The Greatest Generation: Duane Hull

Many of you know Duane Hull as a master craftsman based on his woodwork in our church. Bet you didn’t know he helped build a chapel on Iwo Jima in WWII. He landed there as a member of the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion (i.e. Seabees) and remained on the island until the end of the war. Here’s how he got from Alliance, Ohio to the site of one of the most famous Pacific battles of WWII .

First thing Duane told me was that football was mighty important in his hometown because it is only a few miles from Canton which is the birthplace of the NFL. Following high school he attended Ohio State University for two years before going to work at Alliance Machine Co in 1943 to help in production of steel products for the war effort. After two years of work at Alliance, he and his best friend Johnson decided it was time to join the fight on the front lines and both enlisted in the Navy and headed for training in Williamsburg, Virginia. After seven months of training in Williamsburg, Gulfport, Mississippi, and Port Hueneme, California, Duane and Johnson headed to Oahu, Hawaii where the 133rd worked on expanding taxi ways and improving the Naval Air Station there. Duane told me he also worked the base laundry during this time and was proud to say he earned an extra $15 a month for doing so.

The Seabees joined up with the 4th Marine division at Maui and headed off for forty days at sea en route to Iwo Jima. He landed on the beach with the second wave of Marines on the first day of fighting and said he knew he was in a real battle when the landing craft he just stepped off of took a direct hit from mortar fire while heading back to retrieve more troops and basically disintegrated. Now terrified, he then headed inland and jumped into the first foxhole he could find. Duane shook his head a little when he told me he dug into the middle of the remains of a Marine who was just hit by mortar fire. The main focus of the Seabees was to secure the beach and to maintain supply lines to Marines in the front line. Duane was smiling when he said that every bulldozer carrying ammunition to these Marines also always had a jerry can of hot coffee along for the ride.

Two weeks after the landing (which was still two weeks before the battle was over) the Seabees began repairing runways and built a water distillation plant for the island. Duane spoke in awe and wonder that this battalion, which suffered 25% casualties, could build a 12,500 foot runway with all supplies either shipped in containers or mined from the island. American ingenuity and work ethic was “just unbelievable” as Duane saw it when the 133rd built P51 runways in just fifteen days.

His memories also included a couple of events that were special to him. First was watching a Catholic priest by the name of Father Kelly walk up and down the beach comforting wounded and dying troops with no regard for his safety. The fact that he was never hit by enemy fire was because he had “God’s shield” protecting him according to Duane. The other event was that Duane actually helped build a chapel from plywood which was obtained by a certain truck driver that had a gift for acquisitions of impossible to find supplies. He crafted window shutters to simulate stained glass since glass was truly impossible to be found in the Pacific islands.

The War ended while Duane was in the Far East and it is not hard to imagine that he returned to Alliance Machinery as an engineer…turns out he passed the state board exams without going back to college. Duane eventually became Chief Engineer and Director of International Engineering for Alliance. Always interested in how these Veterans end up in Lake Wales, I found out that Duane and his wife Edwina wanted to retire in Florida, and it just so happened that Edwina’s folks (the Thornburgs) lived on Thornburg road and actually owned a fish camp on Crooked Lake in the late 1940’s.

As I found out routinely in these interviews, the main focus of the greatest generation is on others rather than themselves. Duane was genuinely amazed at what his fellow Seabees accomplished with little or no ‘proper’ materials. In fact he had a little twinkle in his eyes when he told me that his battalion salvaged enough parts off of the beach at Iwo Jima to piece together eight jeeps … which the Army was more than willing to keep using after the Seabees had headed home.