Vic Waters had an article in the Coastal Courier last Sunday about Pete Gordon, a World War II hero from Long County. I read it with great interest as he talked about several people who I have known or heard great things about.
I want to share this article about Chaplain Clarence Letson, who was with those soldiers at that time.
The Rev. Clarence Letson was the pastor of Walthourville Presbyterian Church from 1938-45. He also was a chaplain for the 101st, which still was referred to as the Liberty Independent Troop.
He kept a diary of the years he served in the Army during World War II. Some of his items are undated; he stated that he frequently lost all track of time.
This was printed in The Liberty County Herald in 1976, but I thought it was worth repeating. His father-in-law, A. D. Beasley of Riceboro, presented it to the newspaper at that time.
“At the beginning of World War II, Dec. 7, 1941, he had been in the Army for a little over a year and was already eligible (as a chaplain) for a discharge. He was stationed at Camp Stewart in Georgia but was on leave, visiting friends on the coast. He was standing under some oaks covered with Spanish moss, gazing out at the dismal sea, when his friend came up and told him about Pearl Harbor. His first entry relating to the war is short and simple: ‘Dec. 7: Farewell to Camp Stewart.’ Actually, it wasn’t quite that fast. There was a lack of equipment because England had received almost all of the new available items.
“Feb. 1: Fort Dix, N.J. staging area.
“The following is a consolidation of the next 39 days. The Queen Mary, one of the largest passenger ships in the world, sailed from Boston, overloaded with 10,000 soldiers and equipment. No escort — the captain felt the Queen Mary could outrun any convoy. She sailed first to Key West, Fla., then to Rio de Janeiro. They spent two days there, but nobody could leave the ship.
“A zigzag course was then taken to Capetown, South Africa, during which the ship caught fire three times — all caused, the captain felt, because of the overload on the wiring. They entered the Tasmanian Sea and stopped in Perth, Australia, then disembarked at Sidney and caught trains up through the interior to Brisbane. The following day, Gen. MacArthur arrived.
“With Lt. Letson were men from Georgia and South Carolina; they composed the major portion of the 101 Separate Battalion. The rest of the 10,000 men aboard the Queen Mary were dispersed throughout the Pacific.
“(Col. Joseph B. Fraser Jr., addressing a group honoring him on his safe return to Hinesville, said, ‘When I left Camp Stewart in February 1942, I requested the men under my command to be made up of Georgia men. A number of the men came from Liberty and Long counties. They were among the best in the country and I am indeed grateful in the manner in which they met the enemy on the battlefront and conducted themselves during the perilous trip overseas.’)
“A comment, undated, about General MacArthur: He had a remarkable intelligence system, stretching across the Pacific Islands. He always seems to know where the strike will be. But his plans do not include fighting for each island; his favorite remark, repeated often, is ‘Let them wither on the vine.’
“March 30: This is it. The Japanese are moving in toward New Guinea and are taking a Dutch ship, the “Kremmer” to Papau. Into combat. We’ve been preparing but didn’t really believe it would happen. … We can’t believe that we’re playing for keeps.
“Col. Joe Fraser of Hinesville (deceased in 1971) and I met and prayed to God last night for guidance and leadership to carry our men through the battles before them. He was crying; his men were going to die. All are willing to go, but what a sinking feeling. (Col. Fraser later told a group in Hinesville that he prayed another hour in his headquarters before leaving for the Jap-infested area).
“A few days later, God is merciful. We sailed, unmolested through enemy waters, and landed safely.
“April 5: I am standing, looking at the demolished buildings. We have been having two or three raids a day. I see nine planes in perfect formation, disappearing into the sky. We lost no men in this raid. I have been holding about 10 services a day.
“About April 12: They keep coming. Our first baptism of fire seems tame. The Zeros will not come low enough for us to get them. … The best we have are the 50-caliber machine guns. … If there is any glory in war, we are earning our share. No defense.
“May 15: I feel as though I am the only chaplain in the Pacific. We have been conducting funerals for those killed before we came and for the pilots killed since. Tonight, as the sun set, we stood silently beside the grave of a pilot, with other pilots standing around. As I write, I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember my thoughts. God, use my feeble efforts. I noticed tears on the faces of some of the men. … Our men are trained to kill, but they will always have a heart.
“About July 25: The Japanese have landed on the other side of the island and are climbing the mountain. We have only 125 men. But, at the last minute, an airlift division was flown in from Australia.
“Received a birthday card from my sister. She doesn’t know it, but I get 1,000 days older each day. No birthday cake. Just another can of bully beef!
“Another entry: Col. ‘Buck’ Rogers and his squadron went on a mission. Not one plane returned. The entire squadron is gone.
“Later: Being shelled from the sea. We are also being bombed at night, when the moon is up. I’ve counted 98 raids since we’ve arrived.
“And again: Capt. Marvin Griffin (later governor of Georgia) and I were sharing a foxhole during a raid. I felt something crawling up my leg and yelped. Capt. Griffin said, “Gus, don’t worry. There are worse things outside.” It was a giant lizard. Like an iguana. The boys gave it a fine funeral.
“Australia again: At the hospital and on the hospital trains. Guadacanal. Have never imagined anything like this horror.
“Back to New Guinea: Harbor full of liberty ships. Japanese bombed one. The only one which had any meat on it.
“Later: Almost killed by one of our own men. He was cleaning his rifle and had forgotten to remove the bullets … bullet hit a tree right above my head.
“The diary continues, but Aug. 26, 1943, there was a different type of entry. ‘Going to R and R. Into the hospital. I have the points, could have gone home long ago.’
“And January 1944: Discharged after almost six months in the hospital.
“Note: There were not any casualties in this battalion! All returned safely back to their homes and families.
“The Rev. Letson returned to Georgia, met and married Velma Beasley of Riceboro, Ga. In 1952, the couple moved to Walhalla, and for the next 20 years, he was the pastor of Walhalla Presbyterian Church. They have one son, Clarence Letson Jr., who was married in December 1972. The son and his wife live in Atlanta, where he works for Delta Airlines. Since retirement, the Rev. Letson and his wife have taken three trips abroad. They visited the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Spain.
“Some of the members of the Liberty Independent Troop who served in New Guinea during World War II in 1942: James Brown, Jack Floyd, Carroll Ryon, Herbert Norman, Paul Caswell, Joseph Fraser Jr., Clarence Letson, Russell Smiley, Ogden Long, Donald Fraser, Jack Shuman, Lawton Dasher, C. R. Stanford, Henry Grady Stacy, Herbert Sasser, Roy Keel, Sam Slade, John Collins, Clinton Miness, Cameron Smiley, Kenneth Dubose, Maurice J. Kicklighter, Marion W. Hughes Jr., Joseph L. Deal, Jule Welborn, Richard F. Riggs, Robert L. Groover, George B. Burroughs and others.”