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‘I have great memories’: Doug Gwin, 96, remembers his Signal Corps service in Burma in the 1940s

Even before he was a veteran, Veterans Day (originally called Armistice Day) meant a lot to Doug Gwin.

His father drove an ammunition truck in World War I, and all of his uncles were veterans, too. His aunts married soldiers or sailors who had fought in World War I, so the military was strong in the family, though none of his relatives made a career out of it.

Gwin, 96, who now lives in Coeur d’Alene, was born in Pleasant Valley, California, and grew up in nearby Folsom. His dad worked at the prison as a locomotive engineer, so Gwin and his family lived in one of the more than 100 houses inside the first wall of the prison.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, how could you be raised in a prison and have a good life?’ ” he said. “But we were free to come and go as we pleased, and talk about security! Nobody could get into that front gate unless they had a reason to get there.”

Gwin had a lot of friends and was an active student, playing basketball, baseball and football and running track. After graduating high school, he worked for a summer for Pacific Telephone. He registered for the draft in July and began studying at Sacramento Junior College in the fall.

“By Christmas, I had my greetings from the president that I was about to be drafted,” Gwin said. “I was drafted on Jan. 13, 1943.”

Gwin was selected to be in the Signal Corps and went through basic training at Camp Kohler in California. After excelling at the Morse code tests he was given, Gwin was sent to radio school in Athens, Georgia. Gwin excelled there as well, passing 26 words a minute as a high-speed radio operator.

After graduation, Gwin was sent to Drew Field in Florida and assigned to the Tenth Air Force, which was operating in Burma.

The trip from California to Georgia to Florida was a long one, no doubt. But that was just the beginning of the journey for Gwin.

After three months in Florida, Gwin boarded a Liberty ship, the SS Henry W. Longfellow, named for the poet, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean into the Strait of Gibraltar through to the Mediterranean Sea. Gwin stayed in Oran, Algeria, through Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1942. In January, Gwin and his crew got on a British transport ship and went through the Suez Canal, through the Red Sea and into Bombay, India.

The men crossed India on a train, then rode a ferry boat up the Ganges River, a two-day trip. They then went up the Brahmaputra River, caught another train and then rode in G.I. trucks until they arrived in upper Assam in India, which was right on the Burmese border. Then the real work began.

Gwin was part of a ground observer unit, responsible for recording airplanes that flew overhead, both enemy and friendly, and sending that information via Morse code to headquarters at airfields.

“Radio operators would … tell them when an enemy plane was on its way,” Gwin said. “But we also reported friendly planes, because they wanted to know if that plane disappeared, where did it disappear, and that gave them an idea where to go look for them.”

After about six months, Japanese troops were pushed back enough to recover Myitkyina Airfield, which the Tenth Air Force was tasked with protecting. In July 1944, Gwin and his crew flew into the airfield and took a barge about 30 miles down the river, where Gwin remembers locals meeting them with five elephants to carry their equipment to their camp.

Day and night for a year, the crew reported the airplanes they saw – or, if it was dark, foggy or overcast, heard. The ground observers would take their spots on a ridge and report their sightings via telephone to the radio operators, who would send that information to headquarters. Using Morse code, radio operators would tell those at headquarters how many engines the plane had, whether it was friendly or hostile, which direction it was flying and how high it was.

“If they needed to scramble the pilots, they would scramble the pilots, and if they needed to, run for the trenches and jump in there so they wouldn’t get bombed,” Gwin said.

Gwin also would use the radio to communicate with Mark Bickley and Thurston La Ferney, two friends he made during basic training and radio school.

“You weren’t supposed to do that, but we did it anyway, and nobody complained,” Gwin said with a laugh. “We kept in contact even though we didn’t see each other for a year. We would talk with each other every week or two through Morse code.”

Gwin’s 10-person crew included three radio operators, three ground observers, a cook, a medic, a radio mechanic and a communications chief. Every two weeks or so, supplies were dropped to the unit by air. Red parachutes marked the item as flammable (typically the 50-gallon drums of gasoline sent down for the generator the crew used for the radio), while green parachutes meant medical supplies, and white parachutes marked shipments of food.

