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Photo exhibit shares wartime memories of Mel Grubb

By GREG JORDAN

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON, W.Va.  — When people look at the World II photo of a young man holding a monkey, the man who took it likes to say, “I’m the one on the right.”

Melvin Grubb, local photographer and World War II veteran, speaks with Mike Kissinger, president and curator of the Those Who Served Museum in Princeton as he sets up an exhibit in the Memorial Building. The photographs depicting his tour in the South Pacific will be on display through June 30.
(Bluefield Daily Telegraph photo)

The Those Who Served War Museum in Princeton is honoring Memorial Day by opening its season today with an exhibit of World War II photographs shot by Mel Grubb, one of the best known photographers in southern West Virginia. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

When he was in his late teens, 1st Sgt. Melvin L. Grubb served with the 40th Infantry Division, Battery C, 213th Field Artillery Battalion, 185th Regimental Combat Team from July 20, 1943 until Jan. 9, 1946.

Stopping at the museum, Grubb said photography was his hobby before he went overseas. His experience before the war included shooting the pictures of his class for the Beaver High School Yearbook. When he went to war, a small camera and a few rolls of film were part of his luggage.

“I had a little 35 mm camera with me and the beauty of that, I’ll mention this, is that Kodak 35 mm film came in a little aluminum can with a lid on it,” he recalled. “And consequentially, that’s how I was able to preserve these images because I was out in the jungle where it’s hot and humid, and the moisture would have ruined my pictures because I couldn’t keep them dry.”

Grubb soon found himself in a very hot climate when he was transported to his new post.

“I went over to New Caledonia. Nothing happened there because that was a staging area. I was two weeks on a troop ship south of the equator. From there, I was assigned to the 40th Infantry Division on Guadalcanal,” he said. “I was only 19 years old, and I was assigned a gun crew. I wasn’t in combat at that time, but we were training. What I was a replacement. They sent us over as replacements for fellows who had passed away or health reasons. They’d call up and say, ‘We need four artillery men. That’s what I trained for at Fort Bragg, N.C.”

Each photograph has a placard explaining the image to visitors. For instance, one shows a camp on New Britain Island in the Pacific Ocean. The huts form a camp with a “Main Street” that even had a sidewalk. Each part of the exhibit gives visitors a look at the life of Americans serving in the Pacific Theater. In one, Grubb is holding a monkey, and others show everyday life on the islands.

“While not in combat, we lived in tents, slept on our extra clothes as our mattress,” Grubb said. “To protect against mosquitoes and the threat of malaria, we built bamboo frames over our cots with a cloth screen to protect us from mosquito bites.“

In another photograph, Grubb is cleaning his mess kit in wash basins made from 55-gallon aviation fuel drums. Two of the makeshift sinks held soapy water and two more contained clean water for rinsing. Each soldier’s aluminum mess kit consisted of a knife, fork, spoon and cup which were used in non-combat conditions. When in combat, the troops ate K-rations.

Yet another photograph shows Grubb outside of San Sebastian Church in Manila, capital of the Philippines. The structure was one of the few left standing after the Japanese occupation.

“After the action settled down, some of our soldiers found an ice plant and a gallon of Coca Cola syrup from the American Red Cross,” he recalled. “We had an ice cold Coke for the first time in two years. We were drinking our Coke and touring Manila when we were stopped on a street because there were Japanese troops in the basement of the Manila Post Office. Of the three islands occupied – Panay, Negros and Luzon – Luzon was the most costly in casualties for our 40th Army Division.”

The Mel Grubb exhibit will be on display today through June 30 in the Memorial Building’s rotunda.

The Those Who Served War Museum is located in the Memorial Building at 1500 West Main Street in Princeton near the Mercer County Courthouse. Its collection features artifacts donated and loaned to the museum by local veterans and their families. Exhibits and memorials relating to the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other wars involving America are part of the many exhibits.

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