Veteran recalls ordeal in Pacific during World War II

MILTON — Henry J. Evans is 88, and still can speak some Japanese at a moment’s notice.

The Smyrna native tears up slightly when pulling too much from a well of vivid memories regarding the battle for Okinawa some 70 years ago.

“The emotions still hit me at times,” he said.

Smyrna native Henry J. Evans, 88, holds a case of ribbons and medals earned during his World War II Army service. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Smyrna native Henry J. Evans, 88, holds a case of ribbons and medals earned during his World War II Army service. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)


There’s no forgetting the savagery he witnessed in his late teen years, the time spent fighting in World War II.

“It’s in my mind and it’s an indelible thing,” he said from a comfortable rural residence in Sussex County, recalling the horror that came with uprooting a well-entrenched enemy prepared to fight to the last man in defense of country.

In the spring and summer of 1945, the United States was in the midst of pushing back a stubborn Japanese enemy one Pacific island at a time. Mr. Evans served as an Army private first class during a continuously vicious Okinawa campaign.

“Okinawa was no playground,” Mr. Evans said. “Every day you were on the front line. The whole area was the front line.”

During World War II, Henry J. Evans joined the United States Army at age 17. (Submitted photo/Evans family)

During World War II, Henry J. Evans joined the United States Army at age 17. (Submitted photo/Evans family)


As casualties grew during the 82-day attack from early April to mid-June, there was daily evidence of death everywhere.

“I saw more American servicemen dead than I want to think about,” Mr. Evans said. “At times there were bodies stacked higher than the ceiling, with blood oozing and a stench so strong you could taste it.

“It was that bad.”

And when Mr. Evans experienced concerns about the humanity of it all, he was reassured by clergy.

“The chaplain said ‘This is war time, your sins are forgiven. You’re in war, not peace,’ ” said Mr. Evans, who earned a Rifle Marksman Medal during his war service.

Somehow he survived the war’s largest amphibious landing and invasion in the Pacific Theater, while an approximate 14,000 comrades did not and so many others were wounded during the mayhem.

“It was nasty and after it was over you couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Evans said. “I can’t believe I made it back home alive.”

According to some estimates, 150,000 Japanese defenders and civilians died during the invasion.

Okinawa was 340 miles from Japan and a strategic prize as the last of several islands conquered. As the United States moved ever closer to the mainland and a possible invasion, the island would serve as a launching pad to support the quest with bombers and fighter planes.

His country in need of manpower to fight off the Axis powers, Mr. Evans registered for the draft on May 14, 1944. He was 17 at the time but aged a year while claiming a 1926 birth date.

“They didn’t question why,” said Mr. Evans, one of eight brothers who joined the Army, seven who saw combat.

“They needed soldiers.”

Thus, the winding journey that took Mr. Evans to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then Fort Devens in Massachusetts for 13 weeks of training. He trained in the New Hampshire snow in anticipation of a departure to the European front and the awaiting German enemy.

Instead, a trip to Seattle followed, where he shipped out on the USS Warden approximately a week after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.

“We didn’t know where we were headed,” he said. “The rumors were to Burma or China.”

After 34 days on the water he learned that Okinawa was the destination. He landed off a troop ship in April when the battle was raging. He was tasked with inspecting equipment for combat readiness and in the Quartermaster Corps.

Mr. Evans returned home and thrived after the war, graduating from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) and becoming a commercial artist. He and his wife of 62 years raised a family that included two sons and two daughters.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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