FRONTLINE: Neighborhood

Battle Scars
A local veteran’s WWII memories are stirred by Ken Burns’ The War.

Battle Scars
A local veteran’s WWII memories are stirred by Ken Burns’ The War.

Learning to sail an LST took Emil Senkow a year. He enlisted in the Navy on Sept. 11, 1943—his 18th birthday—and spent the next 13 months moving from one base to another. Engineering school here, diesel school there. LST 806 finally cast off its lines in October 1944.

A year. Then Senkow talked himself into a topside gunnery assignment, on the theory that—if the engine room took a torpedo—being on deck was better than being below the water line. Gunnery training had taken only a couple of weeks, most of it sleeping, eating and waiting in line for a turn at the gun.

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Bottom line, Senkow went off to World War II with just a few days’ training for his primary military assignment. Which explains why, these days, he snorts with disgust when—four years into the Iraq War—he hears President Bush on television, pleading for time to train the Iraqi military. “It’s ridiculous,” fumes Senkow, now 82 and living in King of Prussia. “If I could get my hands on that guy in the White House.”

Senkow is among several dozen World War II veterans from the area whose stories will be broadcast in September on Philadelphia PBS affiliate WHYY TV12. Their recollections will run alongside The War, a new 14-hour Ken Burns documentary being hyped as “reminiscent in scope and power” to his earlier documentary on the Civil War.

“My kids got me down there,” says Senkow, who lives in King of Prussia. “They just put the camera on me and said, ‘Talk.’”

Born in Clifton Heights, Senkow was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who lived on Baltimore Avenue in an ancient stone house with no plumbing or electricity. His father worked for the Autocar plant in Ardmore. His mother, a farm girl whose parents had sent her to America as a teenager, farmed.

“It was the Depression, but we did OK,” says Senkow. “Mother’s attitude was: If there was a field, you took it over and made a garden.” In fact, the land the Senkows worked didn’t belong to them, but nobody complained. There were 150 chickens, plus a roost full of pigeons.

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The family had plenty to eat, but they knew people who didn’t. President Roosevelt, who they credited for creating jobs, was a hero. “Not like this guy,” added Senkow, referring to Bush.

Senkow’s brothers, Walter and Eugene, joined first. Walt ended up on a tiny atoll in the Admiralty Islands of New Guinea, where military censorship forbade revealing his location in letters home. So the Senkow brothers worked out a code: The first letter of every word could be combined to reveal a hidden message. Long before Emil set sail, he knew his older brother was stationed at a place called Espiritu Santo.

“When I walked into his tent,” says Senkow, “he yelled, ‘You son of a bitch!’” —in that affectionate way that brothers do. Emil had chosen the Navy, in part, on his brothers’ advice. “I didn’t want to march,” says Senkow, “and I would’ve hated like hell to be in the jungle.”

Walt and Gene told him living was clean in the Navy. Sailors got three square meals a day and – provided they did their laundry—clean clothes and bedding. “We had one guy who was filthy,” he recalled.

In close quarters, smelly bodies get noticed. “A half dozen of us grabbed him, put him in a shower and washed him with brown soap,” Senkow recalls. “He washed himself after that.”

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The LST (for “Landing Ship, Tank”) was inspired by Britain’s 1940 debacle at Dunkirk, where vast quantities of supplies were abandoned when 300,000 Allied troops escaped the advancing Germans aboard a makeshift fleet of sailboats and ferries. Realizing they needed large ocean-going ships capable of shore-to-shore delivery, the allies designed a shallow-draft vessel the length of a football field with bow doors and a ramp. More than a thousand were built.

“They took three-and-a-half days to build,” says Senkow, who remembers seeing the torches of welders—“women welders, terrific welders”—working after dark when the crew’s bus pulled in. “They were stamping them out like pennies.”

The crew was not told of their destination when LST 806 left Evansville, but they weren’t dummies. They were heading for the Panama Canal, which meant the Aleutians or the South Pacific. “We weren’t carrying fur coats,” quips Senkow.

The 806’s first landings began at Palawan in the Philippines in February 1945. The Japanese knew they were coming. So, in December 1944, they herded 150 U.S. prisoners into three trenches covered with branches. Next, they soaked the branches with gasoline and set them afire, then shot anyone who ran out. Atrocities like that help explain the photo—which Senkow keeps separate from his other souvenirs so his grandchildren won’t see it—of Filipinos posing with the head of a Japanese soldier. “People forget what it was like,” he says.

