Their stories and experiences are as varied as the lifelines on their hands or the creases and furrows that time has carved into their faces.
For decades, most have said little about what they did, what they saw “over there.” To others, they underestimate the value of their own place in history.
“I didn’t do anything… I wasn’t in battle… You don’t want to talk to me,” they say.
But every veteran, we believe, has a story to tell. Every veteran, we believe, played a role that only he or she could provide.
These are the stories of just a few Boone area veterans who answered the call to serve for the cause of freedom on behalf of their nation.
Boone native Richard Jordan was in his first semester at Creighton University when a quiet Sunday afternoon in December 1941 was broken by the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Most Americans that day asked themselves, ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’ But men of Jordan’s age just knew that, wherever it was, that’s where they were headed.
“There were a lot of Creighton students who volunteered the next day,” Jordan recalls. “In fact, I called my father that Sunday evening, and said I was going to enlist in the Navy — and he discouraged me. He told me, ‘You’ve got a half-year of college, that’s not going to mean anything. Finish the year, and then do what you want to do.’”
Jordan took his father’s advice, finished out the year, and in September went to Kansas City to test and enlist to become a naval aviator. Little did he know that the navy would make him wait even longer.
“They said to go home, and ‘we’ll call you,’ ” Jordan says. “I sat here all fall; I did go to Iowa State for a quarter, and it wasn’t until December that the Navy told me to report out to Fremont, Neb.”
In Nebraska he learned to fly Piper Cubs and small planes. From there he was sent to Iowa City for intensive pre-flight training.
“It was quite an experience. They had us going about 18 hours a day with classes and physical training. We learned discipline,” Jordan says.
After a stop in Minneapolis, Minn., for more training, it was on to Pensacola, Fl., where he was commissioned and earned his wings. In Pensacola, his training group was divided into pilots who went either to patrol planes or carrier duty. Jordan was tagged for patrol planes and sent to Jacksonville, Fl., to learn to fly the PBY, a heavy aircraft that landed on water.
Carrying a crew of seven, including two machine gunners and two 500-pound depth bombs, the PBYs were used for anti-submarine warfare and air/sea rescue missions. Jordan earned the respect of his instructor and, when the class was finished, he was held back to become an instructor himself.
Eventually, both he and his original instructor were sent to Kansas to train on B24s. They finally received their orders for overseas duty just as the war was winding down. Jordan celebrated V-J Day in San Diego, Calif., and then shipped out to the Pacific. Just a few short years before, he had never even heard of Pearl Harbor, and now he was a naval aviator flying there himself. He flew NATS (Naval Air Transports) to Guam, Tinian and Saipan.
Jordan even flew mail planes to Shanghai, China, but he says most of his time in the Pacific was spent just flying over the ocean on routine patrols.
“They had us flying around the ocean looking for stuff. I don’t know why,” he recalls.
It was on a tiny island that most Americans today have never heard of where one good deed from Jordan made a world of difference for some U.S. Marines.
“One night, two big Marines came in and said to me, ‘I hear you’re going back to Tinian. There’s a carrier waiting at Saipan; could you give us a lift and drop us off there?” they asked of Jordan.
The Marines were veterans of the Battle of Bloody Nose Ridge on the island of Peleliu and had been on that little black rock of an island long enough to want to get home any way they could.
Jordan agreed, but it wasn’t until the next day, as he was getting his plane ready to fly, that he learned the two Marines were actually 22 young men desperate for a way off that island.
“The grass beside the runway was about three-foot tall, and heads just started coming out of there,” Jordan recalls.
He looked at his small plane, looked at the tired Marines, and told them to just start getting in. The plane was soon full, but two Marines were still on the runway. Jordan took one look into the eyes of those young Marines and told them, “Get in there… pack ’em in.”
No one was left behind.
