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Centenarian Army vet shares his wartime memories

Alvin Lannon’s assignments took him from New Guinea to Japan

By Ron Scopelliti

When he turns 100 this month, Alvin J. Lannon Jr. will have an impressive century to look back upon. He had a long and happy marriage, raised a family, and enjoyed a 36-year career with what was then the state’s Department of Natural Resources, all the while keeping up with the tremendous technological and cultural changes that have taken place since 1916. He also experienced a World War II odyssey that took him from the southernmost part of the Pacific Theater of combat, to Japan itself. As Veteran’s Day approached, he sat down to reflect upon his time in the service.

Though many volunteers and draftees entered the war while still in their late teens, Lannon was in his late twenties, and had already started a family and begun his career when he was called to serve in the Army.

“Uncle Sam decided they wanted me in 1943”, he says. He would not only be separated from his wife and his job at the state’s Department of Natural Resources, but from his young daughter. “When I went overseas, Dotty was 13 months old,” he says. “When I came back she was five years old.”

He wasn’t completely unprepared for military service.

“During the depression there were no jobs”, he says “so I went in the CCC. I was in there five years.” The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was set up during the depression as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Unemployed men signed on to participate in public works projects, living in military-style camps throughout the country.

“I’d been used to some of the Army regulations, because it was the Army that fed us and housed us in the CCC,” Lannon explains. “One thing about the CCC, it taught you how to live with a bunch of guys, and how to make a bed,” Lannon says, alluding to the Army’s legendary standards for the housekeeping task.

“Too bad they can’t have one again,” he says of the CCC. “We did a lot of work for a dollar a day.”

After basic training at Fort Bragg, the self-described landlubber crossed the country and left San Francisco a voyage to remember.

“I was onboard ship 30 days going to New Guinea,” Lannon says. “The quarters weren’t the most comfortable. There were cots stacked four-high in the hold.” Soldiers had to be off deck when it got dark, and lights were prohibited, to avoid detection in the contested waters of the Pacific.

From New Guinea to Japan

New Guinea, just northeast of Australia, was the starting point for General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign to take back the Philippines, which he famously promised to return to after their capture by the Japanese.

The Army’s Center of Military History says the New Guinea Campaign is “all but forgotten except by those who served there,” but was essential to the Navy’s drive across the pacific, and the Army’s liberation of the Philippines.

When Lannon got to the island, he and the rest of the troops traded their winter clothes for lightweight gear more suited to the South Pacific climate. Lannon remembers the conditions in clear and simple terms: “Jungle. Mud and more mud. It seemed to rain every day.”

After joining up with his unit, the 122nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 33rd Infantry Division, he says he spent a good deal of time volunteering for stevedore duty, as the Army stockpiled supplies for the invasion of the Philippines. The job had its share of perks.

“Some of the ships had ice cream machines,” he says. “You could buy ice cream for ten cents a pint.”

His main task, however, was helping to maintain the vital link between the infantry and the artillery, as they protected a nearby air base.

“What we did in the radio section’” he explains, “was maintain communications. We had two airplanes in each battery spotting targets. The pilot would send a message back to our Fire Direction Center by radio, and Fire Direction, by telephone, would talk to the people at the guns, telling them where to fire.”

Lannon also had to do his part to keep the unit secure.

“We had pill boxes along the road,” he says, “and across the road it was all jungle. We had to spend time in the pill box at night, listening.

“It was really a pit, and you had canvas over your head and sandbags all around. You had to sit there for three hours at a time, listening for noises in the jungle. That was the scariest part of the whole war for me. There’s nothing worse than a dark night in the jungle, waiting for somebody to come.”

“Luckily,” he says, “nobody came. The Japanese had been pushed way back by that time.”

After completing their duties in New Guinea, the 33rd Division, also known as the Golden Cross Division, began moving north, eventually participating in the invasion of the Philippines.

