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A Tale Of Two Veteran's Remembering Very Different Wars

Originally Posted: November 10, 2007

Brian Bossetta

The WWI Memorial at Otter Pond in Sag Harbor.

Southampton - On Sept. 11, William Collum witnessed devastation beyond his wildest imagination. What his eyes took in on that day was like nothing he had ever seen. The 17 year old Petty Officer from East Hampton was aboard the USS Corson which had just dropped anchor in Nagasaki Harbor. The year was 1945. A month earlier, on Aug. 9, the United States dropped Fat Man on the Japanese seaport. This strategic target held great significance to Tojo's war machine because of its industrial capacity and production of ordnance, ships and military equipment.

History's second atomic attack, and to date its last, brought the war to an abrupt and violent end. Now, in his eighties, Bill Collum still looks back in awe at the destruction he saw first hand. "If you stood on the corner of Main Street, looked all the way down to the new library, then back down to the middle school, then all the way down to Bowden Square, then all the way down South Main Street and all through and around Southampton and it's just nothing, nothing at all, that's kind of what it was like," Collum described. "Everything was just a total mess. The buildings were just rubble. Just little pieces that you could pick up in your hand."

For a young man from Southampton, Sept. 11 was also a day not to be forgotten. It was the year 2001 and Kevin McMahon was in his first week of basic training, otherwise known as "Hell Week," at Fort Benning, GA, when he was notified by his Drill Instructor that New York was under a terrorist attack. "We were out in the field," McMahon said, "I thought it was a training exercise. I didn't think it was real." McMahon and his fellow recruits were brought in to a media room where they gathered around a television set. "Soon as we walked in the second plane hit," McMahon remembered. "It was surreal, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was still thinking it was an exercise and that what was happening on screen was computer generated or something. I just couldn't believe it."

WWII veteran William Collum donning his USS Corson hat.

When the recruits from New York were given permission to call home the reality set in. "That kind of privilege wasn't given out, McMahon said. "I knew then it was serious."

Not unlike 56 years earlier for the young Petty Officer from East Hampton, the devastation McMahon witnessed did not signify a war's end; rather, it initiated a new one. "We knew right then it was a different world. It kicked our training into high gear. It really motivated us." McMahon said that his recruit class finished with exceptional high marks and that morale was "sky high." The young soldier said everyone could feel the eyes of the country turning toward them. "We knew a lot of responsibility was about to fall on our shoulders and we were proud and fired up to take it on."

Reminiscing about his time as a Sailor in the Pacific theatre during World War II, Collum said he was proud of his service and what the country was able to accomplish in a relatively short time. "There was never any doubt that we were going to win the war," Collum said, "We just didn't have a choice."

Petty Officer Collum served as an Electronics Technician on the Corson, which sailed in support of Navy Seaplanes engaged in anti-submarine and rescue patrols. These "Flying Boats" played a crucial role in defeating the Axis naval forces in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Typical of his generation, the humble Collum downplays his role and the danger he faced sailing through submarine and mine infested waters. However, he holds no reservations in boasting of the "boots on the ground" that he said deserve the credit for America's victory. "The 'dog-faces' took the brunt of it," Collum recounted. "The Marines and the Soldiers who stormed the beaches and liberated occupied cities -- they won the war. You've got to have those guys on the ground."

Specialists Kevin McMahon (front right) on patrols in Iraq.

The same holds true today as McMahon can well attest. After boot camp, Specialist McMahon joined the famed 4th Mechanized Infantry Division and was assigned the duty of operating the Army's "Javelin," a highly effective portable anti-tank missile. Expecting to ship out to Afghanistan, McMahon eventually was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and was fighting there when Baghdad fell. He often operated out of Bradley Fighting Vehicles which have been the target of many I.E.D. attacks. "That was always on the back of our minds," he said, "but you couldn't think too much on it. You had to focus on the job at hand."

McMahon described his duty in Iraq as the "best and worst" time of his life. "Coming back home at Christmas and just being able to walk down the street in Southampton and enjoying what so many take for granted - a warm bed and a shower - the heightened senses to those simple pleasures were some of the best things I took out of it," McMahon said.

On the flip side there was the depression of being away from home, the unremitting tension of the unexpected and the obvious dangers. But, despite the challenges of deployment and the perils of war, McMahon cherishes his tour in Iraq and said "many positive things" happened that are not often reported. "The kids loved us," he said, "They were wonderful." McMahon remembered that one of the most gratifying experiences was rebuilding schools and making them safe for the Iraqi children and added that the Iraqi people are the "most generous people" he's ever met. "If you asked an Iraqi for a cigarette, he'd give you his whole pack."

The young soldiers visiting with Iraqi children.

Of all the Iraqis he met, McMahon's favorite was a Kurdish artist who during Saddam's rein was forced to erect busts and statues of the former Iraqi leader. "He hated Saddam," McMahon said, "Because of what had been done to the Kurds." After Saddam's fall, however, this artist befriended the Americans and spent much of his time painting "symbols of freedom" throughout his neighborhood. "A few of us were having girl problems back home," McMahon said. "We'd show him pictures of our girlfriends and he'd sketch them. We'd then send them back home and that would go a long way in making things better."

The 28-year-old McMahon is now a golf pro and is presently teaching the sport in Florida. William Collum is the owner of Collum Signs in Southampton which has been in business for 75 years. "What happened during the war prepared me for the rest of my life," Collum said. "I was very lucky."

McMahon credits his time in Iraq as "making him more religious" and added, "It's true what they say about no atheists in foxholes." McMahon said he had no regrets about serving in Iraq and that even a small part of him misses it. "You miss the camaraderie and you miss being able to bring so much to the people there." McMahon described Iraq as a "beautiful country" with an amazing landscape. "I don't think many people realize how stunning a country it is. Especially in the northern part where it's mountainous. It's breathtaking."

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