Photo: Local U.S. military veteran Martin McGarvey recently celebrated his 99th birthday. Pictured with his children. (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
A local World War II veteran recently celebrated his 99th birthday. Gadsden VFW Post 2760 gathered friends, family and fellow veterans recently for a special party in his honor.
Martin McGarvey, who turned 99 on June 12, reflected on his life thus far as a husband, father and veteran.
McGarvey served in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was drafted into the service and remained in active duty for almost four years as an artillery mechanic.
“People are born, most of us, with some kind of a gift,” McGarvey said. “Personally, I was born with mechanical ability.”
McGarvey had never planned to join the military. Taking after his father, a toolmaker, he was working as a mechanical apprentice before he was drafted in 1943. McGarvey said he tried to obtain an exemption due to the apprenticeship, but when he was denied, decided to turn his mechanical skill to a new purpose.
McGarvey recounted one story from his first deployment in Santa Maria, California, when he fixed a heavy artillery gun broken during a drill in the desert. The gun’s hydraulics failed, causing its muzzle to collide with the ground.
“The gun went down and hit against the stop, and 20,000 pounds of pressure on a hydraulic system [failed], and it went down with no way to get it back up,” McGarvey said. “I had to fix that gun.”
Back at the base, McGarvey noticed that one of the components had been bent by the collision, making it a more complicated repair.
However, this did not deter McGarvey from trying to solve the problem.
“Old dumb me, who was going to fix it, tore the whole dang thing down,” he said. “I had it sitting out in the gun parts. A major from the battalion came down and said, ‘What’s the matter with that gun?’ The captain told him, ‘It got jammed out in the desert.’ He said, ‘What’s he doing?’ ‘He’s the artillery mechanic tearing it apart.’ He said, ‘Is he authorized to do that?’ So that captain told him, ‘No, but he’s doing it.’”
McGarvey said he was able to successfully repair the artillery, although he had “made a lot of trouble for myself” in the process. He stayed in Santa Maria with his late wife, Barbara, for about three months, once incurring more “trouble” when he repaired a leaky valve.
Lacking the necessary replacement part, McGarvey said he “took a beer can” and “cut a big washer out of it.” He then “put the rubber O-ring back in there and closed it up,” which successfully repaired the valve. Despite his improvisation, McGarvey said that success meant he was “out of the doghouse again.”
McGarvey said he and Barbara liked living in Santa Maria. They both worked at local bases, but soon the couple had part-time jobs as well — McGarvey at a tool shop and Barbara at a drug store.
“The money that she earned there, plus what little bit she got on her allotment, paid for the rent of the house and her food,” he said.
Barbara took care of the couple’s financial affairs during that time, as well as later on in their marriage. McGarvey said he admired her for managing their finances while raising their children.
“I didn’t have anything to do with raising the kids,” he said. “She did it. I’d take out about $20 to last for the week. I’d give her all the rest of the money. If I needed more money, I’d ask her for it. She always had it, [and it was] a dang good thing, because I probably would have spent it all.”
The couple was married shortly after McGarvey’s enlistment, after around a year of “going together” and frequenting dance halls nearly every week.
“We went to dance at Forest Park, and then I got inducted into the service,” McGarvey said. “I asked her if she wanted to marry me, and she said yes. It surprised the heck out of me; I didn’t think she’d have me. But we got married.”
McGarvey and Barbara were married for 62 years.
“And then she run off and left me in the graveyard,” he said. “But she was a good wife, and she put up with me. I don’t see how she did, but she did.”
McGarvey said his years of active service gave him a new perspective.
“All I know now is, I’ve been halfway around the world,” he said. “I’ve seen what life was in a lot of places.”
He described some of his experiences as he fought in the Pacific theater during WWII.
McGarvey was in New Guinea for much of his service. He described setting up large tents for shelter and sleep and how dark it was without generators running. He said it was so dark that one man who “washed out his pants and had hung them up on a tent rope (to dry)” got them back with several bullet holes after the soldier on guard duty mistook them for an intruder.
McGarvey witnessed air raids and bombings on several occasions.
McGarvey described one particular attack, after his company had successfully forced Japanese soldiers to evacuate from the island without their ammunition.
“They came up there in the LSTs, put off bulldozers, and they pushed the Japanese ammunition down to the end of the island,” McGarvey said. “Then they took ours, and they put it where the [Japanese ammunition had been]. An (enemy) plane came in and dropped a bomb on a couple of ammunition dumps. So both ammunition dumps went up. You could see [the explosion for] 50 miles at sea.”
McGarvey later survived a Japanese air raid to take back the same island, which he said involved 27 enemy planes that “came out there, shot up everything [but] didn’t hit anything,” after which the Allied forces retained control of the island.
When asked what perspective he had gained from his time in combat, McGarvey offered some advice to younger generations.
“The best and the greatest thing I can think of is (to) abolish warfare anyway you can do it,” he said. “It’s an unhuman operation at the very best. I’m against war, thoroughly.”
McGarvey shared one of his poems, written about wartime. He began writing poetry as a way of grieving his wife’s death, and his first poem was written as a song for her.
“When your country calls, you fight,” the poem read. “This does not make it right. The men you fight are just like you. They answer for their country, too. War is a terrible thing.”
Katie Bohannon contributed to this article.