Long before his squad slogged through the black volcanic beach on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Sgt. Paul Vnencak, who winters in Port Charlotte, had seen considerable action as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division.
His World War II odyssey began shortly after he learned his younger brother, Edward, was missing in action at Guadalcanal. This was the first land battle in which Japanese forces were stopped and eventually defeated by U.S. Marines. The battle came on the heels of the phenomenal American victory at Midway where four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk.
“I got so darn mad when I learned my younger brother was missing. I was gonna get even with the Japanese. I got myself sent to a combat unit,” he said more than six decades later.
Vnencak’s squad had already hit the beach at Namor in the Marshall Islands and Saipan and Tinian islands in the Marianas. The Marines who survived Iwo Jima were probably going to Okinawa, the last big Pacific battle before the attack on the Japanese home islands.
Recalling his first engagement, Vnencak said, “Roi-Namor was a small island. It was only about 3/4 of a mile deep and two or three miles long. In spite of its small size two of the lieutenants in our battalion received the Medal of Honor for leading their men ashore.
“After we secured the island, I was standing, talking to my company commander near a bunch of downed palm trees. There were dead Japanese all around,” Vnencak said. “Suddenly, about 20 feet away, one of the dead bodies got up and started running toward us. Thank God he tripped about 12 feet away, because he was clutching a hand grenade to his chest.
“When he fell the grenade went off 18 inches above the ground. The private standing beside me was torn up pretty badly from the exploding grenade. I sustained a small cut on my thumb.”
The 4th Division returned to Maui, Hawaii to regroup and rebuild for the next invasion. They didn’t have long to wait.
“We were one of the three Marine divisions sent to Saipan. I was in charge of a wire unit with the Marine signal corps,” Vnencak explained.
“On Saipan I was hiding behind a rock with my pistol when the Japanese came charging down the hill just firing like mad,” he said. “I got rid of six or eight of the enemy with my pistol.”
When his unit reached the north end of Saipan there was a cliff with a bunch of dead civilians and soldiers at its base. Apparently, the soldiers forced the civilians to jump at gun point and then the men in uniform followed them over the cliff.
Back to Maui they went again to regroup and get reinforcements for their battered unit. They moved on to Iwo Jima where the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine divisions took part in one of the most hard fought engagements of WW II. The Marines annihilated almost all of the Japanese on the 8-square-mile island.
“I was fortunate to survive since I spent the entire 36-day battle on Iwo Jima. My lieutenant was killed. I was the platoon sergeant and I was given a battlefield promotion and I took over for him as a second lieutenant.
“Four or five days after we landed the flag went up on Suribachi. Navy ships started tooting and shooting when the flag went up,” he recalled.
“I lost quite a few of my platoon on Iwo Jima,” Vnencak said. “The Japanese were in tunnels 30-feet deep. We rarely saw them.
Taking that island cost the lives of 6,800 American servicemen and 21,000 Japanese soldiers.
They returned to Maui once more and were preparing for the Okinawa invasion. Instead of going to Okinawa the 4th Division was replaced and sent back to the States. It was at this point that Vnencak located his long lost younger brother. He arrived as a replacement Marine as Vnencak was leaving Hawaii for the U.S.
He was state side when the war ended.
Since Vnencak had received a battlefield promotion he was about to be busted back to sergeant. However, his company commander saw to it that he took the necessary tests and a short time later he was made an officer and a gentleman in the regular Marine Corps.
It was around this time Vnencak became a Marine poster boy. While serving at Marine headquarters in the Pentagon, he was selected to pose for a Marine recruiting poster prominently displayed in post offices throughout the country.
“I was one of three bachelor officers at Marine headquarters. The girls in the office chose me to be the Marine poster boy,” he said with a smile. “My poster appeared in front of my hometown post office. When they took my poster down they gave it to my sister and she gave it to me.”
When the Korean War began in June 1950, Vnencak was a member of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Col. Chesty Puller, a fabled Marine commander who served in the Corps before WW I, through the Pacific in WW II and once more in Korea was his regimental commander.
