I grew up around many veterans among my mother's Yurok people and my father's Maidu and Achumawi people from northeastern California. I've had the privilege to speak with several veterans who served with my grandfather and great-uncle in World War II. I wanted to honor all local veterans during Memorial Day by sharing part of an interview I was able to conduct with the late John Milligan from Weott.
Milligan served in the U.S. Army with my great-uncle Leonard Lowry in the Pacific during World War II. His wife Jean called me after I spoke at a Veteran's Day event in Fortuna in 2007. We met a few days later at the Blessing of the Fleet in Trinidad, where we took photos of each other and I asked John if he would do a taped interview with me. He eventually said yes, so I visited with him and Jean at their Weott home on Dec. 9, 2008. John passed away in 2011. This is the first time his interview is being shared in public.
"I was born in 1925 at Myers Flat. I went to school here in Weott at the old Legion Hall. We moved to South Fork and we lived there until I was drafted. My oldest brother, Coleman, went in the service in 1942. He took basic training at Camp Roberts, California. He was sent to Alaska to Attu and Kiska. After that they sent him to the Invasion of Leyte, where he was killed. My other older brother, Bob, went in in 1943 and he was on an Air Force training crew in Wyoming. After that he ... served in India on the Burma Road in the Air Force.
"I went in the service on Dec. 7, 1943, on Pearl Harbor Day. I took basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. I went to the South Pacific, to New Guinea, and I spent three months there. We went from there to Leyte for the invasion. When the 32nd Division came I was the only one out of our squad that went to Company I in the 32nd.
"We relieved the 24th Division on this hill. It seemed like it rained every night and day, but when the sun came out it was hot. After two days, we started along the hill and there were these two boys who were almost ready to rotate home on the point system and they weren't going to go, but they did, and there was artillery fire. The first artillery shell hit directly on them. I remember a piece of flesh hit me right on the head.
"We got up that hill and there were four big guns there. We waited for the demolition guys to come with the TNT to blow them up. We stayed on that hill for two weeks. We were relieved off that hill and went back to the rear. There was a package on my bunk. I opened it up and there was a letter from my uncle. He wrote me that [Coleman] was on the island. There was smoked jerky and smoked fish and two jars of eels in that package for me. He told me if I got a pass to go see Coley. I went and saw Capt. [Leonard] Lowry to get a pass and he told me that the Red Cross told him that my oldest brother had been killed.
"I went back to my hut; Capt. Lowry came over and asked if I would be his orderly. I said I would. I would get his food and coffee and get his clothes cleaned. I had two other captains that I helped this way too. I went everywhere Leonard went. We spent six months or so there and after that we went to Luzon. We were on the front lines at both places.
"When we got on Luzon we spent 49 days on the front. It wasn't all at one time. Where Capt. Lowry got wounded there, that hill was named 407D. It was a night attack and we went up ... when Leonard asked me to be his orderly he said I didn't have to be first scout anymore, but he didn't say anything about being second scout, I had to follow him everywhere! He wouldn't send anyone where he wouldn't go.
"The Japanese made an attack on us and they were sticking our men with bamboo poles with razor blades on them. We were there for a while with all these attacks. I was in a hole with Capt. Lowry when they fired and one shell hit a rock and then hit him in his left hand and cheek, and another shell went right through his stomach. I threw a smoke grenade so the Japanese couldn't get another shot in. They fired mortars at us and I thought for sure they would hit us. I was shook up that day. I didn't think we would get off that hill. I was just 19 years old.
"When we went to Japan for occupation we landed at Seibu. We were there for three months. I remember these caves they had with all these guns stored in them. We took the bolts out of them. I saw Capt. Lowry when he came back from the hospital and came to eat with all of us enlisted men. He shook all our hands. Leonard never got down on anybody, he always tried to build them up. I last saw Leonard at one of our division reunions. It was a great honor to serve with him; he was a great man. After being discharged, I remember walking into my home and both my mom and dad jumped up and came right after me and hugged me.
"Now maybe I can sleep better from now on. ... I dream about my brothers and about my time serving with Capt. Lowry. I've never talked about the war."
The Milligan Community Center in Weott is named in honor of John's family. His 32nd Infantry Division saw intense combat in New Guinea, Leyte, and Luzon among other places during the war. The headquarters building at the U.S. Army base in Herlong, California, is named in honor of Lt. Col. Leonard Lowry, the most decorated Native American veteran in United States history. Thank you to all our veterans for your service for our country.
Chag Lowry is of Yurok, Maidu and Achumawi Native ancestry. He's currently working on a graphic novel featuring the stories of Yurok soldiers in World War I. For more information on Chag's work with local Native veterans, go to www.originalpatriots.com.