Uncle Eddie recalls WWII
91-year-old veteran was Seabee in U.S. Navy Construction Battalion
World War II veteran Eddie Aho, 91, of New Ipswich rides in the Memorial Day parade in New Ipswich on Sunday.
(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
Eddie Aho married Evangeline “Vangee” Bernier while on a 30-day leave from deployment as a member of the Navy Construction Battalion during World War II. The high school sweethearts were married 67 years, before Vangee’s death last November.
It’s Memorial Day in New Ipswich. The high school band is playing “Louie, Louie,” Boy Scouts are waving the town flag, and a police escort leads the way. In the middle of the parade, leading a line of New Ipswich veterans and service members, a convertible carries the town’s World War II veterans. Riding high in the front seat waving to me from the sidelines, beaming a toothy grin, is my great uncle, Eddie Aho.
Two days later, I’m in Uncle Eddie’s living room, and he’s regaling me with the tales of his service during the war and the wooing of his beloved wife, my Aunt “Vangee.” Eddie’s an Aho, and like all of his relations, he knows how to spin a good tale. Plus, at 91 years old, he’s still as sharp as a tack and remembers it all.
When my Uncle Eddie was 23, life was pretty good for him. He was in love with his high school sweetheart, Evangeline — known universally as “Vangee” — and had a good job in construction. Then, in December 1942, he was sitting in Vangee’s living room with her when the first news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor broke.
Eddie knew at that moment, he was going into the service. He turned to his then-girlfriend, and told her they should probably get married before he shipped out.
“She said ‘No way! You come back in one piece, and then maybe I’ll marry you,’” he recalled with a laugh.
Within weeks, Eddie was in basic training and then being shipped to O‘ahu, the third largest Hawaiian island. Not put off by Vangee’s rejection of his proposal, he quickly borrowed enough money from a buddy to buy and send her an engagement ring.
His first task in the service was to build hundreds of coffins in order to bury the hundreds of dead killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even months later, bodies were still being stored in morgues, awaiting burial.
In fact, building things was Uncle Eddie’s main duty in the U.S. Navy. He was a “CB” or “Seabee,” a member of the Navy Construction Battalion. It was a new concept in World War II, using civilians with real-world skills to assist the military. The Seabees weren’t military men, they were construction workers, which is what my Uncle Eddie has been his entire life, both before and after the war.
After Hawaii, it was a farther push west overseas. Eddie, along with the rest of the rest of the 10th U.S. Naval Construction Battalion, was shipped out to a small island on the Pacific Rim to build a airstrip for American planes to land and refuel on their way to other destinations. There was literally nothing there, he said.
And it was hot. For the 18 months Eddie spent there, it only rained once. The rest of the time, the temperature soared to over 100 degrees every day. And working construction, that can be dangerous in more than one way. No piece of metal could be put down in the sun for more than three minutes and then picked up again bare-handed. And all of the soldiers had to take salt tablets to help with their water retention, and could be court-martialed if they didn’t. There was no shade, and only one tree on the whole island and that had a fence around it, Eddie remembered. The only respite the soldiers got was at night, when things cooled down and the breeze off the ocean made it bearable. But the dark brought other dangers: Japanese planes.
The first night, there was nothing for cover, as the men hadn’t built shelters yet, and that was the first time my Uncle Eddie got to experience a night raid by Japanese bombers. Quickly, he hid behind one of the only structures on the island. It wasn’t until the morning that he realized it was a fuel tank.
Eddie said it was pretty common for bombings to happen on their little island. “It happened that every moonlit night, we got bombed,” he recalled. “They couldn’t see it if it wasn’t a moonlight night.” Eddie, who had watched the moonrise with Vangee on their dates, wrote to her about how much he hated watching the moon come up.
“She wrote back and said, ‘If you’ve changed that much, I don’t know if I want to marry you,’” he said.
Bombings were especially terrifying, because there was no way to build trenches on the island. Digging even a shallow hole would bring water to the surface. So, instead, the Seabees packed cans with coral to weigh the them down, and used the cans to build coverage.
There was also the occasional sighting of enemies at sea, as well. Once, Eddie recalled, there was a sighting of a submarine offshore, and word went around to all the men to get to their gun posts. Eddie was ordered to fire a star shell, an illuminating bullet, over the water in hopes of drawing the submarine out, and getting it to fire back and give away its position. Too bad no one had told the postmaster stationed on the island, whose mail hut was located just under the dune, where the guns were lined up. When Eddie fired, it startled the postmaster so badly, he ran out of the hut without first opening the door, tearing through the screen and tripping and landing in some coral. The submarine fled, leaving the cut up postmaster with the only injuries of the day.
Finally, after 18 months away, Eddie was granted a 30-day leave. The first thing he did when he got home was marry Vangee, and they were married 67 years before her death just last November. He finished his service as a rifle instructor on a stateside Naval base in Rhode Island, and returned to New Ipswich in 1945, where he marched for the first time in the memorial parade, and has ever since.
Ashley Saari is a reporter for the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. She is a graduate of Mascenic High School and Franklin Pierce University.