A witness to history

A witness to history
Walt Travis of Carlsbad shuffles through hundreds of photographs Monday during his time during and after World War II. Photo by Steve Puterski

Times were different. Much different.

And in the past 92 years, Walt Travis has witnessed the Depression, World War II, the assassination of a president, the resignation of another and much more.

The Carlsbad resident, meanwhile, has stories to tell but is much more than just an old veteran enjoying his sunset years.

He, along with another WWII vet, had a chance encounter about one year ago and soon cobbled a group of vets together, who meet every week for lunch at the senior center.

Astonishingly, the 92-year-old is a caregiver who puts the needs of others ahead of his own. His signature chuckle typically follows most statements, while his conversations are direct and to the point.

Travis is loyal to his friends and family, but his experiences are like finding a time machine to the eras mostly lost to the history books.

 

The beginning

The decorated WWII vet began life on Jan. 12, 1924 in San Francisco. Back then, he said, it was more of the Wild West than the colorful hodgepodge it has grown into today.

When he was 5, the country was crushed by Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, the infamous day when the New York Stock Exchange crashed and slammed the U.S. into the Great Depression.

For Travis and his family, however, they were never left destitute as much of the country was. His father, Walter, was a baker and made a steady living in a city associated with its famous bread, while his mother, Lorreta, was a housewife.

Travis, though, helped his father in the bakery, rising at 3 a.m. to start the day’s food preparation before heading off to school.

“That’s when bakers get up,” he said. “My folks were doing well.”

The city as a whole, though, struggled after the longshoreman’s and teamsters unions made a critical error in negotiations for higher wages. The massive shipyards soon became vacant as the ships diverted their cargo to Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“The Depression, as I remember as a kid, so many people were out of work,” Travis explained. “But my father always had work. The town itself still featured Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and the tourists.”

Still, Travis said he bounced around to several schools before graduating from high school in 1942. During those years, he formed a band and played weddings, dances and parties for $1 per night.

“It was a little jazz group,” he chuckled.

 

Going to war

The country, slowly climbing out of the depression, took another beating when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

As a nation mourned more than 2,000 deaths of sailors stationed in Hawaii, the call to arms resonated with Americans and Travis.

“In San Francisco, Pearl Harbor was a real shock to the town because they figure they (the Japanese) were going to invade San Francisco next,” he recalled. “We went into an immediate security and blackouts. We had block wardens. Everybody was panicking. It didn’t take long before they started rationing food and gasoline.”

Walt Travis of Carlsbad, left, and members of his Marines unit gather after bathing in the Matanikau River on the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal. Travis later learned the river was infested with alligators. Courtesy photo

Walt Travis of Carlsbad, left, and members of his Marines unit gather after bathing in the Matanikau River on the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal. Travis later learned the river was infested with alligators. Courtesy photo

He joined the Marines in summer 1942 and was assigned to the VMF-115. His duties would include building airfields on the islands in the Pacific Theater, while enduring the constant threat of the fierce Japanese guerillas.

After six months of training in San Diego and Santa Barbara, Travis and his battalion shipped out to Pearl Harbor, where he witness the remains of the Japanese surprise attack.

“We could see all the damage there,” his voice trailing off.

From there, it was off to the Solomon Islands and one of the most treacherous battles in the Pacific at Guadalcanal. His unit was responsible for hastily building airfields, while dodging nightly bombardments from the Japanese.

“They were hitting all around us,” Travis said. “We had foxholes … it rained all the time. A lot of rain out there. When it rains, it hits the banana trees; it’s so loud you can’t hear each other. It’s like a train going by.”

Although the Americans would eventually liberate the islands, it wasn’t without a cost. Savo Sound — between Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida islands — was nicknamed by the soldiers “Iron Bottom Sound,” where dozens of American ships were sunk, Travis said.

“We started operations there right away,” Travis said of his arrival in the Pacific. “At that time, they were isolating the islands so we could invade them. What we would do is circle the islands to keep anything from coming in or going out. That really helped keep the supplies down from the Japanese sending them out where they needed to go.”

