Beer and beaches: Janesville man had a great tour in the Army
JANESVILLE—Sometimes, serving one’s country turns out to be a blast.
Such was the case for Paul McDaniel of Janesville, who was an 18-year-old high school graduate from southern Illinois coal country when he enlisted in 1954.
One of 10 children of a coal miner, he had experienced loss: One of his brothers died in a famous mine explosion in 1951.
His father, who worked 22 years in the mines, vowed his children would not follow him into that profession.
The Army trained McDaniel to be a combat engineer and sent him to Europe with the 188th Transportation Corps, where he ended up supervising the unloading of cargo ships in the port town of Saint-Nazaire.
He kept in touch but didn’t speak to his parents for three years, but that was the only hardship he could think of.
“I was too darned busy,” he said. “And I was busy chasing the girls, too, over there. Beautiful beaches there in Saint-Nazaire—as good as in Miami. ...
“And I liked the French beer,” he said, smiling fondly at the memory.
He also had fascinating work: receiving supplies from ships and arranging transport to Germany and elsewhere for U.S. and other NATO forces. Those supplies included the Nike missiles, the first successful surface-to-air missiles.
He also oversaw transport of World War II armaments back to the United States.
“Planes, tanks, you name it,” McDaniel said.
The traffic was heavy, with hundreds of rail cars arriving each day to load or offload materials.
Soon after McDaniel arrived, his superiors rotated back to the United States, and he took on the role formerly held by a master sergeant. He learned a lot and put that to use when he returned to civilian life four years later.
The experience was horizon-expanding. He learned a little French and visited Paris, London, Germany and Italy.
“I was amazed about everything I saw over there,” he said.
He even got engaged to a French woman, but his parents refused to sign the permission papers that the Army required at the time. The relationship didn’t survive his return stateside, but they corresponded for a year. He chalks up the episode to the impetuosity of youth.
McDaniel was one of the lucky members of the military. His brother—not quite as lucky—was drafted and sent to Korea, where the war had ended the year before. He returned home safely but didn't have nearly as much fun.
Millions of U.S. service members serve without being wounded or even fired at. Some serve in less-desirable places, and some learn skills that don’t translate easily into civilian jobs.
Again, McDaniel was lucky.
“I learned how to package a ship and run a warehouse business on a large scale,” McDaniel told a Veterans Administration interviewer recently.
“That was wonderful for me. I’ll never regret it,” he said.
As a civilian, he went to work at a warehouse in Iowa, where he started as a driver and worked his way up to vice president, retiring after 37 years.
McDaniel’s other jobs over the years have included caregiving for sick relatives and at a hospice. He told his VA interviewer that he is in Janesville because he’s helping one of his daughters.
His smile broadens when he mentions his 14 grandchildren, three of them serving in the military.
McDaniel suffered pain and severe dizziness last summer and spent four days at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison. That’s when he was interviewed for a new program that started at the Madison VA.
He told his life story to a volunteer, who turned it into an article, which was shared with his caregivers.
Many veterans have gone through the same process. It's a way of honoring them, showing them that the VA cares about them, and in hopes that when staff know their patients better, enhancing their medical treatment.
The VA higher-ups have taken notice, and the My Life, My Story project might be adopted nationally, the hospital’s website indicates.
“I thought it was very special,” said McDaniel’s daughter, Dana Foster. “I think that helped him get his mind off things."
McDaniel, who has been in the VA’s care several times, has nothing but kind words for the institution, which differs from the experience of others who have complained of long waits and excessive bureaucracy in recent years.
“I couldn’t have been treated any better,” he said.