Elizabeth B. Johnson is proof how greatness and big things can come in small packages. We had the honor to meet and photograph her earlier this month in Hickory, North Carolina. She was an Army veteran serving in the Six-Triple Eight Central Postal Battalion, an all African-American-Woman unit serving overseas during WWII, as a truck driver and postal clerk.
“My career with the Army started on March 11, 1943. After joining I was sent to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, for basic training for approximately eight weeks. From there I was sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, which is now called Fort Campbell. I was stationed there for approximately 16 months.” Johnson explains.
“From Fort Campbell, I was sent to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia for basic overseas training. After leaving Fort Oglethorpe, I was sent to New York where we were going to be shipped overseas. During our travels to Birmingham, England, the captain of the ship noticed a submarine in the waters ahead of us, we were told we had to sleep in our clothes that night. Consequently, the ship turned around and headed back to New York.”
Later, Johnson’s captain had the okay that things were clear and they continued to England. “While in England I drove a truck transporting goods to different locations. Sometimes I would even transport soldiers to different locations as well. I served in England for approximately eight months, and was then shipped to Rouen, France.”
While Johnson was in Rouen, she worked in a makeshift post office building. That was where she and the others in the Six-Triple Eight Central Postal Battalion separated mail that “had been stacked to the ceiling”. Johnson recalls, “We worked tirelessly trying to separate all the mail and get it to the troops. Mail was one thing the troops looked forward to getting each week, and we worked to make sure they received their mail.” Johnson and almost 800 other women of the unit sorted mail for over seven million people in the European Theater of Operations. She worked at the makeshift post office for around eight months, and then the war ended. “We had a choice to stay there or come back to the United States,” Johnson said, “Since I had lost my father during this time and found out that my mother was sick, I decided to come home and be with her.” In November of 1945, she sailed back to the United States on the Queen Mary.
When asked what was the most memorable or most significant during her service, she said, “While serving in Rouen, France, I remember bombs dropping and shaking the building we were working in.”
Special thanks goes to Johnson’s daughter, Cynthia, for providing the great personal photographs.
How many of us can imagine reaching seventy-five years old? What about one hundred? Joseph Otho Goble has passed both at one hundred and one years old! Goble was a Marine veteran serving in WWII as a platoon sergeant, and was awarded the Silver Star for combat actions on Guadalcanal.
Goble’s journey of enlisting was not easy. The year was 1940. At twenty-seven years of age, he was working in Washington, D.C., and knew he was going to be drafted soon. Therefore, he went to his home state of North Carolina to join the military. “I went to Charlotte to join the Marines,” Goble recalls, “They (the recruiters) said, ‘We’re sorry, we allow six Marines here, six Marines in Nashville, six Marines in Winston-Salem, and six Marines in Raleigh, that’s all.’ ” The Charlotte recruiting office was full, and so was the Nashville’s. “They called Winston-Salem, and that office said, ‘Come over real quick, we have one opening’. I then had to take the car back to my dad’s, get on the bus, and by the time I got to Winston, they had already filled it.” He remembers it was almost closing time at the Winston-Salem recruiting office, and the recruiter said he would call Raleigh. There were two openings left. “For God’s sake, put Goble down,” the recruiter exclaimed. At eight o’clock the next morning, he enlisted in his requested branch of service.
When Stacy Pearsall asked if he would talk about the events surrounding his Silver Star, he gave us all a laugh. “You want to know about it now??” Goble genuinely asks. “Yes sir, please,” Pearsall says with a smile. “Well it’s sort of a long story.” “I’ve got time for you.” Stacy says.
“We were in battle across the Guadalcanal (Tenaru) River behind the Japanese where another battalion was on the other side of the river where they were holding the Japanese off over there, and we went behind the Japanese,” he explains. “We were told to push right into the Japs from that side, so I was to take my opportunity to the right and the rest of the battalion to the left. So, there was only about twenty-six of us. I lost two men going over the valley.”
