Veteran gardener recalls his Pacific experiences
November 11, 2004
Special to the Advocate

Editor's Note: This is the first of two parts. The conclusion will appear Friday. The author is a World War II veteran and a Victoria County master gardener.

 Fellow master gardeners asked me to write as a "veteran" gardener for Veteran's Day. I'm not sure just what was expected, but as a master gardener in Victoria County from the very first class in 1997 - and one of the remaining "veterans" of the original training program, I took it to heart. I will tell a few of my World War II experiences and share the significance of the land throughout my life - and what I saw in the way of gardening while I was overseas with the U.S. Army.

How well I remember the war efforts to support our troops - and the assignment I had of inevitably identifying body remains with the American graves registration detachment of the Quartermaster Corps of the U.S. Army. This was an experience I shall never forget - just as American citizens today should never forget the significance of Veterans Day. Today is a day set aside to pay tribute to veterans who were in all of America's wars, for their contributions and sacrifices in preserving freedom around the world.

Gardening has been a part of my life since my early years. During the days of the Depression and until the beginning of World War II, it was a dire necessity to have a garden in order to survive because there was not much money to buy the things needed to exist.

We relied on the land and lived off of it because we had to. Everyone living in the country had a garden, size sufficient to grow the vegetables that you normally would use. Everything that could be preserved by canning, storing and drying was done so, in order to last from season to season. These were basics and planted my attachment to my homeland.

At that time all gardens were started from seed. You saved the seeds from the year before and planted them and grew plants, which you transplanted into your garden.

During World Way II, the Victory Garden concept was created, and everyone who had any available space was asked to have one - even those who lived in town. Everyone learned to preserve produce.

All of this, and a whole lot more sacrifices were made for the war effort. These practices were routine for the time in our country. War efforts at home inspired you to continue them when in military service for freedom around the world. Civilian and military efforts bonded together.

From rural Ganado, I went overseas in 1946 from my family's farm at the age of 17. Late that year, I was in a replacement depot in Manila, Philippines, when I learned I was going to be shipped to Okinawa.

I was fortunate to meet an old soldier who had been in Okinawa before the war. He told me that Okinawa was to the Japanese people like Hawaii is to the American people. It was the "Pearl of the Orient," a place where the affluent of Japan spent summers and vacations for rest and relaxation.

He talked about the port village of Naha, the gateway to Okinawa, a thriving place providing entertainment for many from all walks of life. He talked about the beautiful oriental foliage that covered the whole area around Naha, about the miles of clean white sand beaches and the sparkling blue waters of the South China Sea, and the perfect weather for all outdoor gardens.

When I got to Okinawa, it was a cold wet day, about 35 degrees and raining. We were in summer uniform, because when we left Manila it was hot. No one had any winter uniforms, and to make it worse, the truck that was to pick us up was about an hour late because of the weather.

There were no intact buildings in which to take shelter. Even if there had been, they would have been off limits because of live ordnance - unexploded tools of war like aerial bombs, artillery shells, land mines, booby traps, and grenades.

On the way to the 9th Station Hospital, my new assignment, I did not see any signs of the things my old soldier friend had described. All I saw was a devastated Naha.

To make things still worse, there were some renegade Japanese soldiers around who would not believe the war was over. So much for my introduction to the "Pearl of the Orient." I should have known better, I guess, than to expect a tropical garden paradise.

From my Quonset hut quarters, I was unexpectedly selected along with three nurses to dispense shots for some sort of health condition prevalent among the native people of Okinawa. This inoculation was given to all the military and civilian personnel on the island, and took the four of us 3 1/2 days at 10 hours a day to complete this program. I could not help but wonder what brought on the health condition - was it from the land, the food, or just something that existed on this island?

There was not anything too obscure about gardening on the island, except when we were on the beach I would see the native people pass by carrying fresh vegetables. What got my attention was the size of these vegetables. They had carrots that were 2 to 3 inches in diameter and 12 to 15 inches long, and cabbages that weighed about 7 to 10 pounds. Everything they had was the largest I had ever seen, then and now.

