VETERANS DAY: WWII vet recalls his many battles

SAREPTA – If ever one wonders whether freedom has a cost, one might ask Dwight Hellums about his part in World War II, where he was in four major battles to establish control of the Pacific.
The longtime Calhoun County resident was a Marine on a fully loaded ammunition ship just offshore from Guadalcanal for three harrowing days and nights in August 1942. Guadalcanal was one of the early campaigns in the effort to interrupt Japan’s attacks on Allied supply routes and to begin a chain of bases that would eventually enable air attacks on Japan itself.
Their second morning of battle, 28 Japanese torpedo planes came in over Hellums’ convoy. All were shot down.
“(Our ship) got credit for shooting down three of those,” Hellums said. “There was one that got out from the convoy, but our Air Force got him about three miles away.”
Hellums drove an amphibious tractor onto the beach in the first wave at Tarawa.
“I had 16 fully-equipped infantrymen out of the 8th Regiment from the 2nd Marine Division,” Hellums said. “Six of them were killed before they could get out of my tractor.” He and several others were wounded and spent 36 hours pinned down by enemy fire before they could be rescued.
Hellums spent the rest of 1943 in a military hospital at Pearl Harbor. Within months of returning to his unit, they faced moving on to another fiercely contested island.
“I took a load of infantry in the first wave at Saipan, and we got nine holes shot in the old amphibian tractor,” he said.
Soon they were moving on to Tinian, where his crew narrowly missed driving into the middle of mortar fire with a load of ammunition.
After the Battle of Tinian, Hellums was sent back to the States and given a 30-day leave to visit home for the first time. He married his sweetheart, Helen, before returning to stateside duty.
From his very first day at boot camp through his discharge, Hellums paid – and saw others pay – the cost of freedom. But the cost, he said, could have been even higher.
Allied troops were told to expect the most horrific casualties of the war if they had to enter the Japanese homeland. When the Enola Gay and Bockscar took off from Tinian – one of the islands Hellums’ unit helped to secure – and dropped the atomic bombs to force a Japanese surrender, the relief among those spared the invasion was palpable.
“I was training the operators for those amphibian tractors at Camp Pendleton, Calif. We were getting ready for the Invasion of Japan,” Hellums said. “You’ve never seen as happy a bunch of men as it was there when they said the war was over.”
At age 89, Hellums likes to sit on his couch beside a throw whose embroidered lettering makes his point. It says plainly, “Freedom is not free.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

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Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal