I’m Greg McIntyre and I’m talking with Ludy Wilkie. Now, the reason we do lunch with a veteran is first to show case veterans, and second, I think by preserving and hearing these stories, not only are they entertaining but they can encourage young people to explore their dreams within the military.
So Ludy, could you tell us your story?
LW: Well, the military certainly helped me. I finished college in 1969 at Western Carolina. I wanted to go on to graduate school but just did not have the money and so the only option that seemed available was enlisting in the Army and getting the G.I Bill of Rights. I worked for a short time that summer after I graduated at a radio station but Uncle Sam was always tugging at my coat tails and a friend of mine who is a member of our American Legion advised me, get Uncle Sam before he gets you. I got interested in military journalism and the armed forces radio and TV, and one group that thought they could get that for me was the Army Security Agency.
Now, the ASA as it was called required a four-year enlistment, and I did that, and it was interesting. A few weeks earlier I had been in college discussing Emerson, and then after entering the Army we were pounding up the trails at old Fort Jackson and it was an experience. At first when I enlisted I found the opportunities for journalism were closed but a lieutenant at Fort Devens, Massachusetts took an interest in my case and several others, and it was arranged that I go to a Department of Defense Information School located in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. After that I went on to Okinawa where I was a military journalist.
I wrote articles for home town newspapers, such as, so-and-so got promoted, such a person got a medal, and I wrote for newspapers on Okinawa, civilian newspapers as well as military and for the Hallmark. Hallmark magazine is the official magazine of the US Army Security Agency. I was one of the first and only correspondents to get a byline in one of the stories I wrote. For my efforts as a military journalist and for my work in the post chapel helping put on dramas and plays, I was fortunate enough to get the Army Commendation Medal.
GM: How long were you on Okinawa?
LW: Two years and it should have been longer. I was there from 1970 to 1972.
GM: That was during the time there was a big rebellion there?
LW: Indeed, there was a lot of tension on Okinawa, it’s a small island, nineteen by sixty miles and American military bases make up about one third of the bottom half of the island. The Okinawans were very sensitive about that. Our extensive use of their land and with the Vietnam war going on, they were afraid of getting drawn in to another war. The stationing of B-52’s on Okinawa also become an issue. It was just a very tense time, and there was some anti-American resentment.
I remember during my first year there, an American driver accidentally hit an Okinawan pedestrian but the Okinawans could tell it was an American car because we had different colored car tags. In retaliation, they started attacking American cars and setting them on fire. We were restricted to base until that settled down. The riots made the newspapers here in America, so, there was a lot of tension going on at the time.
I remember the ASA required enlistment of four years but as I walked into our headquarters building a fellow soldier from Sylva, North Carolina called Guy Hall called me over and said, have you heard Ludy, they’re cancelling the four year enlistments, we can get out with only three. This was very good news, I got to come home a year earlier than I thought, but yes, Okinawa was a very tense place, but a very interesting place.
During world war two when American forces invaded, the battle of Okinawa destroyed about eighty percent of everything above ground on the lower part of the island. This was one reason the Okinawans were fearful of getting drawn into another war.
I was on Okinawa when it reverted to Japan. It had been decided since the Eisenhower administration that Japan would eventually take over the island and I was there when that happened. I believe the then Vice President Agnew made a visit to the island, and for many years I had the newspapers, the civilian newspaper the Morning Star, it opened up, Welcome to Japan. There were places flying the Japanese flag and the Japanese Yen was one of the excepted currencies off post. Now this was interesting, prior to the reversion, Americans were told to patronize only the establishments which featured an ‘A’ sign in restaurants and such, that meant they met certain standards of hospitality and fair business practice and hygiene, and welcomed American patronage. After the reversion that could not be enforced but establishments such as restaurants were still asked to display an ‘A’ sign anyway, indicating they welcomed American patronage. Some places did not.
