Honoring courageous menPublished 10:25pm Sunday, October 6, 2013
For more than half a century, two Green Creek men rarely talked about their experiences in World War II, but lately, they’ve pondered a few things they can’t forget.
“My experience lives right up here,” John Blayne McMurray said, pointing to his head. “It’s extremely hard for me. I still have flashbacks. I am age 88 and sometimes things pop up from 70 years ago. I still can see two buddies of mine dying – one in my arms, and one the next day on a hospital ship.”
Leroy McCraw added, “We never did tell all our war stories. Some are too horrible to tell.”
McMurray joined the Marines, and McCraw went into the Army. Many of the young men from Green Creek hadn’t been out of the area at all before they got shipped off to basic training and then overseas.
“We didn’t know what we’d face. I was glad to be going away from the old mules. We thought it’d be exciting,” McMurray remembered.
McMurray got shipped to Parris Island for boot camp, and then to the Pacific war zone. McCraw went to Macon, Ga., and on to Europe. They saw ocean waves.
“When we got shipped to France, it took ten or twelve days. We zigzagged to keep the enemy from knowing, on the Queen Elizabeth,” McCraw said. “The side of that ship would go up and we’d think the ship was going to turn over, with water up on that deck.”
Once in Europe, the North Carolina native endured extreme temperatures. The soldiers had ten minute breaks for smokes and water. They had a blister bag of canvas on tripods, and they’d fill their canteens and eat salt tablets. They had orders each morning of exactly what to wear.
“If you didn’t change your socks daily, it was a court martial offense,” he said.
The cold and rain permeated everything, and then came another hurdle: the deep snows of an icy cold winter.
“We marched several miles in snow 12 inches deep. We had our galoshes, our overcoats, and it was cold. After a half mile of marching, we got hot, so we’d throw off the coat, throw off the galoshes, hot and heavy. Well, you could see a line of overcoats and galoshes across that land for miles,” McCraw said.
The men worked hard, and unlike movies, which show constant battle, they had a few times of less activity interspersed among the battles. They carried only enough for their most basic needs.
“We each carried a waterproof box, waxed over,” McCraw said. “We got C Ration, K Ration, dehydrated, powder eggs. We had potted meat, crackers, high protein candy bar, chocolate, koolaid, coffee, pack of cheese, four or five cigarettes, toilet tissue.”
Hardships intensified for both men in the battles to follow. McCraw survived the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle in Europe. McMurray survived the Battle of Iwo Jima, the most ferocious battle in the Pacific.
“I wasn’t but 18 years old,” McMurray said. “We invaded Iwo Jima, 700 miles from Tokyo, and it turned out to be a tough nut. They had a network of caves on the island, and they were shooting from the caves. Sometimes they’d sneak up at three and four in the morning, hoping to catch us asleep. We’d throw one hand grenade, and they’d throw one, and on and on. One looked like it was coming right in to us, and one man was trying to get out of that foxhole. I knew he’d get hit. He fell back in my arms and died. It was only one of the horrors of war.”
McMurray suffered serious injury in the Battle of Iwo Jima, his body riddled with shrapnel.
“The Japanese shot me up,” he said. “I had five pieces of shrapnel in my left heel, two pieces in my left arm, one piece in my right ankle. They left three pieces in my left hip and one in my right ankle. It was too close to a nerve to take out; doctors were afraid taking it out would do more damage.”
McMurray spent two months in the Portsmouth Naval hospital, and then spent seven more months at Pearl Harbor.
He received the Purple Heart and other medals.
While McMurray toiled on the island, McCraw felt the cold fury of war in Europe, including Ardennes. With 12 in a platoon and one machine gun position, the men rotated with two hours on, and four or five hours of rest.
“The snow was a foot deep, and we had to dig foxholes. The Germans had their people digging the foxholes, too,” McCraw said. “We jumped in one and it was real spongy, and there was a pig that had stumbled in there and died. We just threw that pig out and went on. You know, you’d dig a little, then hear the shells and dig a lot faster.”
McCraw carried a 53-pound tripod for the machine gun, along with his personal military gear. Like McMurray, he faced the gore of battle over and over again.
