Honor Flight: A long line of service
BIGELOW -- When the war broke out on two fronts in December 1941, John Sikma was working alongside his dad on their family farm east of Ocheyedan, Iowa. He was the oldest of eight kids, seven of which were boys, and hadn't seen much outside of farming in his first 20 years.
"Dad ran a tight ship," Sikma, now 89, said with a grin earlier this week from his rural Bigelow farm house.
When his draft papers arrived in 1942, the northwest Iowa farm boy reacted with pride.
"I was kind of tickled -- I was a little excited," he said. "I was afraid I would miss the war."
Sikma's father served in World War I, though he never saw combat.
"Dad never got out of Camp Pike, Ark. He was in for six months and the war was over," Sikma shared.
While many other young men feared the day the draft papers came, Sikma said he wasn't afraid.
"I never was afraid of anything, except when you couldn't dig (a foxhole) any deeper. I never had no fear -- Dad said you didn't have enough sense to be afraid."
Sikma entered the U.S. Army on Sept. 24, 1942, at Fort Dodge, Iowa. He completed military police training in Fort Leonardwood, Mo., and Camp Young, Calif., before shipping out from the harbor at Camp Stoneman, Calif., on Jan. 15, 1944.
"We rode past Alcatraz," he said. "That's full of sharks -- you couldn't swim out of there."
Sikma pulled guard duty while aboard the troop ship that carried them out to sea, and those first few days were a challenge.
"They were feeding us the greasiest slop you ever saw," he recalled. "I think the Navy guys had it against the Army guys. I felt terrible punk."
By the third day at sea, Sikma was so ill he couldn't stand guard.
"They let me off, and I felt so bad that I'd ignored my duty," he recalled. After that day, he didn't miss guard duty again.
The ship was westward-bound toward Milne Bay and then Finschhafen, New Guinea. There, the men took a break in what essentially served as a rest area for American troops.
It was while on Finschhafen that Sikma was tasked with watching over a swimming beach for commissioned officers. All nurses were commissioned officers, he said, and there were several swimming in the water, but enlisted men weren't supposed to associate with them.
Sikma's job was to keep the enlisted men from joining the nurses in the water, but it proved a difficult task. How do you know someone's rank when they're out of uniform? That was Sikma's response, anyway, when he was questioned by his colonel.
"The answers I gave him didn't suit him and he went to the captain. In a few hours, I was transferred to C Company (the 44th Tank Battalion)," Sikma said.
That was in May 1944. When his new commanders found out he wasn't trained in tank warfare, he was sent on to the service company and relegated to the job of assistant truck driver.
During his tour of duty, Sikma was never involved in man-to-man combat, although there was one incident he fondly speaks of.
He and a small group of soldiers had just arrived at a new locale and, as they were walking to camp, they heard a rustling in the trees.
"The cook was so excited, he emptied his carbine into the tree," Sikma said. "It turned out it was a monkey."
That wasn't the only monkey incident during his war days. Later on, Sikma said one of his fellow soldiers had a pet monkey that got loose in their camp and wreaked havoc on the soldiers' stash of cigarettes. Sikma lost three full cartons in the incident.
"Every one of the cigarettes was chewed up and urinated on by that monkey," he said.
After leaving New Guinea, Sikma served for a time at both Leyte and Luzon, in the Philippines. As a member of the transport team, his job was to haul high-octane airplane fuel and ammunition to various sites as directed.
A few times, Sikma landed in sick bay -- once for malaria, another with yellow jaundice, and a third with shingles.
The shingles were discovered after Sikma was sent to an outpost on a hill at Leyte in a dense fog.
"We got up there and you could smell the dead bodies," he said. "You couldn't see."
The next morning, when the fog lifted, they discovered dead Japanese soldiers nearby, their bodies and their weapons covered in maggots.
Sikma took one of the rifles as a souvenir, but later discarded it because he couldn't wash the smell from the weapon.
When he noticed a red mark a day or two later, just above his right hip, Sikma feared maybe the maggots had gotten to him during that night at the outpost. That wasn't the case, though, and he said he was relieved to find out it was only shingles.
While serving in the war, Sikma kept close the memory of his home, his family and his church life. Growing up, he said Sunday morning services always ended with the singing of "God be with you until we meet again."
When the war broke out, many of the boys he'd attended church with were drafted as well.
"There were no Gold Star mothers at Ocheyedan Christian Reformed Church -- (the boys) all came back," he said. "Somebody's prayers were being answered."
Sikma returned to the farm after his honorable discharge on Nov. 8, 1945. By then, he had accumulated several military bars and the Good Conduct medal, as well as a bronze arrowhead and the Philippine Liberation medal with two bronze stars.
His younger brother, Harold, also served in World War II in the Navy. He took part in an Honor Flight from Sioux City, Iowa, more than a year ago. The two were the first in a long line of siblings who served their country.
Brother Jim had been drafted into the Korean War, but discharged before he saw combat, while Bill served as a radio operator in the Korean War. Roger was activated for the Korean War, and Bob, the next in line, served in Vietnam as a member of the Marines. He worked in intelligence and was discharged as a captain.
The youngest of the brothers, Rick, was fortunate to not be called to duty. As the youngest, he was allowed to stay on the farm and help his dad.
As for Sikma, a return home meant a return to farm life. He and his wife, Dorothy, have been married for 63 years, and still reside on Dorothy's family farm northwest of Bigelow. The couple raised three daughters, and has 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Sikma will be one of more than 100 World War II veterans slated to embark on Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota's third flight April 29-30.