It was quite an experience to change money into Yen. Technically we weren’t allowed to before we left the island but we could always go off post and do that. It was quite an experience when Okinawa was given back to the Japanese.
GM: How did you find the people? It sounds like they were not happy about the American occupation at that point in their history. I spent some time on the Naval base, Port Yokosuka in Japan and I visited Tokyo and found the people were very friendly, well maybe not friendly but civil, and sharp and clean. I have been to places where the people were very friendly. The Japanese certainly have a rich culture, very smart but are not super friendly to outsiders. We have a huge debate about immigration in the US right now and I don’t think that’s a problem in Japan. My eldest son and I were looking at statistics and he was telling me there are very few people from other cultures who live there permanently.
LW: The Okinawans individually were very courteous and friendly to the individual American but they resented the military presence being there occupying much of their property. Okinawa had once, centuries back, been an independent kingdom but was never left in isolation. China and Japan would vie for control of it. China recognized Japans sovereignty over the Ryukyu islands, and the Okinawan king was given some rank in Japanese nobility but the Japanese tended to look down on the Okinawans as their poor neighbors. The Okinawans actually opposed the reversion, they would have pamphlets in English saying Japan is not our fatherland, even though they had to learn the Japanese language. It was such a small island that it would have been difficult for them to defend against foreign invaders. The Okinawans had always been dominated and influenced by other cultures, they had never been left alone. It was given back to Japan because we took it from them during world war two. The battle of Okinawa was the last major battle of world war two, and some of the Japanese later admitted when they heard Okinawa had fallen, they knew it was all over. It was the last outpost between the American forces and mainland Japan. It was called the keystone of the Pacific because out of there we had other bases.
You were mentioning some of the Asian people being friendly, I went on leave for nine days to Taiwan. The people of Taiwan were very friendly. Chiang Kai-shek was still alive then but they knew if the Americans were not there the Republic of China would be coming over to get them, so that was one place Americans were very welcome. They would walk up to you on the street and start a conversation. A professor invited me to dinner in his home but I didn’t get to go. They were great believers in international relations. In little Taiwan, capitalist Taiwan out-produced red China. One time I was at a PX, I needed to cash a check and there were sirens passing by and it was General Chiang Kai-shek on his way to work. He had not left the country since becoming the ruler. I shouldn’t tell this but I will, the Chinese did pirating, they would pirate American books and records and reproduce them illegally despite the copyright, and we were not supposed to send them through mail but you could hand carry them out of the country and bring them home. I brought home some books and records and such, and two of the books were text books one of my professors at Oklahoma University had contributed to. I never told him I had pirate copies of that book. People would go there and get teak wood furniture and bring it back.
GM: Taiwan is a real holdout in that region for capitalism and free market enterprise.
LW: Getting back to Okinawa, one thing we experienced a couple of summers there was the drought. It would get very dry and we would have to ration water, and sometimes you could buy jugs of water but to purify it you had to put chlorine bleach in it. We would pray for rain or a typhoon to hit. One typhoon did hit, typhoon Vera but it only filled up the reservoir a little bit. They had a problem with water rationing which was odd being surrounded by the ocean on all sides.
GM: Water, water everywhere.
LW: But not a drop to drink. We should have practiced some desalinization somewhere for fresh water.
GM: It doesn’t sound very healthy to drink the chlorine bleach water?
LW: We just put a few drops in. We put chlorine in the pools, it’s the same type principle. The island was very poor, they still had open ditches where they dumped their sewage, it was right out there in the open. We had to get accustomed to that.
GM: Have you been back to Okinawa anytime?
LW: No I haven’t.
GM: That would be a neat experience. I wonder how things are in comparison?
LW: I believe they have closed a number of smaller bases but I think there’s still a lot of anti-American tension over there. The locals do have jobs on American bases, and this resulted in a higher standard of living so they have a catch 22 type situation. They don’t like the Americans but the bases provide them with jobs.