“One midnight, they were coming towards us. That machine gun got hot and burnt up. We had to get a replacement,” McCraw said. “One of us had to stay while the other went. I stayed, but without that machine gun, all I had was a 45-caliber pistol. I couldn’t see a thing, it was that dark. I kept shooting. They didn’t know there was only one of me.”
He didn’t know that he would receive four battle stars and a Bronze Star for his 18 months in war; he only knew he had to survive himself, and his life became a barrier against death for the men behind him.
“You had to defend the people behind you,” McCraw said. “You never had any idea of retreating. People behind you were counting on you to protect them.”
McCraw and McMurray witnessed not only death, but also gore and cruelties beyond their worst imagining. McCraw went into one village after artillery fire had roared for hours.
“German troops were splattered everywhere, their bodies in pieces,” McCraw said. “I saw other Americans scratch through the blood and bodies to get watches. One man cut off a German’s finger to get his wedding band. Now, that ring ought to have gone back with that man. American soldiers had the capacity to be very cruel. There are a lot of stories you know from war that you have to leave out ever telling.”
One of McMurray’s friends got mutilated by Japanese soldiers wielding bayonets, but survived and learned to live with physical hardship and memories. The men experienced the rawest aspects of survival.
“Some people, it brings out their cruelty. Some people, it brings out their Christian values,” McMurray said. “Whatever is in you comes out stronger, and some things you don’t know are in you, they come out, too.”
The men also had to make snap decisions to save their own lives and protect others.
“Easter morning, 1945, we were close to the end of the war,” McCraw said. “Groups had started surrendering. We had our gun placement, facing the road, and a bunch of soldiers were coming down the road, German soldiers, carrying their weapons. They had their rifles slung on their shoulders, and hadn’t put down their weapons, so I didn’t know if they were to be killed or captured or if they were coming into surrender. They had those hobnail boots. I started firing.”
Soldiers who were surrendering put down their weapons, he said. He made the best choice he could and hoped hard that he’d done the right thing.
In the occupation after WWII, soldiers got assigned to other duties. The Germans had captured a lot of paintings and stored them back in the salt mines, way back there, branching off, McCraw said, so there were guards at each section protecting the paintings. The men could have remained in the military, but they felt ready to go home. Both men returned to Green Creek. They married their beloved wives the same year, in 1948.
“My parents had told me that I couldn’t date anybody in a uniform,” said Raye McMurray, wife to John Blayne McMurray. “Well, Blayne and I met on the street, and he was a Marine. My dad’s brother was killed in WWI and Blayne’s dad came home with the body, so my family truly respected his family. They let me go wherever he wanted to go – movies, Sundays.”
The two men joined American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, and slowly started releasing the horrors they had known, and they met others, too, who had come home after experiencing similar hardships.
“I worked with this boy from Greenville, in the 27th Army Division, and – talk about the horrors of war – some Japanese overran their position, and they shot him up, three or four times, and cut off his ear, and cut off his three fingers, and stuck him with bayonets all over his body, but somehow they just didn’t hit a vital organ and he survived,” McMurray said. “Well, he learned to use that hand with the two fingers, and he could say the Lord was with him, and he survived and learned to lead a good life – but they did that to him.”
Coming back from the War, McMurray and McCraw both had the support of families and long, happy marriages. Raye McMurray spoke with calm determination and deep respect.
“I think all service men should get therapy when they come back because they couldn’t shoot someone without being brainwashed,” she said. “There’s a lot of turmoil. I have been so lucky to be with such a good man all my life.”
Blayne McMurray, 88, worked 39 years, two months, and two days in the post office. They had two daughters.
McCraw, 90, still works on his 100 acre farm, and he worked 28 years in soil conservation service. He and his wife had one daughter. McCraw has North Carolina license tag number 0001, with a Bronze Star on it.
“I am proud that I had the opportunity to serve my country. If it hadn’t been for the US military, we would be speaking German or Japanese today. The military deserves credit for saving America,” McCraw said.
McMurray added, “We’d be living under the swastika and the Rising Sun. I honor the memories and service of the soldiers who didn’t return home. I am grateful to the ones who made that ultimate sacrifice.”