Canton at War: Answering the ‘Call of Duty’

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Editor’s note: The following is the second installment of a three-part series that looks into what life was like for Canton residents during World War II. The first part ran last week and dealt with the home front. Part two deals with Canton’s contributions on the frontlines in both the European and the Pacific Theaters of war. Part three will deal with the aftermath of WWII.

***

Robert DeYeso

Robert DeYeso

Robert DeYeso woke up one morning in April of 1945 in a hospital located outside of Paris.

“I didn’t know why I was there or what was wrong with me,” he recalls. “Of course the first thing I’m doing is looking around to see if I have all four limbs, looking for surface wounds.”

DeYeso, limbs intact, had sustained a severe concussion. It was his second hospital stay in less than six months, his first coming in December of 1944 after he woke up to find his feet were frozen while stationed in Germany.

“One morning I pushed out of the foxhole. I tried to stand up and I kept falling down,” said the now 84-year-old DeYeso. “My feet wouldn’t support me. I had no feeling in them.”

***

DeYeso, who was 16 in 1941, said he had planned on going to medical school before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

But when the Japanese attacked the American naval base on December 7, 1941, this country was dragged into a worldwide conflict, which was already well underway across the continent of Europe and in the Pacific. A whole generation of young men (and even some women) seemingly put a hold on their future plans and went off to fight in World War II.

Eight-hundred-and-fifty-three men and women from Canton, representing 14 percent of the town’s 6,314 residents, served in the war. If men and women like DeYeso are included — he grew up in Everett and moved to Canton in 1951 as the suburbs boomed in the years following WWII — this figure is even higher.

In what can only be described as some sort of “assignment quirk” — the late Ed Lynch suggested as much in an article he wrote for the Citizen back in the summer of 2002 — at least six young men from Canton served with the 30thInfantry Division during WWII.

Fred Buckley, Jack Howard, Dick Macleod, Maurice Ronayne, Arthur Smith and Charlie Tolias brought a northern flair to this Army division consisting of existing National Guard units from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

Yet this “quirk” pales in comparison to the story of Canton’s Henry, Warren and Wesley Holmes. Warren and his identical twin brother Wesley enlisted in the Marines in 1943 and were off for training at an amphibious tractor school in Florida. The two made a short stop in California before being sent to Hawaii to join a tank outfit.

Awaiting their arrival in Hawaii was none other than their father, Henry, who was the sergeant leading their outfit. Born in 1900, Henry Holmes had already served in the Army during World War I, but soon after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted again, this time with the Marines.

“He was one of those [people] that was gung-ho and had to go and do his part,” Warren Holmes said of his father.

Warren, now 84, equates the experience of having served alongside his father and brother to “winning the lottery.” He said he had not received any prior notification that he would be joining his father and was “overwhelmed with surprise and disbelief” when he found out.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “I was always thankful that all of us came back okay and continued our life in Canton [after the war].”

It is a story that seems perfect for Hollywood’s Silver Screen. But, war, as Bob DeYeso quickly found out, is nothing like the movies make it out to be.

“As a kid you are always influenced by the movies,” DeYeso said. “My idea was to be a big hero and get shot in the left shoulder, which left the right arm okay to put around the girl … And in reality that’s not what [war] is. It’s really [about] life and death.”

DeYeso entered the service in July of 1943 and was actually training to take part in the Pacific Theater of the war when he was instead shipped overseas to Europe as an infantry replacement about a year later, joining the 26th“Yankee” Division. His first day of battle in the early fall of 1944 in a field near Montcourt, France, quickly corrected any of the misconceptions he had about warfare.

Before heading into battle, DeYeso’s squad leader looked at him and said, “stick with me kid.”

“I nodded okay,” recalls DeYeso, “and he took off and I took off right behind him.”

The screaming and yelling from both sides was deafening. Troops were falling to DeYeso’s left and to his right and all of a sudden his squad leader went down. So DeYeso fell to the ground, too, but he soon realized that his squad leader was not ducking to take cover, but rather he had been shot dead.

Toward the end of the battle, one of DeYeso’s squad members who had been shot in the stomach turned to him and begged DeYeso to kill him, but DeYeso said that he could not bring himself to do it.

“Movies make everything look glorious and the hero never has dirt on his face,” he said. “You’re filthy in no time at all … You have dirt on your face and your hands. Your uniform is covered in it.”

Naturally, the comforts of home weren’t always available on the frontlines. Canton native Edward Estey, serving in the European Theater, remembers having to sometimes literally fall asleep in a hole that he dug for himself in the ground.

Rations consisted of a can of cheese and crackers or a can with ham and eggs, Estey recalls. Provisions would also include a chocolate bar and cigarettes, with the non-smokers trading their cigarettes for extra chocolate.

“You still get hungry, you still have to go to the bathroom,” DeYeso said half-jokingly. “People think those things stop, [but] they don’t.”

Estey graduated from Canton High School in 1942 and enlisted in the Army in the summer of 1943. After just six months of training, he was deployed to Europe, where he took part in the D-Day Plus 3 invasion on June 9, 1944 — a month after his 19th birthday.

Estey was a forward observer, scouting out the battlefields. As he made his way to the shore he recalls wading through water that was “practically red” and seeing bodies still lying on the beach. Even with all of the bloodshed and violence he personally witnessed, Estey said he was able to remain calm.

“I had people killed near me, I had to side-step over bodies and I was never really that frightened,” he said. “I used to wonder why the older people were nervous about getting wounded or killed. Come to think about it later on, I was very naïve. I had just come out of high school; I didn’t know anything about the world. Here these guys have their jobs back home, their wives and their families.

“I had my scares, but I was never worried that I was going to get killed. You know how when you’re a kid — it can’t happen to you — and that’s the way I felt all through it.”

Like Estey, Canton native Chester Wentworth proved unflappable in times of chaos. Wentworth joined the Navy in April of 1943 and was assigned to the U.S.S. Block Island, a baby aircraft carrier.

The U.S.S. Block Island pursued German U-boats, but on May 29, 1944, a German sub caught the Block Island off-guard and sunk the carrier with three torpedoes off the coast of the Azores.

Wentworth remembers being told to put on a life jacket and soon he was climbing down a rope-ladder and into the water. Wentworth became covered by oil let go by the sinking ship, while he treaded in the water. He and his other crew members were rescued by an escort ship.

“We were trained what to do in case something did happen,” he said matter-of-factly. Still, Wentworth admits he was “lucky” to have survived the ordeal. “We’re lucky we didn’t catch fire.”

After a short leave, he served the remainder of the war on the new U.S.S. Block Island, taking part in the invasion of Okinawa in the Pacific Theater of the war. When the war was over, the Block Island helped to transport British prisoners of war from Japan to Manila in the Philippines.

Sadly, of Canton’s 853 men and women to serve in the armed forces during WWII, 25 died in action. Of the 25 who never returned home, most were in their early to mid 20s.

DeYeso described America’s involvement in WWII as a “necessary evil,” as millions around the world made the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Europe and the Pacific.

“We, the people of the world,” DeYeso said, “have to find a better way to settle our differences.”

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