Eugene Stolze was just 17, and a high school senior in Albertlea, Minnesota, when he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Air Force.
“Half the guys in my class dropped out of school to join up,” the 90-year-old Jacksonville resident recalled. “I quit school because I was afraid I would not get there in time!”
“There” was World War II, which had ended in 1945, but in 1946 – when the youth enlisted – the military was still serving abroad as part of post-war recovery efforts.
“Many of us wanted to join before the war ended, so we rushed to join,” he said, adding that “at home, everybody – I mean everybody – sacrificed (and) they meant it. We were a solid bunch.”
Stolze attended bootcamp at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, then went to Denver for additional training as a mechanic. He served a total of three years in the service, eventually attaining rank of sergeant.
His first overseas assignments were in Guam, then Japan, stationed there for a total of 19 months.
On Guam, he was a general mechanic, “working with all kinds of things” while in charge of the base motor pool.
As a U.S. citizen working in an area that was part of the theater of war, Stolze didn’t know what to expect, so he was surprised by “the attitude of the people” on both islands.
“When we first went over, we thought, 'Oh boy, they're going to hate us.'”
However, “there was not too much interaction (with them, because) the military was kept pretty much away from the civilians. We stayed strictly on military bases,” Stolze said, adding that still, “(the civilians) were polite and welcoming.”
The airmen stationed on Guam had heard stories about Japanese soldiers – some even with families – who remained on the island, refusing to believe that the war was over and their country had surrendered.
There were stories about how some chose suicide over surrender: “Some (families) would commit suicide, even though they were told, ‘Surrender, we’ll feed you and stuff,’ but they were dedicated (to their cause for their homeland),” he said. “It was sad.”
Then there were the soldiers who lived in hiding while on the island, and “I’m sure there have been some who died of old age out there. They never gave up. Understand, the Japanese were as dedicated in their cause as we were in ours,” he said.
Although he never saw any of these soldiers, from time to time, there were traces of their existence.
“Oh, there were still Japanese on Guam. If you'd go swimming, a few miles down the beach, there would be Japanese swimming down there, too. Or you'd find a (camp) fire and a bowl of rice sitting there, but never find nobody. They just disappeared. They didn't want to be seen,” he recalled. “You could never catch sight of them.”
Another, more “up-close” contact with the elusive Japanese soldiers took place one day when “we had a vehicle with a windshield shot out – we took a wrong turn on the beach, we were too close to something,” Stolze said. “They didn’t hurt anything, but we got out of there!”
His tour of Japan included catching a glimpse of Gen. Douglas McArthur, a five-star Army general who was Field Marshal of the Philippine Army during the war.
Stolze was in downtown Tokyo when he spotted the general’s vehicle: “You had to snap to, come to attention (and salute) as he went by.”
In Japan, there was slightly more contact with the native contractors who were on base as part of construction crews.
Because their country had been ravaged by war, “they had absolutely nothing,” Stolze said, recalling how rations and supplies did not go to waste, but instead benefitted the natives working on base. “We fed the Japanese population … (with leftovers from) our mess hall, we fed the population. Hardly anything was thrown away. They didn't have nothing; they were desolate,” he said.
As heart-breaking as the sight was, it was something “you expected to see” due to the war, he said.
When Stolze returned to Minnesota, he married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, and the couple had 10 children.
In 1982, at the advice of a friend, the couple moved to East Texas, where Stolze began working at MediVac, a company owned by Robert Nichols.