Zeno Easter, 97, has been a life-long Mount Airy resident, with the exception of the years Easter spent hopping from island to island in the South Pacific. Though Easter has 97 years worth of stories, it is with great pride that he tells the stories of his World War II service.
“Times were hard then,” said Easter as he told of his decision to to leave school in the seventh grade. Easter said he went to work at a Mount Airy bakery, working six days a week delivering baked goods for a $7 weekly wage.
Easter said he did well at the job until life was interrupted sometime in 1940. “The government started calling all the boys and asking for a year of service,” said Easter. “I signed up.”
According to Easter he almost made it out in time. “I lacked from Dec. 7, 1941 to Jan. 21, 1942 from getting out, but the Japanese decided they were going to go ahead and mess with Pearl Harbor.” Easter said he knew instantly that he would likely be in the Army for the duration of the war.
Easter said he was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division, based at Fort Jackson, South Carolina when the 33rd Surgical Hospital asked the division for truck drivers. “I’d never driven in the service, but I was one of the ones they sent,” he recalled with a laugh.
The WWII veteran described the scientific way in which he was chosen for his new assignment. “Some red-faced colonel came in, looked at us and pointed, saying ‘you go here and you go there.’ Then I was on a train headed for Fort Dix, New Jersey.”
“We stayed at Dix for a week, exactly. They had guards on the doors and marched us back and forth to the chow hall. They definitely weren’t letting us go anywhere, and we had no idea where we would end up. The next stop was New York Harbor, but we didn’t even know that at the time,” Easter said.
Three ships greeted his outfit at the harbor, a Pan-American Freighter and two cruise ships. “Of course, I ended up on the freighter,” chuckled Easter. The freighter became Easter’s home for 42 days as the ships made their way down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and eventually to Australia.
Easter said a Navy light cruiser and a “sub-chaser” escorted his ride across the entire Pacific. Though Easter didn’t know it at the time, the ship on which he was riding had three decks filled with ammunition. Easter explained his first look, though it was from afar, at combat in the Pacific.
“That sub-chaser kept circling around and circling closer to our boat. All of the sudden we saw a depth charge get shot out into the water — then another. It circled around again, then came closer to us,” explained Easter. “Then the guys on the sub-chaser told us, ‘no need to worry about that one. It’s going down, not up.’ You could see the oil floating on the surface.”
The trip across the Pacific lagged on. “First we tried to stop in the Philippines, but it was too full of Navy guys. After 42 days at sea we finally ended up in Australia.”
Easter said they were welcomed in Australia, even by Emperor Tojo. “He was on the radio as soon as we got there saying, ‘the Santa Paul and Santa Claire have landed.’ Those were the ships we were on. We stayed in Australia for about six months waiting on our equipment to get there,” Easter told.
Then Easter said his outfit was off to the islands, hopping from one to the next. “We went to island after island. I saw a lot of coconuts and natives,” he said. Easter also said he saw Japanese soldiers, who were always lurking. While hopping around islands in the South Pacific, Easter said his unit’s 58 surgeons stayed quite busy fixing-up American GIs.
“They operated 24 hours a day and seven days a week,” said Easter. “I remember watching them take off blood-soaked surgical gowns and wring them out, leaving puddles of sweat.” Though Easter said the images “fade” with time, the WWII veteran said they aren’t something he’s likely to ever forget.
Easter said casualties never stopped coming, arriving by landing craft and on planes that landed on hastily constructed landing strips on the islands.
He spent about three years “island hopping,” and that it was some time around the retaking of the Philippines in October of 1944 that he got his ticket home.
“My next stop would have been the Philippines after MacArthur landed there,” explained Easter. “Something had happened to my eye though. It’s the reason I’m blind today. They had ships filled with sick, wounded and crazy. I got picked to help take care of them on the way back.”
The next stop for Easter was San Francisco, California, where he said he was the coldest he’s ever been. “They put us on little boats and took us to a place called Angel Island where we did some out-processing. We were wearing nothing but shorts, a t-shirt and shoes,” said Easter.
The next leg of Easter’s journey back to Surry County wasn’t much better. He and other GIs rode in cattle cars from California to Atlanta, Georgia. “They stopped three times a day to give us a canteen and a sandwich,” remarked Easter.
Eventually, Easter ended up in Florida to complete his out-processing. “Now that was nice. We did the few things we had to for the Army each day, then we hit the beach,” remarked Easter.
Already experiencing problems with his vision, Easter had more medical problems ahead. “I ended up in the hospital for four months with malaria before I finally separated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina,” said Easter.
Following his separation, Easter said he went back to the place he called home — Mount Airy. “I did some odd jobs and worked at some service stations after I got out,” explained Easter. “Then I ended up working at Robby’s for about 40 years.”
Easter also started a family in Mount Airy, marrying his wife of nearly 50 years, Lena, who was from Ararat, Virginia. The two had one son together, and Easter is now proud of his three grandchildren. Easter quit his job to take care of Lena, who died after a battle with cancer in March of 1995.
Easter said Mount Airy has changed much in his 97 years on earth. “I wouldn’t know Mount Airy if I had come back to it today,” he said. Easter told a story about how his father and uncle used to wrap their feet in burlap sacks in order to make the trudge to work at a local furniture factory.
Easter said he’s now almost entirely blind, but he still gets around. “When you get to be 97-years-old you don’t expect to stay around much longer, but I make the best of every day,” said the member of America’s greatest generation.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.