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Our War: WWII exposed Fairview Heights man to grim realities

Sanfus Lampley
Sanfus Lampley

Sanfus Lampley's World War II service took him from the juke joints of Georgia to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

He worked in the skin-searing deserts of Iran to supply the Russians.

Then he slogged through mud in the jungles of Burma to build a supply road into China.

Bombay, Tehran and Cairo all opened up for Lampley as a result of his enlistment after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He saw a lot of the world, but by 1945, he had seen too much.

"The lack of cleanliness, the bad food, strange people --- little children with flies all over their faces begging for food. You haven't seen your family. There's nothing you are accustomed to at all," Lampley said.

Jungle rot left him barely able to walk, and he needed a break, so an officer suggested a 45-day leave. President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, the day before he caught a string of flights to get home.

"I went to 10 memorial services for FDR. Everywhere we stopped, I'd go to another one," he said.

He spent the last few months of the war in Louisiana trying to walk again on feet that swelled and split open like they'd been slashed.

"They didn't know what to do for it. I don't know why it finally healed, but I was a happy man when I could walk in shoes again."

Lampley is 86 and lives in Fairview Heights. He grew up living between Shuqualak, Miss., and East St. Louis.

By 1941, he'd moved to Detroit, where he and his buddy, Garfield Minter, operated an automobile dent repair and paint business. When they heard Pearl Harbor was bombed, they volunteered. They thought enlisting would keep them out of the infantry.

"Too much walking and always in the front of the fight," he said. "I wanted to be in a tank division."

He wound up assigned to the infantry, anyway.

Before heading overseas, Lampley was trained in Alabama and Georgia. He loved to dance, and weekends would find him in catfish joints with a jukebox or a bunch of guys playing guitars.

Once he found the wrong crowd and a new drink.

"I'd never had corn liquor, and I've never had it again."

It put him to sleep. He woke up to find his watch, his money and his belt gone.

One long weekend cost him his acting sergeant stripes, because he failed to get back by reveille. He was also assigned KP, but his lieutenant found out about his automotive background, assigned him to the motor pool, and he eventually became a mechanic with the 352nd Engineer General Service Regiment, an all-black unit, in Georgia.

"I never did have to do those dishes," he said.

The engineer regiment was getting ready to ship out from New York, but its orders were suddenly canceled. They were sent to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, near Harrisburg, Pa.

"You know where I went every weekend then? New York City. I was at the Savoy Ballroom when Cootie Williams' band was playing at one end and Jay McShann's at the other. One band would end and the other would start.

"It would keep you going if you loved to dance, and I loved to dance, and people loved to dance with me," Lampley said.

His unit finally received orders for overseas and shipped out Jan. 13, 1943, from San Francisco aboard a converted British ocean liner. They stopped in Pearl Harbor, where Lampley saw the devastated ships that got him to enlist. Then on to New Zealand, Australia and finally they were in Bombay, India.

"As soon as they dropped the ramp, I was off that ship. I walked down the street just like I belonged there. There were women in cages being fattened up, and thousands of people."

His lieutenant spotted him and confined him. He didn't have permission to leave the ship.

They transferred to a troop ship able to navigate the Persian Gulf, and on March 2, 1943, arrived at Khorramshahr, Iran. Lampley fixed trucks and operated a rock quarry, using heavy machines to sift sand and grades of gravel for the roads they built to the Russian border.

He also had to drive as part of the convoys that supplied the Russians with food, equipment, trucks and the road building materials. He remembers mountain passes that were so high, his commander's Jeep would be straight above him, nothing but blackness below and only room to pass on the hairpin turns.

"The brakes on the truck went out. Lord God, have mercy. I kept blowing the horn and dabbing the brakes. The truck in front of me figured something was wrong and slowed down. I eased up to him and went down that way, with him braking me. I was the happiest man in the world when I got down off that mountain," he said.

Iran was mostly empty and hot, with nights over 100 degrees. The convoy drivers would stop for the night, soak the mattresses on their cots and strip to their skivvies to get cool. Thirty minutes later the mattresses would be dry.

"There was nothing but desert. No trees, just heat. You'd think you were by yourself, and in less than three minutes these people would appear, like they came out of the earth. Children begging, `Give me food. Chocolate.'"

After nearly two years in Iran, Lampley thought his unit was heading home. They again passed through Bombay, but only to head for Burma, where they would help build the Ledo Road, a supply line into China.

The jungles were torn up after Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell cleared out the Japanese.

"The trees were shredded, and there were chickens everywhere. And we'd go boar hog hunting with our rifles," Lampley said. "Pop Freeman was a great cook, and he'd cook your chicken up for you."

Lampley is grateful he saw so much of the world.

"You think you are doing your patriotic duty. There's so much hostility, so many kinds of people," he said. "I did the best I could with my knowledge and the prayers of my family --- my mother and dad. I've been blessed."

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