SHERMAN, Maine — This year marks 75 years since the end of World War II, the most lethal conflict in human history and one that affected the lives of millions of Americans. James King would know, as the war was something he experienced with his own eyes and ears.
King, 95, lives in the small town of Sherman with his wife Helen, whom he met after the war while working on a farm in New Jersey. The memories of the conflict remained fresh in King’s mind as he recalled the details of the war.
“People today don’t realize how much people sacrificed,” said King, who spent most of his time in the service in the South Pacific on the island of Guam. “But I had it relatively good compared to others.”
King is one of about 3,000 Mainers who served in World War II who are still living, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 300,000 Americans out of the 16 million who served remain alive to tell the stories of the war in which it is estimated that more than 70 million people died.
King was born in Macwahoc in southern Aroostook County, the youngest of seven children, including three older brothers who also served in World War II. He was drafted into the U.S. Army near the end of the war, first being sent to Miami Beach for basic training, then to Fort Lee in Virginia where he was trained as a truck mechanic and took driver’s education, and then to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was trained as a fighter pilot.
From there he was sent to Salina, Kansas, to join a B-29 heavy bomber unit, then to Seattle where he was shipped to Guam to fight in the South Pacific Theater.
While King and his unit were traversing the ocean to reach their destination, the Japanese surrendered after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus officially bringing the war to an end.
That didn’t mean everything was safe at their new destination. Many Japanese soldiers remained hidden in the jungles of Guam, unaware that the war had ended, and were a danger to American soldiers stationed in the area. King recalls one incident of a doctor and nurse who were meeting for a secret rendezvous, but were ambushed and killed by Japanese troops.
He also remembers a group of 13 Japanese soldiers who surrendered and then were imprisoned after one of them who could speak and read English learned the war was over after finding a discarded copy of Life Magazine.
“Some of the boys were real rough toward them,” King recalled of the treatment of the Japanese prisoners. “They were really mad at them being there, so they didn’t handle them very good.”
Still, King said his time in Guam was relatively peaceful, and he never had to engage in any real action. But his brothers saw plenty during the war effort. His oldest brother Thomas fought in and survived the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most decisive battles in Europe against the Nazis.
And his brother Ray flew cargo over the Himalayas to deliver supplies to support Chinese troops against the occupying Japanese. But Ray suffered severe burns due an engine malfunction on his plane, and had to spend a year at a hospital in San Diego.
“He said he woke up one day and lifted up the sheets, and they had put maggots on his chest to eat the dead skin,” King said of his brother. “And he just went nuts.”
King says he hopes people remember the sacrifices made by people like his brother.
“[Younger people] don’t really know the sacrifice that my brother went through to make us free,” King said. “When my brother died, they read the salutations he had gotten during the war, and he never told his kid about it. So now his father’s gone, but now he knows what his father sacrificed.”