Ninety-seven-year-old veteran recalls Camp Lee, World War II experiences in Pacific
July 17, 2013
RICHMOND, VA. -- (July 17, 2013) -- World War II Army veteran Joe Commander had a short Camp Lee experience 70 years ago in July 1943, but the 97- year-old's service with the Third Engineer Special Brigade in New Guinea and the Philippines is most memorable.
"… Just three days… we got shots … and all we did was sit around for three days," the former Army sergeant and Norfolk native said in describing his short stay at Camp Lee.
With the help of his son Dick Commander, the veteran recently recounted his Army service four days before the anniversary of his enlistment. "My dad is really proud of his World War II experiences and loves to talk about them," said his son. "He was drafted in Norfolk at age 27 and inducted into the Army on July 13, 1943, at Camp Lee."
"We lived in tents at Camp Lee," said the elder Commander in response to a question about living accommodations. He estimated there were 200 other men being processed with him during the three days -- some traveled from the Norfolk area by train with him.
"We got our uniforms too … they did not train us (at Camp Lee)," he noted.
His room at the Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center on the campus of Richmond's McGuire VA Hospital is filled with photo albums, pictures on the walls, books, magazines maps and many more mementos from World War II. He clearly enjoys looking at the collection and easily recalls the dates and details about his time in the Army. He also wears his dog tags and a black cap adorned with his service ribbons and rank.
After Camp Lee, Commander returned to Norfolk for a short leave to be with this wife Arline who was pregnant with a scheduled due date in late September. Two weeks later he boarded a train in Norfolk and headed to California for basic training at Fort Ord.
"Six days on a troop train -- a long trip," recalled Commander. He had never been out of Virginia.
He has good memories of Fort Ord and his basic training. "I was there two weeks and threw one grenade -- that was enough," said Commander. "I also fired an M1 rifle and got a sharpshooter badge."
Recalling previous stories his dad had recounted over the years, Dick Commander said the Army discovered his previous experience as a salesman and decided to assign him to a supply position with the Third Special Brigade's Headquarters Company. "His basic training was not as rigorous as Soldiers assigned to other units," Dick said. "His job was to support the assault troops before and after landings."
Commander's sales background was in all kinds of paper products -- cups, napkins, toilet paper and more -- that he sold to hotels, restaurants and schools, said his son.
Following basic training, Commander requested a furlough to return to Norfolk by train to be with his wife during child birth. "This was a regular train ... with many Army spouses," he noted.
While he was glad to be home with his wife, she did not have her baby during his leave. "All I got to do was pat her on her tummy," said Commander as he reached out with his right hand to illustrate. Dick Commander was born a few weeks later and his father was not able to see him for two years and two months.
With his short furlough over, it was back on another cross-country train to Fort Ord where he subsequently boarded a ship for the long voyage to the South Pacific from San Francisco. He landed on Good Enough Island in the eastern part of New Guinea in November 1943 after 29 days on the USS Rawlings. The veteran said he knew the ship's destination was New Guinea, but only the officers had the details on what island they would land on.
"... first time on a ship... went under the Gold Gate Bridge ... played a lot of blackjack... not a drop of rain ... got seasick," he recalled.
Commander's service accomplishments with the Special Brigade in New Guinea and the Philippines brought out a number of other recollections.
Over the course of nearly two years, he followed and helped supply the troops from island-to-island across New Guinea and then to the Philippines in more than 60 landings. The New Guinea islands also included Finschhaven, Biak, Dog Island and many others. He remembered that while on the island of Biak there were Japanese bombings. "We were bombed one day ... I was not hurt."
During mail calls, he, along with others, received a beer and cigarettes with the packages and letters from home. "I sent V-mails (home)," he said.
"We had lots of spam," said Commander in recalling what kind of chow they ate. "... and New Zealand lamb." That was a delicacy that the Australian soldiers who also were serving on New Guinea would share from time to time.
"Also, ice cream," he said.
"Since my dad was in supply, this was his job to secure food for all the troops, but I am sure they had much more spam than lamb," his son said.
His father also could send coolers on ships for the ice cream and other products, said Dick Commander.
Commander even ran into a friend from Norfolk while in New Guinea, "Hey Joe," a Soldier called out to him one day.
"My dad was the youngest of 11 children and sent all his money home to my mother," his son said.
Commander had a much older brother who served in World War I. His other five brothers were too old to serve in World War II.
The Third Engineer Special Brigade was activated for its South Pacific mission to eventually invade Japan. However, while in the Philippines the atomic bomb was dropped. Commander did land in Japan in late 1945 -- after the Japanese surrender.
In Japan, Commander was promoted to sergeant. "So, my dad was able to send a few more dollars home," his son said.
He returned to the U.S. through Portland, Ore., and was discharged from the Army in 1946.
Among his prized souvenirs is a metal ashtray topped with a replica of a P-38 aircraft he made from 105 mm and 50 caliber shells. This item decorates his room at the veterans center.
While Commander did not attend any reunions after the war, he did go to several of the reenactments in Norfolk of the major landings in Philippines, including the 50th anniversary of the amphibious landing on the island of Leyte. He values a book mark he received from the Leyte anniversary.
"What many people don't realize is that the New Guinea landings were the longest part of the Pacific War," his son said. "Gen. MacArthur had to gain a strategic foothold on the New Guinea islands first before moving on to the Philippines. Dad is very proud to have served in the war and be a part of the Third Special Brigade during this period."