Willie Askey of Kerrville served for almost five years in the U.S. Army and spent most of his service years assigned to an engineering unit on Okinawa, doing construction.
Askey said he lived in Kerrville in the 1960s; and was the first janitor hired by then-new Hill Country Arts Foundation to work at the Point Theater there.
He’s now 93 years old, and was among the first residents to move into an apartment in the Freedom’s Path building on the Kerrville VA Medical Center grounds.
Askey said he served on active duty in the U.S. Army as a “combat engineer” from May 1945 to 1949.
He was 18 years old; and about six of his high school classmates also enlisted at the same time.
He was first sent to Fort Sam Houston and learned about Camp Bullis northwest of Fort Sam because they had to walk out there to complete their required 50-mile hike.
He was sent to a school for construction at Fort Lewis, Washington state, training as a “construction technician,” to read blueprints and other crew chief-type skills.
In all his assignments, he said he was part of all-Black troop units.
“They were just beginning to integrate when I got out by 1950,” Askey said.
After he finished basic training, he was sent to the island of Okinawa as part of the U.S. Occupational troops assigned in Japan.
“I was sitting on a ship nearby where we could see the surrender papers being signed on the USS Missouri,” Askey said.
“We were sent to Okinawa to do construction, and we built an air base there,” he said. “I stayed in Japan and the United States, not anywhere else.”
He said they worked with some Japanese citizens. He said he learned to speak a little Japanese. The working relationship was mostly without problems, he said.
“The Japanese didn’t really have a chance. It was complete chaos. They didn’t realize what happened to them,” Askey said.
He said one of the people he met there was a Japanese citizen who was formerly a professor at UCLA,
“He had come back to Japan to visit his family just before Dec. 7, 1941. And he got caught there and couldn’t return to the U.S. He had to stay in Japan.”
Askey said all the supplies that would have been good to have for the airbase had been destroyed by the Japanese. So everything the Americans needed to rebuild it, had to be shipped to the island from the United States.
“But first we had to clear the jungle out,” Askey said.
“When I got there, the Japanese were using cars from 1930-37 that were powered by steam ‘engines’ they mounted on the cars. All their gasoline went to the war effort,” Askey said. “And their Zeros (airplanes) were mostly made of paper and corrugated cardboard. That’s what made them so hard to shoot down.”
Askey said he was discharged from the Army in California in 1949; and returned to Luling, his birthplace, in southeast Texas to live and work near some of his family.
“A lot of my friends stayed in, and retired from the Army. At that time, I didn’t want to do that.”
He said he married in June 1950.
He and his wife had two children, one boy and one girl. He counted five grandchildren; and, asked about great-grandchildren, he laughed and said that was more math than he wanted to do.
“We usually have family reunions every two years and they were pretty big parties.”
“I went to school in Austin at Samuel Huston College that became Houston-Tillitson College, using the GI Bill to help pay my education expenses.”
He graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics and a minor in physical education.
He said after living for years in southeast Texas, he moved back to Kerrville in 2004.
“It’s a nice town,” he said. “I always liked it.”
He said he worked with the Amvets group here in previous years.
“And, so far, so good, here, living in my Freedom’s Path apartment.”
“Now in the same apartment building, there’s a vet named Leroy Johnson who was serving in Japan when I was there. We called him ‘possum.’ Now we can trade stories again.”