WWII Fulton Co. Veterans
Editor’s Note: The following story is the last of a series about Fulton County veterans who fought in World War II. The series ends with McConnellsburg resident Leroy Vickroy, who served in the U.S. Army’s 161st Infantry with the 25th Division.
Perusing the aisles of Giant Food Store, checking off items on his wife’s daily grocery list, Leroy Vickroy is quick to offer a mischievous smile, a hearty laugh, a personal story and to lucky area children or just those young at heart a piece of hard candy.
Known as “Lee” or “Vick” to those who know him well, Vickroy’s compassion and giving nature are evident from those little pieces of wrapped candy to his years spent helping at Needmore Bible Church. What isn’t as clear or even self-admitted are Vickroy’s bravery and courage that earned the World War II veteran a well-deserved Bronze Star and a variety of medals and commendations that now adorn the bedroom of his Myers Avenue, McConnellsburg, home.
A native of Johnstown, Pa., Vickroy told the “News” he dropped out of high school his junior year to pursue additional schooling in welding. Having worked only a short time for Century Stove Works, which at the time was manufacturing medicine cabinets for the U.S. Navy, Vickroy journeyed cross-country to California where he was drafted into the Army at the young age of 19.
Camp Roberts located in the desert near Bakersfield, Calif., would be Vickroy’s home for the next 12 weeks where he would receive instruction in shooting machine guns, using a bayonet, gas chambers and marching. “You didn’t ride. You marched everywhere. The longest trek was 30 miles with 100 pounds strapped to my back, but the worst was marching through the desert while wearing a gas mask. The men would drop like flies and get thrown into the bed of a truck as they did,” recalled Vickroy, 88.
Later shipped to a deportation site at Ford Ord just south of San Jose, Vickroy suffered a back injury just prior to being deployed. Surgery laid him up for a month, while his bag containing his clothes, personal effects and money were shipped away never to be found.
Eventually, Vickroy boarded the New Amsterdam, the thirdlargest ship in the fleet at that time, and 16 days later stepped ashore in New Zealand. The trip was long and often times dark, as the men were instructed to refrain from lighting cigarettes or turning on a light that could act as a beacon to enemy ships or submarines.
“It was almost like seeing a star in the sky,” Vickroy said, who boarded a train upon arriving in New Zealand that would take him to Papakura in the Auckland Region. Training half-days, Vickroy spent the remainder of his free time helping a local daily farmer and his wife.
“All of that training was alright,” he reflected. “But half of it you never used.”
His trek later took him to Caledonia Island, a French island that was rich in nickel mines and also served as a holding area for political prisoners, to the Guadalcanal and the Admiralty or Manus Islands, a group of 18 islands north of New Guinea in the South Pacific. According to Vickroy, the waters surrounding the Admiralty Islands served as a rendezvous point for thousands and thousands of ships ranging from aircraft carriers to battleships to prepare for the invasion at Luzon, the largest and most important of the Philippine Islands.
“There were ships clean to the horizon,” Vickroy exclaimed.
On January 11, 1945, Vickroy, a member of the Army’s 161st Infantry with the 25th Division, climbed down a rope ladder, boarded a landing craft and headed toward the beach. With some landing crafts and their occupants succumbing to enemy fire, Vickroy was one of the fortunate to make it safely to the beach.
Vickroy stated the Army tended to rely on the services of young men, especially those that had a mentality of leap now, think later. However, if any one of those men had said they weren’t scared of the days ahead, he said they were lying.
Using his portable shovel, Vickroy did the only thing he could – dig a foxhole and stay low throughout the night hours out of fear of being shot by enemy or friendly fire. Heading inland the next morning, their company was met by a group of Filipinos clad in burlap sacks. Speaking an unknown dialect, Vickroy said he learned they were crying out for the soldiers to “live a long life.” Those words he took straight to heart in just a short time.
Later his company encountered a group of 85 Japanese soldiers mounted on United States horses. It would be the first of many squirmishes and sniper fire that ended in agony, pain and loss of human life. When the gunfire stopped, Vickroy’s group had lost only seven men in comparison to the death of all 85 enemy soldiers.
The “doughboys” continued toward San Manuel where they gave it their all, throwing mortar shells by hand and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese. During the melee, Vickroy grabbed a case of bazooka rounds, strapped them to his back while a shell from a tank’s gun skidded past him. Had it exploded, it is likely Vickroy would have been missing an entire leg. His efforts earned him a Bronze Star.
