May 27, 2004 – Sixty years ago, Ralph V. Simmonds answered the call to serve his country. On Thursday, in the nation's capital, he did so again, recalling his days in the military during World War II.
For the Veterans History Project, Simmonds, 84, delivered a personal narrative about Virgin Islanders who went to war. The project portrays life through the eyes of ordinary Americans, both soldiers and civilians, involved in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century.
Simmonds had made plans to travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the ceremony on Saturday dedicating the national World War II Memorial. His interest in sharing in the creation of the memorial led to the revelation that veterans from the Virgin Islands were not included among those to be honored by having their names and their home listed on the memorial.
About 700 Virgin Islanders served in the military in World War II, many of them signing up as volunteers.
"We were not eligible for the draft originally, but some very influential people in St. Thomas petitioned the Congress, and we were included," Simmonds recalled in a telephone interview on Thursday shortly after sharing his account for the history project. "So our names were registered, and our draft came up."
The first group of Virgin Islanders to serve during the war were volunteers, he said. "They volunteered either June or July of 1944. The draftees went into service Sept. 5-7, 1944."
Basic training was carried out in Puerto Rico, then the V.I. group was shipped to Louisiana for advanced training. After that, it was off to Hawaii, where the 872nd and 873rd port companies joined other personnel preparing for the invasion of Japan.
But the closest the Virgin Islanders got to combat action was in Hawaii, where they loaded and unloaded ships transporting weapons, ammunition and supplies. "We saw no action, really," Simmonds said. "Our two companies, the 872nd and 873rd port companies, were just that — port companies. We serviced the military ships."
Nonetheless, Simmonds said, he was proud as a Virgin Islander to have the opportunity to serve his country. He was equally proud to be in Washington this week, representing his home as a charter member of the Veterans Memorial Society.
"I'm very proud of the Virgin Islands," he said. "That is what prompted me to become a member of the society, because I feared that nobody may show up. It did mean a lot to us, a whole lot to us."
V.I. Delegate Donna M. Christensen and the congressional representatives of the other U.S. territories took action after finding that their residents had initially been excluded from the World War II Memorial.
On Thursday, Simmonds' granddaughter Lo'an Sewer recalled first hearing about the project while she was a member of Christensen's staff in Washington.
"They had sent information about establishing the monument, and at that time they were asking for donations from veterans of the war and their families and, I guess, friends and supporters to become charter members to start fund-raising for this entire project," she said.
"When I got the information, I sent it to my grandfather on St. Thomas … and asked him if he wanted to be a part. Then we realized the territories weren't really included to be listed, to be featured in one of the blocks of the memorial."
Efforts soon got under way to make sure armed forces personnel from the territories were included in the memorial. In connection with its creation, the Library of Congress began the Veterans History Project to record the audio and video accounts of veterans attending Saturday's dedication.
Christensen said in a release issued on Thursday that she is proud "to represent the Virgin Islands on this historic occasion and, along with Mr. Simmonds, represent the many Virgin Islanders who not only served in that war, but volunteered to do so."
She noted that her own father, the late Judge Almeric Christian, and his brother Turo served in World War II. "I also recall that Stanley McBean was one of the first to volunteer," she said. "While I do not have all the names and do not know all the faces of the Virgin Islanders who served, I nonetheless acknowledge their contribution to the territory and the nation."
Veterans unable to travel to the capital to record their recollections will be able to do so in their respective congressional districts, Christensen said in the release. She asked that Virgin Islanders wishing to record their stories at home contact her Washington office to make the necessary arrangements. The phone number is (202) 225-1790; the fax number is (202) 225-5517.
On Saturday, Simmonds and his wife, Viola, will join Christensen on the National Mall for the dedication of the memorial. "I looked forward to it for a year," Simmonds said. "I got the invitation last week, and a year seems so far away.
"But it's here," he said, "and I'm here."
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