Combat vet remembers the ‘Chico boys’

Bud French is one of just three surviving members of WWII’s Company G

PICTURES OF THE PAST<br>Mervin “Bud” French and Scott Brooke look over old photographs and newspaper clippings from World War II.

Mervin “Bud” French and Scott Brooke look over old photographs and newspaper clippings from World War II.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

When Mervin “Bud” French was 17, his father lied and said he was older so he could join the Army National Guard. He was a senior at Chico High School, a football player, and all his friends had joined. The year was 1939.

“They paid about $1 a meeting, and at the end of three months you’d get a good-sized check,” French said. At that time, after a decade of the Great Depression, even $1 was a lot. And since the United States was not yet at war, joining the armed forces seemed a logical choice.

In all, 92 young men from the Chico area joined up and formed Company G of the 184th Infantry Regiment.

“These were guys who grew up together and had known each other since kindergarten. They were all on the football team together,” said Scott Brooke, whose father was one of the few, along with French, who remained in Company G through combat tours in Alaska, the Pacific and Okinawa.

“When the shooting started, in December 1941, we were all trying to get out,” French said. Many did. Twenty-eight of the original Company G, which Brooke affectionately refers to as the “Chico boys,” remained.

Looking over an old photograph, French pointed to his friends and described their fate. “This boy was killed in action in Kwajalein,” he said, locating a young face next to his own. “This kid was wounded in Okinawa.”

At 85 years old, French is a powerful presence, his face full and expressive. Of the 92 original Chico boys, only he and two others are still alive. One lives in Ohio. The other, Gerald Dean, left Company G in 1942. He lives in Chico.

As with most combat veterans, French has stories he will not tell. And of the ones he shared in just two short hours this Veterans Day, some—shooting unarmed Japanese soldiers who had no food or ammunition, for example—were enough to make one cry.

What’s unusual is that French, unlike most World War II veterans, saw a tremendous amount of combat during the war. The vast majority of American troops saw no combat, French said.

After Pearl Harbor, the 184th Regiment patrolled the California coast and railway system before being sent to Alaska to reclaim the small island of Kiska from the Japanese (it turned out the Japanese had already abandoned it).

The real combat came in February 1944, when French, Brooke and the rest of their regiment were sent to the Marshall Islands, specifically Kwajalein, in the Pacific. The Japanese had controlled the region for decades, and when American forces arrived, they bombarded the island, killing thousands, their effort being recognized as the “most efficient” of the war.

“A lot of my friends were killed in action in Kwajalein,” French remembered. One of them, Earl Watson, had been the star of the Chico High football team.

From there, after a brief respite in Hawaii, the 184th embarked for the island of Leyte in the Philippines. There, they fought the infamous Japanese forces responsible for the “rape of Nanking,” enduring more casualties before being relieved in order to go to Okinawa, Japan.

“Toward the end, there were only 11 of us left,” French said of Okinawa.

That’s when French came home, with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

“The loyalty among these guys was a lot more than loyalty to country,” Brooke said. “They were thinking about their fellow soldiers, and what made Company G so unique was that these were guys who had grown up together. They were fighting for their buddies.

“They didn’t feel courageous,” he added. “They weren’t really proud of a lot of things. It’s not like a movie—there’s no glory to it.”

Brooke’s father, Glenn “Squeek” Brooke, was a few years older than French, but they were very close.

“We fought together right through the whole damn thing,” French said. “We were in the foxhole together.”

Brooke has spent countless hours compiling the history of Company G, talking with French and his late father. He plans to compile their stories into a book, tentatively titled The Chico Boys, taken from a local newspaper headline from the time, calling the soldiers of Company G the “Chico boys.”

Over the years, the men of Company G have held reunions, but in the past 10 years their numbers have dwindled.

“There aren’t going to be any of them left to tell this story,” Brooke said. “All this history is going to be gone.”