The explosions of machine gun fire were among the harrowing conditions that could not stop Herbert Smith West Sr. from advancing island by island toward mainland Japan. He had a job he was determined to do during the biggest and deadliest war in history.
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Involving more than 30 countries and sparked by the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, World War II raged on for six bloody years until the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945.
West, who served as a U.S. Army captain, participated in the war’s Pacific campaign and finds talking about the thousands who died, including many from his company, difficult.
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“You think back and you just wonder, ‘How in the heck can anybody go through what we went through?’ So many of them didn’t come back,” West said.
The Bamberg resident, who will turn 98 on Aug. 18, was a captain in the United States Army’s 77th Infantry during World War II.
He received awards for his bravery, including the Silver Star when he single-handedly took out two machine-gun nests that had the platoon under his command pinned down during their invasion of Leyte Island.
West opted to let his son and only child, Herbert "Buddy" Smith West Jr., tell the story.
Buddy said his father had never talked about the experience until recently and never talked about it as his son was growing up.
“His company was out and they got pinned down by a machine gun. And he by himself crawled around and took out the machine gun nest. It was basically hand-to-hand combat almost. And this is one of the (reasons) why he doesn’t like to talk about it,” he said.
Buddy added, “There was a second machine gun nest, too. Another one had them pinned down. He went and took that one out. And after all that information got back, that’s when he received the Silver Star for his heroic service in the line of duty. They ultimately took their objective after they got freed up from what he did.”
West recalled the famous words of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the Southwest Pacific in WWII, as Japanese forces were about to conquer the Philippines: “I shall return.”
“He returned to the Philippines after we got it secured,” West said.
He said his service was something he had to do.
“It’s just something I had to do and I did it. ... I went on several different other islands. I went on the Karama Retta islands, which had very few casualties. On Guam a lieutenant was killed. On Leyte a lieutenant was killed,” West said.
That left West and a captain, who was wounded and eventually died on Leyte. That was when West took over the company as captain.
“That left me and one lieutenant of what was left of the company. We went on to two other islands and ended up on Okinawa, the biggest battle in the Pacific. That’s when Lt. Clark was killed. That left me as the only one left in the company,” West said.
He called the brutality of the Battle of Okinawa.
“It was 12,000 of us killed and 28,000 wounded. That was Okinawa … the last island of combat,” West said.
He received a Bronze Star for meritorious service and leadership during preparation to invade mainland Japan.
Buddy said, “They were preparing ships to invade mainland Japan. And by his efforts, of all the preparation to make that invasion, that’s when he was awarded the Bronze Star. As fate would have it, they were pulled back and then that’s when they dropped the bomb. So that was just the sequence of events. They were getting ready to go, and the president made that decision to go ahead and drop the two bombs.”
President Harry S. Truman decided to unleash atomic bombs. A bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later.
Buddy added, “Then after that and the surrender, he (West) participated in the occupation of mainland Japan in Tokyo. He participated in the occupation after that for about three months and then came home” in December of 1945.
West, who finished high school in 1939 and joined the National Guard at age 18, underwent his basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia and spent two and a half years in the Pacific.
For West, who proudly has a U.S. flag hanging outside his home, his reason for serving is simple.
“I love my country,” he said.
Buddy said, “That’s why he’s got that flag out there. If it ever gets folded up, I have to go out there and unfold it and get it straight for him because he does not like that. He wants it hanging straight and proud.”
West said he looks back on his service and knew he faced dangers.
“Well, when I think back, I was young enough not to care. I didn’t let it phase me. It got to some of them over there but, I don’t know, I made it,” he said, noting that his parents had already instilled discipline in him long before he joined the military.
“I was disciplined before I went in the service. My mama and daddy made me do that. I don’t know, I just fell into it somehow or another. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things,” West said.
Born to Claude and Annabelle West in Spartanburg County, West said he is grateful for life after having survived the horrors of war.
“It’s just wonderful. Nobody can’t imagine it that went through it, knowing every day that you could get killed along with your men. You can’t believe it…. You can’t explain it. I wouldn’t think about it. If I would have thought about it, I probably would have got killed,” West said.
West is proud of his awards, but refrains from bragging about them.
“I’m extremely proud of them. Many people didn’t get it. A lot of people would have got them if they hadn’t gotten killed. So it’s something you just don’t know. You can’t explain it. You gotta go through what I went through to know exactly what it’s all about,” West said.
His son added, “But I will say he never bragged about it. And he really never talked about it or brought it up until I grew up. And then I started questioning, and it still took many years to try to get him to open up about it. But I have been able to find out about some of it now. It just makes you proud for your dad to have done something like that, too.”
West said he often reflects on the lives lost during the war.
“The question I always ask is, ‘Why them and not me?’ I had to be left here for something. I don’t know. He (God) left me here a long time,” he said.
West attended Clemson University from 1946 to 1950 under the G.I. Bill and earned a degree in textiles, an industry he worked in until he retired in Bamberg, where he has lived since 1964.
He attends church every Sunday at Trinity United Methodist Church and says God has been good to him.
“I’ve got a good life. For an old man, I’ve got a good life. I’m just happy that I’ve got the good life that I’ve got. I’m planning on (reaching) 112. That oldest soldier that ever was (lived until) 112. I’m gonna outdo him.
“I had one aunt lived to 102 and another aunt lived to 101. So I got some good genes in me gonna keep me around a while,” he said, smiling.