Amid the white-hot life-and-death chaos of battle, World War II veteran Wally Goodman — the grand marshal of Ridgefield’s Memorial Day parade this year — had a moment of human connection with an enemy he was trying his damnedest to shoot out of the sky.
“The Japanese created suicide bombers, Kamikaze pilots,” Goodman said. “... They’d always come in as the sun was going down and try to blind the antiaircraft fire.”
Goodman, who served with a five-man radio operations team, was on a small patrol craft called a PCS.
“During the invasion of Okinawa the harbor master gave each ship a berthing location, a place to berth their ship. Our location at Okinawa was to be close to a Landing Ship, Tank — LST. They were very long and very open, of course.
“They were about 30 feet from where we docked and when I wasn’t on radio duty, sitting there with headphones on, I was assigned to assist one of our gunner’s mates who ran an antiaircraft gun.
“The two of us were out looking way up at the sky and the sun. Coming in, we could see this little tiny speck, it looked like a kind of bird,” Goodman said. “…After it got to a very visible altitude he went into a nosedive and it looked like he was heading for the big ship next to us, the LST. When he was within firing range, we could see the plane very well. We started to fire...
“He was no more than 50 or 60 feet away from us and I saw him very clearly. He was a young man and he has his hands on the wheel,” Goodman said, and mimicked the attitude of the Kamikaze pilot tightly gripping the controls, wide-eyed, completely absorbed in the task of steering his plane to his own death.
“He went right between us and the LST,” Goodman said. “And I thought to myself: ‘There’s a good, decent human being.’ Because he had already attended his funeral. He knew he was going to die. And he decided this was a waste of life and he smashed into the ocean. And I thought to myself if he could do that, he is somebody you could really respect.”
Goodman, who grew up New Rochelle, N.Y., went into the Navy right out of high school. Military training took him from the Finger Lakes of New York to Pennsylvania to Camp Pendleton in California. By the middle of 1944, he was on a ship in the Pacific — part of a five-member combat communications team, or CCT, that included four radio operators and one radio technician.
“Our job was ship-to-shore or shore-to-ship communications,” he said.
Goodman has a vivid memory of his first taste of combat, during the invasion of Saipan.
“It was in June that we landed in Saipan. We went in on the seventh wave,” he said.
“A scene I’ll never forget. The first wave was about 3 o’clock in the morning and we got there at 9 o’clock. As the landing craft came in and lowered the front — lo and behold, on the right side were eight dead Japanese soldiers, their feet on land and their faces in the water. And the same thing on the other side of the gate that came down.”
The dead Japanese on the other side of the landing craft’s open front numbered seven, for a total of 15 corpses greeting Goodman and his buddies.
“That was our initiation,” he said. “...Our greeting was these 15 dead bodies on the beach there. They were all dead Japanese soldiers — they still had shirts and pants and shoes on. It’s been in my head all these years — along with a few other things...
“I don’t know why, but the next morning every single one of those bodies disappeared — either the tide, or sharks. But they were gone.”
The team dug in on the beach of Saipan, not far from an ammo dump.
“The first two days and two nights were nothing unusual,” Goodman said. “...On the third night it was kind of misty and rainy. The clouds were quite heavy. A group of three Japanese, I guess they were soldiers — the island had about 24,000 Japanese soldiers and their families — these three had no clothes on except for a loin cloth, and their bodies were oily. What they had in their hands were little sticks that caught fire very quickly, and they ran around putting these sticks between the boxes to get the ammo dump on fire, and they succeeded.
“We immediately started to shoot at them and they sensed it, so they ran … One climbed a tree. I’m not sure about the other two, we shot the guy in the tree.”
It was nighttime and dark, hard to see.
“The moonlight would come in and out,” Goodman said. “The reason we knew we got him, the flames would shoot up from these boxes.” Light from the burning ammo dump revealed the body.
“About three hours after this whole thing started, I’m crouching down in the foxhole and once in a while I’d raise my head,” he said.
There was a whooshing sound followed by an explosion.
“I knew something had exploded,” Goodman said “… the sand came up in my face and neck. I didn’t pay any attention to it for a while.”
The night went on, the rain got heavier. When daylight came, Goodman could see what had thrown sand in his face.