Marine Capt. Joe Foss, left, and Charles Lindbergh pose for a photo during World War II. Foss was Carlsbad resident Walt Travis’ commanding officer during their time on the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal. Courtesy photo

Marine Capt. Joe Foss, left, and Charles Lindbergh pose for a photo during World War II. Foss was Carlsbad resident Walt Travis’ commanding officer during their time on the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal. Courtesy photo

On Zamboanga, meanwhile, Travis and his men were not only under constant threat from the Japanese, but wild animals and a local tribe known as Morrows, who were so feared that American and Japanese forces avoided them.

“They were huge and mean,” Travis said. “They didn’t talk to us and we didn’t talk to them.”

In addition, the threat of animals was also a constant fear.

Travis recounted how he and many other Marines would bathe in the Matanikau River.

What they did not know, until later, was the river was infested with alligators. Land wasn’t much better as the Marines dodged centipedes about a foot long, snakes and “rats like cats.”

The rats were big enough to steal the soldiers’ boots at night.

“The saltwater alligators would come up the fresh stream,” Travis laughed. “The ocean had so much coral and sea snakes would come up. You couldn’t bathe in there either. I can say one thing, Guadalcanal was the worst island in the Pacific.”

Yet another aspect of the war few know is the assistance of the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh. The military unveiled a new plane, the Corsair, but encountered problems with the fuel pump when it flew at about 12,000 feet above the surface.

Lindbergh came to Guadalcanal, fixed the pumps and also said the planes’ payloads could carry 1,000-pound bombs, Travis said. Before Lindbergh’s arrival, the planes only carried 500-pound bombs.

But Lindbergh wasn’t done. He not only fixed the fuel pumps, but assisted with loading the bombs, and then took to bombing runs as the pilot, Travis said, again with a chuckle.

“He didn’t want to leave us,” Travis added.

Travis’ unit and the Marines battled through Guadalcanal, Zamboanga and the northern Philippines, although the men had no clue the war was near its end.

After their campaign on the islands, Travis was placed on a hospital ship with a destination unknown. It was there, working night security for men who were shell-shocked and “guys who lost it,” that Travis and the others learned of Japan’s surrender.

Carlsbad’s Walt Travis, top row middle, and members of the Marines and Filipino guerillas pose of a photo during their time at Guadalcanal in World War II. Courtesy photo

Carlsbad’s Walt Travis, top row middle, and members of the Marines and Filipino guerillas pose of a photo during their time at Guadalcanal in World War II. Courtesy photo

“There was a lot of wounded and guys who cracked up,” he said. “They had all these cages down there. It was really hard to look at.”

Travis’ ship docked in San Francisco, although his duty wasn’t over. He and his unit were deployed to San Diego when they heard the news the war was over.

“We headed up to L.A. and stayed up there a couple days,” Travis said. “We were pretty well drunk the whole time.”

 

Back home

Upon his return, Travis’ ship docked in a familiar city, his hometown. After leaving the Marines, Travis wed his high school sweetheart, Lorraine, in 1947 in San Francisco.

The two were married for 53 years until she passed away 16 years ago. Their time, though, saw the couple span North America and beyond.

“She was my girlfriend my senior year,” Travis said. “When I joined the Marine Corps, she said she would wait. A lot of them didn’t wait. And when I came back, she was waiting.”

Travis said their passion for boats bonded the two as they navigated the Caribbean Sea, traveled down the West Coast and down the Mexican coast. They even lived on a boat in the San Joaquin River Valley for five years.

The two had five children — Leslie, Sue, Guy, Scott and Kelly.

They raised their kids in Northern California, first in Sonora then in Marin County. The Travis matriarch also has six grand children, one of whom is a Navy SEAL, and three great-grand children.

As for Walt Travis, after starting with a coffee company after the war, he landed a plum job with General Motors.

He finally retired in 1980 and he and Lorraine retreated to their home in Sonoma County.

As the years passed, Lorraine’s health started to deteriorate so the couple decided a change of scenery was best for her health.

After a visit to Del Mar to visit their daughter Leslie, Walt and Lorraine moved to the city. After Lorraine passed away, Travis found a new home in Carlsbad, where he has kept active through volunteering with several organizations, plus the senior center and becoming a caregiver.

“When you look around … a guy has to be lucky to stay married that long, have five children and no problems,” he reminisced. “I can’t understand how I got by with all that.”

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