(Photo: I pinched this shot of Martin and Valeria Nethery's military wedding in Alaska from the Dade County History Book in Progress blog, dadecountyhb.wordpress.com)
When Martin Nethery of Trenton joined up in October of 1941, he did it for the glory.
Though the United States had so far stayed out of the war raging in Europe, the American military was building up. There was a PR push to whip up enthusiasm for enlistment, and Hollywood was doing its bit by making patriotic films. “I’m one of the people that bit at it,” said Nethery. “I’ve never been sorry.”
The movie that Nethery bit hardest at was I Wanted Wings. “I wanted to learn to fly and have all that glamour,” he said.
So, after the two required years of college, he applied for aviation training in the Army Air Corps (not to be christened the U.S. Air Force until 1947). Two months into his training, Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, exploding the United States into war. “We all thought, well, we’d just whip them real quick,” said Nethery. “We were too ignorant to know what we were up against.”
When he finished aviation training in July 1942, newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Nethery was hot to be a fighter pilot. “That’s what the whole glamour buildup was,” he said. “You know, fly-the-heights stuff.”
The problem was, all the other guys must have seen the same movie. The Air Corps did ask cadets their preference, but, said Nethery, “Everybody in the world put down ‘fighter pilot.’ You know, they didn’t need that many fighter pilots.”
Thus by the luck of the draw, Nethery was trained to fly cargo planes rather than bombers. “The best thing that ever happened to me was when I didn’t get it,” he said.
Nethery was sent to Milwaukee, Wis., to be certified as a C-47 pilot. There, though his dreams of being a bomber might be lost, he did get a taste of glory, at least insofar as glory can be measured by the fluid ounce. In that first patriotic summer after war was declared, Milwaukee went crazy for the fly-boys, and they couldn’t go out in public without being plied with the beverage that made Milwaukee famous. “You could sit there and drink beer all night and never pay for a beer,” said Nethery. “We were cocky as hell.”
Nethery was then sent to Florence, S.C., where the Air Corps was forming a troop carrier command. There he was assigned to a squadron commanded by possibly the most cantankerous officer in the Air Corps. When the squadron was sent off to Alaska, which in those days was the Great Unknown, Nethery chalked it up to his C.O.’s grating personality. “We’re pretty sure that our squadron got sent there because they wanted to get rid of him in the group,” he said.
Alaska was where Nethery was fated to spend his war. An eye-crossing glance at the world map will confirm the baffling fact that Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are so far west that, as Nethery puts it, they’re practically in the Far East. In 1942, Japan occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu, Agattu and Kiska. The Allies, fearing that Japan would use them as jumping-off points to attack the North American mainland, waged a bloody campaign to retake the islands.
But that wasn’t Nethery’s war. Of the three planes eventually lost from his squadron, none fell to enemy fire. “Our combat was with Old Man Weather,” he said.
This was evident from the very first. As the young pilots flew northward toward their deployment, the hot water heating systems of their planes froze, a design problem that wasn’t fixed until the following year. So for that first winter, they flew without heat.
Old Man Weather would be the target of the only bombing mission Nethery was ever to fly. When ice on the Yukon River caused it to flood the airbase at Galena, Nethery was sent in a B-24 to break up the ice by bombing the river. The operation was a success. “We destroyed the enemy, which was the ice jam,” said Nethery.
His squadron was stationed at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, then a small town that looked like something out of an old Western, and charged with flying supplies westward toward the action in the Aleuts. The job was complicated not only by the cold but by the weird weather created as frigid air from the Bering Sea clashed with warmer air from the Pacific above the islands. “It had its headaches,” he said.
Another headache was navigation. Naval maps were pretty accurate, said Nethery, but at that time only about 75 percent of inland Alaska was charted, so pilots had to fly over mountains whose altitudes they weren’t sure of, sketching mental maps as they went along.
“Flying came first,” said Nethery, but from his own account, some headaches came not from aviation problems but as an after-effect of more liquid glory. After escorting home the first Royal Canadian Air Force squadron to fly a war mission, Nethery was plied with drinks by grateful Canadian pilots who ceremonially made him an honorary member of their air force. The official seal on his induction was the label from a beer bottle.
In February 1943, Nethery met Valeria Krantz, a civil service worker from Wisconsin, at a Valentine dance at the officers’ club. The night, Lord Byron tells us, was made for loving, and a winter night in Alaska is very long indeed. Romance blossomed even amid the frozen tundra, and the couple married just before Christmas. “Life was uncertain in those days,” said Nethery. “You didn’t put anything off.”
But from the standpoint of togetherness, the young couple might as well have waited. Though Fort Richardson had been quite safe enough for Miss Krantz, the civilian worker, a military rule insisted it was too dangerous for Mrs. Nethery, the military wife. Both Netherys applied for exemption from the rule, both their bosses said yes, and the request was approved all the way up to the general.
Who killed it dead. Nethery has always had dark suspicions that the general denied their request not because of safety but to avoid excessive togetherness in his own marriage. “He didn’t want his wife to know that it could be done,” he said.
So the newlyweds were separated from April 1944 until July of that year, when Nethery was sent back to the Lower 48, where he served until he was discharged in 1947 with the rank of major.
After the war, Nethery abandoned aviation, eventually returning to Trenton to open an auto parts store on the town square, in the building that now houses Lalito’s, then working for the Post Office until retirement in 1985. He and Valeria had four children.
Whether Nether found glory in the war is a matter of how you define that elusive quality, but he lived through it without injury and he got out of it a life’s partner who has lasted him these 60-odd years, plus too many memories to fit in this space.
Not to mention the free beer.