SIGNALING SILVEY: WWII veteran reflects on service after Honor Flight

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Thomas Silvey holds his U.S. Army uniform from his days serving in the Pacific theater of World War II.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

WESTFIELD — Longtime McCordsville native Thomas “Tommy” Silvey recalled the military truck near his foxhole on a Japanese island during World War II.

“With all these bullets going around, that truck only had one bullet hole in it,” he said. “And I think about most of all — here I am there in a foxhole, and about right there is a gas tank in that truck, and if one of those tracers had hit that tank, we might not be here.”

But the tank remained unscathed, as did Silvey through the remainder of his time serving in the Pacific theater.

The 97-year-old recently got to visit military sights in the nation’s capital thanks to an organization that arranges such trips in honor of military veterans. That journey also gave him an opportunity to reflect on his involvement in the defining moment of the Greatest Generation.

Silvey was born in McCordsville and graduated from the town’s former high school in 1942 before joining the Army in spring 1943.

He served in the Signal Corps on Japanese islands, where he worked as a switchboard operator in a platoon that also specialized in telephone and teletype communications.

Soldiers who worked in construction and radio communications were part of his outfit as well.

“They took all the officers’ messages they wanted sent out and they just sent them by telephone or maybe radio if it was possible,” Silvey said. “We had telephone communication and radio back in those days.”

A construction platoon strung telephone lines from the switchboards Silvey worked from to where the fighting was happening.

“Anything critical that the enemy would need was encrypted,” he said. “They would bring it to the typist and … the person receiving it has a code machine to read it.”

Silvey was on the island of Okinawa for nearly a year. Before that, he worked with the U.S. Navy on a smaller island nearby that had an airport he helped provide communications for.

“We had everything — construction, radio platoon, telephone, teletype … and I did all sorts of things,” he said. “We had eight-hour shifts on the main switchboard. It fit in a hut that sat on an Army 6-by-6 truck.”

Eventually the switchboard was moved to a secure location on the ground, allowing Silvey to use the truck for other tasks, including transporting inhabitants of the island to bury the Japanese dead from previous fighting.

“The fighting was over the day we went in, and there was plenty of Japanese still there,” he said.

While the bulk of the fighting in that area may have been over, U.S. military personnel remained on high alert.

“There was firing going on all night,” he said.

Silvey recalled his fellow service member with whom he shared a foxhole.

“He must’ve been more afraid than I was because he dug his side of the hole real deep,” Silvey said with a laugh. “And it rained that night; he ended up sleeping in a puddle. I was dry.”

Silvey also remembered being near a U.S. military hospital that the Japanese military bombed on an island he served on, an attack that killed many.

He said his role and relative distance from combat and destruction eased any fears he might’ve experienced.

“Concerned,” he added. “Really wasn’t scared. I was lucky to be in the Signal Corps.”

That branch was not without loss, however. Silvey recalled a friend of his picking up a .45 handgun left behind by an officer. Later, on Okinawa, they headed up to right behind the front lines in order to make contact with a fellow service member, where Silvey’s friend’s new weapon spurred a sense of false identity among the enemy.

“That .45 – that tells he was an officer,” Tommy said. “Sniper picked him out. He was the only man we lost. He went souvenir hunting, that .45 got him killed.”

Silvey left the Army in 1946. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University and worked for Allison Engine Company in Indianapolis, where he tested jet engines and designed parts for them.

He and his wife, Caroline, raised a family in McCordsville. The couple remained in town until last December, when they moved into an assisted living facility in Westfield.

Silvey was the only World War II veteran in a group of over 80 former service members on a trip in June to Washington, D.C. organized by Indy Honor Flight. The nonprofit organization arranges free visits to the nation’s capital for veterans of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War to visit memorials commemorating the conflicts they served in.

Guardians often accompany veterans on Honor Flights, and Silvey’s was his son, Thomas “Tom” Silvey II, who served in the U.S. Navy for six years.

It was their first time visiting the National World War II Memorial.

“It’s a beautiful memorial,” Silvey said. “Very impressive.”

They even caught an engraving of Kilroy – a cartoon bald-headed man with a large nose peeking over a wall accompanied by the phrase, “Kilroy was here.”

The doodle became popular during World War II, something Silvey remembers well.

“I’ll tell you it was all over,” he said with a laugh. “I remember seeing it a lot of times.”

They also visited the Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“It was humbling,” Silvey II said.

His father agreed.

“It’s hard to imagine that many dead,” he said.

They visited Arlington National Cemetery as well, where they witnessed the Changing of the Guard before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

After returning to Indiana, they attended a homecoming celebration for all the veterans at Plainfield High School, where friends and family packed a gymnasium to give the group a jubilant welcome. Over 20 came for Silvey.

“I was really surprised to see so many relatives there,” Silvey said.

His son enjoyed seeing him take in the overall experience.

“I really enjoyed all the people that wanted to shake his hand, introduce themselves, get a picture,” he said. “I know that his eyes were beaming when that was all going on, so I know he enjoyed that.”