Three South Jordan veterans share stories of their serviceDec 10, 2020 09:54AM ● By Mariden Williams
“As a drill sergeant, you kind of have a different language than most people. You swear a lot,” according to WWII vet Bob Nixon. Scandalous! (Angelica Roman)
By Mariden Williams | [email protected]
State-imposed COVID-19 regulations cancelled the annual Veterans Day program at Riverway Assisted Living in South Jordan. But three veteran residents—Gordon Evans, Robert "Bob" Nixon and Marvin "Marv" Worthington—still wanted to share their thoughts and experiences with the rest of the world.
Gordon Evans, now 94, served during WWII as a sonar operator on the USS Vogelgesang, a Gearing-class destroyer.
“You had to have a musical background to operate the sonar, because you had to be able to tell notes apart from each other, the high notes from the low notes,” said Evans, who plays the cornet. “That was how you could tell if there was anything there. If it’s leaving it makes a lower note, and if it’s approaching, it makes a higher note, and that’s what's called the Doppler. So they only took people who knew music. My job was to defend the East Coast from submarines. So I wasn’t ever in any combat zones, but it was an important job. We were keeping the country safe."
When asked if he had any particular stories he wanted to share from his service, Evans' answer was forceful. "No! That was over 70 years ago,” he said. “But I loved my time in the Navy."
Bob Nixon, also a WWII vet, is 95 and still sharp as a tack. He joined the Army at age 18, and after completing basic training and noncommissioned officer school, he became a basic training instructor himself.
"My job was training all the soldiers who came in how to fight, how to shoot those guns—especially how to use their rifles, because most of them were from back east, and they had never seen a rifle,” Nixon said. “And so that was very interesting, because they had never ever even seen one, and now I was teaching them how to shoot one. There was one fellow I always told, 'Don't put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to shoot something,' and he pulled the trigger too soon anyway, and the bullet went right down about 3 feet in front of us. But that's, you know, one of the things that happens."
It didn't take Nixon too long to pick up the infamous drill sergeant mouth, much to his parents' dismay.
"This is kind of embarrassing, but it's the truth,” he said. “In those days, as a drill sergeant, you kind of have a different language than most people. You swear a lot. At the time I was in Aberdeen, Maryland, and so my folks flew out to be with me. And I'd always gone to another [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Satins] ward for church, because there were some cute girls there. But this time, my folks wanted to go to the church on the base. I said, 'I've never been there, but we'll go.' So we go. We start up the stairs into this building where the church was held. And some guy there said, ‘Sgt. Nixon is a Mormon? He's got the dirtiest mouth of anybody!’”
The night the first atomic bomb was dropped sticks out particularly clearly in his memory. At that point in time, the U.S. Army was getting ready to invade Japan, and Nixon was stationed in New York, helping to convert a 230-foot-long ship into a floating munitions warehouse.
"We used to go into New York [City] every night to goof around,” Nixon said. “Then we'd go back to our base, which was on Staten Island, and get ready for the next day.”
The night President Harry S. Truman dropped the bomb, Nixon and his buddies were hanging out on the roof of the Radio City Music Hall. They had been invited there by a friend of a friend who worked at the neighboring NBC building. And it was from this roof that one of Nixon's buddies happened to look down into Times Square and see that, despite the late hour, it was full of people—packed with them, and no cars to be seen.
"So we all ran over to that side of the building and looked on the Times building, and it said that the largest bomb ever dropped had destroyed an entire city," said Nixon. "Now, we were in the Ordnance Department. That's where they test bombs. And so as we went down the elevator of the NBC building, and we all said 'Hey, there's no way this is true. There is no bomb that could destroy a whole city.'"
But when they went downstairs and walked across Times Square, it became apparent that it was true all the same. "All the buildings had chain link fence across the windows—they expected people to break them, I guess," said Nixon. The place was full of soldiers and sailors in white hats and pretty young women, and there were stands giving out free sodas and hot dogs at each end of the square.
"So we got our hot dogs and started walking from the one end to the other," said Nixon. "And the place was just full of women. And women in those days, unlike today, they all had this bright red lipstick, you know, that would come off. And the girls were kissing the sailors, and they would wipe that red off into their hats, and see just how red they could get their hats to be. You know that famous picture in ‘Life’ magazine, of the sailor kissing the girl who's leaning way back? I walked right up behind him as he was taking that picture."
The next day, practically every house had a drunk person lying on its doorstep. But despite the celebrations, the war was not yet over, and Nixon's unit was shipped off to Japan.
"This was a scary time, because we went down through what they call the Bermuda Triangle,” Nixon said. “Supposedly, there's wild stories about ships that just disappear there. And we hit a huge storm. These waves were so large that my ship had to climb them, and after we got to the top, the ship would drop, and the propellers were spinning so fast that when they hit the water again they would jam." The storm broke the ship's driveline, and by the time it was repaired, the war was over, so they turned around and went home.
Marv Worthington, an 83-year-old Vietnam war veteran, also has some stories to tell. He joined the Marines at age 17, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers, who had fought in World War II. But instead of being sent to the battlefield, he was sent to Hawaii, where he was made part of the military police.