GM: It sounds like they don’t like the Japanese either.
LW: Some of the Okinawans who remembered being drafted into the Japanese army during world war two certainly don’t. Incidentally, while I was there they found the last Japanese soldier to surrender, I think on the Philippines, and on Okinawa the last one to surrender was in 1959. He was a hold out, he did his duty to the emperor and had not surrendered.
GM: That is nuts. They were just living in caves or something?
LW: Certainly living in caves and the wilderness areas. They were dedicated, they would not surrender. On Okinawa one place to visit was suicide cliffs where the Japanese Generals refused General Buckner’s invitation to surrender, they drank a toast to the emperor and committed harikari. The lesser officers had to be the ones who surrendered.
GM: That was one thing that made the Japanese so fierce in world war two. A commitment to country and the emperor all the way to death. I think that is almost unparalleled.
LW: It was, and even while I was there they had a company that had to explode ordnance because unexploded ordnance, shells, bombs, grenades were still found all over the island from world war two. Old but still deadly. There was a special unit assigned to do just that. That would have been a very frightening job, going out and recovering old shells and bombs.
During low tide you could see where American soldiers had fallen through the coral during the invasion. American Marines died there. They still had some old Japanese bunkers and such, which was a vivid reminder of world war two.
GM: How the world changes so quickly. My grandfather was in world war two. Now Japan is a great ally, and we certainly reinvested in rebuilding Japan there’s no denying it.
LW: It would have changed a lot from the time my father was there during world war two. He talked to me about it to the time I was there. He knew the mayor of one of the towns over there after the Japanese had surrendered, but their ways were somewhat different from ours.
One interesting thing that people loved to do and I did, was to go to a restaurant that served Kobe beef, and they would marinade and cook it in front of you. They would ask how you liked your steak. Some people argued it wasn’t true Kobe beef which originated in Korea, beef that was raised on beer. They would take the young calf and raise it on beer, just beer. There were two places that did that, Sam’s Anchor Inn and Oseki’s, I think in Koza. I did not visit this place but there was a small colony or something, but there was an orphanage which had been a small leper colony, and some of the American soldiers would visit those orphanages and help take care of them.
GM: So, you were a journalist and in the military, and still found time to do many creative things such as writing and acting, the world’s greatest playwright.
LW: The world’s greatest undiscovered playwright. We have a playwrights group that I helped found and meets in Hendersonville, The Lost Playwrights. We are expecting to do some promotions for the Hendersonville library. Some people from Shelby have gone to that, Brendan LeGrand who does documentaries, and Tom Bennett from Kings Mountain who writes plays.
GM: How many plays have you written?
LW: I would have to stop and count, but some have been produced. Once in Rutherford County, once in Crest High School, The Diary of Faust, with gypsies and werewolves, a secret society with the book of forbidden knowledge, and there was the play, The Ballard of Nancy Hanks which has been done twice. We proved that Abe Lincoln was born in Bostic and not in Kentucky, that one has been done. I started out doing readers theaters based on the book of Luke and the book of Ruth. I got permission from the Thomas Nelson people to use the New Kings James version for the book of Luke, and the American bible society to use the Good News Bible for the book of Ruth. We did an O Henry trilogy, basically stage readings of three O Henry stories, and we had his next of kin up there at the time. Pastor Paul Porter gave a talk about O Henry. Here in Shelby for the season opener for the community theater we did one of my plays Hello Johnny Appleseed, and I did a series of five one act musicals and we did the Three Jolly Coachmen.
GM: You’ve written hymns as well?
LW: Oh yes. I did a play at the Lutheran Church about children who build a nativity scene but can’t get permission to put it up anywhere, we did two hymns from that. Peter Strickland who teaches music at Crest High School did the arrangements for some of these.
