Veterans recall war experiences
With Veterans Day, Nov. 11, just around the corner, a few local war veterans sat down to share their individual experiences.
One was a World War II veteran and the other a Vietnam War veteran.
One day prior to his 18th birthday, Gwynn Christensen enlisted in the Navy.
That was in 1943, during the heart of World War II. Christensen, a native of Lake Mills, Wis., would serve his country for a total of 27 months.
Christensen trained for more than a year to become a radio and radar operator in a torpedo bomber.
Eventually he was assigned to a three-man team that operated from the U.S.S. Santee, a naval tanker that was converted into an aircraft carrier. The ship was actually too short for successful takeoffs, so each plane had to be catapulted off the deck and into the air.
When planes landed, a hook on the rear of each aircraft needed to grab one of a series of five wires in order to stop.
"If you missed the fifth wire, you hit the barriers," Christensen recalled. "The planes would be badly damaged, so they'd just toss them into the ocean."
For six months, Christensen was part of a crew that served with an air group of 19 to 20 bombers. Their main mission was to bomb and destroy Japanese air bases on several islands in the Pacific.
"We bombed them day and night," he said, "to keep the Kamikazes (Japanese pilots who flew suicide missions) from taking off."
The bombers also dropped smoke for the Marine Corps when they landed on Okinawa during that island's "D-Day" on April 1, 1945.
During his tenure at sea, Christensen recalled that he experienced numerous close calls.
On one occasion, his pilot could not return to the ship due to low fuel. The crew landed on Okinawa and met up with Marines on the ground. That night the Americans were attacked and Christensen and his crew laid low to survive the onslaught.
"Was I was glad to get back aboard the ship the next day," he said.
On another occasion, Christensen's airplane was damaged by enemy fire and the pilot wasn't sure if they would make it back. He gave the crew a choice - bail out, land in the sea or try to fly back to the U.S.S. Santee.
They eventually made it, Christensen said, mostly because his pilot was so skilled.
"It was quite an experience," Christensen said of his service during World War II.
Shortly after his crew's efforts in Okinawa, Christensen was in the process of being reassigned when the war ended.
After finishing college, Christensen went on to become a high school and college football coach.
He and his wife, Pearl, eventually ended up in New Richmond where they built a home in 1972. He worked in radio, at a local car dealership and at Dowd Reliance Insurance Agency before retiring.
Christensen said he didn't talk much about his war years until his military buddies started having reunions 20 years ago.
"Then our wives got to learn what we really did during the war," he explained.
Now, few of his fellow veterans are still around. He stays in touch with one friend in Texas, but Christensen said so many World War II veterans have passed away.
"We lost three just this last year alone," he said.
A photography hobby turned into a military job for Milford Simonds, giving him a front row seat to combat action in Vietnam.
Simonds, a New Richmond resident for the past couple years, was born and raised in the Twin Cities. Simonds took what he thought would be a brief break from Bible college in 1966 and the draft board soon came knocking. He enlisted instead of getting drafted.
While he was in college, Simonds developed an interest in photography. While attending basic training with the Air Force, he took a test to measure his photography skills and he passed with flying colors.
Simonds eventually was assigned to an Air Force photography school in Florida. He took advanced training at the New York Institute of Photography and also the Combat Photo School in Denver.
"I learned how to do photography in a combat situation," he said.
In the fall of 1967, Simonds was shipped to the Philippines to train at a jungle survival school.
"I kind of enjoyed that, because it was like camping ... which I was kind of used to," he said.
A short time later, he was on his way to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Vietnam. As a "combat documentary photographer," Simonds' job was to take photos of special events, general visits, combat action shots and more.
"A lot of the photos were sent back to the U.S. for use in newspapers," he said. "Some were done for intelligence, and some to just record the history of what we were doing. I took thousands of photos during my year in Vietnam."
Simonds was among numerous photographers who helped chronicle the war. On several occasions Simonds and others found themselves in harm's way.
One of Simonds' jobs was flying in an airplane that followed bombers.
He would take pictures of the bombing runs, and also took images of the damage following the bomb drops.
Simonds said he would often see flashes under the jungle canopy, which turned out to be enemy fighters shooting at his low-flying airplane.
"When we went back to base, we'd see how many bullet holes we could find in the wings."
On another occasion, the base where Simonds was stationed was attacked and two aircraft and an ammunition dump were destroyed.
"I was taking pictures, and ducking behind some cargo every time a mortar was coming in," he recalled. "It turned out that the cargo was ammunition."
For his involvement in that attack, Simonds was awarded the Bronze Star by the Air Force.
Simonds was also in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, which resulted in numerous attacks and fire fights around the country. During that time, Simond's supervisor asked him to trade days off.
It just so happened that there was a rocket attack on the day Simonds was scheduled to work. The other airman was sitting on the corner of Simonds' desk and was killed.
He never knew what hit him," Simonds recalled. "The sergeant took my place."
Simonds has visited the moving Vietnam Memorial wall on several occasions and found the name of that fallen comrade.
Simonds said his war experience strengthened his faith and guided him throughout his life.
"I learned a lot about myself during that time," he explained. "It's something I'm glad I went through ... but I never want to go through that again."
When he returned home in 1970, Simonds completed his Bible college degree and became a pastor. He has since served congregations in Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
He now is an independent pastor, offering his services to a variety of congregations. Simonds even takes a few photographs still today, serving as a wedding photographer from time to time.