The strangeness of life and war7/29/2015
The nasal, clipped tone of the August 1945 radio broadcast reaches across 70 years. It is up-to-the-minute coverage of the loud celebration in downtown Des Moines after the announcement that Japan would surrender. WHO Radio is reporting:
“Des Moines tonight personifies the State of Iowa at the end of the war. You can hear the noise. Thousands of persons of all ages appeared from nowhere as soon as the news was flashed. They’ve jammed the business district with noisemakers and confetti, to say nothing of fireworks and bombs. It gives the Des Moines loop the appearance of a thousand state fairs.”
World events caused this mob scene in downtown Des Moines. Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroshima was struck with the first atomic bomb. Aug. 9, 1945, Nagasaki was hit with the second. Aug. 15, 1945, Japan announces it will surrender.
Almost exactly 70 years ago.
The late July heat dances with puffs of wind, dosey-doeing down the nearly empty main street of this small Nebraska town. The road is wide enough to be a six-lane beltway around some grand big city, but the tractor hauling a trailer of hay does not have to worry about merging traffic or restricted taxi-only lanes. The farmer in his air-conditioned cab lifts one finger from the steering wheel as he passes. The old man and I wave back from our spot on the wooden bench, where we are taking a break from being guests at a wedding.
The old man continues his story.
“I was young and a patriot during that time. The Second World War was not like any other war. That was a just war. If it wasn’t for that war, you and I would be under Hitler.” The words come slowly, thoughtfully, and with precision.
“When the war started, I had my basic training in the army. They made a radio operator out of me. Morse code, you know. Then they sent me to a little island off the coast after that. There were 25 soldiers there. All morons. I was the only radio operator there.”
Clearly, Russell Tershy does not suffer fools. His first job, at the age of 7, was to gather the plums his father shook from the trees in the fields of California. And that was just the beginning of years of harvesting, selling, managing and ultimately founding a successful job-training program throughout California. He has no time to waste on those who don’t want to work.
“I was asked by the military if I wanted to go to a university to study a foreign language. Chinese is what it turned out to be. So I was sent to Stanford University for 12 full months at the start of World War II.”
Tershy’s mother and father did not have the luxury of such an education after they emigrated from Lebanon. In fact, Tershy’s mother never did learn to read and write. The family ended up in Oklahoma in the 1920s running a successful grocery business. Good for several years, but like many Americans, they lost everything in the dust and depression. When Tershy was 5, they moved to California.
“There were 65 students in the Chinese class at Stanford. The military kept knocking them out. Finally there were 25 of us left. Three of us were sent in the middle of winter to Texas, and we were trained to ride and pack and take care of horses with the 1st Cavalry Division.”
Tershy’s family set up shop in California as soon as they arrived from Oklahoma. They sold vegetables, worked in the fields, did whatever needed to be done to survive. Tershy was there with his family when war broke out across Europe and the Pacific. And now as a member of the U.S. Army, he had learned Chinese and was training with the cavalry in Texas. Go figure.
“Then we were sent from San Francisco on a troop ship. It was destined for India. They were building the China-Burma Road, and I believe we were supposed to be assigned there using our Chinese.”
Of course, this made sense, but life is never a straight line.
“So we were on the troop ship headed for India. The troop ship stopped off of New Guinea. We languished there. We couldn’t understand what was happening. It is my belief that they changed the orders of the troop ship right then. To our great chagrin, we landed in the Philippines. So, we became infantrymen with the 1st Cavalry for the rest of the war.”
Tershy was assigned to an eight-man squad that was sent out in the jungles of the Philippines for four months to ferret out resistant cells of Japanese. His group was eventually brought back to prepare for the invasion of Japan.
“Two weeks before we were scheduled to hit the shores of Japan, the war ended. The atomic bomb ended the war. When we finally got to Japan, the 1st Calvary Division was the first to put their feet on Japanese ground. The three of us who spoke Chinese did nothing with our Chinese.”
I ask for a picture. So 93-year-old Russell Tershy takes me inside the air-conditioned community center, grabs his 92-year-old wife Ellie, and gives her a kiss.
“I discovered that the 12th Regiment of the 1st Calvary Division, my regiment, would have been the first regiment to hit the shores of Japan, and they estimate we would have had 80 percent casualties. I was chagrined about the atomic bomb when it happened; I had a lot of questions. But I am convinced that was the only thing that saved my life.”
The live WHO radio broadcast from 1945 continues, reporting reactions to the Japanese surrender:
“Up in Waterloo, Iowa, Mrs. Thomas Sullivan, mother of the five brothers who perished in the sinking of the Juneau back in November of ’42, was unable to speak. Her daughter, Genevieve, explained that Mrs. Sullivan was glad for the other boys returning, but her sons won’t be back.”
Russell Tershy shakes his head at the strangeness of life and war. And he and his wife walk down the empty main street in this small Nebraska town, leaning together, 70 years later. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.