“It was a shell,” he said. “All of a sudden I thought: I’m here because I was an inch or two away from the track of that artillery shell. And I began to feel close to God.”
Goodman was in the Philippines when President Harry Truman demanded that the Japanese unconditionally surrender “or face terrible destruction.”
They didn’t, and Truman approved the dropping of two atomic bombs.
“The first one was Hiroshima, and the second one was Nagasaki,” Goodman said. “Each one of those bombs ushered in a new way of killing massive numbers.”
The surrender quickly followed the bombs and Goodman recalls celebrating with some bottles of sake, the Japanese rice wine, that he’d taken from an abandoned Japanese factory he’d come across on Saipan.
And he remembers coming home after the service that included Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and sea patrols around the Philippines. The war was finally over. They sailed into San Francisco.
“That was wonderful duty,” Goodman said. “It was a great sight to sail under the bridge there — peacetime, no more lights dimming at night, no more worrying about where the next bomb or the next shell was coming from. Everyone was smiling and happy.”
He was discharged from the Navy in 1946 after earning a Victory Medal, an American Theater Campaign medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three stars, a Philippine Liberation ribbon, a Personal Liberation Commendation ribbon and a Presidential Unit Citation ribbon.
On his veteran’s hat are pins representing different aspects of his service — and two that Goodman didn’t earn, though they have a place in his heart.
“These two go together,” he said.
“This is my brother’s — 15th Air Force. He was a combination navigator-bombardier on a B-24. His plane was lost on the third mission, and our best estimate is that the plane is at the the bottom of the Adriatic Sea off the coast of northern Italy...
“The 15th Air Force was stationed in Foggia, Italy. He was returning from a bombing run and the pilot radioed his squadron commander and said: ‘Losing altitude rapidly. I’m going to try to make land...’ ”
The other pin is a replica of a B-24, like the one his brother flew. The pin was given to Goodman by Chuck Baldwin, a fellow member of the Ridgefield Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Chuck Baldwin gave me this and established a bond with me,” Goodman said.
“...He lived here many years. He was loyal member of the VFW. He had stories of his own of World War II, because he got in at the very beginning.”
After the war, Goodman returned to school, starting at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, then studying at the University of Missouri and later doing graduate studies in education at NYU, Fordham and Columbia.
At Elizabethtown he met Ruth Adelaid Ehrlen II, who became his wife when both were teaching at different schools in Delaware.
“She was Christian, I was Jewish, and we couldn’t find anyone down there to marry us — except the Salvation Army,” Goodman said.
They moved to Westchester County, N.Y., where Goodman taught high school — subjects including American history, economics, geography and English. He was a department chairman, dean of students and a faculty sponsor of student government. He coached, too — junior high basketball and high school baseball.
Goodman did work for New York State’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). They’d gotten a grant from IBM to see how the computer could be used in teaching. Goodman created The Sierra Leone Game to help teach social studies. “It’s a game kids play on the computer,” he said.
BOCES asked him join the agency full time and he retired from teaching high school in Pleasantville, N.Y.
“The kids dedicated their yearbook to me, and gave me the beginning of a set of drums,” Goodman recalled.
He’d been taking drum lessons. “One of the students there was a fine drummer, and he was my teacher during lunch hour,” Goodman said.
Besides teaching, Wally and Ruth Goodman bought and sold antiques, filling their own home and renting space in shops. It’s something he still does, although not as actively as he once did.
Goodman has a daughter, Monnie Newman, who works in town for Fairfield County Bank and lives in Danbury, and a son, Larry Goodman, who lives in New Hampshire after a career in advertising that included 17 years as head of marketing and sales for CNN.
Goodman moved to Ridgefield from Sherman, Conn., in 1990s. He joined Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3052 and for many years brought the VFW’s oratorical contests to Ridgefield students — Patriot’s Pen for middle schoolers and Voice of Democracy for high school students.
At 94, he looks back on his life with a sense of accomplishment.
“I feel I was put here to do something good, and I did that at BOCES — I made better schools, better education,” he said.
Goodman is pleased to lead Ridgefield’s Memorial Day parade as grand marshal and speak afterwards at ceremonies in Ballard Park.
“I feel very honored,” he said. “I’m very appreciative [that] they’re recognizing my work with the VFW. I love this town. It’s such a caring community.”