“We took Seoul but we were being snipered by the enemy. I took three men with me and we went out and killed six of the snipers,” Vnencak said.
“We went in a house and found three enemy snipers lying on the floor. One started getting up with his rifle. I shot him and captured the other two. I got a medal.”
He marched to the Chosin Reservoir along the Manchurian-North Korean border during the freezing winter of 1950 with Col. Puller and the rest of the 20,000 Marines in the 1st Marine Division.
“On the march to Chosin, I was one of the first ones to find out by radio we were being attacked by Chinese forces,” Venencak said. “Surrounded by the enemy and freezing all the time during the march up and back I vowed if I survived that when I retired I would not live north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
As a member of the “Chosin Few” he survived the march to the border and back. His luck ran out while fighting with his unit near the 38th Parallel that was eventually the dividing line between North and South Korea.
“An artillery shell hit two of my men and killed them. I was severely wounded in the leg,” he said. “After a half dozen operations at hospitals in Tokyo, San Francisco and the Great Lakes, Mich. base I walked out of the hospital under my own power.”
By the Korean War, Vnencak was a Marine captain with 15 1/2 years of service in the Corps when he was interviewed by the commanding general of the Army Signal Corps. The general suggested he could improve his career chances by quitting the Marines and joining the Army as a Signal Corpsman. He did.
With the Vietnam War in full swing in 1969, Lt. Col. Vnencak was a division G-3 in charge of the units communications. He spent a year in Vietnam and then came back to the States once more.
He retired in 1976 as a full colonel with 35 years of military service — 15 1/2 in the Marines and 19 1/2 in the Army. True to his pledge, Vnencak and his late wife, Marilyn, retired to the Carolina coast south of Charleston, below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Since his wife’s death the old soldier spends part of the winter months with his daughter, Victoria Carpenter, Charlotte County’s Human Services Coordinator. The remainder of the year he lives with, Cindy Vnencak-Jones, his oldest daughter who is a physician in Nashville, Tenn.
Name: Paul Albert Vnencak
D.O.B: 21 June 1919
Hometown: Grove Port, Ohio
Entered Service: 1941
Discharged: 31 July 1976
Unit: 1010 Combat Signal Unit Commander
Commendations: Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star with “V” Device for Valor with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Medal, Navy Commendation Ribbon with “V” Device for Valor, Army Commendation medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citation, World War II Victory medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, March 28, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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AGE: 91 • Nashville, TN
Paul fell asleep in Christ on August 15, 2012 in Nashville. “Colonel V” was a Decorated War Hero who enlisted in the Marines in 1941 and received a Battlefield Commission at Iwo Jima. He fought at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War and 18 years later fought in the Vietnam War. He retired as a Colonel from the U.S. Army in 1976.
Preceded in death by his wife, Marilyn Solt Vnencak; son-in-law, D. Michael Carpenter; parents, Paul and Mary Vnencak and many loving brothers and sisters, who resided in Boonton, NJ.
He is survived by his brother, Albert Vnencak and sister, Marguerite DiFiore; children, Cindy Vnencak-Jones (Donald Jones) and Victoria Carpenter; grandchildren, Cameron and Kelly Jones, Kristin Waller (Elliott) and Nicole Dowling (Gerry); great-grandchild, Caleb Waller and many special nieces and nephews.
A funeral service will be at 4 pm on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 at his church, Redeemer Lutheran, 800 Bellevue Rd., Nashville. Visitation will be Saturday, 5-8 pm at Harpeth Hills Funeral Home.
A service will also take place Thursday Aug. 23, 2012 at 11 am in the chapel at J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Home, Mt. Pleasant, SC. Visitation will immediately precede this service. Interment with Full Military Honors will follow at Mt. Pleasant Memorial Gardens. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Redeemer Lutheran Church Gospel Outreach. HARPETH HILLS FUNERAL HOME, 9090 Hwy 100, Nashville, Tenn.