“I got to know him a little, and I was talking to him about five minutes before he was killed with machine gun fire,” recalled Cantrell of Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author Ernie Pyle. “He was in our group of 1,500 men on le Shima, an island northwest of Okinawa.”
That was one of the more horrific stories the 87-year-old Bremen native recounted of his war experiences. But Cantrell remembered the glorious and the humorous experiences in the U.S. Navy, as well as his civilian life.
Born on a Bremen farm in 1925, Cantrell was among six boys and two girls belonging to John William and Hattie Jane Helton Cantrell.
“My dad was a Christian and loyal Methodist, but he would not pray in public,” Cantrell remembered. One Sunday the pastor asked his father, “Brother John, will you stand up and pray the Morning Prayer? He stood up and said, ‘Preacher, you lead us yourself. That’s what we’re paying you for!’
“My great grandfather, John Tomlinson, was the first sheriff of Haralson County after the Civil War,” said Cantrell proudly, adding that the Cantrells have served 75 consecutive years on the board of Bremen High and the former Hamilton College, forerunner of the high school. Cantrell graduated from Bremen High and joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of 16.
“Back then, the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard were all volunteer,” said Cantrell, whose father reluctantly signed for him to join the Navy.
“The Navy can’t use you; you’ve got a heart murmur,” said the doctor after conducting Cantrell’s physical. “But, another doctor told me to quit smoking and be in bed by 8 p.m. every night, and I’d be alright.”
Later, Cantrell volunteered for the Army, remembering that he “went through the physical; the doctor looked in my ears; could not see out the other side, and told me, “You’re in the Army!”
But Cantrell really wanted to be a Navy man. So, he went back to the Navy doctor who told him, “I did not hear the murmur I heard the first time. But, you’re so little, if I find anything else wrong with you, I’ll send you back to Georgia.”
At 5 feet, 7 inches and 109 pounds, Cantrell went off to boot camp.
“They sent me to quartermaster school, and I graduated 5th out of 40 in the class. I wanted to be a quartermaster on a destroyer.”
However, the Navy had other plans.
Volunteering for the Pacific amphibious force, the diminutive Cantrell went to the Marshall Islands, Guam, Saigon and Iwo Jima when the U.S. first started bombing Japan.
“Those waters were full of Japanese subs. We went to Iwo Jima, which was a small island made of volcanic rock, on Feb. 19, 1945 – Iwo Jima’s D-Day,” recalled Cantrell.
To protect from burns, a paste of asbestos, whisky and wood alcohol was applied to the skin of the Marines aboard the LCT landing craft.
“The Japanese had been pounding the island all morning because it had two landing strips. It was the bloodiest battle the Marines had ever fought, with 51 percent casualties.
“Gunfire from Mt. Suribachi had gotten so heavy that they got Marine flame throwers to spray the concrete pill boxes, and we watched the Japanese come out of the boxes on fire. There was dogfighting overhead. Something hit me twice on the right side of my head. I thought my eye had been shot out. They wrapped my head. Someone made the remark, ‘Did anyone pray last night?’ The skipper said, ‘I did enough praying last night to send us all to heaven!’” Two scars remain on Cantrell’s forward, just below his snow white hair.
Cantrell said his battle group saw very little opposition in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, even though Japanese kamikaze (suicide) planes would attack day and night. The bodies of the kamikaze pilots were fragmented on impact.
“I saw the U.S. flag raised on Mt. Suribachi by the Marines in 1945,”continued Cantrell, meaning he witnessed the historic event in real time. They later staged the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” scene for the cameras, according to Cantrell, shooting the black and white photograph and footage still seen today, 67 years later.
Later that year, on Aug. 6, 1945, Cantrell said, “We were about 175 miles from the Hiroshima atomic bomb drop. We didn’t see, hear or feel anything, or even know about it, but we knew something big had happened when the radios went wild.”
When his tour of duty was up, a doctor advised Cantrell to stay in the Navy for rehabilitation, but the wistful warrior wanted to go home.
“I was discharged from the Naval Hospital in Charleston, S.C., with the rank of QM 2nd Class, equivalent to an Army Staff Sgt. Both eardrums were busted from being around machine gun fire so much, and I was very nervous. In World War I, they called it shellshock; in World War II the called it combat stress reaction (CSR), and today its called post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Mrs. Effie Fields instilled in us the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and in World War II, I about wore them out,” Cantrell said.
After the war, Cantrell went into the jewelry business started by his older brother, Horace, in 1929, in the middle of the depression. Cantrell’s Jewelry has been in its current location, at the forks of Tallapoosa and Buchanan Streets in Bremen, since the 1940s.
Cantrell’s wife Charlcie Bonner Cantrell passed away in 2005 after a long illness. They had no children. He has not remarried.
Cantrell is active in the Bremen First United Methodist Church and the Georgia Jewelers Association, where he is a past president.
“I have been in many civic clubs, and I think I’m the last survivor of the 1946 Bremen VFW.”
“I’m a strong believer in national defense,” Cantrell continued. “Up there in Washington, they’re letting it go down. I think we should still have the draft; two years in service never hurt anybody. Some of these countries one of these days may try to take this country over.”