Editor's Note: In 2008 and -09, while working for the print newspaper in town, I wrote a series of stories about Dade's surviving World War II veterans. It was one hell of a life experience. The tales these guys had to tell! Since then, I have sadly noticed most of their names showing up in the obits.
Meanwhile the print rag parted ways first with me, then with its internet server. I myself switched computers perhaps four times. Oh, and there was that pesky tornado in 2011, which destroyed many of the local library's archives. One way or t'other, when a friend this year asked for a copy of the profile I'd written of her uncle, who had stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, those stories were no longer online, and neither I nor the library could help her.
This situation persisted until last weekend, when help came from a weird circumstance generated by my status as a feckless person in the last stages of recovery from a fractured fibula. Leaning over at my desk to fasten the old-fashioned-corset-like laces of the ankle brace that is the sole remaining trace of my affliction, I happened to contort myself at just the right angle to position my eyes at the same level as an alcove in my workroom where, three computers ago, I had apparently secreted one of those CD storage units that looked like a cake container for an angel food cake. Remember those? I then also unearthed an external device I could plug into my current computer to play CDs, and bingo! I was in biz. I went through the CDs until I found a folder labeled VETS.
Just in time for Veterans Day!
So this week, leading up to Veterans Day on Saturday, I will run here in The Dade Planet some of my favorites of that series. I regret that in many cases I don't have pictures to go with the stories. I will start with Dan Hall. He went into the service underage and late, as the war was winding down--but his story is interesting and later he was sole commissioner of Dade for 20 years! When he died in 2016, I tried desperately to find this article.
In Hall's case, I do anyway have an obit pic supplied by his family on file.
DAN HALL: BUILDING ROADS ON OKINAWA – AND OTHER PRIMITIVE PLACES
Trenton’s Dan Hall is not one to talk much about World War II. If he’s going to discuss ancient history, he’d much rather tell you about the period between 1960 and 1980 when, as sole commissioner of the county, he helped pull Dade out of the backwoods and into the 20th century. But let us insist and start, anyway, in 1944, when he was nobody much – not, in fact, even of age.
Dan Hall finished junior high school in Rising Fawn, then a larger town than Trenton though it had already dwindled from its boom time, and went on to attend Berry, in those days a prep school. But when he turned 17, he began relentlessly lobbying his parents to let him drop out and join the U.S. Navy.
If Hall remembers why he was so keen back then, he’s not telling now. “I’d never seen the ocean,” he admits. He wouldn’t have been drafted until he turned 18 – and by his 18th birthday in late August 1945, the new and terrible atomic bombs had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war.
His mother refused to sign the consent form, but eventually Hall wore his father down. He joined the Navy in December and was sent for boot training in January of 1945. “They didn’t keep me there but about two weeks, and then they put me in the Seabees,” he remembered. He had no idea why.
The name Seabees comes from the initials CB, for Construction Battalion. The Seabees were the construction and engineering branch of the Navy, detailed to build airstrips, buildings and roads. Apparently military testing had determined that young Hall had mechanical aptitude – or maybe bodies were just needed to build the infrastructure Uncle Sam needed on the newly taken Pacific islands, preparing for the invasion of Japan. “I didn’t have a clue,” he said. “Back then they didn’t even tell you where you were going.”
After Seabee training in Rhode Island, Apprentice Seaman Hall came home on a brief leave before shipping overseas. This was mainly memorable because a layover in Pennsylvania Station in New York gave the country boy his first view of the big city. “I went up on the mezzanine and I looked down at all these people like a bunch of ants. I was flabbergasted,” he said. “It had an escalator in there, the first one I ever saw, and I rode it just for the thrill of it.”
And if escalators were new and puzzling to the teenager, sea travel was an even greater mystery. When, in San Francisco, Hall was sent across the harbor on a ferry, he was seriously worried. “I thought, my gosh, I don’t believe this thing will make it across the ocean,” he said. He didn’t understand until later that the little ferry was not meant to carry him across the globe.
After a stormy voyage to Hawaii – on a real ship – Hall was sent on to Okinawa as part of a cadre of replacements for men lost at Iwo Jima. U.S. Marines were still trying to flush the Japanese out of the hills there, as they would be for months to come – “At the time the bombs were dropped, we still didn’t have Okinawa, all of it” – but most of the island was secured, and the Seabees immediately began building airstrips and roads and taking up mines, which was tricky and dangerous.
Hall refuses to glamorize his role on Okinawa. “I just did kind of gofer jobs,” he said. “I was a kid, and they had me running everywhere for different things.”
One of his buddies, Burke, was not so modest. When the Seabees were landing on Okinawa, Japanese kamikaze planes zoomed over them, aiming not at their little landing craft but at the fleet in the harbor. But one plane swooped low enough to shake them up, and the Seabees piled into the bottom of the boat.
