Kansas veterans remember war that changed a generation (+videos)

2015: World War II pilot Charles Chauncey discusses the war

Col. Charles Chauncey, pilot of B-24s and B-29s, reflects on the 70th anniversary of World War II in 2015. (Video by Beccy Tanner)
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Col. Charles Chauncey, pilot of B-24s and B-29s, reflects on the 70th anniversary of World War II in 2015. (Video by Beccy Tanner)

Seven decades later, they still remember.

The moment the end of World War II was announced 70 years ago this week, these three World War II veterans – now in their 90s – remember exactly where they were.

Lewis Smith was drinking champagne at his noisy apartment in Wichita to celebrate the war’s end. Friends were beating pans together and happily shouting.

Charles Chauncey was on his honeymoon with his high school sweetheart.

Ray Avila was recovering after escaping as a prisoner of war.

Seventy years ago this month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the largest war of all time drew to a close.

The three Wichitans were young when the war ended, with their futures still ahead of them. One would become an optometrist, another an oilman, the third a mechanic. They would all use the G.I. Bill to further their education and careers and to purchase homes.

Enlisting to fight

Smith was typical of many men who served their country.

He was a 1941 graduate of Wichita North High School and a B-17 pilot and squadron commander. In August 1945, he had already served his stint in the war. He was given the option of flying a B-24 or leaving the military. He chose home.

“I flew out of England over Germany 35 times with the 8th Air Force,” Smith said last week. “I came back four times with an engine out, twice with two engines out, crash landed once in France and four times with over 50 holes in the plane.”

His buddies in high school were Tommy McConnell and Jimmy Jabara, both of whom have Wichita airports named for them. Jabara, the world’s first jet ace, is the namesake of Jabara Airport at K-96 and Webb Road. Thomas McConnell was one of three McConnell brothers who lent their name to McConnell Air Force Base in east Wichita.

Chauncey, a 1941 graduate of Chanute High School, was a pilot of B-24s and B-29s. Although he was on his honeymoon when the war ended, he thought he would soon be sent to fly in Japan.

“I had flown 35 missions in the Pacific over little islands that were about 1,500 miles from Japan,” Chauncey said. “They were long missions.

“Ninety-nine percent of our missions were over water. There was no place to land except back at home base.”

He flew the 704th B-29 that came off the Boeing assembly line in Wichita.

“I got home back in the states Aug. 4, and then the first atomic bomb was dropped on the 6th and the second on the 9th. I was married to my sweetheart on the 14th, and the war was over on the 15th,” Chauncey said.

“From there, I was to report back to California to find out whether I’d stay in or get out. There was a lot of partying going on and a lot of confusion. They didn’t know what to do with us. I got out of the service at that time.”

Avila, who dropped out of Wichita East High School in 1941 to join the Army, knew as an infantryman he would be sent to Japan. He already had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was captured by Nazi soldiers.

“The Germans, they were throwing everything they had at us,” Avila said. “It was December, and we thought we pretty well had the war won.”

But then, he was captured before escaping.

“I’d marched through Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the roads were heavy with people, ex-prisoners, and we just kept walking,” Avila said.

Celebrating the end

When the war was over, Americans celebrated in a big way.

At 6 p.m. on Aug. 14, 1945, the news on Wichita radio stations said the fighting had ceased in Japan – where it was Aug. 15 – and that the war was over.

“The air was soon filled with the continuous beeping of auto horns as drivers commenced to express themselves,” E. Gail Carpenter, a Wichita petroleum geologist and First Presbyterian Sunday School teacher who is now deceased, wrote in a newsletter at the end of war. “Tin cans on a string were tied to bikes and the big night was under way.”

World War II bombing ranges, airfields and prison camps had been built across Kansas. Many would fall into disuse as the decades passed.

“The war was this massive undertaking for America,” said Virgil Dean, a Kansas historian. “August 1945 meant this horrendous loss of life was ending.

