At 100 years old, Gene England reflects on the Battle of Okinawa and the founding of C.R. England
Nov 18, 2019 02:23PM
● By Sona Schmidt-Harris
Gene England, a local business icon and veteran, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. (Sona Schmidt-Harris/City Journals)
By Sona Schmidt-Harris | [email protected]
Sitting in Gene England’s presence is like sitting with the Hollywood version of “The Greatest Generation.” But there is one difference, he’s the real deal.
His father started the trucking business, that later became C.R. England with Gene England following in his father’s footsteps.
“That was a business that fed the family. I was a different kid in town because my dad had a truck, and I could go with him. Whenever he'd take me it was the happiest day of my life, and he wanted to have me along as well. My legs wouldn't reach the floor, and he built a little platform so my feet would have a place to land,” he said.
“By the time I was 14 years old, I had an Idaho driver's license, which was legal at that time. They let the young 14-year-old guys drive trucks because they needed the help on the farm. So I was delivering these loads for dad, and it may have been childhood mistreatment or something, but it was the greatest thing in my life.”
When England was in the army, he saved his money, mostly by selling his cigarette rations. “And as a result, I came home with enough money to buy that first truck, and when I did that that was the beginning of C.R. England & Sons.”
Regarding his truck drivers at C.R. England, England said, “Those are great people that have been able to do that for us and make a good life. And we love them. We're always so thankful for the people who helped us build this company.”
In total, England has 105 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
For his 100th birthday, England sent cards to his posterity, and in the cards, he wrote his advice to them, “Goodness is the route to happiness.”
Few can speak from more experience than he.
While England is known primarily for his trucking business, he is also one of the few people alive who fought in the Battle of Okinawa.
Born in 1919 in Plain City, Utah, England turned 100 in October. Reflecting fondly on his school years, England said, “We had a good school. It was kind of unusual. At nine in the morning, when the bell rang, we assembled in ranks out in front of the school.”
England and his fellow students would march into the school with an army march blaring. His teacher marked out the cadence as they entered. England believes that this instilled in him and his fellow students a desire to serve their country.
“Plain City had established a monument at the cemetery honoring those who had served. On that monument, there were 119…that many people had served their country from a little town of 600 people.”
One of those serving was England himself. He arrived in Ft. Hood, Texas in 1944 with his young wife and son.
He was eventually shipped to the island of Saipan (part of the Northern Mariana Islands). After staying there for a few days, a meeting for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was held for the about 20 church members in that compound.
“And we were pretty humbled people at that time,” England said.
“The next day we were shipped out to Okinawa, and when we arrived on the ship, our troops were already on the land,” he said. “They made the invasion.”
“It was just a hubbub of activity. All kinds of ships in the harbor, and they’re discharging all kinds of stuff.”
“That’s when I became assigned to the 77th Infantry Division. The 77th was the Statue of Liberty Division.” This was because it consisted of mostly New York and New Jersey soldiers.
Soon, the 77th Division organized to fight on the island of Okinawa.
“The island of Okinawa is a roughly rectangular island, and it's about 300 miles from the Japanese mainland…so it was an island that we had to have,” England said. “And we're not going to move at night. That is the battle plan. We will push as far as we can. In the daylight, we’ll dig in, and hold the line there.”
England and his division slept in foxholes at night.
“But all during the night, there will be flares shot off at intervals. And when that flare is shot you hear the shot go, and a second or two later the light comes on.”
“So, we would take naps. We’d tell the guy next to us, ‘I'm going to be off for an hour or two while I take a nap. Watch for me.’”
“And every morning, there were a bunch of dead Japanese soldiers around us. Horrible, horrible situation. You can't believe how bad combat is. It's the worst you could ever imagine.”
“On the island of Okinawa is a big escarpment. It’s a high ridge called the Shuri Line that was heavily fortified. They hadn't been able to knock it out of there with our airplanes.”
England said there was a change in plans for the 77th Division. “We're going to call for a pre-dawn attack. We're going to send troops up 850 yards ahead of our front line up on to that ridge.”
They began their endeavor at 3:30 in the morning. “I believe that was on the 25th of June 1945.”
“But the problem was they're still sending out these flares as they always had. And when that flare went off, you had to be stationary.”
“We could already see the light was starting to come on, and we could see people moving around.”
“But at daylight, all hell broke loose, and we were in a battle that was terrible. We had dug in in a big semicircle, so we were in foxholes along that circle, and I don't know how it happened, but one of the men had gotten out of this circle. He had stood up in there and then got shot. He was down out there in the middle and couldn't move.”
The man who got shot called out for Battisti (the 77th Division’s squad leader). “Battisti come and get me.” He and Battisti had been friends for years. England started to figure out that Battisti, like everyone else, was scared and not about to go and get his friend.
“So, after calling for Battisti for some time, I decided to go out to get him on my belly. I thought there’s room for me to slide under the fire and get him and pull him into my hole and let the medics get ahold of him.”
“So that’s what I did, and that’s the reason I got the Bronze Star.” The Bronze Star hangs on his office wall, proudly displayed.
There had been 126 men who had gone on that mission. The next morning, there were only 25 left. England was one of them.
“Our general paid tribute to those who had fallen on the island. We had a ceremony to honor them. And I remember him saying, ‘These are our brethren who have fallen in this conflict. They were young men. We knew these men were loved that we fought with, that had lots of plans and hopes for the future. But here they lie in graves so far from home. And for all the things they hold dear, we honor them. We love them and honor them.’”
“But as I think about it, now all these years I've lived my life and had a wonderful life.”