Veterans remember

May 28, 2011 05:00 am

World War II veterans Stephen Graves, Fran Thurman and Don Smith tell their stories. The Pilot/Arwyn Rice
Nearly 70 years ago, a generation went to war.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the fall of Europe to Nazi Germany, millions of Americans volunteered to serve.

Three Curry County veterans of that war traveled to Washington D.C as part of the Honor Flight program and shared their stories with the Curry Coastal Pilot last week.

Stephen Graves


Stephen Graves spent much of the war protecting the homeland, not far from his own home in San Pedro, Calif. He joined the Army at age 19, and filled an important role as a coastwatcher  in Los Angeles from 1942-46.

“I walked the beaches and  was involved in the sea coast guns,” Graves said.

Those guns overlooked important harbors and straits, protecting shipping from Japanese submarine attacks – which were more frequent than many people knew.

“One evening at sunset a lumber schooner was coming in, and there was a sub,” he said 

The Japanese sub shelled the lumber boat. The crew of the damaged boat eventually managed to get it beached safely inside Los Angeles harbor, but it left the gun crews feeling helpless.

Graves was the staff segreant in charge of the gun battery at the time, and found that the attack was too close to the gun emplacements.

“We couldn’t lower the guns low enough,” he said.

Even if they had been able to crank the guns so that they could defend the schooner, they wouldn’t have been allowed to fire, he said. The crews were on standing orders that they could not fire live rounds without the approval of an officer.

All of the officers were away, so there was no one to authorize the use of the guns.

“After that incident I was given authority,” he said.

Later, in 1973 or ‘74,  after Graves had moved to Brookings, he attended a Masonic lunch at Sandy’s, which later became The Fox’s Den, in Harbor.

During that lunch Henry Kerr told a story about running a load of lumber to Los Angeles to repair a lumber boat that had been damaged by an attack by a Japanese sub.

“It had to be the same boat,” Graves said.

When the war was over, Graves went into training with the U.S. Navy to be a boat operator for the Army. He was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, where he trained crew for flag officers’ personal yachts.


Fran Thurman


In 1943, as a 24-year old college student, Fran Thurman lived in Bradford, Penn., when she made the decision to serve her country in uniform.

“I came home and told (my family) I just joined the Army,” she said. “There were no men in my family. There were four girls – someone ought to be in the service.”

Thurman was trained as a clerk and served in the Signal Intelligence Corps as a T-5 (corporal), filing messages after they had been decoded.

She traveled to Australia on the SS Lurline, a luxury ocean liner that was converted for use as a troop ship during the war.

While on the ship she had an accident on a ladder, and suffered a head injury, she said.

Thurman served in Brisbane and Tarloc, Australia, and in the Philippines.

It was a different world, she said.

“I was in the Philippines when the war ended,” she said.

There were still some Japanese soldiers in the hills, but most of the fighting had ended, Thurman said.

The base had outdoor bathroom facilities, where she could see things going on around her.

“Every day while I was in there a little boy would come by with his water buffalo. He would wave to me.” she said.

Thurman served until 1945.


Don Smith


From 1942-1947, Don Smith served in the U.S. Army. He left his home in Aberdeen, Wash., at age 22 to join the Navy, but instead entered the Army and became a member of a foreward observation battalion.

“It was sight and sound,” Smith said. “We would run phone wires from post to post. All communication was by phone.”

Smith’s introduction to the war was the Battle of the Bulge, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the European Theater.

“The group we replaced –, all but one person was killed,” he said.

Smith didn’t speak much about his experiences during that war, except that the war was over shortly after that terrible battle.

In 1948, after leaving the Army, Smith returned to Aberdeen, where he met his wife, Marian, who served as a U.S. Marine during the war.

Marian passed away in 2009.

At the outbreak of World War II, Marian enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served from 1942-44.

She was in the first group of women to go through training at Camp Lejune, in North Carolina,  where the old “China Marines” were not happy to have women in their ranks.

Her permanent duty station was Camp Pendleton, Calif., where she worked in communications as a sergeant.