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Ekins' Marine Corps service epitomizes valor of 'Greatest Generation'

Utah native left aircraft assembly line to storm beaches of Pacific Theater

Submitted Photo
Newton resident Junior Ekins, pictured with his wife, Velma, will be this year’s 
Fourth of July Parade Marshal, representing all veterans of Jasper County. He 
asked Doug Bishop, Jasper County treasurer and Freedom Flights organizer, to 
accompany him in a 1964 Corvette — which was refurbished by a Jasper County 
Vietnam veteran — during the parade.
Submitted Photo Newton resident Junior Ekins, pictured with his wife, Velma, will be this year’s Fourth of July Parade Marshal, representing all veterans of Jasper County. He asked Doug Bishop, Jasper County treasurer and Freedom Flights organizer, to accompany him in a 1964 Corvette — which was refurbished by a Jasper County Vietnam veteran — during the parade.

If one were to look at Junior Ekins, he or she might see an elderly, God-fearing man.

He or she might see a man who who retired several years ago after a lengthy career as a maintenance foreman with the Maytag Corporation. Or, he or she might see a man who helped others in his community, particularly those who were disabled.

But if one took the time to dig a little deeper — and one might have to prod him to get the unassuming Junior to talk about it — he or she would likely be amazed by the story that unfolds. No doubt, one would gain a much better appreciation of the "Greatest Generation."

Junior and his brother Jack were orphaned when Junior was just a year old, and went to live with their grandparents in Ogden, Utah. When Junior was in the second grade, his grandmother passed away, as well.

"I did chores during the day," he said. "At night, I helped with the cooking and cleaning ... and, I still went to school in the winter."

Junior's grandfather passed away when he was in the fifth grade. So, from that time until he turned 17, Junior and his brother were wards of the State of Utah, and were passed along to a couple of different foster families.

"I was in 10th grade, and my brother was in 11th," he said. "We decided one day we were going out go out on our own. For $50 a month, we became aircraft mechanics ... I worked my way up to a journeyman, working on the B-17s."

Not long after joining the Aircraft Repair Branch at Hill Air Force Base, with World War II raging, Junior and Jack began reading the newspaper accounts of the Marines fighting at Guadalcanal. Despite their deferment status with the War Department, they decided to join the fight.

Together, with a friend named Dave, Junior and Jack traveled to Salt Lake City to enlist. They first attempted to sign up as U.S. Army Air Corps cadets.

"I wanted to fly ... [But] our friend couldn't pass the test, and we wanted to all go together," Junior said. "So, we tried to sign up for the Marines. I passed, but he didn't. They had me at that point, though."

Following boot camp at U.S. Marine Corps Depot San Diego, Junior went to school to learn how to operate and maintain machine guns. Jack, meanwhile, went to tank school.

"One night, they had us grab our seabags and put them on trucks," he said. "We thought we were going to Camp Pendleton, but they took us to the docks and loaded us on ships. We didn't know where we were going — nobody was supposed to know — because loose lips sunk ships."

Thus began Junior's three-year stint — without so much as a day of leave time — in the war zone of the Pacific Theater.

The brothers wound up at New Caledonia, an island about 1,100 miles northeast of Australia. There, they were separated — truly separated — for the first time in their military enlistment.

"At New Caledonia, my brother had to get off," Junior said. "So, I jumped ship and went down on the dock and talked with him."

After a short pause, "That's the last time I ever saw him."

Jack — the only family Junior had left — was killed off the Philippines when the ship he was on was hit by a kamikaze plane. Jack was buried at sea, and Junior didn't find out for a while.

At New Caledonia, Junior was sent to Melbourne, in the southern part of Australia, where he was eventually attached to "I" (India) Company, 3rd Battalion, First Marines. From there, he took part in the "island hopping" sweep across the South Pacific.

First stop: Goodenough Island, about 50 miles off the eastern tip of New Guinea, for staging and training. The trip there — a jaunt of some 2,000 miles — was the hardest part.

"They sent us on liberty ships," Junior said. "They didn't have heads (bathrooms), showers or galleys ... the construction engineers built some up on the weather decks."

The only quartering space on the liberty ships, which were made for short, couple-hour excursions, was in the upper hold. Most of the Marines had to fashion their own sleeping arrangments — rain or shine — topside on the open weather decks.

Eventually, when the beach landing at Tauali at Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain was launched, Junior and the 69 men of "I" Company were ready to fight. Their commanding officer had a somber warning for the Marines.

"The colonel said to us guys going in there, 'You might as well write home to your folks and tell them you're dead,'" Junior said. "We just laughed at him."

War, he soon learned, was no laughing matter. With less than 900 men, the Marines at Tauali were charged with preventing 1,000 Japanese troops from joining the 10,000 stationed at the Cape Gloucester Airdrome. As soon as that battle ended, the Marines watched as nearly 130 Japanese planes flew overhead on a bombing run.

"They just dropped their bombs and moved on," Junior said. "The could've broke off and got us, but they didn't."

Next came Pavuvu, and island where it rained for 28 straight days — day and night — and the Marines used coral mined from the hills of the island itself to "pave" their own pathways and mustering spots in camp. Junior said it was no use to change clothes, because those would just become rainsoaked, as well.

"Oh, we showered," he quipped. "It rained every day."

After a few months at Pavuvu, Junior and the First Marines boarded ships bound for Peleliu, an island at the southern tip of the island nation of Palau, approximately 2,100 miles northwest of Pavuvu. Once they arrived offshore, the Marines climbed into their landing craft to begin the beach landing.

"We had four LVTs in a group, parked just outside the range of their artillery," Junior said. "'K' Company was supposed to be on our left flank. But, when we were going in, I looked over to the left, there were no vehicles there."

Of the 69 men in "I" Company who initiated the beach landing at Peleliu, only 14 survived the first day. Vic Case of Colfax — Junior's best friend — was among the casualties that day.

"He took up a gun and began spraying the machine guns," he said. "They gave him the Navy Cross."

The next morning, the 14 remaining men were told 13 Japanese tanks were headed toward the airport at the north end of the island. They were ordered to move out to defend the airport.

"We had only gone 25 or 30 yards and the guy right behind me got shot and killed," Junior said. "So, the 14 became 13. When we got off that island, there were only eight of us left."

Junior sustained a shrapnel wound in his arm during the Battle of Peleliu, which resulted in him being awarded his first Purple Heart. As his unit recovered and was replenished with new Marines, they sat out the invasion of Iwo Jima.

Instead, their reinforced unit prepared for the invasion of Okinawa.

"Okinawa was a lot bigger, but it turned out the same way," he said. "I was a squad leader, because I was the only one left who was experienced."

In the meantime, Junior struck up a conversation via letters with Vic Case's fiancee, Velma. His intent was to simply tell her what a good man Vic was, and how sorry he was that his friend was now gone.

The two continued to exchange letters for the remainder of Junior's time in the Marine Corps.

He received a second Purple Heart after suffering a chest wound from the shrapnel of a Japanese mortar shell. In the process, his trousers were cut away, and Ekins lost his wallet, as well as two months' pay.

"They took me to an Army hospital, then to Saipan," he said. "After several days, a corpsman finally went out and found me a pair of pants to wear."

After leaving Saipan, Junior went to Guam. From there, he was transported back stateside. He then found a way to Iowa, where he and Velma could meet face-to-face. Thus began a love affair that has lasted nearly 70 years.

"We met in June and got married in August," Velma said. "They said it would never last."

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