Window to Winn With Bob Holeman

(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12.  Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

                At age 86, World War II veteran Loy Gaar wanted to open his interview with another wartime romance, so explained that he was in love with a high school classmate, Grace McMurry.  “We graduated valedictorian and salutatorian from Gaars Mill High School.  I’ve always lived right here.”

                Gaar tried a semester at LSU but the separation from his love was too much and he traveled to Galveston to find Miss McMurry.  There, they tracked down a preacher and got married.  That was Jan. 30, 1942.  “But this was wartime and I knew I’d get called into service so we moved back to Gaars Mill.  He was inducted a short time after he turned 18.

                From Shreveport, Gaar was shipped to Camp Roberts, California, a field artillery center, where he was trained on 155mm howitzers.  Graduating that training, he headed further north in California to Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg for advanced training.  “Grace came out to see me.  I begged her not to come but she disobeyed me.”  As a result, the couple was able to spend three or four days together before Gaar and his fellow soldiers were “loaded up on an old converted oil tanker.  If you wanted to see a mess, that was it.”  He recalled sailing out under the Golden Gate Bridge.

                The men were heading to a “destination unknown.”  All they knew was that at one point, they crossed the International Date Line.  At another, they crossed the equator.  “We finally docked in New Guinea.  We were told it was a territory of the Dutch East Indies.  There was no fighting going on there at the time and we still weren’t attached to a battalion.

                “From there, we went on the small island of Biak, north of Papua, but still there was very little action so we went on to Leyte in the Philippines.  This was the first time we encountered any serious action.  We had been trained in field artillery and there we finally became a part of the 1st Cavalry Division.  Before we arrived, they only had a small artillery piece.  We had a company of 155mm Howitzers…cannons…that really boosted their firepower.”

                Gaar took time to explain that a gunner never sees his actual target.  “They have a forward observer.  That’s what I was.  I would go ahead of the unit to find a higher elevation where I could spot the target.  Then I’d radio back to the gunner and he’d fire a shell.  When I saw where it hit, I’d call back and get him to adjust his shot.”

                He pointed out also that conditions in combat were not the same as they had been during training.  “He did things a little different in combat.  There was a lot more manhandling of equipment and shells than there’d been back home.”

                Gaar recalled that the Japanese would hide in caves on the island.  They would come out, take shots at the American troops, then run back to hide in the caves.  “But with good information, our boys could put those shells right into those caves.”

                The Japanese would counter American attacks with mortar shells that exploded on impact, sending deadly shrapnel in all directions.  “The closest I came to being wounded was one night during a mortar attack and I was down as deep in a foxhole as I could get.  I felt something warm by my leg and reched down to find a hot piece of shrapnel.”

                Action then moved on to Luzon, the big island in the Philippines and its capital, Manila.  “It impressed me that, in peacetime, Manila was a world trade center with a university.  When Japan took over the area, many of the businessmen and their families were confined there on the university grounds.  When the city was liberated, those people were all skin and bones.  The Japanese were very cruel.”

                The Americans next moved into the Lingayen Gulf, which played a prominent part in the Pacific war history.  Gaar recalled that there was one American commander who was determined to be the first to reach Manila.  “But it wasn’t an easy goal.  The Japanese weren’t much on surrender and would fight to the death.  In the process, this commander was shot and was shipped back to the U.S.  So when the Americans took Manila, he wasn’t there.”

                Gaar backtracked to recall that “somewhere before Manila, we had a lot of Japanese prisoners.  Our unit was in charge of an improvised POW encampment.  Well, one prisoner was an officer.  We usually think of them as small but this man was big, really tall.  I was ordered to take him and his aid to Manila for interrogation.  While we traveled, the officer never opened his mouth.  But the aid seemed happy to be on the trip and talked the whole way in broken English.”

                American forces were pressing northward.  “We were preparing to invade the Japanese homeland.  But somewhere along the way, the bomb was dropped and the war was over.”

                Once the war ended, they had to figure out who to send home first.  “They devised a point system.  Finally, I got to go home but this time it was on a converted aircraft carrier.  That was a different ride, a pleasant trip this time.  We sailed from Manila to Pittsburg, CA, in 19 days.  It had taken 29 days when we came over.  After spending the night, he was shipped on to Camp Fannin, TX, where he was discharged as a technician, fourth grade.  “It was the most beautiful day of my life.”

                Asked about other wartime recollections, Gaar says the Japanese occupational troops treated the local Filipinos so harshly that children were literally starving.  Boys would come to American camps, looking for food and scrounging through garbage.  The U.S. kept shipping them rice.”

                One time, he said, “I was driving this captain into Manila.  You see, in the Philippines, we’d only been driving in the jungle, never on roads, but on the way, we hit a road and got stopped by a security guard.  He wanted to see my government operator’s permit.  I’d never heard of one.  The captain asked the guard to give him a blank permit.  He filled it in, signed it and handed it back to the sentry.  So for the rest of the time, I was OK.  I had a permit.”

                Army food was another memory.  “My brother, Lee, was 5 years older than me and in the Air Force.  We always heard stories about the great meals they had every time they returned from flights.  But not us.  We always ate C-Rations.  There was one time, though, some Filipino natives had killed a wild hog and we cooked it.

                Though he was an integral part of the fighting, Gaar said he never faced hand-to-hand combat or even saw, up close, the results of the howitzer destruction.  “I was issued a 30-calibre carbine but I never fired it.”

                Headed home, our veteran learned his Grace had rented an apartment in Jonesboro.  He took a train to Alexandria then a bus to Jonesboro.  “That’s the best move I ever made when I married that woman,” he beamed.  They would have four children, Gloria, Dinah, Gary and Loyna, as well as 10 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.

                His howitzer training helped him land a job with a survey unit with the Highway Department, then he became postmaster at Dodson for 12 years.  That was followed by 30 years on a rural route before retirement.  He’s also served a term on the Winn Parish Police Jury and for 17 years as a bishop in the Mormon Church.