The Second World War: Not Just a War, But an Experience

By Rob Vest

For many people, World War II stands as a distant, though major, event in world history. But for those who lived through it, the Second World War was more than an event that shaped the world-it was also an experience that shaped their very lives. This paper is intended to supplement my interview of US Army veteran Robert W Vest Sr, and will hopefully provide the reader with some context for Mr Vest's experiences during the war.

The US entered World war II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Vest did not receive his draft notice until early 1943 while living in Louisville, KY. (1) On March 23 of that year, at the age of nineteen, he entered into active service with the United States Army. During the war, Vest served in Headquarters Battery 502nd Antiaircraft Artillery Gun Battalion in the Asiatic-Pacific theater, where he worked as an ammunition handler and truck driver (2)

Vest initially spent time training at several military bases in the States: Ft Benjamin Harrison, IN; Camp Davis, NC; (3) Camp Picket, VA; Norfolk, VA; Ft Dix, NJ; and Ft Lewis, WA. At these bases, Mr Vest experienced not only basic training, but was also instructed in the operation of antiaircraft technology.

On April 11, 1944, Vest departed for the Pacific theater. (4) His first stop was in Hawaii, where he received training in the use of amphibious vehicles, such as the DUKW, or "duck." (5)

Months after arriving in Hawaii, Private First Class Vest finally left American soil. (6) Since the Allied invasion of the Philippines did not take place until October of 1944, it is reasonable to assume that Vest was sent there at approximately the same time. (7)

In the Philippines (and Okinawa), Vest worked as an ammunition handler and truck driver in Headquarters Battery of the 502nd Antiaircraft Gun Battalion. Each antiaircraft battalion consisted of five batteries: A, B, C, D, and Headquarters, which was responsible for supplying ammo, food, equipment, and other items to the other four batteries of the 502nd. Headquarters Battery was also responsible for training, logistics, and bureaucratic work. (8)

The Allied forces in the Pacific had staged the approach to Japan by implementing a strategy called "island hopping," in order to construct airstrips successively closer to the Japanese mainland. (9) Island hopping was also effective in that an island with strong defenses would be bypassed completely and one closer to Japan would be taken, which resulted in cutting off supplies to the Japanese troops on the previous island, leaving them unprovisioned and without support. (10)

The Philippine invasion took place on October 20, 1944, under the command of US Army General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied operations in the southwest Pacific. One division of cavalry and three of infantry landed on the east coast of the Philippine island of Leyte at 10:00 AM that morning. (11) Mr Vest estimates his arrival on the island to have been some time after the initial invasion. By June 1945, after eight months of bitter fighting, all of the archipelago's airfields, major towns, and roads were under Allied control. (12)

Though Vest was not on the front lines, he still faced great danger from strafing by Japanese planes. However, perhaps his nearest brush with death during the war was when a bomb hit his encampment on Leyte, destroying a radar trailer, vehicles, and other equipment. Vest was not harmed, but he later discovered that the bomb caused a partial hearing loss. Though Vest himself isn't completely convinced, he believes that the bomb in question was actually a kamikaze-a suicide plane. (13) Though there is likely no way to say for sure, it is possible, as kamikazes were first used during the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf for purposes of destroying aircraft carriers by flying the explosive-laden planes into them. (14)

On April 1, 1945, Allied forces under the overall command of US Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz invaded the island of Okinawa, 350 miles from Japan. Okinawa was a strategic location for Allied fleet anchorage and air bases, and would have been an excellent location from which to launch an Allied invasion of the mainland. (15) It was probably near this time that the 502nd AAA Gun Battalion arrived in Okinawa.

Fierce fighting took place on Okinawa, due to the fact that Ushijima, the Japanese general charged with the island's defense, moved the bulk of his outnumbered forces to the south-central portion of Okinawa, out of range of the invaders' naval guns. Ushijima had centered his defense on Shuri, an ancient castle town, with several concentric rings of defensive perimeters set in the artificial and natural caves in the surrounding terrain. (16) Organized resistance on the island lasted until June 21, 1945, at the cost of more than 12,000 American soldiers, sailors, and marines, and 150,000 Japanese and Okinawans. (17)

During the Okinawa campaign, two major events took place elsewhere that would affect many of the American troops on the island. The first came on April 12, 1945, with the death of US President Franklin Roosevelt, who had been in office for thirteen years, leading the nation through both the Great Depression and World War II. According to Mr Vest, this was a shock not only to many troops, but to much of the nation as well. For many, it was if America had lost not simply a president, but a father figure. (18) The next major event came less than three weeks later with the suicide of Adolph Hitler on April 30, and the subsequent surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, allowing the Allies to concentrate all their efforts on the defeat of Japan. (19)

After the conquest of Okinawa was complete, the next target was to be Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four principal islands. (20) A mainland invasion of Japan became unnecessary, however, after the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs on August 6 and 9, respectively. Japan accepted the Allies terms for surrender on August 14, and formal surrender ceremonies were held September 2, 1945, thus bringing World War II to a close. (21)

Though the war was over, Vest remained in Okinawa, continuing his tour of duty until he departed for the US December 14, 1945. He was finally discharged from the Army January 12, 1946. (22)

My interview of Mr Vest did little to help me understand the cold, hard, facts of World War II, though I did learn many of those in the course of my research. What the interview did give me was a bit of insight into the general attitude and feelings of the people involved. At no time during the interview did I sense any doubt that Vest believed the war to be justified. Though he certainly did not claim to have enjoyed his time overseas, neither did he resent having to serve his country. There was no doubt in his mind that America was doing the right thing. Vest's contempt for those who, two decades later, would refuse to go to Vietnam, showed me that mistrust of the government was all but absent during World War II. If not a simpler time, it was at least an era where cynicism played a lesser role.