“I was placing my men twenty-five steps apart because we didn’t have enough to cover,” he continues. “Machine guns started to fire from the jungles, so I got one of my men who had rifle grenades and went where we could look over the jungles’ ridge to see where the machine guns were coming from. We fired several rifle grenades, and I could watch them go up and back down again. That’s when we didn’t hear anymore machine guns, and I went back to check on my men. One of them yelled, ‘Russ is hit, Russ is hit! (WR Russ)’ [unfortunately, Russ passed away before returning home]. I went up to Russ, and I thought he was hit in the stomach. We started to drag him back, and I probably got from here to that wall over there (approximately ten to fifteen feet) when I got hit.”
“I was trying to figure out whose foot I was laying on,” remembers Goble. “The corpsman got up to me and I said, ‘Whose foot am I laying on?’. He says, ‘That’s your foot.’ This foot (his left) was all the way back up here (points to the back of his head), and he dressed my leg and straightened it out with splints and gave a couple shots in the arm. Before I went to sleep, I could look out over the ocean and I said, ‘Whose ships are those out there? I’m counting 13 ships: two large ships and the rest destroyers.’ Someone said, ‘There’s no ships out there.’ I said, ‘There are!’ When I woke up, they had all the wounded from the battalion and put me on a boat to the hospital. That’s what I remember ….. Sure enough that night, thirteen ships came in, and it was one of the biggest ship battles they had. Can you figure that out?”
Goble has one friend left from his unit who lives in Georgia now. He calls him about once a month. After the service, he was told to get a job sitting down or else he would be standing with a cane.He ended up becoming a jeweler for many years. He was also told he would have his leg removed before his 50th birthday. Obviously, that person was incorrect. He was an avid hiker until the age of ninety-five. Even being over one hundred years old, he still works out on cardio machines and is a prime example of, “What’s your excuse?”.
Special thanks goes to those who made it possible in meeting and having the honor to photograph Goble.
“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.” ― Ronald Reagan
Larry Gunter was the next to youngest of five siblings and the thinnest when he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in 1971. He was barely 18 years old (a month and ten days) when he was sworn into the military on April 13, 1971.
Gunter went through basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He remembers being in barracks which WWII soldiers had once been in before him.
Let us back up just a little bit before his basic training for a fun fact. Prior to entering the service, he knew his future wife, Elizabeth, from going to school together. She remembers he was 118 pounds, and that was only one pound more than she was in the early 1970’s. Below is proof, documentation done at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, that he gained weight before going overseas to Vietnam. It also states at one time his height was 5’7″. “I still am 5’7″!” Gunter exclaims during his interview.
While in Vietnam, he had an instance where he proved Timex wrong on “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” During crossfire, shrapnel stuck in the watch’s face instead of going through his left wrist. He has a scar from it that is still visible today. He sent the watch back to his family while he was still overseas, but they did not know the significance of it and it was thrown away.
Although he does not like to talk much about his experience in Vietnam, he said, “I liked the military. For all of the hardships that life threw at me, it helped me to keep my temper.” He believes serving in Vietnam helped him to face life’s twists and turns which he faced when he returned home.
Above is a photograph he made of the Marble Mountains in the distance. At one point, his unit was on top of what the Vietnamese call Ngũ Hành Sơn; “Five elements mountains”. These mountains are full of tunnels. Despite how scenic they are today, these mountains were not safe for our American soldiers.
One story he shares while in Vietnam involves the refrigerator which he is posing with in the above photograph. The television sitting on top of it only had one channel, and it was only available for eight hours a day. Gunter bought the refrigerator from his battle buddy, Glover, and kept a lock on it. The contents were always cigarettes, beer, and Ritz crackers. They did not always have electricity, so the fridge was a good way to keep bugs out. One day, he noticed the lock was broken with the door removed and some cigarettes were missing. A guy who served with Gunter, known for his striking red hair, admitted to stealing the cigarettes boldly stating, “I needed some cigarettes” (Side note: Gunter has never liked things stolen from him, whether it be in a foreign country or in his own home). After the soldier did not understand him feeling slighted, Gunter took his M16 and put it next to his head saying, “Those are my damn cigarettes, and that is my damn refrigerator. You touch these again and I’ll blow your head off.” He never had his cigarettes stolen again. After the service, he stopped smoking because the price of cigarettes was too high. Imagine thinking twenty-five cents a pack is expensive for your nicotine fix.
