Gathering of SLO County WWII veterans: Stories of war after decades of silence

San Luis Obispo County’s World War II veterans include, standing from left, torpedoman 2nd Class Victor Radwick and Staff Sgt. Leo Dumouchelle, and seated from left, Seaman Oliver Hopkins and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Morris.
San Luis Obispo County’s World War II veterans include, standing from left, torpedoman 2nd Class Victor Radwick and Staff Sgt. Leo Dumouchelle, and seated from left, Seaman Oliver Hopkins and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Morris. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

World War II veteran Richard Morris witnessed people shot down on the battlefield. And when he and his fellow soldiers liberated the infamous Dachau concentration camp, he saw a pile of bodies awaiting cremation. But the memory that bothers him the most, he said, was a train wreck, orchestrated by the Nazis, that killed many of his peers as they slept in boxcars.

“I was exposed to death in an overwhelming way,” said Morris, 89, of San Luis Obispo, who was ordered to pick up body parts and belongings in the aftermath. “I don’t think I ever talked about that to my parents, to my wife, to my kids. I just never talked about that. But within a week, I was deeply depressed. This is what we can do with human beings. That was the beginning of my depression that has lasted my entire life.”

For decades, World War II veterans have been known to stifle their feelings about the war while keeping their memories to themselves. But now, four local World War II veterans told The Tribune, many are beginning to open up, nearly 70 years after the war ended.

“My wife never did know anything about this,” said Navy veteran Oliver Hopkins, a 91-year-old San Luis Obispo man, who was at the D-Day invasion of Normandy. “She knew that I had been there, but she never heard any details at all. Now I’m getting to where I talk about it.”

The men are among the 106 local World War II vets who will attend a sold-out luncheon in their honor at the San Luis Obispo Country Club on Thursday. The luncheon was spearheaded by Joseph Brocato, a San Luis Obispo resident, 1960s-era Navy veteran and commander of the Vandenberg chapter of the Military Order of the World Wars.

“I have a deep feeling in my heart about veterans,” said Brocato, 76, who assembled collages of each vet, which will be displayed during the luncheon. “This has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my life.”

At the luncheon, the vets — whose ages range from 88 to 98 — will be recognized by state Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and county Supervisor Adam Hill. But they will also get a chance to talk more about their experiences.

Memories of war

During a meeting at Brocato’s home, the four veterans interviewed by The Tribune quickly began talking to each other about their war experiences.

When Hopkins heard that veteran Victor Radwick had spent his war time on a submarine, he asked, “Did you happen to get headaches?”

When Radwick learned that Hopkins had been at Normandy, he said, “Well, that wasn’t pleasant, was it?”

Of course, the vets feel more at ease talking to each other, and through the decades, they said, many didn’t speak of the war to civilians.

“You don’t want anybody to know what you did,” said Leo Dumouchelle, an Army vet from San Luis Obispo, who’d been at Normandy on D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. “They wouldn’t believe you anyway. And you just kept quiet about it your entire life. Finally, they want to know — but they don’t want to know. Nobody will like you anymore.”

War required quick action that those who weren’t there wouldn’t understand, he said.

“If you wait for somebody to pull a gun out and shoot you, you’re dead — it’s all over for you,” said the 92-year-old San Luis Obispo man. “So if I look you in the eye, and it’s questionable, you’re gone. If I look over there and you make a quick move, you’re out of there.”

Vets like Morris saw death in many forms, such as when he was greeted by the concentration camp survivors. At first, the survivors hugged him and thanked him. Then they took him to the ovens, where the Nazis burned the bodies after committing mass murders.

“I looked over, and there was a huge pile of dead bodies,” he said. “And I thought, ‘My god, these people must have the plague and they’re cremating them to kill the germs.’ ”

Tragedy didn’t always come in expected ways, Hopkins said.

“You expect to see somebody get blowed up or shot at,” he said. “But these guys — real good friends — that get killed accidentally because of their own negligence. … That’s the kind of stuff that hurts.”

The pain lingers

Not all of the death Hopkins witnessed was accidental.

“I did a lot of spotting for them to shoot at, and — ” he paused and wiped his eyes. “Well, the more you talk about it, the more you cry. The memories, you know, and watching these guys die and all that stuff. … ”

When asked why he didn’t talk to his wife about his experiences, he said, “Why in the hell make her life miserable?”

He began talking more about his experiences a year ago, he said, after participating in Honor Flight, a program that flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., where they spend time at the World War II Memorial and visit with fellow vets.

“Once you get started on that trip, you realize you really did pay for it,” he said.

During the war, Radwick’s submarine missions were kept secret, something that carried over into service after the war.

For years, he would meet with other submarine vets, and they would share experiences. But those reunions have now ended.

“There’s just not enough guys around anymore,” said Radwick, of Nipomo.

So, gradually, he began talking to others.

“I guess I started talking about it because the submarine service was known as the Silent Service,” said Radwick, who added that his sub sank 13 ships, saved nearly two dozen aviators and once survived an attack of 98 depth charges. “And I figure we kept quiet so long, it was about time somebody knew what the hell we did out there.”

When his son accompanied him on the Honor Flight, he said, he began to understand what Radwick had experienced.

“He, for the first time, is really getting to know what it’s all about, and he’s appreciating it,” said Radwick, 94. “And he’s asking me questions now that he never did before … and I think this is true all around the country.”

While going through war isn’t healthy, talking about it is, he said.

“The young people can’t comprehend — they have no idea what it could be like,” he said. “We aren’t bragging or anything like that. You’re letting them know: There’s a reason why you’re here and why everything is the way it is. So it’s good to talk about it.”

Still some secrets

Even with more openness, though, there are some places Morris won’t go.

“The only time anybody asked me questions in recent years … they say, ‘Did you kill somebody?’ It’s the one question I don’t want to talk about,” said Morris, who said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by the Veterans Administration. “But in a way I’m glad our squad actually killed three SS officers. They were coming across a field, and I’m certain they were the officers that ran the Dachau concentration camp.”

To those who weren’t there, the stories are difficult to comprehend. And the vets, whose lives were dramatically different afterward, sometimes feel the same way.

“Some of the things you seen then, it’s hard to believe you even seen them now,” Hopkins said. While the worst memories still haunt them, there are also mixed feelings because some of the war experiences were good.

“I wanted to see the world, and by god I did,” Hopkins said.

Despite the tension and stress of five war patrols in a confined submarine, Radwick also had fond memories of far-away places, friends he made and fun times he had during leave.

“It’s the strange thing about war,” he said. “You run into terrible situations, yet some of it was wonderful.”

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