In fact, the entire nation seemed united during the war. Dissenters were few and far between. Only one congressman voted against war with Japan in 1941, (23) a huge contrast to the forty-seven senators and 183 representatives who voted against war with Iraq nearly fifty years later. (24)

World War II was a war in which every American could participate. By the start of the war, the US armed forces were in sorry shape. More than twenty years of peace had resulted in a military that was understaffed and armed with outdated technology. (25) A nationwide increase in production was required to equip America's armed forces, as well as provide aid to her allies, through such federal programs as Lend-Lease, which was a method allowing the US to supply its allies on credit. (26) This resulted in thousands of new jobs in industry and agriculture. (27) Nearly all industry would be channeled into the war effort - automakers would build tanks, and threshing-machine factories would churn out airplanes. (28) Those not in the military would serve the war effort at home, either in these factory occupations, or jobs left behind by men now in the military. (29) In fact, before receiving his draft notice, Mr Vest worked in a 20-millimeter shell factory as a press operator. (30)

Americans could also help fight the war in other ways. Public drives were used to hawk bonds, sometimes even enlisting the help of celebrities. (31) Groups of civilians were mobilized by their churches and workplaces to donate blood to the Red Cross. (32) Scrap drives were initiated to collect recyclable items like rubber, paper, metal, fats, and bone. (33) Rationing, however, is arguably the best-known method by which those living on the home front could help combat the Axis powers. By rationing certain products such as food, clothing, coffee, tobacco, and gasoline to civilians, the US government was able to allocate more of these items to the military. (34) Even children could help "fight the war" by participating in "fat parades" (depositing leftover kitchen grease) at school or buying cheap versions of bonds called "war stamps." (35)

Even Hollywood, currently branded as "liberal," got in on the act. Some actors, such as Jimmy Stewart, served in the armed forces. Most of Hollywood, however, contributed in the creation of morale-building films, fund raising, and entertaining the troops, as Bob Hope did Vest and his fellow soldiers in Hawaii. (36)

Another important aspect of World War II was the advancements made in technology. The technology implemented in the war drastically changed the face of warfare. Radar was used for aircraft detection in war for the first time, and allowed for the control of antiaircraft gunfire. Further developments allowed antiaircraft guns to be employed without optics or searchlights. (37)

In addition to their employment of radar, antiaircraft guns were also made more effective by automation, increasing the rate of fire, and the development of the proximity fuze, which caused the ammunition to explode while approaching its target (within twenty-five feet according to Mr Vest). (38)

Air power also came to prominence in World War II. Though aircraft were utilized in World War I, the numbers were nothing compared to the Second War. For the first time, major battles, such as the Battle of Britain in 1940, were fought exclusively in the air. Aircraft carriers were used to great effect, as in the Battle of Midway Island in the Pacific in 1942. Strategic bombing allowed for mass destruction on an unprecedented scale. (39) Aircraft carriers brought air support to sea. Air power would eventually prove to be as vital to the war effort as land or sea forces. (40)

However, all of these technological advancements pale in comparison to the development of the atomic bomb. At that time, the most devastating weapon of war ever developed, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed large portions of each city. (41) The use of the atomic bomb not only "shocked" Japan into surrendering, but also saved American lives and totally transformed international relations by initiating the Cold War. (42)

When Vest returned to civilian life in early 1946, he claimed that he had little trouble readjusting, unlike other soldiers and sailors, many of whom returned to the States as alcoholics. Heavy drinking seemed to have been a fact of life among men in the military during the war. These men drank to overcome fear, to sleep better at night, to steady nerves, or even to kill. (43)

Despite Vest's claim that his transition from military to civilian life was a smooth one, his wife tells a different story. She mentioned that sometime after they were married, she woke up to find her husband choking her. She freed herself by kneeing him in the groin. They've slept in separate beds ever since. Though Vest doesn't remember this event, it's surely something his wife will never forget.

One thing I noticed during my interview of Mr Vest was that he seemed more comfortable, and more interested in talking about things that were only loosely associated with the war. For instance, though the underwater formations at Eniwetok had little, if anything, to do with the war, they certainly seemed to have made a bigger impression on Mr Vest than nearly anything else he experienced during that time. His attitude toward his time in the service strikes me as neither "gung-ho" nor cynical, but more like some reversal of the US Navy slogan: "it's not just an adventure, it's a job."

