Waynesburg vet reflects on life as 100th birthday nears
Waynesburg vet reflects on life as 100th birthday nears
Paul Crayne turns 100 Tuesday. He and his wife, Wanita, 96, have been happily married for 75 years. Between them is a painting of the Crayne family farm on Lippencott Run. Crayne is holding one of the many flags that has flown from their front porch for more than 65 years. The American Legion will honor the World War II veteran March 17 at the Legion hall in Waynesburg.
C.R. Nelson / For the Observer-Reporter
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WAYNESBURG – Come Tuesday, Paul Crayne of Waynesburg will have seen a century of living, a fact that makes his eyes twinkle.
He can’t hear as well as he used to and hasn’t mowed the bank in front of his house by tying a rope to the mower and lowering it down and pulling it back up for a few years now. But he can still remember the good times, and some of the bad, that 100 years is bound to bring and he can tell you about the way things used to be.
Money used to go further, Crayne readily admits. But back then “we didn’t have much money anyway. But we made or grew most of what we needed, so we got by. And we still do.”
Crayne spends his days with wife Wanita, a spry 96-year-old, in their little white house overlooking Ten Mile Creek on Jefferson Road. Most days, a big American flag waves at passersby from the front porch, a tribute to the nation Crayne was drafted to defend in 1943.
“I don’t put it out if it’s raining, and I take it in at night,” Wanita said, pointing to the corner where the flag stood at attention, waiting for the next sunny day. “We’ve hung a flag ever since we moved here. Our last one got so tattered from the wind that I had to keep sewing the stripes back together. I fixed it and fixed it. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to do that, but I did it because I wanted it to look nice. It got so there was nothing left of those stripes, hardly, except for my stitches. That’s when we got this new one from the DAV,” she said.
“We heard about their flag from friends and we decided to do something about it,” Disabled American Veterans Commander Beany Stoy said. After the office of former State Rep. Bill DeWeese answered the DAV’s request and sent new flags to display outside their hall in 2012, members decided to pass on the favor and help others in who might need to replace a worn out Old Glory.
The Craynes’ bright new flag arrived that fall, just in time for Veterans Day and a very pleased Wanita hung it from the front porch.
Now, sitting in his favorite chair, the old flag retired to a place of honor on the mantle beside him, Crayne settled in to remember the war years and the draft that took him from his young family to hot, malaria-plagued India, then across the Himalayas to China and Vietnam as the Allies joined forces to build the Burma Road.
“When they had mail call, I could always tell her letters because she put them in pink envelopes and I could see them in with all those thousands of others,” Crayne said as he looked over at his bride of 75 years.
“I wrote every day,” Wanita said, beaming back at him.
When Crayne was drafted, Wanita and 2-year-old daughter Connie were left to make ends meet on the meager wages that the Army provided its men.
“I think we got about $30 a month,” Crayne recalled. “Not much.”
“I took in laundry and moved to an apartment that my uncle owned, but we still had to pay rent,” Wanita said. “It wasn’t easy, but we made it.”
Crayne did basics at Fort Meade, Md., and managed to visit a half sister in Compton Calif., the night before boarding the transport ship in San Francisco, bound for India.
Crayne was a steady, sober 30-year-old married man, a skilled mechanic and lathe operator at Penn Manufacturing in Washington. He recalls that the ship was filled with thousands of men, many married like himself and most likely just as ready to apply themselves in whatever way needed to the China-Burma-India road building project that would help win the war.
“After we landed in Bombay we took a train to Calcutta. I think it was a cattle train,” Crayne said, still amused by the thought. “I fixed washing machines, I cut pipe and I was a medic too.
“We got shifted around and did everything. In India we worked in a warehouse and I tell you it was hot, 120 degrees some days.”
Crayne’s war memories are stories waiting to be told - like waking up to see a snake spreading its hood beside a neighboring bunkmate “just as he was ready to put his foot down.”
Did he get bit? “No, we chased that snake around until the commander came in the tent and shot it.”
Other, smaller bites weren’t so easy to avoid. “They gave everybody nets to sleep under because of the malaria. Some men wouldn’t use them but I did. I got malaria anyway. ”
When it was time to leave the hot steaming tropics “the commander told us ‘put on your field jackets, in 15 minutes you’ll be freezing.’” The transport plane flew up into the Himalayas and the farm boy from Lippencott Run looked out the window, amazed. “There were mountains out there higher than us.”
Riding on the Burma Road was brutal. “Some of the trucks had to back up to get around curves.” Crayne got an abscess on his spine from riding in trucks and spent weeks healing. By then his convoy had gone ahead so “I got to fly over the Bump and meet up with them.”
Riding into Hi Fong, Vietnam, Crayne and his convoy were forced to ford the river. The Japanese had blown up the bridges the day before and they were now on the front line and under attack. It never came but “I got the Bronze Star for that one.”
In Hanoi, “we went in to get the Japanese prisoners out of there. We sprayed them for parasites and got them in boats.”
In Shanghai, full blown malaria hit. “I was in a Shanghai hospital for three weeks and the doctor told me ‘Buddy, you almost didn’t make it.’ But it never bothered me like that again.”
The war was winding down and there was plenty for servicemen to do in the aftermath.
“If you had so many points you could be discharged. I got mine and they flew me to Shanghai. That’s where I got the boat to go home,” Crayne said.
The train ride from San Francisco to Pittsburgh was a last scenic tour of America to relax and enjoy but the last leg of the journey home found him unexpectedly using just that – his legs. “The Blue Ridge bus line was on strike so I took the street car to Washington and started hitchhiking.”
All that walking made him late for dinner.
“He didn’t know where we were because we’d moved, so he had to go looking for us,” Wanita said, beaming again. “Connie said ‘I’m not going to eat until my dad comes home!’ but she fell asleep.”
After the war, Crayne went back to work the afternoon shift at Penn Manufacturing, a shift that would keep him from having the time to join any veterans groups in the area. The family moved to the little white house overlooking Ten Mile Creek and hung out the American flag, one of many to be tattered by the breeze. There were tool sheds to tinker in and plenty of room for a garden to share with family and friends.
Son Larry Paul was born in 1948 and would grow up to become a Marine and visit Hanoi, like his dad.
When the American Legion found out about the reclusive, unassuming, 100-year-old veteran in their midst, they decided to throw Crayne a party at their hall on High Street.
“Our Ladies Auxiliary is arranging for food and a cake and we’re inviting all veterans and their families and friends and relatives of the Crayne family to join us to join us Sunday, March 17 from 2 until 4 in the afternoon,” vice commander Tom Boyd said. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so don’t be surprised if we serve something green.”
If planning to attend, call the Legion at 724-627-6333.
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