Veterans of foreign wars share stories with Blaine students

Published on Wed, Nov 10, 2010 by By Jeremy Schwartz

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In honor of Veteran’s Day, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post 9474 in Custer and American Legion Post 86 in Birch Bay met with students at schools in Blaine and Custer on Wednesday to share their experiences in the U.S. armed services.

On Monday, seven members of VFW post 9474 sat down with The Northern Light at the VFW building in Custer to talk about the time they spent in the armed forces. 

Rodney DeMent, 88, is a Blaine resident who served in the Army from 1942 to 1945. DeMent was stationed in the South Pacific and saw action at Guadalcanal. He had few positive things to say about his experiences fighting in the South Pacific.
“For many years, I had hatred for the Japanese,” he said. “But the one that was hurting was me.”

After he got back to the states, DeMent spent 30 years working for Burlington Northern railroad. His family has been living in Blaine for seven generations.

One of the few remaining World War II veterans living in the area besides DeMent, Francis Russell, 85, now lives in Ferndale and served as a cook in the Navy in World War II.

While sailing on the U.S.S. Alabama in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, Russell would wake up at 3 a.m. every morning to make breakfast for the crew.

“We always had plenty to eat,” he said with a laugh.

The U.S.S. Alabama protected aircraft carriers in the South Pacific until the war ended. After he got home, Russell, who was born just south of Custer, settled down in Ferndale with his wife from Bellingham.

Though he tries to make it back to the U.S.S. Alabama, now a floating museum in Mobile, Alabama, a few times a year, Russell said he does not keep in much contact with the men with whom he served. He said he bets there are less than 50 men left who sailed with him on the Alabama.

Al Shaulis, the commander at VFW post 9474, joined the Army Air Corps in 1947 when he was 17. Shaulis went through basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and was shipped to McChord Air Force base on October 30, 1947.

Shaulis worked in ground radar for all 22 years of his service. His first overseas deployment was part of the Berlin airlift operation in 1948, though he made the trip to Germany by ship across the rough waters of the Atlantic.

“I was never so sick in my life as I was on that ship,” he laughed. “That ship did just about everything but sink.”

After being deployed in Washington, Shaulis was sent to Okinawa in 1950 as part of a support group during the Korean War. He  eventually served in Vietnam for a year’s tour of duty.

Shaulis was honorably discharged in 1969 after achieving the rank of master sergeant.

Originally from Pennsylvania, he decided to settle in Blaine after he became familiar with the area through his stateside deployments. Shaulis said his time in the service was incredibly positive and taught him a great deal about discipline and leadership.

Ken Eiriksson, 79, grew up on a farm in south Blaine and said he was the only one among his friends who did not like fishing or boats.

Because of this, Eiriksson decided to join the Air Force in 1950 after high school even though most of his classmates went into the Navy.

After taking basic training in Colorado, he was taught how to hang bombs and fix machine guns. In 1951, he was shipped to Seoul, South Korea as part of a fighter wing and spent a year there.

Once he got back from Korea, Eiriksson was bounced around from New York to Alaska to Colorado Springs, all the while working as a typist and combat reporter. He had never touched a typewriter in his life before he got to the Air Force.

His final deployment was at Paine Field in Everett in 1966. After Paine closed, Eiriksson went to Florida and retired in 1971. Now living in Blaine, Eiriksson’s time in the service often presented him with one surprise after another.

“You woke up in the morning [and] you never new what you were going to do that day,” he remarked.

Don Swobody, 77, spent 20 years in the Navy and now lives in Ferndale. After graduating from Ferndale high school, he enlisted in 1952. He was stationed on nearly every sort of ship there was, from an aircraft carrier to a tugboat.  

Swobody spent the majority of his time in the Navy on minesweeping ships off the coast of Vietnam.  

J.C. Dixon, 76, spent nine years in the Air Force and 14 years in the Navy. He was first stationed at Lackland Air Force base in his home state of Texas.

After being transferred to Illinois where he took aircraft instrument training, he moved around to various bases in the U.S. and England until 1965.

He enlisted in the Navy in Denver in 1965 and was sent to Whidbey Island Naval base. From there he spent about four years in the South China Sea and Vietnam on three separate aircraft carriers.

After Vietnam, he was transferred to San Diego where he eventually retired in 1975. He ended up back in Blaine after finding a job in town. Dixon joked he planned to stay for only three weeks, but ended up hanging around much longer. He now lives in Bellingham.

Chuck Anway, 64, graduated from Bellingham High School in 1964 and enlisted in the Army that November. He went through basic training in Missouri and took advanced training as a multi-engine, fixed-wing aircraft mechanic in Virginia.

He served most of his time in the Army in Vietnam with a few transfers to bases in the states. His worst experience in Vietnam was at Khe Sanh, where he spent three weeks with enemy artillery shells flying over his head.

“We were told if you can hear them, you’re OK,” he said. “It’s the one you don’t hear that will get you.”

During their tour, Anway and many other soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange, an extremely toxic herbicide used by the Army during the Vietnam War as part of its herbicidal warfare program. Anway is considered an Agent Orange victim.
“[Khe Sanh] was just about the worst place I’ve ever been in my life,” he said.

Following his time in Vietnam, Anway served as an Army recruiter in Sacramento, California, and Germany. He retired in Colorado with rank of master sergeant in 1984.

Sandy Phillips, 63, spent 26 years in the Army, mostly in defense logistics. He also served in Vietnam as a door gunner on Huey helicopters. He retired in 1992 and moved to Blaine because it was the closest he could get to Alaska.

Phillips said the importance of Veteran’s Day extends to more than the men and women of the armed forces who have seen combat or have served in foreign wars.

He said everyone who raises their hand and takes the oath to defend their country is entitled to respect.

Veteran’s Day events

Veteran’s Day Memorial Services: Thursday, November 11, 11 a.m. A salute to our veterans. VFW Post 9474 and the American Legion Post #86. Blaine city hall, memorial park. 344 H Street.

Veteran’s Day Prime Rib Dinner: Friday, November 12, 7 p.m. Social hour 5 – 7 p.m. State senator elect Doug Ericksen and other dignitaries will be on hand to honor our veterans. Cost $7. Open to the public. American Legion Post 86, 4580 Legion Drive, Blaine.

Mt. Baker Toppers Musical Salute to Veterans: Friday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m. Mt. Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial Street, Bellingham.

Tickets are $15, $18, and $24 at www.mountbakertheatre.com or at the door. Free to members in uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces, Reserves or National Guard.