Stories for Veteran’s Day

One of the things that I have always appreciated about living in Haskell has been the opportunity – really, the great blessing – of being able to meet and visit with veterans of so many of our nation’s wars over the years. What an amazing archive of experience!

Over the years, I have known men from Haskell, Rule, Rochester, and the entire county, who have shared with me stories of their days in the service. I have been blessed to know guys who were on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day – June 6, 1944. I have known guys who flew 25+ combat missions over occupied Europe in a B-17, and other guys who were with the 101st Airborne, trapped at Bastogne and surrounded by the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge. I have also known veterans who were part of Patton’s forces that broke through the German lines and turned back that counter-offensive.

I have known guys from the Pacific Theater as well – men who were survivors of the Bataan Death March early in the war, and other guys who were with the Marines who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima, including one who was with the troops who raised the FIRST flag on Mt. Suribachi. That flag was not large enough to be seen from the Navy ships off the coast, so the Marines raised another larger flag, and it is the picture of that second flag-raising that became so famous.

I knew a guy who was on the island of Saipan during the war. We held one end of a runway, but the Japanese still had the other end of it. He told me the story of how a Marine lieutenant was looking for a way to secure the entire runway, so our planes could use it. Since any approach the far end would mean being under withering enemy fire, my friend was recruited to drive a bulldozer and raise the blade. Then using that dozer blade as a shield and under continuous assault, my friend drove down to the far end of runway and gave cover to the Marines who took the other end of the runway and secured the base.

Where do we get such men?

There was a veteran from here who was in the first wave of troops to hit Utah Beach on D-Day. He told me that the Germans were extremely precise with their mortar fire, and able to drop explosive rounds exactly where they want to on the beach, resulting in terrible American casualties. But, he said, he and the men with him noticed that the Germans were “walking” their mortar rounds back and forth across the beach in a very methodical fashion, so that, by watching where the shells landed and timing their runs across at the right moments, they were able to get inland and take out the enemy positions.

And in so doing, the Allies were able to put 150,000 men ashore in the first 24 hours on the five beaches of D-Day, on their way to destroy Fascism and rescue a continent.

It’s worth remembering that Veterans Day was originally known as “Armistice Day.” It was the day that World War I ended – at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. That war is personal to me, because my grandfather was a “dough-boy” who fought in France and received a wound in his left shoulder from a German shell that landed behind him. He carried that scar with him for the rest of his life. Grandpa liked to work in the yard with his shirt off, and I can remember as a child, walking behind him and seeing that scar on his shoulder. He would come over to our house for supper and tell my brothers and me stories from the war. Not to glorify the violence or exalt in the killing, but to celebrate the courage of those who were there.

Here’s my grandpa, Stanley Garison (left) with another “dough-boy” during World War I.

And I remember at Grandpa’s funeral – he died on my birthday in 1980, at the age of 81 – the Purple Heart medal that he received because of that wound was pinned to his jacket lapel. The family had agreed that the medal should go to his oldest son, my uncle, who was a career Air Force man. Standing at the casket, my uncle was too overcome with emotion to unpin the decoration, so I removed it from Grandpa’s jacket and gave it to him. I felt very honored to handle, even in that small way, such a treasured piece of our family history.

America has been very blessed over the years that so many have answered the call – men and women who have been willing to “pay any price, bear any burden.” Haskell County is fortunate to be home to so many who have served when and where they were needed. Let us extend to all of them our gratitude for their sacrifice. So to all veterans – thank you for your service. And God bless America.

Saving the Battleship Texas

You may have seen news footage the other day of the big event. Starting before dawn on Wednesday, August 31, the Battleship Texas was towed out of its berth at the San Jacinto Monument near Baytown. A fleet of tugboats pulled the massive old ship backwards out into the Houston Ship Channel, then one got in front of it and began towing her down the channel, past the refineries, and down to the mouth of Galveston Bay. The ship was maneuvered into a giant drydock at a Galveston shipyard, where it will be repaired and restored and made ready for a new home.

The USS Texas, BB-35, was the second US Navy vessel to bear our state’s name. The original Texas was launched in 1892 and was actually the first American naval vessel designated as a “battleship.” That ship served in the Spanish-American War and later was renamed USS San Marcos so the old name could be given to a new ship.

(By the way, there was also a guided-missile cruiser named USS Texas, CGN-39, in service with the Navy from 1977 through 1993. The current Texas, SSN 775, has been on duty since 2006. She is a Virginia-class, nuclear-powered fast attack submarine serving as part of Submarine Force Atlantic. Her motto is, “Don’t mess with Texas!”)

The historic Texas was launched in 1912 and commissioned in 1914 as the second New York-class ship to be built. These vessels were generally known as “dreadnoughts,” a class of enormous ships with larger main guns, steam-power, and other technological advances of the early part of the Twentieth Century. Texas’ main battery consisted of ten 14-inch cannon, which could fire 1,400-pound armor-piercing projectiles up to 13 miles. She was also initially equipped with 21 5-inch guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. The Texas also served as a technological “test bed.” She was the first battleship to have anti-aircraft guns mounted onboard, the first US ship to control gunfire with directors and range-keepers, the first US battleship to launch an aircraft, and one of the first US Navy ships to receive production radar.

