” an expansive collection of photos, letters and articles honoring southwest Kansas veterans of the last 100 years, are both good resources for those looking to better understand veterans’ experiences, Quakenbush said.
Both are currently available in the Finney County Historical Museum’s store.
Additional documents and materials from the time period, as well as the stories veterans have brought forward since the book’s publishing, also sit in the society’s files, Quakenbush said.
Some of those stories are still living through the retellings of the men and women that lived them. Mann and fellow veteran Lloyd Joyce, who joined the U.S. Army in 1942 at age 21, still live in Garden City.
Mann traveled to Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines, watching over Japanese prisoners of war as part of a military police battalion and then policing the city of Manila. The Filipinos he interacted with had little to nothing in the aftermath of Japanese occupation and the town was desperate, Mann said. He remembers children looking through the soldiers’ garbage for food. His clothes smelled of the sewer water they were washed in.
Joyce began his tour in familiar territory: three months of orchestrating horses in a cavalry in Australia in case the force needed to quickly face Japanese troops landing in the area. Over the next few months, he would travel through the South Pacific, not meeting Japanese forces directly, but hearing the bombs they dropped nearby every night. Regardless, there was sarsaparilla and bananas and great-tasting rations, he said.
In New Britain, he was surprised to see a stray dog run through enemy lines and past his patrol, unfazed. In New Guinea, as nearly a fifth of his regiment was lost to combat or sickness, he fell ill to malaria, a disease that would resurface in his body long after the war. In the Philippines, when soldiers lacked water, they’d stretch out ponchos over overturned helmets to catch rain or curl leaves to guide runoff into canteens, Joyce said. He eventually was wounded in the back. Some of his compatriots were buried at sea.
As they sailed to California after the end of the war, he and his friends changed into their uniforms and tossed their old clothes off the side of the ship. Too late, one realized his wallet was still in the pocket.
Joyce’s daughter, Melodie Sterling, still living in Garden City, didn’t hear these types of stories as a child, she said. The echoes of war her father told her and her brothers then were more sanitized and, when possible, funny. Now and then, she said she feels immense pride for what her father fought for.
Men of agriculture, Joyce a lifelong Finney County farmer and Mann a director of Kansas State University Extension offices, the veterans spent their lives entrenched in their communities. Both were involved with the American Legion, Joyce marking his 50th year with the group in 1997. For years, he would build relationships with fellow veterans, including some that fought in World War I, he said. For both men, there was an instant understanding among those that had served.
“I hardly ever had a friend or an acquaintance or something that wasn’t a veteran...” Mann said. “I always pick out the veterans.”
As generations fade, we lose a “resource of information of our past,” Quakenbush said, and he said he encourages all veterans to gather photos of that period and record recollections and memories with their loved ones.
“Firsthand experiences, whether they were in battle or not, are an important part of the history that we want to maintain today for future generations,” Quakenbush said.
WWII veterans were “inspiring because they were so dedicated to the mission,” Arwine said, and he loved hearing their stories. They never complained or looked for glory, but they got it anyway. To him, any time left with veterans should also be spent honoring them, whether they fought a “heroes’” war in WWII, faced public backlash in the Vietnam era or are still serving today.
“When they’re around we enjoy talking to them, and at the Legion we do have the tendency to dote on them because they are special,” Arwine said about WWII veterans.