“We fought up the mountains to Baguio – that was the summer capital of the Philippines,” Lannon says. “A lot of the infantry – they had the hard job. With the artillery, we’d go into a position and get the guns sighted, and we’d stay there for quite a while.

“One of the units I was driving had the base radio, and we’d try to park that on a hill and run a wire down to the Fire Direction Center. Then it was by telephone from the Fire Direction Center to the guns.”

They entered Baguio, he recalls, on his wife’s birthday, April 29, 1945.

“That’s about the only date I can remember from over there,” he says. “I never saw a calendar until I got home.”

After the Philippines were secured, the Golden Cross Division faced a grim prospect: the planned invasion of Japan.

“We were one of the assault divisions that was going to assault the southern Japanese islands,” Lannon says. “That was a mountainous island. I guess they figured we had experience going up the mountains to Baguio. But if we had to land there I don’t think I would have come back. Probably all our division would have been wiped out.”

The Japanese surrender after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved him from this. Instead he went into Japan as part of the occupation in autumn of 1945.

“When I went into Japan and I saw the devastation I felt sorry for the people,” he says. “I remember one time I was coming from Kobe, I guess, and I got in a line of traffic. I was in back of a flatbed truck and it was stacked with burned bodies. I don’t know where they were taking them.”

One of the main tasks for the occupying force was gathering weapons from the civilians, which the emperor ordered them to turn over as part of the terms of surrender.

“They got thousands and thousands of samurai swords and rifles,” Lannon says, noting that they never had any trouble with the people of Japan.

His arrival in Japan allowed him to enjoy a gift from the home front that had been sent years before: a recording made by his wife Dorothy and daughter, Dotty.

Dotty says she went into a recording booth at the age of two, confused about the concept of a recorded message. She notes that she can be heard on the recording, looking at the electronic equipment and asking, “Is my daddy in there?” She did, however, manage to recite the entire 23rd Psalm.

“It was a little record, smaller than a 45,” Lannon recalls. Unfortunately, he had no way to listen to it when it came to him. “I guess I carried that around a couple of years before I got to Japan and was able to listen to it.”

After a few months in Japan, Lannon finally began another long ocean voyage home, as units started to be withdrawn from Japan. The 33rd Infantry Division was de-activated in April of 1946, and was returned to its pre-war status as a National Guard division.

Back home again

Asked what the toughest part of the war was, he doesn’t mention the fear, or the workload, or the heat, or the danger. He answers without hesitation: “Being away from home.”

Dotty recalls, “He came back with malaria, and he was yellow from the medication. I was afraid of him – because – who was this yellow man?”

Alvin and his wife Dorothy remained married for 66 years, until she passed away. He remembers her as “the bravest woman I ever knew,” recalling her first visit to him in the Army, before he was sent overseas:

“I remember the time she came down to Fort Bragg. Never been out of the state; never been on a train. And all by herself she got on that train.”

When his service in the military ended, Lannon went back to serving the state.

“I got my old job back,” he says. “I was lucky in that respect.”

“I started out as a forest fire patrolman, then I got to be fire dispatcher, and then radio technician. So I ended up being radio technician for the whole Department of Natural Resources.” He retired in 1976

Some 50 years after leaving Japan, Lannon discharged what he saw as one final duty. It was a tradition for Japanese soldiers to carry a flag with messages from their friends and family written on it. While in the Philippines, he says, “I got two of them from some Philippine soldier – I traded a carton of cigarettes or something for them.”

With the war far behind him, he decided it was time to return the flags to their homes.

“I sent them off to the Philippine Embassy in Washington,” he says. They, in turn, sent them back to Japan and managed to locate the family of the soldier who carried one of the flags into battle, and present them with the memento.

Looking back at his experience from today’s perspective, he wonders if the United States would stand behind such a war with the sense of solidarity displayed during World War II.

“The whole country was in that war,” he says.

He downplays any notion of bravery and heroics, and sums up his experience simply: “I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I’m glad I went.”