Editor’s note: If you know a veteran who should be included in this series, please email Mark Swendra.
If you’re from a small Georgia town and find yourself on a remote island in the South Pacific, the last person you think you’ll see is someone from your hometown.
But that’s what Pembroke’s Rex Waters saw during World War II.
Waters, serving as a Navy seaman, spent time in Peleliu, a five-square-mile island, the site of the Battle of Peleliu, pitting U.S. forces against the Imperial Japanese Army.
To his surprise, Waters said, he met three other Pembroke residents on Peleliu; Army soldiers J.D. Cason, a local electrician/plumber, Horace Flanders, who would later become principal at Bryan County High School, and “Peanut” Harvey.
He and the soldiers, Waters said, formed a bond that led to friendships back home.
Although it was only for three years, Waters’ time serving in World War II left lasting memories, and today, at 94, he is one of North Bryan County’s longest-living veterans.
The son of a World War I soldier, Waters was born in Savannah, but moved to Pembroke with his parents and siblings at around age 5.
“My father, Charles Leroy, owned sawmill and lumber businesses, and I thought I would probably follow in that,” Waters recalled.
Around 1942, after graduating from high school, Waters was drafted, but he said he got a deferment and enrolled in the Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. Not long into his freshman year, Waters joined the Navy. “I called the draft board and told them I was ready to go, and they obliged me pretty quick.”
His military duty began with basic training near Chicago, followed by electrical school training at the Detroit Naval Armory, where “they were getting me ready for the LCT (landing craft tanks),” Waters said.
From there, he went to Norfolk, VA, to train with the Marines, and after a stop at Solomons Island, MD, he made his way to New Orleans to board a landing craft ship headed to the South Pacific.
Waters’ job was to load bombs off an ammunition ship to carriers bombing the Philippines at the time.
He remembered one close call:
“While approaching the beach, I saw something splash and coming toward us, and someone yelled ‘that’s a mortar,’” Waters said. “We got orders to turn around and get out of there — and we did. They didn’t have the beach secured.”
Waters stayed between a year and 18 months on Peleilu Island after it was secured by U.S. forces. He said a directive came out saying that he was eligible to make officer. He heard at that time that the U.S. was planning to invade Japan and needed new officers.
But plans changed, Waters said, when President Harry Truman instead decided to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Before I got to officers school they had dropped the bombs and Japan had surrendered,” Waters said. “I got home when the war was over and then I resigned” as a second class petty officer.
Reflecting on it 70 years later, Waters said “the bomb was the best thing that ever happened. I don’t know how many people we would have lost (if the war went on).”
World War II was just one stop in Waters’ long journey. Upon leaving the Navy, he married, had three children, and embarked on a series of jobs in Southeast Georgia.
In 1948, Waters married. He remained with wife Faye until her death a couple of years ago. Three daughters live within driving distance; Debbie in Portal, Cynthia in Jesup and Gwen in Atlanta.
Waters chuckled as he recalled the different jobs he has had. When he came home from the Navy, it looked like he would follow his father’s footsteps in the lumber mill business in Ellabell, but that was not to be.
He spent two years as a state forestry ranger in Bryan County, operated a truck stop, and spent the most time managing automotive and tractor dealerships in Pembroke, Savannah and Darien.
When he reached official retirement age 25-30 years ago, Waters said he “needed something to take up my time,” so he formed a bail bond business.
“I was looking for something different,” he said. “I was just trying to do something to make a living.”
He still operates AAA Bryan Bonding from his home, but admits “it’s getting time” to call it quits. He said there are times when there is little business, but joked that during nights with a full moon, “there’s enough people getting locked up to keep the business going.”
Although he moves slowly these days, Waters is most proud of belonging to American Legion Post #164 in Pembroke. He said he joined in 1947, recruited by his father, who was a founding member.
“I had just gotten out of the Navy and my dad paid the dues the first year,” Waters said. “I have been a member since,” including commander several times.
In April, Waters was honored by the city of Pembroke for his seven decades of service to the post. During a ceremony, Post Commander Marvin Miller and Vice Commander Ernie Mitchell thanked Waters for his many years of service.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” Waters said.