An Ozarks boy far from home: WWII vet recalls his time in the Pacific
Before Arnold Lawson left his Thornfield home in 1943 to serve in World War II, the farthest he had been from Ozark County was Three Brothers, Arkansas. As a boy, he had helped haul lumber there for his uncles.
Born on Jan. 8, 1923, on the 20-acre farm owned by his parents, Hobert and Leta Lawson, Arnold, now 95, went to the Pond Hill School about 2 1/2 miles from his home. But when it came time for high school, he says, “I went in the front door and right on out the back.”
Instead of high school, he worked on area farms, doing things like hauling hay with an 8N Ford tractor pulling a wagon, earning about $1 a day.
When he was drafted in January 1943, his folks took him to Gainesville to catch the bus on his way to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. A cousin, Norvil Lawson, and a friend went with him, planning to volunteer. But during the induction examination, “they didn’t pass, and I didn’t get a single red mark,” Arnold said Saturday. The men came back home together, but seven days later, Arnold was back at Jefferson Barracks, training for war. He wouldn’t be home again until December 1945.
He was assigned to the engineers in the 1881st Aviation Battalion, which would soon be building roads, bridges and air strips in support of America’s war effort in the Pacific. From Jefferson Barracks, he traveled by train to Walla Walla, Washington, to continue his training, and then went to Salt Lake City, Utah, and finally to San Francisco, where he boarded a troop ship headed west.
“We were on the ship 14 days,” Arnold said. “I was sick 12.”
Holding his hands in front of him as though touching both sides of a sliding dish, he said, “You would put your plate here, and directly your plate would be down there, and then it would be back here.”
Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, he said, the ship stopped to take on water that would be run through evaporators to become fresh water. While it was stopped, the troops swam in the deep ocean while, in the crow’s nest, a sniper was posted to watch for sharks.
They got off the ship at Sidney, Australia, then headed on to Port Moresby, New Guinea, to begin their work of building roads and air strips.
Arnold operated a bulldozer and worked with other engineers to chop down trees, with axes, to clear sites for the roads and landing strips. One of the hottest jobs was working with the heated tar vats that were used to pave the air strips. One time, he said, “we had to fight at the end of a bridge.”
Arnold usually worked wearing little more than “a cap and a pair of khaki pants,” he said. He became close to about a dozen of his fellow engineers, who came from Washington and Farmington, Missouri, and from New York. “The sergeant was from Texas.” They slept six men to a tent, he said. The New Yorkers managed to find some lumber to build a wood floor in their tent, he said.
The job he dreaded most, he said, was standing guard. “You’d be sitting there, watching, with your [M-1] rifle. Mostly they [the enemy] would try to tear up our equipment, so we couldn’t get the air strip or the road built,” he said.
He wrote letters home, “but by the time Mom and Dad got them, the letters were all cut up by the censors,” he said. He instructed his dad to use his Army pay to buy a 160-acre farm near the family’s home place.
While he was in the Pacific, he managed to meet up with a couple of cousins and a friend from back home. “One of my cousins was working across the creek from where I was, and he came and found me,” he said.
Arnold didn’t smoke or drink, but he traded his allotment of beer and cigarettes for things he needed – like “getting my khakis washed and starched and ironed,” he said.
Arnold’s next stop during the war was in the Philippines. He was in Manila when word came that the war in Europe had ended. Later, after Japan surrendered, Arnold sailed home in December 1945. “When we went under the Golden Gate bridge, people was cheering and waving,” he said.
He took the train to Springfield, but “couldn’t get a bus and couldn’t get a room,” he said. A taxi driver offered to take him home for $20, but he refused to pay the then-outrageous amount. He waited until the next day and then rode the bus to Ava and happened to run into a cousin there, who gladly drove him most of the way home.
But as they traveled south from Ava, “we met the milk truck, and there was my dad on the back of it, coming to meet me,” he said. Arnold had written his folks to tell them his plans – they didn’t have a phone – and his dad had planned to meet the bus and bring Arnold back to the farm when the milk truck returned to Thornfield. But instead, Hobert had to ride into Ava, wait for the driver to deliver the milk and then ride back home alone.
Arnold’s cousin let him off on the highway, and he walked home. His mother and sister Alene saw him coming through the field, his duffle bag on his shoulder, and ran to meet him.
“I was glad to be home,” he said.
He “loafered around” for a while and worked with his dad on the farm. A few weeks later, he met a pretty girl, Geraldine McDaniel, in Yantz Watson’s store in Noble. “It was raining, and we took her home,” he said. They were married May 29, 1946, in Mountain Home, Arkansas.
Eventually Arnold and Geraldine moved to the 160 acres his Army pay had helped buy for $1,300. He tore down the original house on the site and built a new one with lumber milled from trees he cut down on the property. The house overlooks a peaceful valley and a large hay field edged by Turkey Creek.
For several years, the Lawsons milked 8 to 10 cows each day in the milking parlor near the house. But when Kraft stopped buying milk in cans and required dairies to have milk tanks, Arnold sadly sold his milk cows and took up other work. He “planted pines, fit fires” and did other work with the U.S. Forest Service. “Six of us could plant 500 pines in a day,” he said. Next he worked for the county, and then he read water meters for the city of Gainesville, 26 miles from his home on County Road 844.
Geraldine died 23 years ago, and Arnold now shares his home with his son, Dennis, one of the four children he and Geraldine raised. His other children are Jeanette Johnson (and husband Raymond) of Ava, Audean Watson (and husband Darrell) of Wasola, Bob Lawson (and wife Beulah).
Audean died in 2014, and Bob died two years ago.
Arnold’s family now includes 10 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren, as well as sisters, Alene Turner of Thornfield and Virginia Pue of Wichita, Kansas. A brother, Leonard, died several years ago.
Arnold and Dennis say they expect “75 to 90 percent” of the children and grandchildren to come home for Thanksgiving. And it’s likely they’ll gather again in January, when their World War II veteran father and grandfather celebrates his 96th birthday.