Gwin recalls locals loved American sugar, salt and flour. They also would make clothing from the parachutes. Gwin used to have a vest a local made from parachutes, but he wasn’t able to bring it home with him.

After a year in Burma, in April 1945, British troops said the team had done what they needed to do and were to return to India to wait for further instructions. Gwin spent that summer working as a radio operator at Dudhkundi Airfield. In August, the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Japan surrendered, Gwin and his crew, because they had been overseas for two years, were high priority to return home.

They traveled to Calcutta, waited for 15 to 20 days, then boarded a Navy transport ship.

“We retraced our steps from the way we went over there,” Gwin said.

On Nov. 1, 1945, the ship docked in New York Harbor.

“Boy, did they have a celebration waiting for us,” Gwin said. “They had all the fire boats shooting the water out there and the pretty girls in bathing suits waving.”

Those who lived on the West Coast were sent to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to wait for a plane to take them back home. A week later, Gwin was on his way to Camp Beale, now Beale Air Force Base.

“We got there at 4 in the morning, they started processing us right away, and by 4 o’clock that afternoon, I was a civilian,” Gwin said.

After so much time away, Gwin found it difficult to return to civilian life. His older brothers were still in the Navy, and his youngest brother, who would eventually join the Navy, was still in high school. He remembers finding it strange to see all the people in the stores he visited after he returned home. But Gwin reconnected with a group of 11 fellow servicemen who he grew up with, which helped him settle into civilian life.

“We got together when we got back home, and boy, we partied almost every night,” Gwin said with a laugh. “Lots of memories.”

Gwin also joined the China, Burma, India Veterans Association and often saw Bickley and La Ferney at the annual meetings. They would write and call one another in the meantime.

After his time in the military, Gwin couldn’t see himself going back to college, so he returned to work at Pacific Telephone. He started out as a lineman and traveled from town to town in Nevada, a lifestyle he really enjoyed.

After transferring back to California, while working in Santa Cruz, Gwin met his wife Jerri while she worked in a five-and-dime store, just like the song “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store),” as Gwin likes to point out.

Together they had a son, who is a cowboy in Wyoming, and a daughter, who lives in Bonners Ferry and visits Gwin every week. He also has numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Gwin retired from Pacific Telephone as a general foreman in 1980. Just before he retired, his son, who at the time was working for Pacific Telephone as well, started to think about finding a new place to raise his family. His neighbor suggested he talk with friends of his who were selling their auto shop in Bonners Ferry. Gwin’s son worked for the shop for six months before he bought it.

Gwin, then 55, and his wife, who died in 2011, decided to relocate to Bonners Ferry, too. Gwin pitched in at the auto shop for about five years before his son changed careers.

In 2010, Bickley asked Gwin if he’d like to participate in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

“He said, ‘I’m not going unless you go,’ ” Gwin said.

The pair, along with 35 other veterans and the caretakers who were assigned to them, flew to Washington and visited memorials and museums dedicated to the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines. They also watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Gwin brought a picture of him and Bickley that was taken at Drew Field in 1943, and the pair took another picture together during the trip. Bickley, who lived in Spokane, died in 2018.

“I can’t say enough about that Honor Flight crew,” Gwin said. “You do it all in one day. You’re on the move all the time.”

Veterans Day means a lot to Gwin, and he tries to donate to as many military causes as he can. He encourages others to help out, too. He enjoys the free breakfasts for veterans area care centers host once a month. because it gives him a chance to talk with other servicemen and women.

“There would be a couple dozen of us, sit around, talk forever, it seemed like,” Gwin said.

Outside those breakfasts, Gwin said he doesn’t talk about his experiences much, but when he finds a quiet moment, he can’t help but reminisce about the guys on his crew and the servicemen he worked with stateside.

“I have great memories,” Gwin said. “It’s a tragedy, so many boys didn’t come home, but I have some great memories of my experiences that I had in the States and overseas, too. Not all of them were good experiences, but most of them were. It depended on your attitude. Some guys don’t like anything. You can’t get their goat no matter what you do.

“I had great friends. There’s nothing like comradeship when you’re away from home like that and you’ve lost all of your family. Those were lifetime memories, and you never forget them.”

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