The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Grateful to these veterans and all who've served

 

November 6, 2019

Betty Williamson

Joe Blair, left, with Jim Warnica.

When you put Portales old-timers Joe Blair and Jim Warnica together in the same room, it doesn't take long for the stories to start flying.

The two have been buddies since "first or second grade," they say. They can't remember for certain. Blair turned 94 a few weeks ago; Warnica was 93 in July.

They have hunted arrowheads and sandhill cranes together, consumed endless cups of coffee, and visited almost daily in places like the post office and the hardware store.

They even graduated together from ninth grade clad in identical "light green 100 percent wool suits purchased from JC Penney for $7 1/2 apiece," Blair recalled.

I spent some time with these two guys last weekend. While they kept me laughing through most of the interview (most of their best stories begin - as best stories often do - with a cautionary "Now you can't print this..."), it was a more somber reason that brought us together.

They were wearing matching blue and gold caps, identifying them as World War II veterans of the United States Navy.

Blair's cap is embroidered with the name of the USS Farragut, a Naval destroyer, and Warnica's is from the USS Teton, an amphibious force flagship.

They were two of the 500 or so Roosevelt County residents who served in the military during World War II.

Now they're two of only six known WWII veterans still living in Portales.

Those six - Blair and Warnica, along with George Hay, Carl Richardson, Charles Roberson, and Vern Witten - will be guests of honor at the annual Veterans Day Memorial Service hosted by American Legion Post 31 at 10:30 a.m. Monday in the Memorial Building, 200 E. Seventh St., Portales.

The event is open to the public. Post commander (and Vietnam veteran) Randy Dunson hopes a lot of us will turn out that morning to honor these men.

"We owe a great debt of gratitude to this generation," Dunson said. "As the percentage of the population who has served in the armed forces shrinks, it is all the more important that we recognize that freedom comes with a price and we should honor those who have been willing to pay the price."

Blair's service to our country began when he was one day past his 17th birthday in October of 1942.

"My dad went with me to Clovis and signed the papers," he said, which was how he got the permission he had to have due to his young age. "He knew what war was about - his oldest son- my half-brother - was a veteran of World War I."

Warnica wanted to sign up at the same time as Blair and about a dozen of their mutual friends went in, but his mother refused to let her then-16-year-old son go to war until he had graduated from Portales High School in May 1944. He signed up with her permission in June, while he was also only 17.

Blair was born at home on his family's farm west of Portales. Warnica's family lived in Portales, but he was born in the Clovis hospital.

"That was the only hospital in these two towns back then," Warnica said.

They met the first time at the age of 6 or 7 at the old Central Grade School.

How did these two Portales boys wind up serving on ships in the Navy?

"I guess so we could see a lot of water," Blair said with a chuckle. Warnica agreed.

Blair spent his war years as a machine gunner on the USS Farragut.

Warnica received radar training but the radar operator positions were already filled on the USS Teton by the time he came on board. He was assigned to the Combat Information Center to track combat patrols.

For two guys who grew up nearly 700 miles from the nearest major body of water, they took to the ocean like ducks, neither affected by the miserable seasickness that plagued many of their companions.

"I felt sorry for the people who were sick," Warnica said.

Blair permanently lost part of his hearing to endless sessions operating 20-millimeter (and occasionally 40-mm) machine guns on the Farragut.

Warnica's job kept him deep inside the Teton, often oblivious to attacks that took place within shouting distance, like on May 12, 1945, near Okinawa, when the nearby USS New Mexico was hit by two Japanese kamikaze planes in an attack that killed 54 sailors and wounded 119.

Blair and Warnica never crossed paths during the war.

"We might not have been too far apart," Warnica said, "but if we were, we didn't know it."

The USS Farragut was in 26 engagements and was awarded 14 battle stars, Blair said.

"Our ship shot down 2 1/2 planes," Warnica chipped in. "I don't know how they got the 'half.'"

In spite of extended time spent in the heat of the action, neither said they ever considered that they would not make it safely back to Portales.

"I never thought about it, not one time," Blair said.

Not even, he said, the night a watchman on the Farragut hollered, "Torpedoes at mid-ship!" before he took off running.

"You could see those two torpedoes coming," Blair said. "They came straight at us and they went right on under us and kept going."

He credits the fact that the ship's 13 fuel tanks were almost empty with saving his life (and many others) that night. Thanks to a minimal fuel load, the ship was floating much higher in the water than the enemy had calculated.

And as for the watchman who ran, after yelling the warning?

"Our ship was only 34 feet wide," Blair remembered. "I asked that guy, 'Where did you think you were going?' and he said, 'I don't know. I was just going.'"

Their stories aren't all about the dangers of war - in fact, they shared some "sweet" memories with me, too.

"If you ever, ever, ever got dessert," Blair said, "which was not often, you'd eat that first in case you got called back up before you had a chance to eat it."

"A lot of times for dessert, we'd get one spoonful of fruit cocktail," Warnica remembered. "I said if I ever get back home, I'd get a big can of fruit cocktail and eat the whole thing by myself."

Happily, both of these fellows did make it back home, and without much fanfare, they said.

"I returned to Portales on Feb. 21, 1946," Blair said. "Things were normal just like they used to be. We just came back and went back to normal...no flag-waving or bands."

Warnica was discharged in June that year.

"I rode the train to Clovis and hitchhiked back to Portales," he said. "I ran into some guys who took me to my mother's house. I was just glad to get home."

Blair owned and operated B & B, a television and appliance store in Portales, until his retirement in 1998; Warnica retired from a career in the press room at the Portales News-Tribune in 1974 to pursue a host of hobbies including amateur archaeology.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs says 16 million Americans served in World War II; Blair and Warnica are in the .02 percent still alive.

That is part of why Randy Dunson wants us to show up Monday morning at the Memorial Building. We should.

"It is because of them that we have maintained our identity as a nation and we have maintained our democracy," Dunson said.

He credits these members of "the Greatest Generation" with the fact that we have elected leaders, free speech, and freedom of the press.

"It is because of them that we still salute our flag and sing our national anthem," said Dunson. "It is because of them that America still stands as a bulwark of democracy in the world."

Betty Williamson tips her grateful hat to Joe Blair and Jim Warnica, and all who serve and have served. Reach her at:

[email protected]

 
 

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