An Inside Look into World War II From Those Who Served
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Photos by Matt Burke
Wayne Coloney has a family military history dating back to the Revolutionary War, when his great-great-great-grandfather served on George Washington’s staff.
In more recent history, the family men — including his father, his uncle and one of his grandfathers — had served in the Navy. So, no surprise that when Coloney graduated from high school in 1943 his plan was to join the Navy. But it was not to be. He went to war as an Army private.
“The Navy wouldn’t have me because my eyes were so bad,” said Coloney. Then, with a chuckle, he added, “So the Army took me and made me a tank commander!”
At the same time his tank was helping lead Gen. George Patton’s armored strike into the heart of Germany, Coloney’s father was serving in the Pacific, landing in places like Okinawa. Both wrote frequent letters home and to each other — and Coloney’s mother saved every one.
Today those letters live on in binders preserved for posterity by The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, housed in the Department of History at Florida State University.
Established in 1997, the Institute began acquiring collections of personal letters, diaries, manuscripts, military documents, unit histories, oral histories, photo books and more from war veterans and their families. In the beginning years the collection grew by 500 a year but that has slowed to about 100 annual donations. Now there are about 6,700 collections — making the Institute one of the largest non-federally funded repositories on the social and military history of the era.
The collection becomes even more important as the population of U.S. World War II veterans dwindles more each year. Now in their twilight years, they are dying at a rate of approximately 555 a day, according to The National WWII Museum. Most are in or close to their 90s, men and women who joined up as teens, many of them drafted just as they graduated from high school. Of the 16 million who served, a little more than 1 million are still alive today — including 96,967 in Florida. The Veterans Administration predicts none will be left by 2036.
Next year, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In honor of that major milestone, and the annual recognition of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Tallahassee Magazine spoke with a handful of veterans who still live in our area, read transcripts of interviews they gave for the Reichelt Oral History project and reviewed the letters they donated to the Institute on WWII. They served in Europe, the Pacific and Washington, D.C., on Liberty Ships, in tanks, on foot and in offices. Each one contributed his or her share to the victory that was earned by what we have come to know as the Greatest Generation.
Collections at the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, Florida State University: Harold Odum Collection 99.0284
Born in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 1926, Harold Odum was 2 years old when he moved to Tallahassee. He graduated from Leon High School in 1943 and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marine. He was 17 ½ years old, and his parents had to give their approval for him to serve.
COLLECTIONS AT THE INSTITUTE ON WORLD WAR II AND THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY: Harold Odum Collection 99.0284
Harold Odum’s Sept. 17, 1945 letter to his mother and a Training Division 301 photo show Odum in the second row, second from the right. A photo of the Liberty ship David Lubin.
“I was flag-waving and young and looking forward to some adventure, so I joined the Merchant Marine,” he said in a Reichelt Oral History recorded in 1999.
On his first voyage, to Italy, his ship carried 8,000 tons of bombs and ammunition in the hold and a deck filled with vehicles for the Air Force. Out of his 75-ship convoy, one was lost.
“When the convoys would go through the Straits of Gibraltar all those Spanish fishing ships would be out … and they were doing a little bit more than fishing,” he said in the oral history interview. “They’d size up the convoys, the number of ships, the escorts … and get in touch with the Germans. And the next night we could always count on an air raid going through there.”
Odum counts himself lucky he never lost a ship — one of every 24 merchant mariners died. A constant fear of submarine attack kept crews on edge, and for good reason. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, 733 cargo ships and 8,651 crewmen were lost during the war.
By Dec. 1, 1944, Odum wrote to his mother, “Your son is no longer a boy, Mom. Maybe in age, but that’s all.” And in another letter, “I feel so old and tired I can’t seem to get rested up.”
During the war, Odum’s ships delivered material for the military. When it was done, they helped shuttle the war-weary troops back home.
Today, at the age of 88, Odum remembers his service as “scary sometimes, exciting sometimes and boring sometimes.” He sailed across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific, where he remembers seeing one Irving Berlin “This is the Army” USO show. When “White Christmas” was sung, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
Odum returned to Tallahassee after the war and opened an architectural firm. “I was lucky,” he says now. “I got in toward the end of the situation. Otherwise I don’t know if I’d be talking to you today.”