"I was a patrol driver,” Worthington said. “I drove the patrol vehicle all over the base, trying to keep things smooth." There was one part of the base barely anybody went to, because the jungle was so thick. The only people up there were military prisoners and their guards, there to do hard labor.
"One day I was patrolling up there, and I came up a hill and saw this prison guard with a shotgun, and four prisoners lying on the ground in the prone position, which is what they're commanded to do in emergencies,” Worthington said. “One of the others prisoners was standing off about 10 feet from the guard, and he had his double-bladed axe, which was meant for cutting vegetation. And he was standing with it raised above his head. And he was getting ready to split that guard in two. He was serious. I could see that there was nothing good going to come out of that situation, that I better shoot the prisoner and put an end to it."
Worthington immediately pulled over, jumped out of the vehicle and aimed his gun, which he kept loaded, at the prisoner's head.
"I was pulling the trigger, taking the slack out of it, and I kind of hesitated. I had it aimed at his temple, right here," said Worthington, indicating the location on his own head. "And it would have taken part of his head off. The bullet was about as big around as my thumb. The prisoner looked out of the corner of his eye and saw me, and then looked at the guard, who had a shotgun pointed at him, and I guess he could see that this just wasn't a good situation for him to be in, so he dropped the axe behind him and fell face-down on the ground."
A week later, the prisoner was court-martialed, and Worthington was called to serve as a witness. He didn't really want to testify against the prisoner, but he didn't have much choice.
"You don't really have a lot of freedom when you're in the military,” he said. “You do what they tell you to do. I was only 17, and I wasn't prepared for that kind of stuff. I was more prepared mentally to go into battle. And that's truly what I wanted—to prove myself in battle, you know, to prove that I was as good as my two brothers had been. They fought at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, and all these places, and I never got the opportunity to prove myself that way. Instead I nearly shot an imprisoned Marine and somehow ended up with the, what do you call it. PTSD." Here he looked around the assisted living center sadly. "That's part of why I'm in here."
Despite that traumatic incident, Worthington enjoyed the first three years of his service. By the fourth, though, he was getting pretty tired of it. So as soon as he had the option to swap from active duty to the reserves and go back home to California, he took it. He was fascinated by the planes they had at the base in California.
"They had what they called AD5N Skyraiders; they used them a lot in Vietnam,” he said. “I was taking flying lessons at the time, and I really wanted to get in one of those things. So he talked to the commanding officer of the company and got permission to do a ride-along in one. "I was a sergeant by that point, so they catered to me a little bit," he said.
He got all decked out with an oxygen mask, parachute and a too-small crash helmet, and strapped in next to the pilot, who talked him through the purpose of all the delicate instruments in the cockpit. Then, after a slight oxygen mask mishap that led to Worthington getting a face-full of engine fumes, they took off in formation with three other Skyraiders. And then they began to do elaborate training maneuvers, turning upside-down and executing all sorts of violent turns.
"I was starting to feel kind of woozy from breathing in all that smoke," said Worthington. "And my mom used to make me lunch to take down to the base, so I didn't have to eat the military food. She'd always fix me a big lunch. That day I had two tuna fish sandwiches, a banana and dill pickles. So I'm fully loaded."
He did his best to hold it all in. But then, they did a vertical dive. "You don't know what a vertical dive is on an aircraft until you've been in one," said Worthington. "You feel like you're falling right through the bottom of the aircraft. I couldn't hold it; it came up, and it was dripping down my cheeks. And they didn't have barf bags. This was a military aircraft, not an airliner."
He couldn't just let it out. The cockpit instruments were far too delicate to survive having wet lunch sprayed all over them; they would have shorted out and caused a fire. Unsure of what else to do, he reached over and tapped the pilot on the shoulder. "I couldn't call him on the radio, because I had a mouthful of food!" said Worthington.
The pilot took one look at Worthington and went pale. He began frantically looking for something, anything, for Worthington to spit into. He found a flight map, folded it into a square bowl shape, and handed it to Worthington, who made use of it until they were able to split off from the group and land.
"I was so embarrassed I could have died,” he said. “I wanted to just get up, open the canopy and jump out of the aircraft. I was a sergeant, you know. I'm supposed to be a rough, tough Marine. And I wasn't. I was never a rough tough Marine. I was just a Marine."
Veterans Day means different things to different veterans. When Evans was asked what he thought of it, he gave a shrug. "I think Veterans Day is good,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a veteran, and I’m proud of my service. But I don’t know if I need anyone making a special fuss over me. I was just doing my job. I would do it all over again.”
"I think it's a great, great, great day,” Nixon said. “And it's an honor for them to make so much of it, which I appreciate very much. But the concern I have is, we've got veterans now that are young dads. In my day, I didn't have a wife. I didn't have children waiting for me. If I got killed, my mother and dad, they were the ones that cried. Today, it's not just the mother that cries; it's the children. I was very angry at the people of America during the return of the Vietnam veterans. It just really bothered me that [the veterans] would come back, and as they came through the airports, the people would boo them. That bothered me a lot, because I love veterans. All of them."