THE 1940s: World War II dominated the decade
Editor's note: This story was originally published Monday, July 12, 1999.
Like millions of servicemen who fought and survived World War II, Sam Clagg gets emotional when he talks about the 20th century's most tumultuous decade, the 1940s.
"If a break had gone against us here and there, we could be speaking German or Japanese now," said Clagg, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who fought in two of the bloodiest battles in the South Pacific -- Peleliu and Okinawa. "It was that close."
But, the retired Marshall University geography professor doesn't look at the 1940s with dread, although it was a decade dominated by World War II. Quite the opposite.
"Those were golden years for me," Clagg said.
"I don't want to glorify the war. It was horrible, but it helped us get out of the Depression. Huntington really took off during the 1940s. All the plants here were booming, and Marshall really took off after the war when all the boys came home from the war.
"... These were the best of times, and the worst of times."
Estelle "Bill" Belanger has similar observations about the decade dominated by the most devastating armed conflict in history, a war that claimed 45 million lives.
"I tell you what the war did for me," said Belanger, a retired Herald-Dispatch art and culture editor. "It gave me a job. Before the war, it was really difficult for a woman to get a decent job anywhere.
"I'm not happy that World War II happened, but it changed things for women."
Still contributing to the newspaper at 84, Belanger struggled to make a living in Huntington after graduating from Marshall College in 1935.
She was in Washington, D.C., employed as a file clerk for the Civil Service Administration when she got a call from Herald-Advertiser Editor H.R. "Punk" Pinckard.
"Punk predicted earlier that the United States was going to get into the war, and newspapers were going to have to depend on women. That's what happened in World War I. I had to sign an agreement that said I would give the job back to the man I replaced if he came back after the war.
"I took Ned Brown's place, but when he came back in 1946 he opened a radio station in Florida. I was never out of a job after that."
Arthur Williams Jr. was working in his father's funeral home business in Huntington's black community during the 1940s. When he graduated from Douglass High School, however, he was unable to attend segregated Marshall College.
Instead, he graduated from all-black West Virginia State College in Institute, W.Va.
"I can't complain," Williams said. "Huntington has been good to me. I was able to make a living here (he worked at Inco Alloys International for 31 years), and send four children to college.
"I got a good education at Douglass and West Virginia State."
Belanger and others who kept the home fires burning for the troops during the war say the war years brought the people together as never before.
The churches were full.
"They say there are no atheists in foxholes," said Belanger, whose brother was a priest and her two sisters were nuns. "There weren't any at home either."
Nearly everyone back home wrote letters to servicemen scattered around the world, and newspapers became the major source of information for a news-hungry public.
"We didn't have televisions back then," said Ruby Meredith Williams, a native of Pleasant Dale, W.Va., who wrote to her future husband, Marine Cpl. Woody Williams, during the war. "Woody was really good to write. I have all his love letters in a box. I haven't read them in years.
"We read the Fairmont Times for all of our news. The editor, Ned Smith, was so good to Woody over the years."
Williams was big news in 1945, too. He received the Medal of Honor for his daring actions on Iwo Jima where he knocked out seven Japanese pillboxes with a flame thrower and was credited with killing 21 enemy soldiers.
A retired Veterans Administration official in Huntington, Williams is West Virginia's only surviving World War II Medal of Honor winner.
Milton Mayor Tommy Harbour, 74, was one of the few West Virginians who served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. His experience as a motor mechanic on a Higgins Personal Assault landing craft gave him a front-row seat at four of the war's high-profile beach assaults -- Normandy, South France, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Only 18 years old when he joined the Coast Guard in 1943, Harbour celebrated his 20th birthday on the U.S. Bayfield shortly after the Marines took Iwo Jima. He survived sunken boats at both Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima without a serious injury.
"I'm no hero," he said. "I just had a job to do like everybody else. My job was to keep those diesel engines running and get those boys to the beach. I just don't think the Coast Guard got the credit it should have during the war.
"We were there to support the troops in any way we could."
Harbour said the experience has given him a deep appreciation of the soldiers and Marines like Williams who stormed the beaches under bewildering machine gun and mortar fire.
"I saw a lot of stuff that I don't like to think about," said Harbour, who returned to his hometown, married and raised a family after the war. "You have to put those things behind you. The only time it gets to me is when I go to reunions with guys on the Bayfield, and we talk about our experiences."
Still, he has some memories that haven't faded with time. He still recalls seeing a friend from the Milton area on the Bayfield the night before D-Day, June 6, 1944. His name was Raymond Reynolds of Charlie's Creek.
"I told him to look for me that night and we would talk," Harbour said. "He asked if I had any chocolate candy. Soldiers didn't get anything like that during the war. I told him, 'Sure, I'll get you chocolate and almonds.'
"We met that night. It was the last time I saw Raymond. He was killed the day after Normandy."
Clagg said his training as a football player under famed coach Cam Henderson served him well during the difficult times in battle.
"I have no doubt that the combat I went through on the football field helped save my life in the war," said Clagg, who has written a biography of Henderson and a book about his Marine experiences. "No training I received in the Marines was any more difficult than what Cam put me through at Marshall."
Serving his country had some rewards, Clagg said.
"Thank God for the GI Bill," he said. "A lot of servicemen would have been on the streets without jobs if it hadn't been for the GI Bill. It gave them an opportunity to go to college. Marshall got some really seasoned students after the war."