Mindanao, Borneo and Luzon followed. Off went jeeps, trucks, munitions and troops. On came dirty soldiers on R&R, looking for a place to bathe. It was the South Pacific, but there was no romance. The war ended. Senkow had earned enough service points to be sent home but kept tour extensions. Finally, in March 1946, a superior told him of a berth available aboard a departing Liberty ship.

“I had one hour to get my stuff together and get over there,” says Senkow, who weighed the options and decided to abandon his precious souvenir flight jackets and (contraband) Japanese pistols. Liberty ships were slow, and the captain was a starchy type who insisted the crew spend the voyage scraping and painting. Tired of all things military, a hundred men refused, despite the threat of court martial. “With a hundred guys, we knew he wouldn’t do that,” says Senkow.

Home at last, Senkow studied on the GI Bill and joined General Electric as a millwright. At the Ukrainian Club, he met Dorothy Karbiwnyk whom he married in 1957. The Senkows had two sons and a daughter. In 1966, they moved to King of Prussia where their $20,000 house is now worth about $300,000. Senkow worked in GE’s aerospace division on military and weather satellites. He retired in 1990 as manager of quality systems. Dorothy Senkow died in 2006.

It was a good life, says Senkow, who, ironically, can’t remember now why he was so eager to enlist. “I was gung-ho, I guess,” he says. “Who the hell knows?”

For the Conscientious, World War II Wasn’t Easy

Conscientious objectors are never popular. In World War II, they were even less popular than that. A majority probably thought they should be in jail (or worse). Allen Bacon agreed. “Being a C.O. just made us easy for the government to deal with,” says Bacon, now 88 and living in Kennett Square.

The men he admired were in federal penitentiaries for refusing to register for the draft. Among those radicals, even applying to be a C.O. represented complicity with militarism.

As a Quaker, Bacon qualified as a C.O. easily on religious grounds, but he thought philosophical and even atheist objectors should qualify. So, again, he had the uncomfortable sensation of having gotten off too easily. Bacon was among about 12,000 C.O.s assigned to work “in the national interest” at sites around the nation. Another 6,000 were jailed.

Bacon was sent to a mental hospital near Baltimore. There, he bathed feces-smeared patients, gave them their meds, put them in restraints and delivered them strapped down for the electro-shock treatments that, back then, were accepted as basic psychiatric care. Physical force, he found, was central to both hospital and military procedure.

On the other hand, his wife was there. Officially, this wasn’t allowed. But Springfield State Hospital was so desperate for staff that it bent the rules and hired Margaret Bacon as an aide. The Bacons—who’d met and married as students at Antioch College in Ohio—even had an apartment on the hospital grounds. This didn’t make them popular.

“Many of the female attendants had husbands or sons in the service,” wrote Margaret Bacon in her 1993 book, Love Is the Hardest Lesson, “and regarded it as an act of loyalty to these far-away loved ones to hate the C.O.s.”

Ironically, hospital conditions im-proved under the C.O.s’ care. Previously, four isolation cells were constantly full, usually with several violent patients in each. Suddenly, most were empty. The Bacons concluded that C.O.s’ reluctance to use force—or other intimidating techniques that often accompanied force—actually calmed patients.

As students at Antioch, the Bacons were members of a commune that used non-violent means to integrate a public swimming pool in Cleveland. Ahimsa, as it was called, also collected food for European relief, lobbied against conscription and proposed utopian schemes to resist fascism. “We thought there might be an overt non-cooperation campaign against Hitler among the Germans,” says Bacon. “I’m older now and more skeptical about such things.”

On the other hand, he notes, non-violence has had its successes—Gandhi’s resistance to the British, for instance, and the bloodless revolt that overthrew Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.

After the war, Bacon earned a master’s degree from Harvard and became a teacher. Later, he joined the American Friends Service Committee to direct a program that organized volunteers to work in depressed communities. After that, Bacon was named director of the Germantown Settlement House, one of 15 similar institutions that train community residents to solve their own problems.

He retired in 1984.

Today, the Bacons still make an occasional march on Washington. They also have some appreciation for the concept of military camaraderie.

“Any experience in which you are supporting one another and accomplishing something is wonderful,” says Bacon. “But when it is done at the price of murdering fellow human beings—whether enemies or terrorists—you’re using means that are contrary to the ends.”

The War airs Sept. 23-Oct. 2 on WHYY TV12. Check local listings for times.


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