LOGANVILLE, Ga. — The voices of those who can tell the stories of the triumphs (and the terror) of World War II will soon be silenced. Only a fraction of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still living.
One of those veterans is retired 1st Lt. Don Cheney.
The World War II and Korean War veteran is celebrating 99 years of life. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on May 26, 1922. Warren Harding was president, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated that year, and the USSR was created. As Don says, “The world I grew up in is quite different than the world today.”
He and his wife, Jane, live in Loganville now. We spent a morning together, remembering.
In WWII, he served in the 6th and 8th armies. His orders were for Europe, and the Battle of the Bulge. But an administrative snafu kept him on the sidelines. His birth certificate listed him as “male Cheney.” By the time that got sorted out, his orders changed. He headed to the Pacific.
He saw combat in Japan after Pearl Harbor. He was injured by what they called “bouncing betties.”
“The Japanese had a very clever anti-personnel bomb. They buried them in the leaves so you couldn’t see them. They had trip wires, you would trip the wire and you would hear it go ‘pop’ and it would jump 4 or 5 feet and explode. The object of the bomb was to take out two to three people at a time. I think I jumped higher than the bomb.”
His injuries resulted in a Purple Heart, but didn’t keep him off the battlefield.
“I went back to the battalion aid station. They patched me up, and they turned me loose to go right back out. So, I did.”
After a four-year tour, he returned stateside and was able to finish college at Baylor University. Don tried several different jobs before ending up at Coca-Cola. But because he was on active reserve, he got called up for the Korean War. Don jokes, “President (Harry) Truman thought I did such a good job ending World War II, he called me back into service. I was given 24 hours to report for duty to Camp Chaffee in Fort Smith, Arkansas.”
During the Korean War, Don was assigned to the Air Section of the 7th Division. “I felt I wasn’t going to be able to walk through another war. There was an aviation program opening up. So, I got on that and learned to fly.” He said he “learned how to fly a plane every which way it wasn’t supposed to go. I flew 252 missions in Korea.”
His mission was to fly over Japanese battle lines along the 38th parallel between North and South Korea and “put artillery fire on them.” He said his plane was hit a couple of times, once in the wing, and once through his seat.
“That was a favorite target of the Japanese. When you flew over, they would track you, and when you were 90 degrees overhead, they would pull the trigger and they hit the bottom of your airplane. We took flack jackets and strapped them under the seats. It saved my life.” He was awarded a second Purple Heart.
Don says his time in service taught him valuable lessons. He says, “There were two things I promised myself I would never do as I sat there in Korea getting shot at, I would never work for an organization I couldn’t stand if I can help it, and I would never work for a person I couldn’t stand.” He kept his promise to himself, working 25 years for Coca-Cola.
For many people, the only knowledge they have of the Korean War is what they see on reruns of the TV show “M*A*S*H.” When asked if the show was accurate, he says, “It was close enough. As one of my doctor friends over there said, you either laugh or you die. So, you might as well learn to laugh even when you don’t feel like it.”
It is hard for people to imagine what life was like. Don says. “It is hard to understand unless you have lived through it.” He describes himself as a “wonderful survivor,” and not just because he survived two wars. When he was two, he fell off a horse-drawn hay wagon, and was run over by a hay baler. “There was a large rock in an otherwise rock-less field that saved my life.” He also says his mother’s prayers are probably what saved him through the years.
When asked if he had any advice for those of us hoping to live for a century, he said he drinks an 8-ounce glass of cranberry (or cran-grape) juice every morning. He started doing that in his 30s when someone suggested it would prevent kidney stones. He’s never had another one since.
But perhaps his best advice is to be optimistic: “Life can get pretty tough sometimes, no matter how old or how young you are, and you have to work your way through those rough spots. You don’t let them get the best of you. You work through them one at a time as they come up. You handle it and you move on.”
Thank you, Don, for the stories and the advice. And on this Memorial Day weekend, we want to thank Don and millions more service men and women for their sacrifice and their service.