Uncensored World War II vet still telling stories in Park City
June 2, 2007
Gene Campbell carries a piece of shrapnel in his left forearm. He points at the faint scarring nonchalantly. "It’s from Japanese anti-aircraft over Wake Island in the South Pacific," he says. "Those guys shot at us about every time we flew over. Anyway, that’s been in there for over 60 years. It doesn’t bother me much so I haven’t bothered to get it out."
Campbell was stationed in the South Pacific during the latter days of World War II. "You remember that one, the war to end all wars," he laughs
The man’s sharp tongue and quick wit belie his 86 years. His extraordinary narrative is laced with colorful colloquialisms and liberally peppered with profanity. The long-time Summit Park resident talked about his life and the war years recently over coffee at the "No Worries" café. Throughout the interview he complained that his memory was fading. It’s not that, really — it’s just that he has so much to remember.
He was born in 1921 in Boise, Idaho. His father was the Idaho state mining inspector. He must have been a beautiful baby. He notes with amusement and a hint of disdain that he was named "Baby Boise" in 1923. "I went to Central School right there in town; they tore it down a long time ago," says Campbell. In spite of his infant notoriety, he says he never liked the town.
The family moved to Spokane, Washington in 1936, where Campbell graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1939. "I never learned much in high school," he says. "I was too busy being a smart-ass. That’s the biggest struggle I’ve had in my life. I was always wise-cracking, and you can’t learn anything when you’ve got your mouth going."
After graduation, he took a job on the assembly line at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank, California. He helped build hundreds of the legendary P-38 fighter-bombers. He worked there until the war broke out in 1941, when he promptly joined the Navy.
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Campbell flunked the test to be a pilot. He lays the blame squarely on his misspent high school years. "I always wanted to get into aviation as a kid, but, being a smart-ass, I couldn’t be bothered to learn anything. I thought I knew everything already. It’s the curse of being a teenager," he says.
"I was stationed at Alameda Naval Air Station repairing aircraft, which was kinda boring. I wanted to get in the fight so I transferred to an air-sea rescue and bomber squadron in San Diego as a mechanic and a waist gunner on PBY amphibians," says Campbell.
He trained for action rescuing downed American pilots and ship survivors in the South Pacific theatre. "That PBY was a hell of a plane, a dandy," Campbell recalls. They could land on land or sea. As far as I know, there’s only one of them still flying up in Washington."
His first tour of duty was on Midway Island. "That was a real rat hole, literally," he says. "There were rats everywhere and they’d run right across your face when you were trying to sleep."
Campbell caught the shrapnel while stationed on Midway. "We’d take off every day, fly around. Wake on surveillance, get shot at and fly back. Got to be a habit," he jokes. "During the Invasion of Iwo Jima we were flying all the time looking for survivors, anybody that went down. I can’t find my **##** logbook or I’d tell you how many missions I flew, but I know I flew over 1000 hours out there."
From Midway, he moved on to Kaneohe Bay, Tarawa, Johnson Island, Eniwetok and Saipan as the Allied forces moved relentlessly toward Japan.
"I was sent back to the states on a 30-day leave in 1945 and the war ended while I was there," says Campbell. "I remember I was sitting in a bar drinking a beer when the news came over the radio. We drank a lot of beer that night."
"After I got out of the Navy I lived in Seattle for a short time, then went back down to the Los Angeles area and took a job selling shuffle boards," he says. "I was in Salt Lake City on a sales call and the company went bankrupt while I was here. I didn’t have enough money to get back home so I took a job driving a taxi cab in Ogden. That was 1946."
Campbell held a variety of jobs in the Salt Lake area, eventually going to work as a salesman at his uncle’s car dealership.
"He told me to put on some clean clothes and go out on the lot and start selling cars," recalls Campbell. "I didn’t know anything about selling cars and I’ve been screwed up ever since. If you’re a used car salesman, you’re a liar. People used to ask me what I did for a living and I’d tell them I was a professional liar. I did that for a long time."
Campbell was married for about 14 years, but the couple had no children. An extremely talented craftsman, he built a large home in Emigration Canyon during those years. After divorcing in the mid-1970s, he built one of the first permanent homes in Summit Park and has lived there ever since. It’s a remarkable, castle-like structure.
During the mid-1970s and 1980s, Campbell embarked on a new career as the national sales representative for Hubler Industries, manufacturer of custom billiard cues. Asked if he’s a good pool player, he sneers and responds tersely, "I don’t play pool; it’s a kid’s game. I play snooker and I get by." A classic 1945 vintage snooker table occupies the greater part of his living room. Campbell finally retired in 1990.
Campbell says the romance of living in Summit Park has worn off. "This used to be a beautiful place to live, but not now. I’m sandwiched in between a bunch of people who have dogs and they all bark."
He doesn’t think much of Park City anymore either. "I used to go into town and chase women, but I gave that up 10 years ago. Nature has a way of shutting you down," he laments. "I don’t go up there much anymore, it’s overrun with tourists. Now the whole damn place is overpopulated and overpriced," he observes candidly.
These days Campbell is content to stay home during the winter, doing woodworking projects around the house and for friends. During the summer, he enjoys traveling around the west in his 1975 Chevy one-ton motor home. "That’s my travel car, my home away from home," he says. "I plan on going up to Idaho this summer to look around for my grandfather’s old ranch up near Ketchum, I’d like to see that old ranch."
Campbell admits he’s become a curmudgeon in his old age, crustier than stale pizza. "My favorite thing to do nowadays is to grunt and groan and bitch," he reveals with a straight face.
In spite of himself, there’s something about Campbell that’s genuine and endearing. He’s the real deal. He doesn’t brag about his war exploits. There’s no sugar coating. "Hell, we were all there. We had to be. We were having the times of our lives, we just didn’t know it."
Gene Campbell is living history. His has been called "the greatest generation." Sadly, it’s estimated that over 1,000 World War II veterans die every day now. He’s among the last of this dying breed, but he’s not done yet.
"Hell," he says. "I’ve still got remodeling to do, new kitchen counters and a wet bar to put in. And I’ve got a lot more stories to tell."