Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
HOWLAND - Andy Onder always wanted to travel.
Service in World War II as a member of the 617th Engineer Battalion helped his wish come true, but these were not the kinds of tours that cruise ships make.
Onder, a native of western Pennsylvania, went to Australia, and from there to New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands and other small islands around New Guinea as his unit helped build roads and airfields to support American troops in the South Pacific.
Onder was 18 when he joined the Army and he almost didn't get in because he wore glasses. He said that after his test, an officer picked four of the men who were not taken and Onder was one of them.
Because Onder was the assistant manager of an A&P, he was told he would never go overseas. Six months later in the jungle of New Guinea, he said he wished he could meet that officer again.
Tribune Chronicle / Joe Gorman
Andy Onder, of Howland, points to one of the commendations he earned during World War II.
Onder ran heavy equipment as his outfit built airstrips, and sometimes they had to go into the ocean and scoop out coral for the runways because the tropical soil was so poor. One time, they went out to the ocean and were told the route to land would be marked by a giant light, which was turned off during an air raid.
''We were out in the ocean and we didn't know where the land was,'' Onder said.
His unit was rescued by an amphibious vehicle known as a ''duck.''
Family: Wife Inez, deceased; six children, 13 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren
Service: U.S. Army, 617th Engineer Battalion
Citations: World War II Ribbon, Pacific Theater Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal
His first ocean voyage was on an old German freighter that had capacity for 400 people. Instead, it carried 4,000 soldiers to Australia, which was on the verge of being invaded by the Japanese.
''We were almost sinking in the water,'' Onder said.
As engineers, his unit often was right behind the infantry and sometimes traded their equipment for rifles. On Wakde Island off New Guinea, Onder's unit landed right after troops on a two-mile island that had an airstrip stretching the length of it.
''We were building half of that airstrip and they were fighting on the other half,'' Onder said.
Onder said other soldiers marveled that they were still alive because of all the flames that could be seen on the island at night.
''They (Japanese) really plastered us,'' Onder said.
New Guinea was not a nice place to be, he said. It was unbearably hot and there were swarms of bugs everywhere. Once, there was a python wrapped around one of their bulldozers, he said.
''That place was a hell hole,'' Onder said. ''I thought we'd never get out of there.''
Onder's unit also went to the Philippines and was in Manila when the war ended. He thought they would be going home when they shoved off. Instead, they were sent to Japan as some of the first occupying troops.
Onder said he had no bitterness or rancor toward the Japanese people, and the men in his unit did not interact with regular citizens very much. Some of the cities were almost flattened because of American bombing, he said.
Some of the things he saw he said he does not talk about a lot.
''I've never seen so many dead bodies,'' Onder said.
One thing he does talk about is the Half Moon Bridge in Sidney, Australia. He said he saw a picture of it in a school book and thought it would be nice to see it in person someday.
Six months after he joined the Army, he sailed beneath it.