Veteran recalls more than 20 years of service

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ALBANY -- These days, Andy Pejko relies on a walker and a wheelchair to get around. Even so, his mind and his heart are as strong as they ever were.

From 1943-1969, Pejko, 84, spent his life serving in the United States military during three conflicts, including World War II.

Pejko, a native of Montana, joined the Army on Oct. 11, 1943 after being drafted. His first assignment was at Fort Douglas, Utah, after which he went to Camp Roberts in California for infantry training.

He wasn't there very long.

"We took 16 weeks of infantry, and they pushed us through after 13 weeks," Pejko said.

In July 1944, Pejko was assigned to the 77th Division, 305th Infantry Regiment -- a unit that was involved in the Guam campaign of the western Pacific.

"I was on a Dutch boat going toward Guam to join the 77th Division in time to do some mopping up," he said. "We later left Guam to go to the Philippines, where we unloaded ships for a few weeks."

After involvement with a campaign in Leyte, a province of the Philippines, his division prepared to go to the Kerama Islands. They landed on March 25, 1945, and the division led a convoy of ships to Okinawa. They landed there on April 10 and were later ordered to take le Shima Island, which they reached five days later.

This island hopping was part of what would be later referred to as the Battle of Okinawa, now known as one of the largest assaults in the war's Pacific theater.

"There were already divisions there moving Japs away," Pejko recalled. "There were 600-700 Jap planes coming over to knock out ships in the harbor."

With the 77th Division came the 307th Infantry Regiment and Ernie Pyle, a well-known war correspondent of the day.

Pyle never made it off the island. He was hit in the head by enemy gunfire after jumping into a ditch in an area that had previously been cleared of land mines.

"He was killed not very far from me," Pejko said. "The Japs had so many land mines; they dug holes and put the bombs in the ground. Ernie Pyle went into one.

"He dodged bullets throughout Europe and later got himself shot in the head."

A total of 5,000 men were lost in Pejko's division, he said.

"There were only 12 left in my company," he said.

A monument was later pulled together on the spot where Pyle was killed, and services are held there every year on the anniversary of his death -- April 17. Pejko personally represented his division in the 1964 and 1965 ceremonies, an opportunity he considered an honor.

"It was an honor and a privilege to place the wreath on his grave," he said.

After le Shima, Pejko's division moved on to the Okinawa campaign. They went to the front line on May 6, 1945. He was wounded May 18 and placed in a field hospital for about two weeks. He eventually returned to his unit to make the last push on the island.

At one point during the conflict, Pejko was in a foxhole when a mortar shell came within a foot of where he was.

"I had ringing in my ear for three or four days," he said.

He and his comrades left Okinawa to go to Cebu, an island in the Philippines, to get ready to make a Japanese home landing. The Americans' utilization of atomic bombs ended the war within that timeframe.

"Thank God for that," Pejko said. "(The bombings) saved a lot of American lives. Our division was going to go to Tokyo until the bombings."

Pejko went to Hokida, Japan, for occupation duty in October 1945. He left Christmas Day and returned to Fort Lewis for discharge in January 1946.

"I had enough points to come home," he said. "I sailed from Japan to San Francisco, and went from San Francisco to Fort Lewis."

Through it all, Pejko said he feels lucky to have made it back in one piece.

"Sure, you're scared, but you have to have faith in God," he said. "That's what got me through."

That time spent in the Pacific was not the end of Pejko's military service. Five years later, he joined the Montana 120th Air National Guard to serve in the Korean War. He was called to active duty in early 1951 and helped open Moody Air Force Base later that same year. The veteran also served in England from 1953-1954.

Pejko served in the Vietnam War from 1967-1968. There, he was assigned to Anka, where he supported air calvary and the 101st Division's 173rd Brigade.

Pejko retired from the military on Sept. 1, 1969. His career almost went further than that.

"They were going to send me back," he said.

Witnessing the devastation of war firsthand gave him a new lease on life, he said.

"You get respect for life if you can get through things like that," Pejko said. "You are thankful that you made it through. People that say they are not afraid -- they're lying."

In turn, the experience also strengthened his faith.

"I'm a believer," Pejko said. "My wife and I still read our Bible everyday."

The history lessons such as the ones that have come out of World War II should not be forgotten, the veteran said.

"There are so many of these young children who don't know what went wrong," he explained. "I think it's a good idea for children to keep up with history. I think it's a good idea that the younger generation doesn't forget this; World War I was bad enough."

Pejko came from a family of five sisters and four brothers, of which he was the second-youngest. He and his wife of 55 years currently live in Albany. They have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Pejko earned a total of 19 awards during his military career, the majority of which he received for his World War II service. They include the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon and Medal.