There was an off-limits and non-fraternization rule in effect, and, therefore, I was not able to find out anything about these large vegetables from the people. Later I found out there was a community garden somewhere up the beach. It was being fertilized by human waste, that being the reason for the large size of these vegetables. I also learned using human waste was a way of life for the Japanese people. In fact, collecting and distributing human waste was a commercial industry at that time.

At the end of 1947 I was transferred to Manila, Philippines, into the American graves registration detachment of the Quartermaster Corps of the U.S. Army. The purpose of the American graves registration was to locate, identify and repatriate the remains of allied persons in the whole South Pacific area. Having medical training, I was assigned to the identification section.

As with many veterans, I have memories that molded me and left lasting impressions. For certain, I saw firsthand the price of freedom and what being an American was all about.

There are various stories that I could tell about my experiences in this unit. I will briefly tell one about the significance of a soldier being laid to rest in a U.S. military cemetery.

During World War II, the U.S. government would sell war bonds in order to get money to support the war. Usually the drives would relay a story of heroism about some military unit or a particular person. One of these stories was about a U.S. Army Air Corps Captain, who I will call "C.K."

It was said that he was a pilot of a B-17 bomber from an airbase on Luzon Island in the Philippines who crashed his disabled plane into a Japanese war ship and sank it. I remembered his name, and years later as I was in the huge military cemetery in Manila, I saw a grave marker with this name, "C.K."

I found out that this was the same Captain "C.K." who was buried in the cemetery. In talking with fellow older soldiers in my unit, I found out that instead of the tale told about him, his flight went astray and his plane exploded over the ocean. Most of his remains were later recovered by a graves registration unit much like the one to which we were assigned.

In wartime it is a given that there will be casualties, and in this case, those responsible for recovery and repatriation brought positively identified remains of this American soldier to rest at a U.S. military cemetery, bringing him as close to his land as possible at that time.

All American soldiers buried in Manila were later re-interred in Hawaii when the Philippines gained its independence and was no longer considered American soil.

Many times nothing more is ever known of what actually took place, but being laid to rest in what is American soil was the necessary honor for a fallen soldier. This practice embraced my already patriotic tie to my homeland.

Tomorrow: Lessons from the land.

War makes one appreciate the U.S. - and gardens
  Victoria gardener and veteran used his experiences overseas to cultivate a yearning for fresh produce

November 12, 2004

by Edwin "Ed" Gregurek

Editor's Note: This is the second of two parts. The author is a World War II veteran and a Victoria County master gardener.

In wartime there are unexpected things encountered at any given time or place. The second story I will share was due to my next very unlikely assignment - when a group of us from my unit were sent on a search-and-recovery mission to Port Morsby, on the southernmost part of New Guinea, across the great Barrier Reef from York Peninsula and northeast of Darwin, Australia. The area of search was about 45 miles into the pristine jungles of New Guinea, where life was very primitive.

As we approached this particular village, consisting of huts made of natural grass and parts of various kinds of plants, a native came running to meet us. After talking to our guide and interpreter, we followed him to a particular hut. These people knew why we were coming, so we assumed that he was going to lead us to American remains. We entered into the hut, however, and little did we know his purpose was to show us he had a Singer sewing machine. We never did get the full story of how he got it, but the whole experience reinforced the significance of being American in a faraway place.

During 1947-48, I traveled the Philippines from Northern Luzon to the southernmost part of the islands and never did I see any signs of any type of gardening or farming projects, except for rice paddies - rice paddies were everywhere! There were coconut plantations, consisting of 10 to 15 acres, and also banana trees growing in the wild. From what I was able to observe, these people's diet consisted mostly of rice, fish, fowl and fruit. I did not see any form of fresh vegetables in any of the open markets in any of the villages. I did not see any type of food products made from the coconut, except for the oil used for cooking. The coconut was cultivated for the fiber that surrounded the fruit. It was used to make a type of rope, called manila rope. The coconut, when ripe and dried, was used to make an alcoholic drink, the foulest-smelling and -tasting liquid I had ever encountered, which made the people very drunk and I think had some mind-altering effects as well.

In some of the coconut groves I noticed straight lines of dead coconut trees. I asked what kind of disease caused this, and I was told it was a result of strafing from fighter planes. They told me once a tree sustained any type of damage to its trunk, even minor in nature, it would die. This is exactly what I was seeing.

