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Tearful vets talk about WWII
Students in Marilyn Wood's history class at Central Valley High School felt a greater appreciation for the men and women who fought in World War II following a Thursday visit by two veterans who lived through the experience.

Gene Welsh of Ceres, a former Infantryman who routed the Japanese from islands in the Philippines, shared both stories and tears relating to his war experience. His friend, Vietnam War veteran Gary Lee Hall, came along for moral support.

Welsh grew up in Oklahoma and came to Ceres at age 15. He received his Army draft notice in 1943. He became a platoon sergeant with the 24th Army Division, 19th Infantry Regiment at a young age. Welsh saw intense fighting as his platoon was charged with cleaning the islands of Luzon, Mindoro and Leyte of Japanese strongholds.

"They were a good fighter but not as good as Americans," said Welsh, who was shot seven times in the war. "The American fighter is the best in the world."

Welsh grew emotional when sharing about the loss of his men over six decades ago.

"We lost a lot of guys. I wrote a lot of letters home to moms and dads."

He hung his head to regain his composure. "I get kind of sentimental when I talk about these things so bear with me."

Welsh remembers the intense fighting in the Philippines.

"They were vicious soldiers. Everyone died to the end. I couldn't take a prisoner in all my life."

Welsh said he let one scared Japanese soldier go after seeing the fright in his eyes.

He kept in touch with his family and remembers receiving piles of mail, which he usually got to read aboard the ship between islands. He remembers making night landings on islands only to find "all hell broke loose in the daylight."

One of those who was writing him was his future wife, Bettye, who lived in Texas and whom he never met.

"Bettye wrote just about every day," recalled Gene.

Because of the affections growing between them, communicated on paper, Gene was determined to get Bettye - sight unseen - and bring her to California for their wedding. Welsh saved up $10,000 during the war and sent it home, asking his parents to buy him a house in Ceres. At the end of the war in 1945, Gene and Bettye were married. They are still together.

Students asked Welsh what he thought when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Welsh said he wasn't much interested in world affairs at the time.

The presentation include a slide show of the equipment used by Welsh in the field and weapons like the Browning automatic. It was with that weapon that he used to kill untold number of Japanese.

"I'm not proud of what I've done but at 18 years of you don't know any better."

Wood's father, Earl Wood of Modesto, spoke about his much-different experience. Wood joined the military in 1944 and found himself taking Japanese prisoners in Okinawa. He recalls how large caves - some five to 10 miles long - were turned into secret hospitals. Children who were born underground had been living underground so long "you could almost read a paper through them." He remembers seeing rotten clothing fall off the prisoners as they brushed along the cave wall.

Hall said that Americans had far different attitudes towards those who served in World War II and those who served in Vietnam. He said while all fighting men often wrestle with nightmares and "dreams of warriors" for life, men like Welsh led productive lives back home.

Welsh remembers being glad to be back home in Ceres in 1945 and got his mind off the war by going into the auto body repair business. He and Bettye also got involved in the Ceres Twisters square dance club.

"I wonder how many of us came home. There was a lot of shooting and killing."

Hall said he goes to veterans meetings with Gene, who suffers from 100 percent service related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Ryan Camp, Wood's son who is an Iraq War veteran, also was on hand to listen to his grandfather speak to the class.