When he returned to the United States, it was 3 a.m. in San Francisco, California. He remembers protestors lining the fence outside the tarmac. When the soldiers walked from the airplane, rotten fruit was thrown at them with negative comments. Even the taxi driver was not welcoming, dropping him off a mile and a half away with his heavy military bags to carry.
Gunter spoke some blunt truth about how difficult it was to integrate into the workforce after Vietnam. “I came back to the same darn job I had when I was a teenager. Nobody would hire you or nothing because at the end of Vietnam, you could not find a job for almost a solid seven years until Reagan came in and changed the economy,” Gunter explains. “What I lived on from ’74 to ’76 (when he was in college) …..gas money. If I had a drink and a honey bun I was doing good. I lived just a little above minimum wage.”
After college, he tried to find a decent job. He was hired at Fiberglass in South Carolina. “They said they hired me as an electrician, but I did not get the electrician job.” After some time passed, he asked when he was going to get a job in the field he studied for, and the company had said they wanted people with a college degree and at least ten years of experience. Gunter replied with, “Okay, I’ll give my letter of resignation tomorrow.” He stayed true to his word, and quit the following day.
“Then I went to work with the city of Columbia. They were going to hire me as an electrician. Well, I went to work at the water department where I worked on transmitters and receivers that everybody had hated me because they wanted that job and couldn’t do it. They would sabotage things because I was working on it. I come back from having it fixed and it would be burned up. I worked there for a year and a half. Then, I went to a machine and tool company. I learned a lot of electrical stuff.” Gunter explained how he went to Boston for this particular company, and since they would not pay for him to stay in a hotel he stayed in the airport all night until the next available flight home the following morning.
“Finally, I got a job at the Savannah River Site (in Augusta, GA), in September of 1981.” When asked how he got the job, he earnestly said, “I put in for it for seven years.” After a year, he got another job within the company and saw his work report. The report stated, “Would not hire.” Gunter further describes, “”Vietnam Vet. Combat experience. Would not hire: Think he would be a problem due to his experience in the military.”” When he read this, he asked, “What does it take to be hired here? I was told you hire veterans.” The woman he was speaking to said, “Well, we’ll look into it.” It took an additional thirteen months for Gunter to be hired.
Gunter worked as a Senior Electrical Instrumentation Technician at S.R.S. for almost twenty years, retiring in 2000. He invented numerous things for the company, but was acknowledged as the inventor for two. He invented the safety harness (patent found here) and the catwalk grate lifting tool (patent found here).
Today, he is a farmer. He says confidently, “Farming gives me peace of mind. As much aggravation as it gives me, it still gives me peace of mind. With all of the people who have done me wrong and all of the combat experience, when I’m with the animals it gives peace of mind. It also drives me crazy. It is a better crazy than what I had to put up with.”
VPP Blogger’s Note: What viewers may not know is Larry Gunter is my dad. Talk about Vietnam was hush-hush with me, and interviewing him was the most I had ever heard about his service. He spoke more about it than I thought I would, and it was difficult to narrow down what to put in his feature. I am hoping if there are viewers out there who are Vietnam Veterans, they aren’t feeling as alone before they read this. As I grew older, I learned the nightmare of what was called the Vietnam War. When I started assisting the VPP, I got to meet numerous veterans to understand (even a little) further of why my dad is the man he is today. If I needed to describe my dad, he is a George Bush-look-alike who speaks the same as him. He’s a great business man who watches some military movies and western television shows too loud. He’s a lover of guns, and feels the need to have them around him even today. Last but not least, he makes the best boiled peanuts I have ever had, and despite being old-fashioned leaving the cooking to my mom, he takes great pride and time to make that southern summer food. Thank you, Daddy, for your service.
Jeffrey Sacks was photographed during the Jewish War Veterans Convention in 2014. Sacks served in the Army as military police starting in 1979. We are honored he was able to share his deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1991.
