By Greg Ellison
(Nov. 14, 2019) Along with abundant sunshine and mild temperatures, the Veterans Day tribute in Ocean Pines on Monday was highlighted by the memories of WWII Navy veteran Carroll Wagner.
“My charge today is to talk about my experience while serving during WWII,” he said.
Native to Baltimore, Wagner was born in 1927 and was winding up high school before answering the call to service from Uncle Sam upon reaching the age of 18.
“I began my senior year and while in high school joined the Navy,” he said. “It appeared the world was subsiding and I would finish high school when it ended.”
In early 1945, with WWII lurching towards the end of hostilities, Wagner was brought to attention after receiving a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordering him to report for military service on Feb. 7.
“Which happened to be my 18th birthday and here I am a senior in high school,” he said.
While Wagner was completing boot camp at the U.S. Naval training center in Bainbridge, Maryland, President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by his vice-president, Harry Truman. By that point, Nazi leaders in Germany were surrendering.
“They knew I was coming,” he said.
With the war in Europe almost over, Wagner set sail for the Pacific.
“A lot of us were called flags or … skivvies because skivvy shirts were sometimes used as a flag,” he said.
After being assigned to a Navy supply depot on the island of Sumatra, Wagner dodged a potential death sentence by passing on an officer’s proposal after obtaining the rank of third-class signalman.
“He said to me, ‘If you sign up for two years you’ll be sent to a place on an island called Bikini,’ and I immediately said, ‘No thanks, I want to go home,” he said. “The island of Bikini was the atomic bomb experimental island, which is no longer an island. What a move I made on that one.”
Not long after that, Wagner asked the commanding officer at the supply depot for a ship assignment.
“He said, ‘Wagner, we got lots of ships out there … go look for one that needs a signalman and I’ll sign you off if you find one,’” he said.
After quickly locating an opening, Wagner obtained clearance and was prepared to head to sea before encountering an unanticipated hurdle.
“The next day I went to the pier with my papers and personal belongings only to find that the ship had sailed away without me,” he said.
After sharing the dilemma with his commanding officer, the situation became worse.
“He said, ‘Wagner, you’re on your own [and] you need to find that ship,” he said.
Wagner said his superior then suggested he return to the pier and find another vessel headed in a comparable direction.
“They’ll contact the ship and inform them you’re coming,” he said.
After negotiating himself onboard the intended ship, Wagner discovered his principal task involved accompanying servicemen cleared to return home unwind before journeying back to familiar lands.
“We took them to Manila for rest and relaxation,” he said. “When the first group I witnessed walked up the gangplank, I was not a happy camper. Their ages were probably 20-35 years and they looked older due to the strain they had faced in the war-torn area.”
In time, however, Wagner came to appreciate that the battle weary troops were finally getting to put life and death struggles in the rearview mirror.
“I was at the right age at the right time and grew from the experience of being associated with the brave men and women who were there ahead of me,” he said. “Well, that’s my story and I’m going to stick with it.”