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Here are the complete versions of Randy Stewart's interviews with Bill Cantrell--clothier, banker, restaurateur, and decorated WWII Marine fighter pilot; and Max DeForest, decorated WWII Army infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, later owner of Race Brothers Farm and Home Supply--that aired in edited form on September 4, 2007 as part of KSMU's "Sense of Community" series.
The morning "Sense of Community" segment introduces you to 87-year-old Bill Cantrell: clothier, banker, restaurateur, and highly-decorated World War Two Marine fighter pilot.
Born in Springfield, Bill attended then-Drury College, majoring in Economics primarily because of his admiration for Dr. L. E. Meador. "Everybody idolized the man--he was a great, great teacher and a great economist, and just a really good person... a man who persevered and did extremely well, even though he was blind." Bill was particularly impressed by Dr. Meador's ability to memorize the seating charts in his classes--Meador knew precisely where every student's seat was in the room! Bill credits Dr. Meador's wife, a public-school librarian, for being his "eyes."
To illustrate the depth of Dr. Meador's influence on Bill as a Drury student, Bill tells the story that Meador called him into his office when Bill was a senior. Having come from what he calls a "relatively poor family," Bill had worked his way through school at Marx Clothing Store. Dr. Meador asked about his plans post-graduation from Drury, and Bill expressed a desire to go to law school. But he feared he wouldn't be able to work AND make it through law school at the same time--and he wouldn't be able to afford it any other way. Meador said, "How would you like a scholarship to Harvard Business School?" Bill was speechless. The next week he received a letter from Harvard offering a full scholarship... but "Pearl Harbor changed that scenario, and I did my graduate work in the Marine Corps!"
One of Bill's duties while working at Marx Clothing was to deliver a live commercial for the business on KGBX radio. Early on the afternoon of Sunday, December 7th, 1941, Bill arrived at the station (then at the corner of Kimbrough and St. Louis Streets, across from the Shrine Mosque) to do his commercial live, just in time to hear the tail-end of the announcement of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor! He says he "had the presence of mind to say that 'we're happy to relinquish our spot, so that you won't miss one word of this important message.'"
Bill Cantrell's path to the Marines was interesting. In his fraternity at Drury had been a fellow named Don Callaham, who went on to the Marine Platoon Leaders class, graduates of which became second lieutenants and leaders of troops. Don's first assignment was to recruit students at Drury. Bill and several of his friends took the entrance exam and physical; all passed EXCEPT Bill, who was rejected because of a "potential hernia." The doctor told Bill he could get a second opinion from his family physician. Lacking a regular doctor, Bill went to one of Springfield's best, Dr. H'Doubler, who told Bill he was "the first young man who had come to him trying to get INTO the service rather than OUT of it!" He also disagreed--strongly--with the first doctor's diagnosis. Later that day Bill and a friend took that first doctor out to the bar at the Frisco rail station for an evening of beer-drinking "and to see if we could TALK my way into the Marine Corps." As it turned out, Dr. H'Doubler also showed up, and in the ensuing "discussion" of his condition, Bill was afraid the two doctors would make him drop his trousers right there in the middle of the Frisco waiting room! Luckily they didn't, and he was told to go to Kansas City and try out for Marine or Naval aviation. He passed that all-day physical and went into Marine aviation. He says he ended up enjoying flying so much that he'd have a private plane today if he could afford one!
Midway through the training, recruits had to write a letter stating why they wanted to be a Marine or Naval officer. Bill's instructor, a Marine captain, told him, "Son, the Marines are great on tradition... you tell 'em your father and grandfather were both Marines, so it's important that you become one." None of that was true, as Bill protested, but the captain said, "Son, there's a war on! They don't have time to check on these things!" Well, the letter worked--Bill was selected--but he says he "waited all through the war for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say, ' You're an impostor, and you're out!'" Bill ultimately spent 39 years in the Marine Corps, both active and reserve duty, and helped form the local Marine Reserve unit in Springfield. "I love the Marine Corps," says Bill. "I've never seen it hurt a young man, and I've seen it straighten out a lot of young men."
March 17, 1942 was the date Bill enlisted in the Marine Corps... and St. Patrick's Day continued to be a significant date for him throughout the war. "I landed in the South Pacific on St. Patrick's Day; I got shot on St. Patrick's Day! I don't know whether to stay in bed on St. Patrick's Day or get up and get drunk!" Virtually all the Marines were sent to the Pacific Theatre, and it was there, on the island of Palau, that Bill was shot and wounded on March 17, 1945. He was 24 years old. "We had the Japanese cut off... they couldn't get food or ammunition in or out. It had become a bitter war of attrition." On that day he was flying a Corsair about 50 feet above a field looking for Japanese soldiers posing as "farmers." He suddenly heard three shots, meaning he "had to be right on top of the gun to have heard them." One of the shots hit him, and following the protocol for such a scenario, and in order to avoid capture by the Japanese, Bill veered toward the ocean and high-tailed it back to his home airfield on Peleliu, making it in a matter of eight or nine minutes. The plane itself only had one tiny hole in the canopy--the bullet went through the back of Bill's "May West" (floatation jacket), out the front, and hit the CO2 bottle in the cockpit, which blew, ripping a gash in Bill's upper-right abdomen. It wasn't a deep wound, he says, but it definitely was a gaping one! Bill and his wingman both managed to make it back to Peleliu.
