“The Greatest Generation” is journalist Tom Brokaw’s term for Americans born 1901-27. Its members endured the 1930s Great Depression and U.S. involvement 1941-45 in World War II. H.C. Beck of Princeton embodies that description. The challenges he faced early in life strengthened him for the combat he faced in World War II. Veterans Day provides a chance to reflect.
“I was born and raised in Old Eddyville. My mother died when I was 7 years old,” explained the 94-year-old. “I was wayward on the streets
for five or six years. Then, a couple named Ramey took me in that had six kids of their own and two uncles in their two-room farmhouse with a lean-to kitchen.”
Beck’s own three older brothers found work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, an “alphabet” employment program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the Great Depression.
When the U.S. military entered the war, “I had a choice, as my older foster brother did,” Beck recalled. “We were working on the farm and could’ve gotten a deferment, but we both wanted to fight for our country.”
Beck’s brothers chose the Navy, so he chose the Army and boarded a bus for Louisville. “A big old Marine came in and said, ‘I need five volunteers for the Marines (a part of the U.S. Navy) and hands went up everywhere,” Beck remembered. “I just sat there, but he ‘volunteered’ me as one of the five.”
After basic training in San Diego, Calf., Beck arrived on the small island of Pavoovoo, behind Guadalcanal, waiting for the First Marine Division to leave the island of Pellaloo. “We had to sleep under a heavy tent-like thing for a mosquito net,” he said, “to keep the rats and the land crabs from getting in bed with us at night.”
Following the Battle of Pellaloo, Beck boarded a ship. “We were told we were going to a battle on some iceberg. It was Okinawa, but called it ‘Operation Iceberg.’ It was April Fool’s Day and Easter Sunday 1945. I had spent about a year in training and turned 19 on Feb. 14. Since I was inducted April 25, 1944, I’d been in there a year, once we were in actual combat.”
Okinawa was strategic to capture since it was only 344 miles from Japan proper and the U.S. was getting closer with every battle. “When Japan took over China, they took on the United States,” Beck said. “They thought when they bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. would just fold, but it didn’t.”
Iwo Jima was a turning point, farther away than Okinawa, but close enough to bomb Japan. “We hit Okinawa April Fool’s Day and Easter Sunday1945,” Beck said. “The island itself was about eight miles long, not very wide. The First Marine Division hit and secured our part of the island in about three days.
“I was assigned with the Army Seventh Division to fight,” he continued. “We had almost 7,000 die, in our division alone. It took two months and 21 days to secure the island. By June 21, we were almost all either killed or surrendered. That was the end of most of the battles of World War II. A lot of people say May 8th was D-Day. It might’ve been in Europe, but in 39 more days, we lost lots of men on Okinawa.”
Afteward Beck was sent to China for several months of repatriating the Japanese. Subsequently, the U.S. detonated two nuclear bombs; on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, then on Nagasaki Aug. 9. “We had to drop the bomb,” Beck declared. “The people who say we shouldn’t have were not concerned about the military people fighting. We had a job to do, just like they did.” Ultimately, Japan surrendered on the Battleship Missouri Sept. 2, 1945.
Beck doesn’t understand some modern Americans’ support for communism. “That’s the opposite of what I fought for,” he said. “We’ve got people today who would like to turn America into a communistic country.”
After reading a recent article by William Lloyd Stearman in the Wall Street Journal, Beck remarked, “Just as he said about himself, I also owe my life to the A-bomb because if (U.S. President Harry) Truman had not had the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities, I probably would have been killed.”
When they came home from the war, Beck and a brother dug a basement, cut lumber, and built
Some 70 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1950, Beck, then 24, and Betty Nadine Mitchell, then 17, were married. They eventually had four sons: Harold, Mike, Kevin, and Todd, as well as nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
“I want people to know that life is not perfect,” Beck said. “My wife is in the nursing home and seldom knows me (because of dementia) and I can’t go to see my wife (due to the coronavirus pandemic). Of the four sons that I’ve had, I lost one to cancer and have another in the hospital now with cancer. I’m honored to have two grandsons who are doctors and two grandsons who are ordained deacons in the Baptist Church. I have granddaughters and great-granddaughters who are registered nurses. I’m blessed to have the family I have, even though I have lost some.”