When the plane had passed and the men had untangled themselves, Burke was bleeding. He’d been at the bottom of the heap and his head had hit a rough piece of metal. The gash was bad enough that the medics sent him to a hospital ship, and Hall never saw him again.
Until after the war was over, that is, when he bumped into him in Hawaii. As Hall paused, trying to place him, the man declared, “Yeah, I’m Burke, you’re Hall, and if you tell how I got hurt, I’ll kill you.” He had fibbed a little, and been awarded the Purple Heart.
Hall himself was injured when, with a crew of Korean prisoners, he was cleaning up debris. Ammunition had gotten mixed up in burning garbage, and an explosion blinded him for several days. But his vision returned after a short stay in the hospital tent and there were no fibs and no Purple Hearts involved.
The Koreans, Hall explained, were then under Japanese dominion, serving in Japan’s armies as forced labor. “They gave up to us just in hordes, every time they got a chance,” he said. “The Japs didn’t give up.”
This grim determination of the Japanese to fight to the death complicated life on Okinawa considerably. Holed up in caves, Japanese stragglers made stealth forays into the American camp. “You slept with one eye open,” said Hall. “They would come down at night and try to get food or whatever, and they’d kill you if they got a chance.”
Hall was pretty sure once he’d given them one. Toward the end of hostilities, Okinawa was hit by a monster typhoon that destroyed the entire American camp, capsized boats and washed ships up on shore. When it struck, Hall dived into a nearby cave for shelter – and found that somebody else had had the same idea. As he felt around in the pitch blackness, his hand came up against: a leg. He recoiled, thinking he’d jumped into a nest of stragglers. But then a voice came through the darkness: “Relax, Mac.” The voice was American, and so was the leg.
After the surrender, Hall went on to Japan to sweep more mines, then to revolution-torn China to patrol as Nationalist forces retreated to what was then called Formosa, now Taiwan. The Navy then sent him to school for electrical engineering, after which Hall, now a petty officer, did a stint building radar networks in Alaska. “That’s what ended my Navy career,” he said. “I didn’t like it up there.”
Back in Dade County, Hall worked at a radio repair shop in Trenton on the site of present-day Case Hardware. He married young, to Lois Holland, but the union ended in tragedy – Lois died in a car accident, along with the couple’s baby girl.
Hall then became a forest ranger, and in time married again, to Betty Hixson. They had three children.
By 1960, Hall was a civic-minded man, president of the local Jaycees, and one day a local school parade struck him as unbearably pathetic. “It was the raggedest-looking thing you ever saw,” he said. “It was kind of embarrassing.”
The school didn’t put on much of a parade because it wasn’t, frankly, much of a school. Back then, Trenton youngsters attended classes in abandoned military barracks. The WPA had built a gymnasium during the Depression but it had burned, and the school superintendent had quit because he didn’t have the money to run the schools.
Hall and the Jaycees went to the head of county government, then called the Ordinary, and asked him to take action, raising taxes if necessary. “He said no, he wouldn’t do it, it was political suicide,” said Hall.
So Hall ran for office himself.
And won. Given the new title of Commissioner of Roads and Revenue, he hit the ground running on both. First, revenues: He did a reevaluation of real estate taxes that became a model for the rest of the state, finding hundreds of parcels that weren’t even on the books.
As opined by the Ordinary, taxes were about as popular then as they are now. “But I took the attitude that we were going to try to get Dade County out of the cave days, and so be it if I didn’t get elected again,” said Hall. But the projects he was using the money for – notably, schools – were popular, and he had no trouble getting reelected for the next two decades.
Second, roads: When Hall took office in January 1961, an ice storm had immobilized the county, highlighting the sorry state of Dade’s roads. “There wasn’t a paved road in the county,” said Hall. It became his priority. Buddying up with politicos at the state level, he vacuumed up funds wherever he could find them. “I got about all the road money I could handle during the time I was in there,” he said. He paved and paved, and built some roads, including Burkhalter Gap, from scratch.
Finally, industry: Hall went after it with the vampy shamelesslness of Scarlett after the tax money, personally wooing CEOs and putting up his own money for a spec building. It was under his tutelage that Dade’s industrial park was built.
In short, Dan Hall is Dade’s elder statesman, a driving force at a critical time and one who helped shape the county into its present family-friendly contours, with good schools for the young and good roads to take them there. It is entirely understandable if he would rather talk about building roads in Dade than building them on Okinawa.
Still, if forced to comment on those days, Hall will anyway say he does not regret his part in World War II – and nor does he regret the atomic bombs that ended it. Though historians have not always approved of President Truman’s decision, he says, the Japanese, with their adamantine war ethos, would never have surrendered otherwise.
“Every one of them was armed,” he said, “and they would have fought to the death.”