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Our War: Belleville man recalls dark side of the South Pacific

Milton Keck in Japan
Milton Keck in Japan

Milton E. Keck could have gotten out of his draft notice and missed terrible things.

Malaria. Two suicides. A sniper. Carrying dead Japanese. Grappling with a guerrilla. Seeing the work of the A-bomb.

He was a farmhand, working his dad's place off Cloverleaf School Road near Belleville as well as a neighbor's farm. The neighbor wanted to get Keck out of the service and had a plan that included Keck's dad signing over the farm to his son.

"Dad said, 'no.' He wasn't going to fool with that. Then I got the papers and said I was gonna go no matter what -- I wasn't any better than anyone else," Keck said.

He eventually became a private first class in the 5th Cavalry Regiment. The farm boy who could drive a tractor learned to operate a bulldozer and a Browning automatic rifle. He was sent to Luzon in the Philippines, arriving June 23, 1945.

He found himself in the soupy heat of the jungles with malaria.

"I got so disgusted I did not care if I was shot. It was a miserable, miserable life," he said.

The malaria left him with nerve damage the rest of his life. He is now 84 and lives in Belleville.

He remembers being with his squad and them needing a bulldozer driver to clear a path through the jungle. He was feverish, but hopped aboard.

Then a sniper in a palm tree opened up. A bullet hit the engine.

The bulldozer got stuck in quicksand. He hopped off, ran and doesn't know what happened to the dozer.

Later duty included burying Japanese soldiers in a mass grave. The heat made the job unbearable, and Keck got so sick he was never assigned the job again.

He was hurt when his truck hit a coconut tree stump and he flew out, gaining a scar near the bridge of his nose that is still visible. Then he was hurt again when a monkey bit his leg and it got infected.

He twice had comrades kill themselves. One buddy took Keck's pistol and shot himself after getting a "Dear John" letter from his wife.

"I couldn't even look at him."

VJ Day found Keck in no condition to celebrate. The malaria was hitting again, and his fever was 106 degrees on Aug. 15, 1945.

"The war was over but I didn't feel anything, I felt so bad," he said.

The Fifth Cavalry was sent to occupy Japan. He wasn't sure what he'd find in the imperial homeland that swore its defense to the last man, woman and child.

"They were real nice people and they were glad it was over. They all said they had lost a best friend, husband or child in the war," Keck said.

Not everyone was ready to end the war.

One night Keck found himself being attacked by a Japanese guerrilla. He had snuck into camp and attacked Keck with a bayonet.

"They taught us in basic how to put our fists together and jam them into a man's neck. I used that on him and the other guys pulled him off."

His other strong memories are of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"At first they told us not to go there, it was too radioactive. Then they put us on trucks and said, 'Let's go out there and see the cities,'" Keck said.

He saw nothing. A city wiped away, except for some melted steel girders. Keck smelled something he had never smelled before, something in addition to death. "It was not good."

He sees the A-bomb as a mixed blessing.

"I was glad of it -- it ended the war. Otherwise we would have been in the South Pacific a lot longer," Keck said. "Then I think of all the kids that had to suffer, and the women, too."

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