WWII vets deserve attention, salute
PHOTO: World War II vet Eugene Goudeau of Orange points to himself in a 1944 photo of the destroyer USS Dyson.
Dave Rogers – For the Record
The heroes of the Greatest Generation are quickly disappearing.
When people pause Friday to offer a Veterans Day recognition to American veterans of all wars, less than 4 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II will be around to be saluted.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says there are 620,000 U.S. vets still alive who served or fought in the war against Germany and Japan in 1941-45.
All of those figure to be age 90 or older.
Those government statistics also show those vets are dying at a rate of 372 each day, which is more than the 297 American servicemen that died each day during World War II.
“We probably (only) have maybe four or five,” World War II vets in Orange County, said Mark Hammer, who runs Orange County’s state veterans office, 10984 FM 1442.
“This veteran in my office says that was a real war – a world war and not a conflict like we’re doing now.”
The war was certainly real for Orange’s Eugene Goudeau.
“My life was in danger for 24 hours a day for three years,” the DuPont retiree said.
“God blessed me in many ways. I’m not supposed to be here from what I went through in the war.”
The 92-year-old Goudeau, who grew up in “company housing” near the Port of Orange because his father worked at the Lutcher-Moore sawmill, enlisted in the Navy in 1942.
He served throughout the war as a crewman on the USS Dyson, a destroyer that saw action in the Pacific Theater in 11 major campaigns and 27 direct combat battles.
The ship was built in Orange, at the Consolidated Steel Corp. shipyard. Goudeau’s first assignment after graduating from boot camp at Great Lakes (Ill.) Naval Station was to join his new crewmates in Orange to take the Dyson on a shakedown to Cuba and then to the Pacific.
The Dyson was part of Destroyer Squadron 23, which earned a Presidential Unit Citation for its service in the Solomon Island Campaign over a four-month period from Oct. 1943 through Feb. 1944.
James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy, said the sailors and their commanders showed “extraordinary heroism in action … boldly penetrating submarine-infested waters during a period when Japanese naval and airpower was at its height … to carry out sustained bombardments against Japanese coastal defenses and render effective cover and fire support for the major invasion operations in this area.
“ … They countered the enemy’s fierce aerial bombing attacks and destroyed or routed his planes; they intercepted his surface task forces, sank or damaged his warships by torpedo fire and prevented interference with our transports.”
As covered in the citation, a destroyer was the jack-of-all-trades in the Navy. It was able to use its five 5-inch-38-caliber guns for ship-to-shore bombardments, ship-to-ship battles and anti-aircraft fire that successfully shot down many an attacking fighter plane. Near the end of the war, the Dyson’s gunners fought off several kamikaze-style attacks by suicide planes.
The near-misses are not things Goudeau enjoys thinking about.
But his biggest take-away from the whole experience was a sense of claustrophobia. The destroyers were 396 feet long but only 39 feet at their widest point and there were 329 men and officers in a crew.
Goudeau’s battle station was as a sight setter for one of the 5-inch guns. He worked with a crew of more than a dozen men totally encased in a rotating steel enclosure around the gun mount. He used radar to sight the gun.
“I really didn’t see any action,” he joked. “A few times the gun captain would open his hatch so we could see.”
After returning with his ship to New York in 1946, Goudeau came back to Orange. After a period of readjustment and odd jobs, he hired on at DuPont in 1948. He worked at the company’s Sabine River Works as a general mechanic until retiring in 1982.
He married and had a family, three girls and a son. His wife died a year ago but his children and grandchildren keep him busy.
Almost 20 years ago, TV newsman Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “Greatest Generation” to describe American citizens who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America.
It’s clear the soft-spoken Goudeau doesn’t consider himself ‘great.”
Noting that his rank in the Navy was Seaman First Class, he said, “That’s all I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be involved in anything that’d be too much responsibility — except doing my part.”
But from having a father that worked in the sawmill, to boarding a warship at a Port of Orange shipyard, to working for DuPont on Chemical Road, Goudeau has touched all the bases of a century of economic booms in his hometown.
He didn’t know the hard times of the Depression, though.
“During the Depression, my daddy had a job. When the mill shut down in the early 30s, he got another job right away as a night watchman,” Goudeau said.
“We didn’t have it all that hard. We didn’t have it all that good, either.”
Goudeau said one of his best friends growing up was a boy his own age, Douglas Goodman. They were neighbors when they were young, then got separated by a couple of family moves only to wind up in the same neighborhood as 17-year-olds.
“We’d meet up, go shoot some pool, look at girls,” Goudeau recalled. “We started to learn to dance. We went to a party now and then.”
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, the conversation between the two turned to enlisting in the service rather than waiting to be drafted. You could pick your branch of service if you enlisted but not if you were drafted.
“We got to talking about what service we wanted to be in,” Goudeau recalled.
“We talked about the merchant marines, but the Germans were sinking those ships every day. We talked about the Air Corps, but they were shooting down planes.
“We didn’t want to join the Army, so we just decided to join the Navy.”
The two 18-year-olds enlisted together, and were shipped to the training base at Great Lakes together. At the end of basic training, they returned to base after 10-day leaves and they were shipped to opposite sides of the globe.
The two friends never saw or spoke with each other again.
“I got word he went to the Atlantic,” Goudeau said. “Then after the war, I heard he got killed during the invasion of France.
“But my family didn’t know much more than that, and I never knew anything, until a while back.”
On a summer morning earlier this year, around the June 6 anniversary of the Allied D-Day invasion of German-held France in 1944, Goudeau noticed the TV in his home was featuring a show remembering the event. The camera shots were from the American Military Cemetery in Normandy, France.
“They were interviewing soldiers and sailors that were in the landing and the camera moved to a graveyard and showed thousands of white crosses,” the vet said.
The program next featured more veteran interviews. Then it cut to a white wall, identified as a list of Navy dead.
“They had hundreds of names. No way you could read them,” Goudeau said. “But they kept scanning to the other end of the wall, and in the corner, it was plain as anything: I saw G-O-O-D-M-A-N, Douglas D.
“No question that was his name.”
Goudeau hadn’t thought of his old friend in decades.
“I kind of feel a spiritual something to it,” he said. “If I hadn’t been sitting there when I was, I’d have missed it.”
Now the old Navy man would like to know more about what happened to Goodman, but says he doesn’t know how to contact Goodman’s family members.
After nearly a century on the planet, the list of folks with similar experiences is a short one.
“I don’t know any other World War II vets,” Goudeau admitted.
“The last one I knew died two years ago. He was in some of the same battles I was in. We had a lot of things to talk about.”
Recently, Goudeau says, he’s had no shortage of people wanting to hear his war stories. And for good reason.
The “Greatest Generation” is disappearing. Catch them while you can.