Like other teenage boys in 1944, Conrad Lebourdais was eager to help his country in World War II.

He was not so eager to serve in the infantry, however, and rather than wait to be drafted and spend the war marching from one battle to another, Lebourdais arranged to join the Navy that year when he turned 17.

Lebourdais remembers his father signing the papers to allow him to join before he turned 18. What followed was a whirlwind during which the 17-year-old, who grew up in Brunswick, was sent to New York for boot camp and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

World War Two veteran Conrad Lebourdais at his Topsham home.

Then he shipped out to Hawaii, New Guinea and New Caledonia and elsewhere in the Pacific, encountering headhunters, watching as an aircraft carrier was hit by a kamikaze bomber, witnessing the end of the war and being exposed to radiation in Hiroshima, the first city ever attacked with an atomic bomb.

Lebourdais operated a landing craft, ferrying troops and supplies from his attack cargo ship, the USS Medea, to shore.

He remembers headhunters in New Guinea who, after some were tortured by the Japanese, supported the Americans. In retribution, Lebourdais said, the headhunters had mounted the heads of their Japanese tormentors on bamboo spikes.

Lebourdais said he can also recall the Medea sitting among dozens of other warships, waiting to head out in support of invasions of other Pacific islands as Allied troops moved closer to Japan.

But his most indelible memory, he said, was the kamikaze attack on the USS Bunker Hill, which he witnessed from just offshore Okinawa. The landing craft he was operating was ordered to patrol the shores of the island rather than immediately head out to sea to pick up more troops and supplies, where it might have been in the vicinity of the Bunker Hill.

The aircraft carrier suffered severe damage after being hit by two kamikazes and returned to the U.S. for repairs. It wasn’t returned to service until after the war was over.

Lebourdais also witnessed Okinawans jumping off cliffs ahead of the advancing American forces on the island. They had been convinced by the Japanese troops that the invading troops would rape or murder them and chose suicide instead.

Then, on Sept. 2, 1945, LeBourdais was in Tokyo Bay when Japanese military officials and diplomats boarded the USS Missouri and surrendered, ending the war. The Medea was just a few hundred yards from the Missouri, he said, and Lebourdais could see some of the official ceremonies onboard the battleship.

And what he saw shortly after the war was even worse than the suicides in Okinawa, Lebourdais said.

Sent to Hiroshima to help unload supplies for troops and civilians, Lebourdais said the city’s residents were still wandering around in shock, just weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped.

“You could see the burns on the people, they were just barely walking,” he said.

Lebourdais believes his time in Hiroshima led to a cancerous growth that formed in his upper arm and was excised in two operations four years ago. VA doctors who operated on him said they couldn’t be sure of the cause, but agreed that it was likely from exposure to radiation.

Lebourdais was helping unload supplies in Hiroshima when an officer questioned how long he and other soldiers had been working outside. Told it was all day, the officer said their exposure to radioactivity was supposed to be limited to about 25 minutes.

“We didn’t know – no one had told us,” Lebourdais said.

Lebourdais was mustered out on July 4, 1946. After the war, he confronted the problem most veterans faced – restarting life as a civilian.

Returning to Maine, he looked for a job, unsuccessfully, for weeks. He finally got a break when he was picked up, while hitchhiking, by a manager at the Pejepscot Paper mill in Topsham. They drove to the mill, where the manager confirmed there was an opening and Lebourdais was hired on the spot, at 50 cents an hour.

Lebourdais would spend 43 years at the mill as a boiler technician.

Lebourdais said that he feels many veterans haven’t gotten their due, mostly in small ways, since World War II ended.

For instance, he initially was refused medical treatment for the growth in his upper arm because his records didn’t reflect that he served in the Pacific. A letter from the Pentagon was required to straighten that out, Lebourdais said.

“There are a lot of veterans who should get what they need,” he said.

Now 91, Lebourdais said his needs are relatively simple, but he has had to fight for some small perks. A few years ago, the organizers of the air show at the former Brunswick Naval Station ended the discount for veterans. A letter he wrote to the local paper, calling for a boycott by vets, got the discounts restored.

Lebourdais still lives by himself in Topsham – his wife, Marilyn, died in 1995 and his son died more than 40 years ago. Lebourdais’s daughter, Norma Bouleg, visits almost daily and makes sure he gets to appointments and has everything he needs.

Steadfastly self-sufficient, Lebourdais still drives himself most places he needs to go to and has a daily routine of swinging by the post office, buying groceries and stopping at a Goodwill store to see if anything good has been dropped off. And he heads to the American Legion Hall in Brunswick weekly for a cup of coffee.

His daughter said Lebourdais told her he was stopped – for speeding – a few weeks ago, but he got one small perk. The officer gave him a warning instead of a ticket and sent him on his way.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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