GM: Most people think the military is just people with guns but it’s much more than that. I always try to tell people how much of a benefit it has been in my life. It helped me get away from home and see the world, going over to Asia and the Middle East, and living in San Diego. Just those places expanded my vision of what the world is far more than what you get from watching television. It was very good for me. Also, you can do virtually any job you want in the military, such as the work you did as a military journalist. Do you think that it benefitted you in any way?
LW: Absolutely, it was a fantastic experience. I had a feeling of success, I was in a sense a published writer, and I have great stories about interesting people. One fellow was a volunteer boy scout leader and we did stories on him. There were just all sorts of fascinating stories when you get in to this. Talking about wanting to travel, I was stationed for a while at Fort Deven, Massachusetts and we would go into Boston on weekends and visit the historic sites. I got to see some theater, I saw Pearl Bailey in Hello Dolly for example. I met a lady who was one of the Mayflower descendants and I have an autographed copy of her book, Boston in my blood, bought at the oldest continuous bookstore in the United States. Then I was at Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana.
GM: I wonder if Ben Franklin ever used that bookstore?
LW: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised.
GM: Because he was such an avid reader but he didn’t stay in Boston. I think he left Boston when he was something like thirteen.
LW: I bought some interesting books there. I got a copy of Phantom of the Opera and the book, Gone with the wind with scenes from the movie. I met one of the actors, Rand Brooks who played Scarlett’s first husband, and he autographed it for me. Being around the historic parts of Boston was an experience.
GM: When you have gotten out of your home town and you travel, especially when you live in other places, I think it does something for you that you can’t get otherwise. You just bring back a different perspective.
LW: After I left the military to get my masters at the University of Oklahoma, and the G.I bill made that possible, some of my friends, fellow English majors were sitting talking, it was tough being in the military but one of them said, well the military is an experience, you have to live through MASH to write about it. This goes back to exactly what you’re saying; the folks who had been veterans in college, had different perspectives on life than the kids who came there right out of high school. They had seen some of the good and bad parts of the world.
GM: Plus, they had had a job for a few years and had some maturity under their belt.
LW: And responsibility and such things.
GM: I figured quickly as an enlisted Navy guy that the difference between me and a Naval officer was a piece of paper, that college degree, and whether I was smart enough or not, that wasn’t going to get me into that officer’s position unless I got that piece of paper. This was something that become really important to me. My father said the same thing about his enlisted experience.
LW: I can say that about mine, I was determined to go on and get my Master’s degree after the military and this made it possible. We used to have a joke under the enlisted men, that the difference between the enlisted men and the officer was the enlisted men worked for a living.
GM: I knew the same joke in the Navy.
LW: We had some Navy men stationed where we were, and I got to be good friends with them and respected them very much. They were people who knew their trades and knew them well.
GM: So, it sounds like the military for you was to get a head up by enlisting and controlling your fate, and get something out of it as well. In exchange for you saying, look, you can use my talents for so many years in enlistment or commission, I might put my life on the line for you and in exchange you get the G.I bill, you get your graduate degree and could pay for it. I used the G.I bill to get my Juris Doctorate and my MBA. I have veteran’s health care benefits also because I served during war time and was in a war zone. There are tons of different benefits you can get by being in the military and they can last you for the rest of your life.
So, great experiences in the military and I am an admirer of how prolific a writer you are.
LW: Thank you.
GM: I’ve written a couple of books, Saving the Farm and RockStar Lawyer, so I understand some of the difficulties involved with writing but I’m nowhere near the number you’ve poured your heart and soul into. Something else we have in common is the American Legion, you’re a leader of our post here in Shelby.
LW: Well, I work with their oratorical contest which is very important. High school students get to participate in this contest, where they give a speech about the US Constitution and an impromptu speech about one of the Amendments. There are no losers in that contest, everyone who participates is a winner.
GM: If someone wants to contact you to see your plays or find out more about what you do, how can they do that?
LW: They can contact me at LUDY@shelby.net.
GM: I want to thank you for everything you do for our American Legion Post and for your service.
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