World War II oral history interview
Date: September 10, 2001
Veteran: Warren Handley
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Walter Borkowski
Warren Handley clearly remembered how impressed he was at the flag ceremony on the day of his grandfather’s funeral, and how he felt sorry for the horses and riders who had to pull the caisson carrying the casket to the cemetery that rainy day in 1939. Handley’s grandfather served as an infantry officer in the Spanish American War and had retired from the New Jersey National Guard with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He died three days after his wife passed away.
A year after his grandfather’s funeral, Handley joined the 102nd’s “Junior Essex Troop.” As a member of the troop he learned to ride and perform cavalry drill on horseback at the Westfield, New Jersey armory. The Essex Troop also taught him the basics of soldiering, including the manual of arms, rifle marksmanship and military discipline, until he joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age seventeen on March 27, 1944.
Following boot camp at Parris Island, North Carolina, Handley was assigned to Marine Aviation at Cherry Point, North Carolina and then detailed to the Naval Radio School at Sampson Air Base, Geneva, New York, where he learned the Morse code and other forms of military communications. On weekends he and his comrades were allowed daily or overnight passes, the latter beginning Saturday morning and ending Sunday evening. If he got an overnight pass, Handley traveled by bus from Geneva to Syracuse, New York and caught a train from there to Newark, New Jersey. The time consumed in a round trip left very little time to spend at home, however.
Handley recalled how on one occasion he and a classmate were issued an overnight pass to leave the base on Saturday morning, but with the aid of some classmates departed, unauthorized, on Friday night. On the bus from Geneva, his friend began a conversation with two attractive girls sitting in front of them. By the time they reached Syracuse, they had all exchanged phone numbers. When Handley returned to Sampson, he was unable to reach the girl through the number she gave him. Sometime later, when he attended a local dance with another girl, he saw her dancing with a sailor, took his date home, and returned in time to dance with her himself. They began to see each other, and from the time he left Sampson until he returned from the war, she wrote him a letter every day. They married in 1948, had three children, and over fifty years later, Handley was still married to the girl he met on the bus, when he was technically “AWOL” (absent without leave), from the Marine Corps.
After his training, Handley was shipped to the Pacific Theater of War, where he was assigned to the Fourth Marine Air Wing on Peleliu Island. Although as a radio repairman he saw little action, he experienced several near death experiences during his military career, and he remembers them clearly to this day. On the way overseas, his troopship had a layover at Hawaii, providing the opportunity for the Marines to go swimming at Waikiki beach. While in the water, Handley was caught in a swift tide that pulled him into deep water. He recalled that he did not think he could make it back to the beach, but “…with a little luck I did….”
On another occasion, Handley walked onto the Peleliu airstrip towards his assigned plane at dawn one day, still half asleep, when he distinctly heard the command “Stop!” He did -- just before walking into a spinning propeller. “I would have been mincemeat,” he remembered. Handley could not find anyone who yelled at him, but is convinced that he heard the warning. He concluded that “It must have been the Lord, for some spirit told me to stop.”
Peleliu is a small volcanic island about seven miles long, rough and mountainous on one side, and swampy on the other. The airfield was in the south of the island, overlooked by rough ridges pockmarked with caves and thick vegetation. At one point, Marine aircraft were taking off at Peleliu airfield and dropping their bombs on enemy positions just beyond the end of the runway. Handley displayed a scrapbook of graphic photos of the battle of Peleliu for the interviewer, and described the aftermath of the battle, when Japanese holdouts had to be flushed out of the hills beyond the airfield. He explained that once the island was declared “secure,” it was necessary to get permission from higher headquarters to open fire on any Japanese still hiding in the caves. He stated that the last Japanese die-hards on Peleliu were not persuaded to come down from the mountains until 1947.Handley described how daily life was for him and other Marines on Peleliu, and what they found and did while combing the Japanese caves on the hills above the airfield. He remembered seeing pictures in Newsweek magazine of people celebrating the end of the war in New York City’s Times Square. He recalled that he felt sad he wasn’t there to celebrate with them, until he turned the page and saw a picture of a woman holding a telegram and crying. The story that accompanied the photo revealed she was the mother of a nineteen year old son killed in one of the last engagements of the war. The story moved him to write a poem he titled “A Mothers Prayer.” Soon after returning home to Linden, New Jersey, Handley went to the New York office of Newsweek, obtained the name and address of the woman, and sent her a copy of the poem. She wrote back expressing her thanks, and the special feelings she had for him and his own mother.
In 1950, during the Korean War, Handley was recalled into the Marine Corps. He was assigned to Parris Island as a Drill Instructor and then worked at the Message Center at Second Marine Division headquarters at Camp LeJeune, until his discharge from active duty in 1952.
“A Mothers Prayer” by Warren Handley
They picked him up, his chest was bleeding.
A machine gun caught him, while he was leading,
He charged the hill, to silence the gun.
He never made it, but the job was done.
His last words were, “Tell Mom I’m all right.”
That was all he said, for he died that night.
They laid him to rest beneath the sand
While taps sounded over that desolate land,
In his last letter, he said he was feeling swell,
But all the time he was going through hell.
Shells and bullets screaming, buddies dying;
Out there somewhere, wounded men crying.
But now that’s over, peace has come.
Peace is here, but not for some,
For her son is out there lying ever so still.
There are boys coming home, but hers never will.
Over there he lies peacefully sleeping
And she is sitting here quietly weeping.
She has the telegram clutched in her hand,
Saying her son died for his native land,
No one sees her, as she walks down the street,
For they are all celebrating the enemies’ defeat.
They are happy and free from care.
How many of them have done their share?
She enters the church, she kneels to pray,
For she knows now it is the only way.
She prays in heaven they will meet one day,
So she will have her boy back home to stay.