John L. West does not talk much about the time he spent as an U.S. Army paratrooper in the Pacific Theater during World War II, said his oldest son Randolph West.
“He’s a fairly taciturn guy,” his son said. “I know very little of what he did, though I know he saw some action. It was the most important event in his life."
West is a feisty 95-year-old who until last year drove his 2002 GEO Prism daily from his East Aurora home into the village. He keeps a New Yorker magazine on his nightstand and a New York Times crossword by his side. But West is a man of few words.
Memories of the assault on the Philippine island of Luzon sparked a brief discussion. He shrugged off a shrapnel wound. The heavy load of mortar equipment he carried on his back will be forever on his mind.
West was a freshman at Colgate University when he decided to enlist in the Army in 1941. It was four months before Pearl Harbor, but already thousands of young men across the country were flooding recruitment offices.
West was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division at Camp Mackall in North Carolina, one of 8,321 men in the division who remained stateside in early 1943 for the specialized training required for airborne units.
Paratroopers were an elite bunch during World War II. They earned more than infantrymen, and they trained hard, too – jumping from 250-foot towers and marching for miles. If they paused – even for a second – in the doorway of an aircraft before a training jump, they were automatically failed.
“Guys were jumping all over the place,” West recalled. “It was a little nerve-wracking during final training. The jumping wasn’t so bad. It was always the night before, when you knew you had a jump assignment the next day and couldn’t sleep.”
He was transferred in January 1944 to Camp Polk in Louisiana for an additional month of combat training. From there, West was moved to Camp Stoneman in California on route to Papua, New Guinea and the Village of Lae. The village, West noted, was known as the final departure point of pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart in 1937, the year she disappeared.
West said that that much of his time in the Pacific Theater was spent in a holding pattern. “You spent most of your time waiting to get sent to go someplace to do something,” he said.
Four months of training in New Guinea was followed by a brief but wet stay in Leyte in the Philippines. Tropical weather brought temperatures in the 80s, high humidity – and 23 inches of rain falling in one month.
In Luzon, West saw combat as part of an amphibious assault that established a beachhead on the southern coast. Luzon’s terrain was flat and open with pockets of wooded areas where Japanese forces lay in wait, he recalled.
West was assigned to a heavy weapons company and helped carry 81 mm mortars from camp to camp. West’s shoulders were padded to cushion the weight of the heavy metal firepower. Each weapon had three parts that weighed 40 pounds each.
“We lost quite a few people,” West said. “There was considerable fighting depending on where you were, but it was not an entrenched battle line. The enemy was moving all over the place. Your routine would vary.”
The U.S. Army Center of Military History described the losses during the Battle of Luzon as staggering with the Japanese losing virtually all of its 230,000 military personnel on the island. American combat casualties included 10,380 killed and 36,550 wounded. The U.S. also had more than 93,400 noncombat casualties, including 260 deaths, most of them from disease. Only a few campaigns had a higher casualty rate.
West offered little on his combat time, but he said his homecoming was “like walking into a madhouse.”
“You’ve got two million soldiers who were no longer needed. How do you get all these guys home? I was in the Pacific, so we were a smaller group to get rid of,” he said. “When my number came up, they stuck us on a ship and sailed us back to San Diego.”
West, who lived with his family in the New York City suburb of Riverdale, was discharged in 1946. During a telephone call on his way home West received the news that his mother had died from cancer.
West returned to Colgate, studied English and history, and graduated in 1949.
His career started out as a mail boy earning $25 to $30 a week, but he worked his way up and became a Madison Avenue advertising executive, he said. He was married twice, has five children and lived in Connecticut until 2005, when he relocated to East Aurora to be closer to his two older sons.
West looks back on his wartime service as simply doing his duty as a soldier. He said he does not think of himself as a hero.
“Do not call a regular soldier a hero,” West said. “A hero is someone who did something above and beyond the normal in a difficult situation. What I did was a standard military-type operation: I was shot at and I shot back, the normal wartime routine.”
John L. West, 95
Hometown: Riverdale, N.Y.
Residence: East Aurora
Rank: Staff sergeant
War zone: Pacific Theater
Years of service: 1943-1946
Most prominent honor: Air Medal