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thedrifter
03-14-09, 09:37 AM
Not fading away: old soldier, Cecil Garl, tells tale of extraordinary life
Posted by Jared Field | The Clio Messenger March 13, 2009 11:06AM

THETFORD TOWNSHIP, Michigan -- It was Nov. 20, 1943, quite possibly the day the boy became a man.

And it wasn't the fact that Cecil Garl's first combat action came on the morning of his 19th birthday, either.

Wars are commanded by the old and waged by the young, including the best and brightest like Garl, who voluntarily joined the U.S. Marines Corps in 1942 in the midst of World War II.

"At that age, you're kind of gung-ho about joining the military," said the 84-year-old Garl, who said a lot of young men his age were compelled to enlist by the attack on Pearl Harbor in the winter of 1941. "It was scary, but it's good for that, making a man out of a boy."

Born in Colorado, Garl, a longtime Thetford Township resident, came to Michigan to be raised by his uncle when he was 9 years old. His father died when he was 2 after a farming accident, and his mother couldn't afford to care for four children during the Great Depression.

So off he went.

After graduating from Central High School in Lansing, Garl joined the Marines, went to boot camp in San Diego and, just two weeks later, was on the deck of a battleship taking shots at Japanese fighter plains in the Pacific.

Manning a 20 mm machine gun was Garl's job throughout his more than two years in the Marines, guarding his detachment aboard the USS Mississippi from frequent Kamikaze attacks from the air.

"It was like some of these old-time shooting galleries that you go to when you're a kid -- same thing," said Garl, who went on to earn the rank of corporal. "We got hit by two of them. It was kind of an exciting thing to be out there. ... It'll give you a rush."

Garl, who was burned during his sleep in one of the Kamikaze attacks on the Mississippi, served all over the Pacific Theater, from the Marshall Islands to Okinawa, Japan.

He remembers vividly the sleepless nights in the hold of the Mississippi, listening as shells penetrated the night sky.

"You couldn't see where they were coming from or where they were going," he said. "You'd hear a whistle, and you didn't know whether you were going to get hit or if it would miss you. So that was probably the most tense part of the whole thing, because you couldn't see what was going on."

To this day, Garl hasn't seen a show to equal the one that lit up the night sky in Okinawa after the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagaski finally brought the Axis empire to its knees.

It was sheer excitement that kept the men up that night.

"If you think you seen skyrockets and fireworks today, I can tell you it was something else that night," said Garl, who recalls being alerted over the Mississippi's public address system about the bombings. "People were shooting off everything they could think of."

The decision to bomb the two Japanese cities has generated more study and critique than perhaps any military maneuver in American history. Garl, for his part, believes the attacks actually saved lives.

"There's been a lot of talk about how it might have been inhumane, but in the long run it saved thousands of lives -- Japanese and American," he said. "If we'd have had to invade Japan, there would have been a lot more people dead."

After his hitch was over, Garl docked in the Port of New Orleans and, on the advice of a friend, went to see about a girl.

It was on a blind double date in the French Quarter that Garl met Irene, thereafter known as the girl of his dreams. Seven days later, the couple was married in the home of her parents.

"It was just love at first sight, I guess," said Garl, whose wedding was officiated by a female pastor -- scandalous by 1943 standards. "We just clicked together. It was just natural for both of us."

The two were married for 51 years before Irene died in 1997.

Garl's keen business sense took the couple all over the country, making ends meet doing everything from hocking hosiery (before Hanes and its "eggshell" pantyhose put him out of business), to managing restaurants and prospecting for oil in Utah.

These days, Garl splits his time working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1452 in Vienna Township and making appearances at Thetford Township Hall, where he is the acting deputy supervisor.

With 21 years of experience as a trustee and another year as full-time supervisor, there's no doubt the old soldier can handle anything that comes his way.

Ellie