BIG HORN — Johnnie Gentry owns a few different hats.
He has a “World War II veterans” cap, clean, black and adorned with pins. He has a new cowboy hat, clean and undeniably Western. Neither of these is his favorite, however. That distinction goes to an old, dirty cowboy hat.
“I’ve got an old hat in there,” he said, suddenly excited to show it off. “I wouldn’t trade that hat for a new one.”
Figuratively speaking, the 92-year-old Gentry has also worn plenty of hats: rancher, father, grandfather, husband and friend. The 92-year-old Big Horn resident also happens to be a World War II veteran, a sailor who served his country in the Pacific.
While he certainly has a story to tell, Gentry, in typical cowboy fashion, desires neither fanfare nor accolades. He will tell you he served his country because it was the right thing to do — no more and no less.
Gentry was born on Feb. 27, 1923, in Shoemaker, New Mexico, where his family ranched and farmed. The military came calling in the 1940s, as a nationwide draft selected young men to ship off to war. Gentry received a deferral because he worked on a ranch, but, in 1942, he quit his ranching job and formally joined the U.S. Navy.
He reported to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he trained for nearly a year as a mechanic, servicing planes. His training then took him to El Centro, California, a place that proved memorable for a few reasons.
“It’s the hottest place I’ve ever been,” he said. “We went there and did night flying. We couldn’t even touch one of those planes in the daytime. It got so hot you couldn’t even touch an airplane.”
He also discovered Tecate beer, which helped create an eventful night and rough morning.
“We were out one night, and we went into El Centro,” he said. “Have you ever had Tecate beer? Well, we got to drinking too much of that Tecate beer at the club and spent the night in the jail.
“We had to be at the base the next morning for muster,” he said with a laugh. “We got there pretty early — with a hangover.”
Although he doesn’t drink beer anymore, for years Gentry said he had a friend bring him up a case of Tecate, a reminder of his time in El Centro and the cactus beer he found while stationed there.
Eventually all that training meant entering World War II. Gentry boarded a ship in San Franciso, California, in 1944 and spent the next 29 days en route to Guam.
Going from a ranch in New Mexico to life at sea certainly provided a stark contrast, but Gentry said the adjustment wasn’t that tough for him. Despite spending long stretches on the Pacific Ocean in tight quarters, he never succumbed to seasickness and said there was more than enough work to keep every sailor busy.
The U.S. Marines took Guam in 1944, and Gentry said his main job was to help keep watch on the island, where an estimated 7,500 Japanese held out long after Americans took Guam.
Every so often, Gentry said Japanese would come out of the jungles and surrender to the Americans. All these years later, he is still struck by the contrast in Japanese and Americans’ treatment of prisoners.
“They treated those Japanese prisoners good,” he said. “They fed them good; they had things to play with. We just treated them good. Our prisoners, they didn’t treat them too good.”
After Guam, the sailors continued on their island-hopping march, arriving at Peleliu in December 1944. While the long trip to Guam didn’t prove too difficult, the three-day trip to Peleliu was a much different story.
“When the ship took us from Guam to Peleliu, those waves came and just looked like they were over the top of you,” he said, motioning with his hands.
The sailors faced really rough conditions and the beaches and water surrounding Peleliu contained too much wreckage to dock, so the men took landing barges to the island.
Gentry and the other sailors arrived at Peleliu on Christmas day. After three days on K rations, he said they hoped for a good Christmas meal.
“Well, they fed us sauerkraut and weenies,” he said with another of his good-natured laughs, adding he actually likes sauerkraut — just not the canned variety served on Peleliu.
Gentry sailed home on a battleship and eventually discharged in February of 1946, earning $100.98 in discharge pay. He served a total of two years, two months.
He returned to his roots, heading home to Shoemaker to ranch with his father. But, in 1947 Gentry came with a company of men to ranch at Twin Creek Ranch off Pass Creek Road. Sometime around 1950, Gentry moved to the Wolf Mountains to ranch in rugged country located past Lodge Grass, Montana.
“We spent some rough winters up there,” he said.
He recalled a time when a blizzard rolled in while he was in Lodge Grass. The 12-mile trip home was an eventful one. He said he “gunned” his pickup as fast as he could, but he knew he would eventually get stuck. About six miles from home, sure enough, the truck lodged in a snowdrift and Gentry reached for his snowshoes, which he always kept handy.
“I walked all the way uphill,” he said. “That same night I heard where somebody else got stuck the same way, but he never made it. They found him dead two days later, froze.”
Gentry spent many years in those mountains. He met his wife, Nancy Ruth Yonkee, at a dance near Lodge Grass. They eloped and had two children. Now, Gentry has four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
He moved to Big Horn in 1990, where he lives near his family with the Bighorns visible from his back porch.
Gentry isn’t one to talk about himself, particularly about his time in the service. He is a cowboy who speaks matter-of-factly and without any air of self-importance. He said he didn’t mind being drafted and didn’t keep in touch with any of the men he served with. He returned home and lived his life.
Was he ever homesick?
“No, not really. I knew I had to be out there,” he said.
How does he think back on his time in the service?
“It’s just something I had to do. I didn’t mind it,” he said.
While he might not want to talk about his exploits, sitting in the sun with his second-favorite World War II hat, it’s clear by the look in his eyes he feels some well-deserved pride in serving his country. He can still recite his dog tag numbers and plays cards with a friend who also served in World War II.
A couple years ago he participated in an Honor Flight, traveling to Washington, D.C., with other Wyoming World War II veterans and exploring the nation’s capital.
“I had fun on that trip,” he said.
It was his first visit to Washington, D.C., He has a photo on his wall of the veterans lined up in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial, a massive statue depicting Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima located at the entrance of the Arlington National Cemetery.
Scanning the hundreds of faces, you notice Gentry at the bottom-right of the photo. He’s the one in the cowboy hat.