The ship served faithfully in World War I before being refitted in 1925-26, designated as the “Flagship” of the US Navy, and serving with both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. When World War II broke out, she was initially assigned to convoy escort duty before participating in the “Operation Torch” landings at North Africa. Later, the Texas was part of “Operation Overlord” D-Day landings on Normandy. She supported the Rangers scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, where she fired 255 14-inch shells in 35 minutes – a fire rate of 7.5 shells per minute. She then shifted her focus to Omaha Beach and continued firing at enemy positions along the beach and inland. During these operations, the battle cry was, “Come on, Texas!”

A few days later, she was engaged with the enemy near the French city of Cherbourg, when she was hit by German fire and suffered the loss of her helmsman killed and others wounded. She was also hit by a German shell that was a dud; this unexploded projectile is still on display in the ship’s museum. She was reassigned to the Pacific, and in 1945, participated in the heavy bombardment of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She was decommissioned after the war and in 1948, the ship became the first battleship designated as a permanent floating museum in her namesake state. Today, she’s a survivor: the last of the dreadnought class, and the only remaining capital ship to have served in both World Wars.

She has been refurbished since coming to Texas, but not since 1988-1990. She is currently under the jurisdiction of Texas Parks & Wildlife. Voters in 2007 approved providing state funds for the ship’s maintenance, as well as creating the non-profit Battleship Texas Foundation to raise additional monies, to support preservation and upkeep. The repairs now beginning are expected to take two years and are being funded from a combination of public and private revenue.

What will become of the Texas? Good question. She’s NOT going back to San Jacinto. The BTF is considering several possible new permanent homes, including Galveston, Baytown, and Beaumont. (Personally, I’d vote for Galveston, but it’s not my call.)

The Battleship Texas, being towed past Pelican Island, on her way into a Galveston drydock. She will undergo two years’ worth of repairs before resuming her status as a floating museum.
Photo credit – KPRC-TV.

Wherever she ends up, here’s a salute to this fine old ship. May she continue proudly to bear the name of her state and hold out her valuable lessons about history and service for many more generations.

“Come on, Texas!” And in the words of the old sailor’s blessing, Fair Winds and Following Seas.

The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Remembering Grandpa

As we approach Veterans Day this year, please allow me to add my thanks and appreciation to all our veterans. And I would like to tell you about one veteran in particular who was very special to me: my grandfather, Stanley Garison, Sr. We called him “Grandpa.”

He was born in Orange County, Texas, on September 30, 1899 – one of four boys. He lied about his age and joined the army as a teenager, to go off with General “Blackjack” Pershing and chase the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa back and forth across the border. Later he was part of the AEF in France during World War I, where he was wounded by a piece of German shrapnel from a shell that exploded behind him. Many years later, he liked to work in his yard with his shirt off, and I can still remember seeing the scar on his left shoulder.

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My grandpa, Stanley Garison, Sr. (left), in France, 1918.

The picture shows him in France, wearing his uniform, with an unidentified buddy of his. My brothers and I used to love hearing the stories he told from being in the war. When I was a kid, I enjoyed building airplane models, especially the fighter planes from that period. I loaned him a book about World War I planes I checked out from my school library, and he told me about seeing “dogfights” between planes in the skies above him. Once, he helped capture a German pilot after he had made a crash landing near the American position.

Of course, Veteran’s Day was always very special to Grandpa, because before it became known by that name, it was called “Armistice Day.” As part of the American forces in France during the war, the moment that war ended was very personal for him, and it came at 11:00 o’clock, local time, on November 11, 1918 – the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was in the 1930s that Congress got around to changing what had been called “Armistice Day” into a day to celebrate ALL veterans, and it became known as “Veterans Day.

Stanley Garison died on my birthday, October 11, 1980, of complications from a stroke. In his lifetime, he had gone from it taking all day in a buggy to go ten miles into town and back, to the Wright Brothers, to men landing on the moon.

Grandpa loved to hunt and fish. His best hunting story was about the time he killed two deer with one shot. He said he was hunting along a fence there near the home place and saw a deer; he fired off a quick shot, and was pretty sure that he hit it, but the deer jumped the fence and ran off. Grandpa followed behind, mad and cussing about having to chase the “blankety-blank” deer. After following it a long way, he finally found the deer where it was lying in some grass. He jumped on its back and cut its throat, so that it could finish bleeding out.

The deer immediately jumped up and ran off! So now, Grandpa is REALLY mad. He follows that deer again, cussing all the way, until he finally finds it dead. He picks the deer up, puts it across his shoulders, and starts back along the fence line to where he started. Along the way, he discovers another deer, lying dead by the fence. It was the one he had shot in the first place. The second deer had just been asleep in the tall grass when Grandpa jumped on its back.

Anyway, that was his story, and he was sticking to it.