In 1990, Sacks took command of the 822nd Military Police Company in the U.S. Army Reserve located in the Chicago suburbs. He was a full time Chicago Police Officer and also a Captain in the Illinois Army National Guard. The 822nd MP Company was in need of a new commander due to poor ratings earned at the unit’s previous annual training to the Philippines performing a real world mission. He set upon making all the unit’s soldiers, NCOs, and officers responsible concerning their individual and unit equipment (weapons, radios, chemical warfare, Humvees, etc). In December of the same year, he and his command received orders mobilizing the company in support of Operation Desert Shield – Attaboy.
Sacks in Saudia Arabia, Winter of 1991
On January 3, 1991, the rest of the company (slightly less than 200 soldiers) entered active duty and convoyed from their reserve center to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, to prepare for our deployment to Saudi Arabia.
Wisconsin was its usual weather in winter with sub zero temperatures and two feet of snow was on the ground at Fort McCoy as they trained for life in the desert. The hills of snow helped them train to drive for what their near future would be hills of sand. They also had to paint some forty tactical vehicles sand color from their woodland camouflage pattern in the freezing cold motor pool area. Sacks and his unit all re-qualified on old pistols (were using M1911 and M1911A1’s .45 caliber pistols, M16A1 rifles, M60 machine-guns, M2 .50 caliber Browning machine-guns, and M203 grenade launchers). Sacks describes, “MP’s come to the party heavily armed”.
With their training, they were asked to be a part of a mission. They were ordered to become a Prisoner of War MP Company. “So we trained to perform the new mission and ordered everything we would need to perform our new mission. Funny story – we ordered the amount of Lindane powder (kills lice on POW’s) we determined we would need to delouse the POW’s in our custody. We got what we ordered and a week later we got a call from the Pentagon to return it as we now possessed the entire supply of Lindane powder for whole Department of Defense. My Operations Sergeant, Supply Sergeant and I were just quicker thinkers than the brass at the big five sided building,” Sacks explained.
In February 1991, they took their flight on a chartered TWA 747 en-route from Volk Field Air National Guard Base to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. “Lucky me, I got to sit in 1st class as I was the flight commander because most of the passengers were under my command and several senior field grade officers also traveling on the plane were more than happy to let me carry on.” In the middle of the air war phase of Operation Desert Storm, they arrived to a land with a one hundred degree difference. Buses took them to Khobar Towers in Dhahran where they settled in their quarters and were assigned to a temporary mission of base defense. Soon after, they had to split the company and send Sacks’ Third Platoon to the Port of Dammam where the Theater Aviation Maintenance Facility had been set up and needed protection. Sacks recollects, “My most vivid recollection of this time comes on the first Tuesday of every month when the City of Chicago tests the emergency sirens. I am brought back to those same sirens followed by a public address announcement of SCUD Launch / SCUD Attack from base operations indicating that tactical ballistic missile(s) were inbound towards us. Then the Patriot Air Defense Artillery Batteries collocated by us would fire at these inbound missiles. One of the SCUD missiles landed very near us on February 26th, 1991, destroying a nearby barracks and killing 27 fellow reservists and injuring 98 more from a Pennsylvania Quartermaster outfit. The ground shook like an earthquake when it landed. This missile attack was the most devastating Iraqi stroke of the Persian Gulf War. I wasn’t feeling that lucky to be a “REMF” that day. I checked on my unit in both locations and all personnel were accounted for. At 0300 hours I wasn’t able to sleep and I was listening to a BBC radio broadcast of the bad news concerning the attack, so by 0315 hours I was at the AT&T satellite phone bank in the pitch black dark making a very expensive call to the family support group to let them know we were all okay. I got a hold of my mother at her employer and she activated the telephone tree.”