Jordan has often wondered what would have had happened if his plane, loaded full, had gone down. There were no records of who was on the plane, and 22 families would have never known what happened to their Marine. But he needn’t have worried; Jordan landed them all safely in Saipan, and those Marines were homeward bound.
Verle Toyne grew up hearing the stories of his great grandfather, Peter A. Esmoil. Esmoil was a veteran of the Union Army and was injured in the Civil War Battle of Shiloh. Discharged after taking a bullet in the hip, that didn’t stop Esmoil, who signed up again and took part in Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Thankfully, Toyne’s boyhood was quieter than that. He spent World War II on the home front, growing up on a farm northwest of Boone. He watched his parents scrimp and save — as most all families did — collecting ration coupons for everything from canned foods to gasoline.
“It affected every family,” Toyne recalls. “I don’t think the public would give like they did in World War II, especially World War II.”
Toyne’s older brother was drafted into the Army and ended up in Germany with Patton’s Third Army. But Verle didn’t graduate until 1946 and might have hoped that he would avoid wartime duty. He married in 1948, started farming, and then war came again. They called it a “Police Action,” but everyone in it knew it was war.
“Everybody was getting drafted back then,” Toyne recalls.
After basic training in Pennsylvania, he shipped out to Yokohama, Japan, and from there to Inchon, South Korea.
“I was trained on a water-cooled machine gun,” Toyne recalls.
It was duty that put him near the front line of battle, but it’s an off-and-on proposition.
“They put you on the main line of resistance, and then they pull you back, then you go up again, and they pull you back,” he explains.
Toyne served several months on machine gun duty before a buddy — a farm kid from North Carolina — arranged for him to get transferred to the supply room. Toyne still talks little about the war he witnessed but wishes that he had maintained the bonds of friendship battle created.
“That was one of the biggest mistakes I made; I didn’t keep in contact with the people I met,” Toyne says.
He’s tried punching a few of the names up on the Internet but has had little luck in finding his friends from back then. Lost friendships — perhaps another casualty of war.
A 1953 graduate of Boone High School, Gene Merrill entered the Army just as the Korean War was winding down.
“There was still hostilities, but the 38th parallel was secure. You had the North on one side of it and the South on the other side of it, and you’re kind of looking at each other,” he says.
Merrill was trained on the Howitzer in an era long before computers could plot the trajectory of these big guns within a seven-mile range.
“We used what we called a deflection fan. You plot where you’re at, and the deflection fan tells you the range and elevation and direction,” he explains.
Thankfully, Merrill’s work was mostly to help returning troops get ready to come home. He spent Thanksgiving 1953 in a tent in South Korea but shipped out again before Christmas. From there he was stationed in Hawaii for three years before discharge. But that was not to be the end of Merrill’s service. He enlisted in the National Guard and served some 30 years before retiring at age 60.
Merrill was already in his mid-50s when his Guard unit was days away from being deployed to Operation Dessert Storm, and another unit was sent instead. But the thought of being deployed at mid-life didn’t worry him.
“When you’re in the Guard, they keep you at your physical peak. You’re still in good shape,” he says.
Over the years, his family also answered the call to serve, and three generations of Merrills have now taken their turn in that place where war was first called a “Police Action.”
Merrill’s son, Ray, a former Green Beret, served five tours in South Korea. Asked about the training required to earn that Green Beret, Ray has only one word to say: “Hard.”
To carry on the tradition, Ray’s son, Travis, also did a year in Korea and is now stationed in Germany.
Dr. John Murphy
Dr. John Murphy says he’s a little older than the typical Vietnam veteran, mostly because he was there as a surgeon rather than a young recruit. Murphy did two tours of duty onboard the USS Kittyhawk.
Humble about his own service, he still knows how lucky he is. One of his roommates was shot down and did six years as prisoner of war. To Murphy, the lesson of war is to appreciate the value of peace.
“My mother was always adamantly against the war, and I came to agree with her. But it’s different when you’re there,” he says.
“Support the troops,” Murphy concludes. That’s what matters most.