Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Fighting at 14 — Cooper Landing man got early start in service
By Clark Fair
These days, 77-year-old Elzie Eugene (“Gene”) Wheeler likes to relax and admire the view from his home in the Cooper Landing senior-housing development known as Senior Haven. When he was in seventh grade back in tiny Tonkawa, Okla., however, he was “bored” with the pace of his life and began making decisions that would change his life forever.
An increasingly antsy Wheeler, who said he was larger and felt more mature than his classmates, began hanging out with 17- and 18-year-olds. When some of these older friends began enlisting in the military, he became determined to do the same.
In 1946, one year removed from America’s victory in World War II, Wheeler (at this point 14 years old) made a conscious decision he now refers to as “joining the Liars Club.”
“There were five of us wanting to enlist, so we went to a Navy recruiting office,” he said. “The recruiter asked us what we were doing at the time. It was February, and three of us were still in school; two were seniors, and I was in the ninth grade. He told us to stay in school and come back in June.”
Such advice did not jibe with their plans. They learned that some Army recruiters were in town, so they tried again. This time, they all claimed to be out of school and ready to serve their country, so the recruiter started the paperwork, warning them that they would need parental consent if they were not yet 18.
“I knew that my parents wouldn’t sign for me, so I did some fast thinking and told the recruiter that I would be 18 on March 21,” Wheeler said.
The truth was that his birthday was Aug. 25, when he would turn 15. But on March 21 he went to the Selective Service office to register.
“A lady asked if she could help me, and I told her I need to register. She asked, ‘When is your birthday?’ I replied, ‘Today.’ She filled out the papers and gave me my draft card.”
The five boys traveled five days later to Oklahoma City and were sworn in at 5 p.m. Then they were directed onto buses and transported to Camp Chaffee, Ark. Wheeler and two of the other original five friends had enlisted for three years and were assigned to the Army Air Forces; the remaining two friends were assigned to artillery.
On his fourth day in uniform, Wheeler was assigned to guard a work detail of four German prisoners who were filling out their time before being sent home overseas. Soon he was shipped off to train at Sheppard Field, Texas, where he was not the only underage trainee, but was the youngest.
It was about this time his parents learned what had become of their son.
“My parents found out where I was when the Army mailed my civilian clothes home,” he said. “My mother went to the school superintendent for advice on how to get me out of the Army.
“He suggested that she consider leaving me where I was. He told her he couldn’t keep me in school, and perhaps it was best that I stay in the Army. She agreed.”
Wheeler soon began training to become a medic. During this time, at Shaw Field, S.C., in early 1947, he got a pass off base and took a girl he had met on a date in town, but the date didn’t turn out as he had planned.
“We went to the movies, and I was walking her home when a police car pulled up beside us,” he said. “They put us in the car, took my friend home, and took me to jail. I was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The girl was 17 and we were out after curfew.
“The next morning, my commanding officer, who was also the hospital commander, came to the jail. When he was told what the charge was, I could hear him laughing. He told the police that they had the wrong one locked up. He knew that I was only 15.
“The charges were dropped, but every time the commander saw me going to town he told me to leave the young ones alone.”
In the end, Wheeler served for 20 years, one month and three days, retiring from the military June 30, 1966, at the ripe old age of 34. He had served through the Korean War and the early years of the Vietnam War. He traveled all over the world, acting mainly as a medical technician.
Ten days after retiring, Wheeler went to work for a large nonprofit group that operated hospitals. He did administrative work in Wyoming before coming to Soldotna to help complete and open Central Peninsula General Hospital in 1971.
Although he would continue to work and travel around the country for nearly the next 30 years — as an insurance agent, a real estate agent and a hospital administrator — his time in Soldotna convinced him that the Kenai Peninsula was where he would retire.
In 2006, after seven years in Kenai, he and Anna, his wife of more than 50 years, came to Cooper Landing. They had planned to retire to a small cabin north of Kenai, but they are pleased with the community they now call home.
“I look down on the lake, and it’s beautiful,” Wheeler said. “I can sit here on my couch and look at the sheep on the mountains outside the window.”
In 1997, Wheeler contributed to a 660-page volume of personal stories written by men and women who had entered military service underage. The volume, now the first of three, was called “America’s Youngest Warriors” and was published by an organization called Veterans of Underage Military Service.
According to Wheeler, the VUMS has 2,000 members, the average age of which is in the mid-80s. The oldest living member — and the only one left from World War I — is a 107-year-old Virginia man.
Wheeler said he is proud to be a member of such a select group, and is pleased with the decision he made so many years ago.
“I got to do things I couldn’t have done any other way,” he said of his military career.
When asked whether he would do anything differently, if given the chance, he replied, “Probably signed up a year or two sooner.”