By Judy Halone-The Courier-Herald
Bill Syrcle’s past reads like a rainbow - and he has 17 colorful military ribbons and medals to prove it.
The 83-year-old Bonney Lake resident is a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. His list of commendations shines brightly through a red, velvet-lined shadow box: there’s the Victory Medal; the three stars of the European Campaign - each representing a campaign; a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for fighting seven battles in World War II; the World War II liberation of the Philippines, three stars for Vietnam; an Army Commendation Medal earned while serving in an explosive detachment in Vietnam; the Army Good Conduct Medal (“that’s for not getting killed,” he said); the Navy Good Conduct Medal; Expert Rifle; European Campaign; Expert Pistol; Pacific Campaign; Freedom Medal at the end of World War II; Vietnam; Naval Defense Medal from World War II; another Vietnam medal; a Vietnam Star; and a commendation medal and ribbon from the Korean government.
His 41-year military career began long before he enlisted, he said.
“I was a prisoner of war before I even got in the service,” he chuckled. “When I was born, my dad was a corporal. When he retired, he was a colonel in the Army.”
And if it wasn’t for one twist of fate when Syrcle was a teen, his dedication to the nation - and the chance to later save the lives of downed pilots - may have never taken place.
“It was 1939 and my dad was a staff sergeant in the Army at Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, Calif.,” he said. “Our family was on the way to be stationed at Corregidor with the 19th Combat Engineers. Instead, we wound up at Fort Ord. Thank God, we went to California instead.”
Syrcle enlisted at the age of 16 in 1942. “The Navy found out I was going to turn 17 seven days later on Jan. 1, so they let me in,” he said.
Early in his career he served aboard the USS Twining DD-340 as a gunner’s mate in the Pacific Theater.
The world was at war and so was Syrcle.
“We bombarded the beaches of Iwo Jima, Saipan and Guam,” he said. “We escorted carriers, battleships, cruisers and submarine-type vessels.”
Syrcle said the worst part of serving in the military was “seeing people get killed,” including those at the Battle of Saipan.
“The Japanese had entrenched the entire island,” he said. “They had guns hidden in caves and had forced the Saipanese off the island. They told the Saipanese that the Americans were bad.”
The crew watched helplessly while the island’s inhabitants panicked.
“They threw their babies and children off of cliffs and then jumped off after them,” he said. “We fired beneath them to keep them from jumping, but they believed what they’d been told. We fished them out of the water.”
He returned to the United States and then served on the commissioning voyage of the USS Midway in 1946, where he repaired two quad-40s on the fantails at Newport News, while enroute to Guantanomo Bay.
Syrcle took time out to marry Alberta in 1950. He was recalled in 1951 for the Korean War as a second-class gunner’s mate aboard the USS Manuel.
“We ran off the Korean coast as a plane guard,” he explained. “We picked up any pilots who needed to be picked up. We ran around crazy.”
He recalled one particular event that involved a downed B-29 between Korea and Alaska.
“They launched the rafts before they hit the water,” he said. “They had them stored up above in the plane and they pulled the lanyards so they’d be ready to go when the plane hit. We rescued all of them - a crew of 10. They were cold, but we were able to pull them out,” he said.
In Vietnam, he served in the Coast Guard as a first-class gunner’s mate and took care of 5-inch and 40-milimeter weapons, he said.
By this time, he and Alberta were raising five children.
“When I left for Vietnam, she told me, ‘If you get killed over there, I’m going to kill you again - don’t you leave me with five children!’” he said.
Aboard the CGC Taney-W37 from 1960 to 1966, the crew escorted weathermen half-way between Hawaii and San Francisco, he said.
“We did ocean station and search and rescue,” he said. “I spent six years on the Taney and when I came back to Alameda they sent me back to Vietnam with an explosives detachment.” His responsibilities included checking ammunition aboard ships.
“I flew all over Vietnam and made sure the ammunition was safe,” he said.
With each mission came the risk of no return.
“I’ve been shot at, but that’s nothing unusual,” he said. “I’ve been bombed in World War II, sniped at by Vietnamese snipers when we were based in Cam Ranh Bay - all over the doggone areas.”
He received the Meritorious Award from the Army in 1967. He returned back to the states in 1968 and in 1970 retired as an E-7 Chief Gunner working with dangerous cargo. He tried to enlist for Desert Storm in 1991 but was told he was too old, he said.
Although his enlistments included danger, it also offered great conversation between him and his father, who bragged he’d earned seats on the 50-yard line at the Rose Bowl during World War II.
“He was camped out down there and putting guns together to put on top of buildings and aircraft factories, in case we got attacked,” he said.
Syrcle’s service may have ended, but the military bug has run deep in his family’s heritage: his uncle died as a pilot instructor during World War II; his children have either served or are married to military personnel; his grandson is stationed in Italy and his nephew is serving in Afghanistan, he said.
Syrcle was married to Alberta for 47 years before she passed away. Today he stays close to family members, who are proud to share his military service. And for all of the memories - good and bad - the veteran of three wars, husband, father of five, grandfather of 11 and great-grandfather of 13 expressed no regrets.
“It’s been a pleasure to serve my country,” he explained.
Reach Judy Halone at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-802-8210.