Jeffrey Sacks in Sarrar, Saudi Arabia (East POW camp), late Winter 1991
Through some heavy memories, Jeffrey Sacks shared some worthy stories from the POW Mission in March of 1991:
“One day in the middle of our tent encampment a Bedouin kid wearing the traditional red and white checked Keffiyeh comes walking in about a mile away from the POW camp and from out in the desert – sand as far as the eyes could see. We showed him hospitality and he stayed for a meal. He wanted to buy Marlboro’s from us and feeling sorry for him my unit armorer offered him a pack. The kid proceeds to pull out a roll of U.S. currency that still makes me envious.”
“One 15-year-old Prisoner of War was marched into our camp wearing a Chicago Cubs t-shirt and Iraqi Army fatigue pants. We pulled him out of the line of prisoners and spoke to him learning he had gone to Iraq in 1990 to visit his grandparents and got forcibly drafted into the Iraqi Army even though he was U.S. citizen. Well being a Chicagoland based reserve unit we welcomed him, cleaned him up and eventually got him repatriated after debriefing from the intel guys.” Jeffrey Sacks ended this story with saying he is more of a Chicago White Sox fan.
Sacks says that deployment changed his life. Within a year of returning home, he became ill with a rare auto immune disease possibly linked to the then-classified Secret Anthrax inoculations. He accepted early medical disability retirement as a Major in the US Army Reserve in 1997. His children are also veterans. One is currently serving in Afghanistan where he is a commissioned officer serving as a Special Agent in the USAF Office of Special Investigation, and his stepson in the Field Artillery was injured by an improvised explosive device blast, earning the Purple Heart. He also has four grandchildren and another on the way.
Today, Jeffrey Sacks is active in the VFW, Jewish War Veterans, The American Legion. He is also a Mason and Shriner. When sharing his story, his final line was too good not to share. “Frankly I don’t know how I ever found time to earn money.”
The first time I ever met Air Force veteran, Lisa Zunzanyika, there was a word which came to mind: Vivacious! She and Stacy have known each other for many years, as they are both graduates of Syracuse University in New York. Zunzanyika earned the distinction of being the first African-American female Military Photojournalist in Air Force history.
Zunzanyika retired from the Air Force after twenty-one years of service as a combat journalist. She traveled to numerous countries documenting military peacetime, wartime, and humanitarian operations. This included Sarajevo, Kosovo, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Today, she is the owner and operator of Simply Zee Imagery, and as a follower of hers on social media, she looks like she is living every day to the fullest. You can’t help but feel positive after being around Ms. Zunzanyika. Thank you for your service!
Many veterans come in dressed to impress. In McClean, Virginia, one of our veterans photographed that day was the epitome of that phrase. In fact, his attire was nothing out of the ordinary. This veteran told us he had this ensemble in many colors, so perhaps his Sunday’s best is his every day best.
Virgil Bandy is an Army veteran. He worked as a systems maintainer (or integrator) for a little over twenty years from 1984 to 2005.
Bandy was photographed for the Veterans Portrait Project a little over two years ago, and his fashion sense is still remembered! From casual to full uniform, we love when veterans dress to express their personality within their photograph.
In some locations we get to photograph in, there are some who take a little bit more talking with to coax them into having the honor to photograph them and their story.
A prime example is Army veteran, Jay Cabacar. Des’ola was the first one to eye him in all of his uniform glory in the crowd of the VFW Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. She walked up to him, and that was the beginning of the journey to learning a part of his story. For half an hour, they chatted while sharing popcorn. There are times even after an hour of chatting (if time permits), a veteran decides to not be photographed. However, Cabacar accepted Des’ola’s almost-plea of asking to be a part of the Veterans Portrait Project at the end of talking 30 minutes.
Cabacar enlisted in March of 1962. Consequently, this landed him squarely in the Vietnam War. He was part of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns during that war. He achieved the highest enlisted rank in the Army, Sergeant Major. His inspiration to join the military was his father, also an Army veteran who served in WWII. Unfortunately, his father was murdered after returning home from war by thugs attempting to rob him. This tragedy was never solved.
We are very grateful Jay Cabacar sat in the studio for his Veterans Portrait Project photograph. His immensely heroic efforts are not forgotten!
“Being a veteran is the highest honor. It’s my tribute to the greatest country in the world. God bless the USA!” – Cabacar