“My father was one of many that were still overseas when that end came, and to say he was relieved is mild. There was now hope that things in the foreseeable future would get back to normal.”

How we changed

Chauncey said what amazed him most was how all Americans supported the war effort. But it was also the beginning of the end, the pilot from Chanute said, of families working together on farms and in family businesses.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the greatest portion of Kansans lived on farms; following World War II, Kansans became more mobile. Chris Lovett, a history professor at Emporia State University, said small rural communities began to lose population as returning servicemen chose to leave family farms for jobs in larger cities.

“When men were mobilized in October 1940, many hurriedly got married,” Lovett said. “But then when they went to war and came home, they saw things differently. Some came home and divorced wives. Sexual mores began to change.

“There was an upsurge in schools and colleges. There was an emergence of a new middle class through the G.I. Bill.”

The war changed a generation.

“When I went into the service, I was a punk, a playboy,” said Smith. “I had never done anything. The most important thing was a date that night and who you could get to go out with you.

“Well, when you get in the service, you learn discipline. I grew up from being a snot-nosed kid. It turned me into a man.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Key dates

Dec. 7, 1941 – Japanese war planes attack Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. U.S. enters World War II.

June 1942 – Battle of Midway. Four Japanese fleet carriers are sunk. It is a turning point for U.S. and Allied forces.

November 1942 – Allies attack Germany in North Africa, forcing Germans to retreat to Tunisia.

July 1943 – Allies invade Sicily. More than 250,000 U.S. and British troops land, forcing German and Italian troops to retreat to mainland Italy.

September 1943 – Italy surrenders. German troops in Italy continue fighting. Rome is captured on June 4, 1944.

June 6, 1944 – D-Day. Allied forces invade France. Germany surrenders less than a year later.

May 8, 1945 – VE Day, also known as Victory in Europe Day. Nazi Germany surrenders to Allied forces.

Aug. 6, 1945 – U.S. drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 74,000 and injuring more than 100,000.

Aug. 9, 1945 – U.S. drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.

Aug. 14, 1945 – All fighting in Japan ends.

Sept. 2, 1945 – Japan signs peace treaty. World War II is officially over.

Kansas contributions

Coleman lanterns – It was barely nine months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor when employees at Wichita’s Coleman Lamp and Stove Co. were given their first assignment by the U.S. military: create a one-man stove that was small, lightweight, strong enough to stand abuse, simple and easy to operate. The G.I. Pocket Stove became one of the best-known products from the war.

Butler buildings – The living quarters of troops during World War II were designed and built by Kansans Emanuel Norquist of Clay Center and Charles Butler of Kansas City. The Butler buildings were used as barracks, warehouses and airplane hangars.

G.I. Bill – A lawyer from Topeka, Harry Comery, helped draft the G.I. Bill that changed the quality of life for many Americans, providing returning servicemen loans for homes, businesses and education. The bill was signed into law on June 22, 1944.

Airplanes – During World War II, Kansas City and Wichita became powerhouses in supplying the nation with planes. Kansas City-area aviation plants included the nation’s main B-25 bomber factory and a GM plant that produced Allison engines, which powered U.S. fighter planes. Wichita’s Boeing division delivered 1,644 B-29 “Super Fortresses” and 8,584 Kaydet Trainers. Beech produced 7,415 military Beechcrafts; Cessna built 5,359 T-50 military Bobcat trainers and 750 gliders. Culver Aircraft, also in Wichita, built 2,448 radio-controlled, pilotless aircraft. The Waco CG-4 glider, used in the invasion of Normandy, was also built in Wichita in Boeing’s Plant II.

People – More than 215,000 Kansas men and women served in uniform during the war years. Of those, more than 3,500 died in action. One of the most famous of these Kansans was Dwight D. Eisenhower of Abilene. Eisenhower was the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Later, he became the nation’s 34th president.

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