When asked why he put himself on the line as he had, Vickroy responded if he hadn’t there would have been a domino effect. “If we wouldn’t have won that battle, they would have pushed us back to the ocean,” he said. “I wasn’t brave. I was just doing my job.”
An estimated 800 Japanese had fallen between midnight and 4 a.m. on January 28, 1945, said Vickroy, as tears streamed down his face at the thought of friends and fellow soldiers who were lost in the battle.
“I lost a lot of friends. You grew to depend on them,” he said.
Across the river to Munoz and onto Santa Fe, the group’s orders were to take Manila, the capitol of Luzon. However, with General Yamashito having had four years to fortify the Caraballo Mountains with caves large enough to hold a hospital, the troops took to the 40- mile wide mountain range. Vickroy and his comrades remained and fought in those mountains for 165 days as part of the Luzon campaign.
Calling himself “just another GI,” Vickroy was unable to fight the terrible visions and memories of those days. At the time, he said he couldn’t turn it off, he just kept moving.
“You have to be there. See it. Do it, to totally understand,” he stated.
As the military placed so much emphasis on the war effort in Europe, supplies ranging from food to ammunition were often on short supply in the Pacific. Reaching the quota for artillery fire was commonplace as was going without food, cold or hot.
“You were just a number to the military and once you were done you were replaced by another number,” said Vickroy, who added his dog tag number was 39571335. “The best thing you had was a steel helmet. You used it to bathe, to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and in the morning you’d clean it out and boiled your coffee in it.”
“Every night you dug a hole and you stayed in it regardless of the weather or if you had to go to the bathroom. I never thought I would live to see 20,” he said.
Suffering from poor nutrition, Vickroy stated he suffered a variety of maladies, including malaria and jungle rot. At the time, he firmly believed one Japanese soldier could have easily defeated them all due to their deteriorating health. His company’s numbers slowly whittled down from the original 200 members. “Every day you lost another one or two men,” he said. “You think, ‘When’s my turn coming?’ You think you must be next. It’s on your brain. It’s on your mind.”
Later the group was successful in taking Balete Pass, which would be renamed Dalton Pass, after a one-star general who lost his life in what was deemed one of the ”toughest battles” in the Pacific. In taking the pass, 7,403 Japanese were killed in comparison to the 2,365 members of the 25th Division. Since that time, the Philippine government has erected a monument to honor the soldiers of the 25th Division who sacrificed their lives in winning this desperate pass.
Even though the Luzon Campaign only last 165 days, Vickroy’s group was actually in combat a total of 225 days.
Fortunately, Japan surrendered in August of 1945, which would send Vickroy through the winds and rolling waves of Hurricane Louise to Japan’s shores as a member of the First Occupation. While there weren’t many Japanese to be found upon their arrival, Vickroy stated there had been much propaganda about the United States military shared with the locals. The soldiers were portrayed as blood suckers, rapists and killers, which he easily dispelled by sharing his food rations with the elderly and young children. Still known to have a “soft spot” of sorts for young children, Vickroy befriended and even found jobs and food for several children of Filipino and Japanese descent.
After having properly dismantled and destroyed Japan’s weapons of war, Vickroy, a fifthgrade technician specializing in the repair of guns, returned home in January 1946. Greeted by a representative of the Salvation Army bearing a cup of coffee, Vickroy said he literally kissed the ground when his feet hit United State’s soil.
Still jittery and finding it difficult to adjust to life back home, Vickroy returned to his roots in Pennsylvania where he met his lifelong sweetheart of almost 61 years, Freda, at a square dance. Vickroy went on to log 30 years as a security officer in Washington, D.C., with the National Art Gallery hobknobbing with politicians, celebrities and actors.
The Vickroys purchased property in the Needmore area in the late 1960s and eventually relocated here. They moved to Mc- Connellsburg Borough only six years ago, bringing with them a lifetime of shared memories and mementos, which include war photos, medals, maps and news clippings detailing Vickroy’s time spent in the military.
Possibly the most significant of those historical artifacts is an oversized photo of a cemetery, where 17,202 men were buried after giving their lives in the Pacific.
“Many of those men were my friends. They are the true heroes. They gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.