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Generation X: Helen Horne & Mitchell Clayton Penley

Joey's Interview with Grandpa Mitch

One of our family treasures is this essay Joey wrote in 1998 for a school assignment.

Mitchell Clayton Penley, born February 7, 1925, is my grandfather. A towering six foot two inches he was very athletic and a star basketball player in school. Raised in Kingsport, Tennessee he has lived through some of the most crucial and determining times in American History. He has experienced so many tremendous events that I have only read about, from the Great Depression and the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam and the and fall of the Berlin Wall.

My grandfather has told me about things he has seen, and ways that he had thought, things I could never understand just by reading in a textbook or taking notes in a lecture hall (although I do love both of those dearly). I can ask my grandfather questions, and I can argue with him until I am blue in the face (although he always manages to come out on top). Among so many other things, my grandfather has taught me about certain aspects of American History at a personal level, and I treasure every moment we have ever had, and every moment that we have yet to share.

One event that has truly been a colossal influence on my grandfather’s life (as well as the rest of the world) is a subject he knows a great deal about: World War II. As it turns out, my very own grandfather was in some of the most decisive battles in American History.

“A day that will live in infamy”, Dec 7th, 1941 a critical air-assault was made on a naval base in Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S.A. scrambling into World War II. Eight battleships, eleven warships and two thousand forty-three lives were destroyed. A massive wave of animosity ripped through Americans as they listened to news reports over the radio. They were furious to say the least. Japanese immigrants were hated and were discriminated against after the surprise attack and thousands were even locked away in concentration camps in fear of rebellion. “You could see the hatred in their [the American people] eyes, anytime the Japanese were mentioned”, my Grandpa said in retrospect. As an example of the extreme antagonism, my grandfather told me a story about his family doctor’s daughter in Tennessee. She had been engaged to a man of Japanese descent, they were to be married soon. However, after the bombing and the media circus that followed, the extreme loathe found in this southern city eventually tore the marriage apart.

Our country’s (semi) neutrality and safety had been violated. Seemingly overnight thousands of minds were transformed as Americans sat paralyzed listening to the horrible reports coming over the radio. Two days later war was declared. In a textbook, events and beliefs are summarized and generalized, supposedly unbiased, but not to Mitchell Penley. He hated the Japanese as much as everyone else. Everyday he would read about the ruthless Japanese warfare and the war casualties for Sullivan County in the local newspaper. He was devastated by the loss of his cousin Charles Penley during the war.

“Cousin” to my grandfather means “best friend”. He grew up in a very tight-knit family cluster and spent most of his time with his cousins and was severely disturbed by the loss of Charles Penley. He tried to enlist a few months before his eighteenth birthday because he wanted to do what was right for his country and to do his part to stop the “evil” Japanese. However, he couldn’t enlist early without parental consent, which was quickly denied.

Grandpa’s brother Luther joined the Army and left my Grandpa his car keys for safe keeping. My grandpa, having been forced out of school by the depression, had at the time been hanging out with his cousin Kinnie Wagner, a cousin on his mom’s side of the family. Wagner was a fugitive, on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List”, wanted for the murder of five men, some of which were Tennessee deputy sheriffs. When asked about it, Wagner used to reply “I never shot at anybody that wasn’t already shooting at me”, and the family believed him and did their part to keep Kinnie safe, or as they called him “John Brown”.

My grandfather and his cousins used to love target practice and new rifles were pretty hard to come by during the war. Wagner spied a new rifle in a store one day but the owner, like most of the community, knew who “John Brown” really was and didn’t want to get into any trouble with the law. So my grandfather went down to the store and bought the rifle for Wagner. A few months went by and Wagner was finally apprehended by the FBI, and found in his possession was the rifle my grandfather had bought for Kinnie. The gun was easily traceable back to the store, especially since new rifles were so rare at the time. After word reached my grandfathers parents, they were quite a bit more open to letting him join the war effort, especially with Kinnie Wagner’s picture, rifle clearly in sight, on every newspaper for miles around.