After getting cleaned up and patched up, the doctors told Bill to go down to the airfield and hitch a flight back to San Francisco for secondary closure and further hospitalization. The first plane he boarded was loaded with casualties from the Philippines. He was the only ambulatory person aboard the plane, other than three overworked nurses. After seeing that, Bill notes that "you become very prejudiced against war for ANY reason, or of any kind. You take a 22-year-old Marine and you wound him seriously, and he looks like a baby lying on that stretcher. And I'm convinced we're on the wrong track in Iraq, and I don't know how we'll get out--but I hope the sooner, the better! I have two grandsons, one 19, one 21, and I shudder to think of them serving in the service today."
Once he had recuperated, Bill was training for a projected invasion of the Japanese mainland when the war ended. "And that would've been a very terrible campaign," Bill says. A Japanese doctor trained in the U.S., who had slipped through the lines and surrendered on Peleliu, told the Americans, "I know we've lost the war... and YOU know we've lost the war... but those Japanese I left in the cave up there do NOT know... and the people back in Japan do not know! And if you go for the invasion of Japan, you're going to find yourself fighting women, grandmothers, children with sticks and rocks... it'll be the most unimaginable massacre in the world." "And it would have been," says Bill, "so when Mr. Truman made the decision (to drop the atomic bombs), I know he saved my life and probably thousands and thousands of other lives."
Upon returning to Springfield, Bill's then-father-in-law had a little one-man made to measure suit shop, Glasgow Tailors (later Glasgow Men's Wear), and Bill went into partnership with him. Several years later a friend of Bill's bought out his father-in-law's share in the business and became Bill's partner. "We wound up with, quality-wise, one of the finest men's stores in this area. And after working there what seems like a lifetime," says Bill, the partner bought him out. At this point, Bill had served on the board of Bank of Springfield, and the bank's president offered him a job there. In the 1980s Bank of Springfield was bought out by First National of St. Louis, which became Centerre Bank--"and that's when I opened the chili parlor."
Bill had fooled around for years with various chili recipes, and had long been an admirer of Ray Coley, who ran one of Springfield's most beloved chili parlors for several decades. This inspired Bill to do something similar, and in 1988 "Billy's Chili and Bar Bar" opened in a large 2-story house on National Avenue between Walnut and St. Louis Streets. It was tremendously popular, and Bill and his wife Mary Alice (a professor at SMSU), lived upstairs in the building. But after a few years, Bill says, "to get a day off you had to leave town!" What had started out as a lark eventually became "pretty hard work." After he sold the restaurant in 1993, Bill got back into banking, helping found Signature Bank (now Bancorp South). He says with a chuckle, "it turned out to be one of the more successful, economically, of my many endeavors!" But when he hit age 80, "I think they encouraged me to retire, on the assumption that over (age) 80 you may be too tender-hearted to say 'no' to bad loans! But when it was bought by Bancorp it was one of the more profitable days of my life... and there weren't too many!"
In 1997 Bill even wrote a memoir, "Friends, Dear Friends, and Heroes." He describes it as "the story of Springfield in the years immediately following the Depression... and then an 'unbiased, factual' story of how I won World War Two (!), and my visit back to the Palau islands, which was very worthwhile."
These days Bill lives at the Montclair. He says his wife Mary Alice "fired" him "because she said she was tired of picking up after a tired old sick Marine." Figuring that he was "just gonna get older and sicker, maybe I'd better look for another place to live." It remained a close relationship to the very end, however; Mary Alice helped BIll move into his new digs, and went to the Montclair to have dinner with him one night. "She was sitting there enjoying the food, and she looked at me and said, 'Tell you what: I'll give you the house back, and I'LL move here!" Mary Alice died shortly after that, in November of 2006. But Bill says he enjoys the Montclair: "nice place, nice environment, good food, and you get used to other old people, and we get along. We're too old to fight, and too fat to run, so everybody gets along!" He has no plans to remarry at this late date, even though he does admit to having a lady friend at the Montclair--"I need a friend, I don't need a nursemaid... I've known some interesting people, and it's a privilege."
The final chapter of Bill's book, the "Epilogue," contains a poem he wrote about the end of life:
"So quickly am I in the winter of my years, and I reflect on gifts which Fate has brought. So many gifts, such tender love, few timid fears, and victory in most battles I have fought.
"My years have tumbled past with magic speed, and I think back and wonder whence they've gone... on dear old friends who shared my every need, and faded into mist as time ticked on.
"Now new young friends smooth my unsure way, and listen to my tales with eager ears, and bring their brightest hopes into my day. And they share their dreams with me. They know I hear.
"Their love I treasure, and one more favor please, not to impose, but this small thing for me: when I must fade to mist and life does cease, please cast my mortal ashes over the sea."
Bill says his daughter has instructions to do just that when he dies: "When that time comes, I want her to take me on a nice ocean liner to the South Pacific, find a nice quiet place--and leave me! I was raised when you go back to your parents' and grandparents' graves on every Decoration Day and shed a few tears and remember them. And I don't want people to have to feel like they need to do that for me. I don't believe in that."