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02-22-06, 06:06 AM
Retired nurse visits World War II sites
Advocate staff writer
Published: Feb 22, 2006

Because her father worked in the oil industry, Eleanor Bertrand spent much of her childhood in China and the Philippines. Her family’s travels took her to the sites of several World War II battles.

As she neared retirement as a nurse in 2003, Bertrand wanted to see some of these places again. Finding Military Historical Tours on the Internet, she booked trips that included the Philippines and Iwo Jima. But it wasn’t these sights that made the trip memorable for her.

It was the men who had served there.

Now in their late 70s or early 80s, they were returning to places where they fought and suffered, where they lost comrades and suffered wounds. They were graying, frailer shells of the young men who beat back a determined enemy, but their memories were clear, and they told Bertrand vivid accounts of their experiences. This made her want to come back and hear more.

And that is what Bertrand has done. She has made four trips to the Pacific battle sites and is about to depart on another to Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Iwo Jima. Once MHT learned of her nursing skills and her interest in the veterans and their stories, they offered to comp her trips so she could provide assistance if needed in areas far from medical facilities.

“I’m having a bit of heaven on Earth — not that I don’t work my backside off,” Bertrand said. “But still, to be of service to these great men, and they are so humble. They are just amazing.”

The trip to the Philippines featured the Bataan Death March route taken by American and Filipino soldiers captured in 1942. Those soldiers had held out for four months and, weakened by malnutrition and disease, were force-marched for days without food or water. Those who fell by the wayside were summarily executed. The cruelty of that march and of prison conditions those soldiers faced was such that Japanese Gen.

Masaharu Homma was executed for war crimes after Japan’s surrender.

Bertrand said one veteran on the trip said that he weighed 180 pounds before the war but only 85 pounds when liberated. He mentioned how wrenching it was to surrender, especially when forced to give up his rifle.

“He said no one will ever understand what that does to you to turn that loose,” Bertrand said. “It’s like you losing a part of your body.”

Her trips to Iwo Jima have allowed Bertrand to meet more veterans who were part of the bloody 36-day battle that began on Feb. 19, 1945. Japanese defenders were well dug-in, and Marines landing on the beach were subjected to intense fire from bunkers and emplacements on Mt. Suribachi. The coarse volcanic sand made it difficult for the Marines to move quickly or dig effective foxholes. One-third of the Marines who landed became battle casualties.

One of the survivors Bertrand met on her first trip was George Gentile of Newellton, Conn. After she learned that he had cancer and lacked stamina from his chemotherapy treatments, she stayed close by him. At one point, Gentile saw a boulder on the beach that served as a landmark. He had landed on the other side of the boulder, and his best friend was killed as soon as they hit the beach.

“He said he literally was blown apart,” Bertrand said. “He said they couldn’t even find any limbs. All they found were his dog tags. My throat stayed so full that day with him.”

A ritual for the returning veterans is to collect some of the island’s sand. A Marine who served as part of the honor guard for the tour drove Gentile, Bertrand and another tour member, Jim Beier, down the beach so Gentile could collect his sand where they had landed.

“It was a sacred moment,” she said. “When George got out of that Humvee, I told Jim there is no way I’m going to get sand out there with him, because I knew what he was thinking. He was getting sand where he believed his buddy got killed.”

Instead, she took a photo of Gentile collecting his sand, and later walked to that spot and looked inland. A Japanese bunker remains visible, bearing testimony to how difficult the Marines’ mission had been.

“They were just dead meat,” she said. “They didn’t stand a prayer.”

As Bertrand learned, Gentile’s experience was all too common. Last year, she met Danny Thomas, a Wisconsin resident who was a Navy corpsman. As he reached the beach, he looked to his left and saw a soldier he knew who had landed earlier. At first glance, it looked like he was buried up to his waist, and Thomas yelled at him, then looked back to see if he was following.

“It was only then I saw the rest of him, his legs and intestines scattered out behind him,” he told Bertrand. “I remember falling to my knees and losing my breakfast. Between retchings, I screamed, ‘Damn them! Damn them! Please, God, damn them!’”

The only Louisiana native Bertrand has met on her trips is Jim Huff of Ferriday. He spent the first day of the Iwo Jima invasion on a landing craft that circled while waiting to be called to shore. It wasn’t, so it returned to a ship, and the Marines tried again the next day. Huff recalled that some men died before even getting near the beach.

“I never gave any thought to how it must have been climbing that rope ladder with 80 pounds of equipment and a rifle, and seeing buddies drop off and drown right there,” Bertrand said. “He said the seas were rough.”

The annual trips to the islands includes a ceremony honoring those who served at Iwo Jima, and is attended by Japanese as well as American veterans. The current-day Marines who form the honor guards treat the older veterans with great reverence, Bertrand said.

It mirrors her own feelings. Bertrand said that when she was a child, one of the first things her mother would do when they arrived in a new country was to make sure the children saw the American consulate so they would know where to go if they got separated or lost.

“Standing outside of the consulate were two Marines in full dress uniform,” Bertrand said. “So, the message given to me early in life was that the military were good men who would protect me. I have loved them ever since.”

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