Since my grandfather volunteered for the draft, he got to choose a few things, rather than be assigned. First and foremost he chose to join the United States Marine Corps. He was a member of the Fourth Marine Division, Twenty-third regiment, Fourth Service Battalion (Company S). He originally applied for paratrooping, but those units ended up getting disbanded due to the small size of the islands in the Pacific. His second choice was then a tank outfit, but he ended up being specially trained in the M-one semiautomatic rifle. In hindsight, my grandfather saw many tanks destroyed and mangled, and was very glad that he had been turned down for that position.

Although he wasn’t infantry, my grandfather was specially trained in amphibious landings and beach front combat and he was part of the island-hopping in the Pacific theater in the Marshall Islands, Marianna Islands and on Iwo Jima campaigns. He was sent to San Diego first for basic training, and was later sent to a place called Jax Farm. Basic Training taught him the rigorous discipline that he would need later on. When asked about his training, my grandfather honestly replied, “I was more afraid of my superior officers that I was of the enemy”.

One day on the island of Saipan, a few days after the Americans won the island, my grandfather and two of his buddies were walking down a beach looking for shells and possible souvenirs of the war to send home to their families. The island had been considered won by this point, so the soldiers believed they were in no danger and were relaxing after countless days of fighting. My grandfather was sharpening his knife, as Marines are taught to respect and care for their weapons, when a Japanese aircraft swooped into sight.

The airplane quickly began “strafing” the beach, or firing continuously while approaching the target. My grandfather could see two parallel lines of bullets racing toward him, the spurts of sand created miniature geysers. The Marines immediately took to flight and lunged into a foxhole, my grandfather found himself immersed in sanguine. Blood was all over his shirt and sleeves. His friends quickly hoisted him up and were helping him to safety as my grandfather’s stomach tied up in thoughts.

The Marines found cover and immediately began looking for the wound in case they could perhaps do something to save his life. They searched his body frantically but found nothing. As it turned out, my grandpa had cut his own finger with the acute knife he had been sharpening, while diving for the foxhole. Although the cut was severe, the boys were immensely relieved and the Marines were soon engulfed by laughter in honor of the close call.

My grandfather also witnessed firsthand, the raising of the American Flag on Iwo Jima. He was climbing a valley on his way up Mount Suribachi, where this famous event would occur, under massive, massive fire. Even though the little island had been bombed for three months prior to the invasion the Japanese were still well entrenched underneath the islands soft volcanic rock. The bullets were flying every which way, raining down from a Japanese machine gun nest on the highest point of the island, my grandfather recalled. Losses were tremendous that day.

The men were losing hope quickly, faced with unbelievable opposition. One by one the Marines began to notice an American flag swaying up on top of the hill. The American forces held their collective breath while six Marines briefly struggled and then cooperatively placed an American flag on the highest point on the island. The forces quickly became reenergized at the sight of their flag and fought with new found vigor and hope, knowing the machine gun nest at the top was in American hands. Now a statue in Washington DC commemorates this fantastic event.

My Grandpa and his lovely wife Helen went to Japan for their anniversary in 1980 with their youngest daughter Michelle. They couldn’t believe how well they were treated while staying there. Grandpa, almost twenty years later, still remains greatly impressed with how congenial and respectful the Japanese people were, and looks back fondly upon his trip, even though the trip got cut short due to Michelle becoming ill. My Grandfather harbors no resentment towards the Japanese today, and in hindsight has realized that the Japanese he was fighting on those islands were enlisted men just like himself, only doing their best for their country and following orders.

My grandfather regrets nothing about his life, as he is grateful for all he has been given throughout his life, but when concerning the war he “would give anything in the world, not to have it happen again”. He now resides in Titusville, in the same general Central Florida area as his four beautiful daughters and studly sons-in-law, as well as his two sparkling grandchildren.

I learned a great deal from this assignment. Not only did I learn a lot about history and was able to connect it with people I know, but I also learned a great deal about my grandfather. My Pap (grandfather on my dad’s side of the family) was also in World War II, but in the United States Navy. I would have loved to have interviewed Pap, and compare the experiences and attitudes of my two grandfathers, but sadly he passed away in 1989. I would have loved to hear what he had to say, especially growing up in Shamokin, a little coal mining town in Pennsylvania.

I really enjoyed doing this assignment and am looking forward to seeing my grandparents this weekend, because I still have a boatload of questions I can’t wait to ask.