In the big picture, Mr Vest's experience matters little. Compared to such personages as Patton and MacArthur, the memories of a single enlisted man are of little value. However, by looking at the war through the eyes of Vest and those like him, we can supplement our knowledge of World War II and perhaps gain some understanding and appreciation of the contribution that he, and others like him, have made to history. 

Robert W Vest Sr passed away September 11, 2005 at Floyd Memorial Hospital in New Albany, IN.  He was 81. 


American National Red Cross. "Americans Mobilize to Donate Blood to Save Soldiers on the Front." 2000. (17 Aug 2000).

Army of the United States. WD AGO Form 53-55: Enlisted record and Report of Separation, Honorable Discharge, Robert W Vest, 12 Jan 1946. Washington, DC: GPO, 1944.

- - -. WD AGO Form 100: Separation Qualification Record, Robert W Vest, 12 Jan 1946. Washington, DC: GPO, 1945.

Athearn, Robert G. World War II. Vol 15 of The American heritage New Illustrated History of the United States. New York: Dell Publishing Co, Inc, 1963.

Brower, Daniel R. The World in the Twentieth Century. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Dockrill, Saki, ed. From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima. New York: St Martin's Press, 1994.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1998.

Fussell, Paul. Wartime. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gallagher, Robert F. "Bob Gallagher's World War II Experiences," 1998-1999.  (14 August 2000).

Gregory, Charles R. "Antiaircraft Training." 13 August 2000. (14 August 2000).

Lewis, Adrian R. "Normandy 1944-DUKW," 1998-1999. (11 August 2000).

O'Neill, William L. A Democracy At War. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan. New York: The Free Press, 1985


1. Robert G Athearn, World War II, vol 15 of The American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States (New York: Dell Publishing Co, Inc, 1963), 1291.

2. Army of the United States, WD AGO Form 100: Separation Qualification Record, Robert W Vest, 12 Jan 1946 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1945).

3. Though Mr Vest claimed in the interview that he trained at a Camp David, NC, post-interview questioning revealed that he actually meant Camp Davis, which was reported to have been shut down shortly after the end of the war. See Charles R Gregory "Antiaircraft Training," 13 August 2000, (14 August 2000).

4. Army of the United States, WD AGO Form 53-55: Enlisted Record and Report of Separation, Honorable Discharge, Robert W Vest, 12 Jan 1946 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1944).

5. The DUKW looked very much like a large boat on wheels. See Adrian R Lewis, "Normandy 1944-DUKW," 1998-1999, (11 August 2000).

6. Apparently, it was not unusual for the American GI to spend several months in training before being sent to a war zone. World War II veteran Bob Gallagher spent roughly seventeen months in training for antiaircraft duty before being sent overseas. See Robert F Gallagher, "Bob Gallagher's World War II Experiences," 1998-1999, (14 August 2000), Chapter 11.

7. Encyclopaedia Britannica, sv "World War II," 15th ed, vol 29 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1998), 1018.

8. Gallagher, Chapter 5.

9. Daniel R Brower, The World in the Twentieth Century, 3rd ed (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 169.

10. Athearn, 1298.

11. Ronald H Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: the American War With Japan, (New York: the Free Press, 1985), 427.

12. Ibid, 527.

13. In the interview, Mr Vest described an unarmed weapon that he saw on Okinawa, which he believes to be what possibly hit his camp on Leyte. However, his description of this unarmed "suicide bomb" bears close resemblance to the baka, a rocket-powered, explosive-laden glider flown by a single piolet. Baka were not used until April of 1945 in Okinawa, which would be even less likely than a kamikaze. See Encyclopaedia Britannica, sv "World War II," 1022.

14. Spector, 440-441.

15. Ibid, 532.

16. Ibid, 533

17. Ibid, 540

18. William L O'Neill, A Democracy At War (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 400-401.

19. Encyclpaedia Britannica, sv "World War II," 1021.

20. Spector, 542

21. Encyclpaedia Britannica, sv "World War II," 1022.

22.Army of the United States, WD AGO Form 53-55.

23. Encyclpaedia Britannica, sv "World War II," 1002.

24. Encyclopaedia Britannica, sv "International Relations," vol 21, 891.

25. Spector, 9-10.

26. O'Neill, 23.

27. Brower, 158.

28. Athearn, 1337.

29. Ibid, 1336.

30. Army of the United States, WD AGO Form 100.

31. O'Neill, 138, 205.

32. American National Red Cross, "Americans Mobilize to Donate Blood to Save Soldiers on the Front," 2000, (17 Aug 2000).

33. O'Neill, 130.

34. Ibid, 136, 248-249.

35. Ibid 137, 138.

36. Ibid 138, 263.

37. Encyclopaedia Britannica, sv "Radar," vol 26, 461-462.

38. Encyclopaedia Britannica, sv "Antiaircraft Gun," vol 1, 448.

39. Encyclopaedia Britannica, sv "Air Warfare," vol 1, 177.

40. Spector, 15-17.

41. Ibid, 555.

42. Lawrence Freedman and Saki Dockrill, "Hiroshima: A Strategy of Shock," in From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, ed Saki Dockrill (New York: St Martin's Press, 1994), 191, 208.

43. Paul Fussell, Wartime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 98-99, 101.