Traveling the northern, eastern and southern coasts of New Guinea, I did not encounter any type of agriculture or gardening at any of the places we stopped. There were some settlements of Anglo Europeans living there, and they had everything they needed shipped to them from Australia or Europe. Even in Port Morsby, which had quite a number of Anglos living there, there was not any type of gardening. The natives, on the other hand, lived primitively and strictly off the land. They had a "F" and "C" diet; what they could "find or catch" was what was for dinner.

While many of the places I visited did not have gardening, as we would know it, each did seem to have its own vegetation, which was consumed by the native people. At one time we had to stay on a little island about 100 yards wide and half a mile long, called Doom, while waiting for supplies. In that part of the world, just about on the equator, the tide would fall and rise 6 to 8 feet at certain times of the year. Whenever the tide was out, I would notice the people of this island in the tidal area harvesting what they called a sea cucumber. The plant had leaves that resembled a cucumber; the fruit was a sort of twisted and distorted resemblance of our cucumber. They would put these out in the sun to dry, which produced a very foul odor until it was completely dried - and then eaten. This was a far cry from cucumbers grown in gardens at home, but it was a form of produce from the land - and sea.

I will conclude my stories of military travel with the observation that in all of the places that I had been, I did not ever see a cow or a horse. I wondered why they were not present - and came to the conclusion at that time that perhaps they were consumed during the Japanese occupation of these places. I to this day do not know this to be the case, but I have my suspicions.

Seeing all those countries and people without gardens and fresh produce made me yearn for the American dream - getting back and living off the land. I returned home from overseas with a clear understanding of the experience and effects of war. My observations of foreign lands, ways of life, and even gardening activities made me even more grateful to be an American. Back at home I had the opportunity and freedom to acquire an education and obtained my degree in 1953, moving to Victoria in 1954. I have always remained close to the land - and throughout my life and career as a pharmacist have continued to garden.

We always had a spring and fall garden. That meant I had to till and fertilize and take care of it for two seasons. We always planted the seeds and plants into flat ground, never using built-up rows. It seemed to work well and was a little less work for me. We gardened this way for 45 years and always made a decent amount of vegetables.

What I have observed since then is a combination of both old and new in today's gardening. As recently as 1999, I learned something new to me. I read about no-till farming, so I thought I would apply this principle of gardening, which I have now done for the past four years. Reduced tillage in the soil prevents destruction of microorganisms and structure of the soil.

In the fall when people put their bags and leaves out for disposal, I pick them up and use them to provide nutrients and mulch for the garden. I put a 6-inch layer of leaves all over the garden and then run a mulching mower over them. This reduces the leaves to a 1-inch layer. Then I use a small tiller and work these leaf fragments 1 to 2 inches deep into the soil. After a rain or watering, this turns into mulch in which I plant seeds or seedlings, the same way as planting in a deep-tilled soil.

Since I began reduced tillage in my garden, I have very few weeds, a lot fewer insects of all kinds, no nematodes on my tomato and okra plants, and I have the same amount or more production as a deep-tilled and fertilized garden. It is something to think about for the backyard gardener; saving the time, expense and effort of tilling, fertilizing and pesticides - and still producing plenty of vegetables.

For years on weekends I would listen to broadcast gardening programs, and acquire and apply new information and techniques to my skills. The no-till principle was such an example of the various up-to-date gardening methods like those I learned about in the master gardener program. In the past seven years, I have participated in new practices that I otherwise would not have experienced. It is Texas A&M and the Victoria County Extension Master Gardener program which have given me opportunities and new friends involved in good gardening practices.

From this war veteran to each of you - old and young gardeners at peace on American soil - I would encourage you to plant a garden of flowers, vegetables or other plants to enrich your personal environment around you - and look into being a master gardener. It is a very rewarding and learning experience that will bring you closer to your land.

And more importantly, I hope you will never forget the significance of Veterans Day. It is the one day set aside to honor and thank those Americans who have ensured freedom to people all over the world. Freedom is not to be taken lightly, nor is the tie to the land which has sustained me all of my days.