Henry (Hank) Sulima has grateful memories of his time serving his country in World War II. But the 99-year-old veteran who lives in Vero Beach has even fonder remembrances of his previous service to the United States of America, in a role he considers almost as crucial as what the millions who served in the U.S. military ranks 75 years ago accomplished.
The “CCC Legacy” is one jewel of what many organized corps of Americans achieved during the Great Depression and beyond. The quasi-military Civilian Conservation Corps greatly prepared the U.S. for fighting with the Allies to defeat the Axis powers and win WWII, Mr. Sulima insists. The CCC Legacy is the whole host of physical things built by the “CCC Boys,” as they’re known still, that endure — but it also constituted the forerunner of the armed forces that freed the world of Nazism.
Nearly a centenarian, yet still spry and getting around, Mr. Sulima is a veteran of both. He came to the recent CCC Festival at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring and told stories about his CCC and WWII experiences, as he has for many years.
Born in 1920, he grew up in Chicago and was unable to find a job upon his graduation from high school. So he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps in September 1938 and was sent to CCC Camp No. 1608 in Tomahawk, Wis., where he worked for 18 months in a reforestation project tasked with replanting the heavily logged “Northwoods” of the Upper Midwest.
There, he made $30 a month (and was required to send $25 of it home to his parents and six siblings) while working as a map draftsman surveying land intended for replanting. But he didn’t plant any trees, although the CCC would plant billions of them. Because of his role, he rose through the ranks to a “two-striper” and earned a whopping six more dollars a month. “I was a rich man,” he said. Hank also remembers the CCC camp food warmly. “I never saw so much food in my life. That was the first time I ever tasted turkey.”
After leaving the CCC, he found work with the Curtis Candy Co. in Chicago, famously known for Butterfingers and Baby Ruth candy bars, and began training as a meteorologist. Then, even before Pearl Harbor, in March 1940 he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, predecessor to today’s U.S. Air Force, and later served in the South Pacific Theater of Operations for 26 months, installing weather stations on far-flung islands the U.S. and its Pacific Allies successively occupied during the great march across the ocean against Japan.
Mr. Sulima believes still that his participation in the CCC helped lift himself and the rest of what became known as “The Greatest Generation” of young Americans out of the depths of the poverty that gripped this country in the 1930s. (Except that the famous book of that name by Tom Brokaw did not note the crucial link between the CCC and the Allies’ victory in World War II, he points out.)
Mr. Sulima often quotes a 1983 speech by Gen. Mark Clark in which the military commander credited former CCC enrollees as “a potent factor in enabling us to win World War II.”
The Civilian Conservation Corps’ twin legacies of creating park and other infrastructure whose examples dot the American landscape from coast to coast, and providing millions of young men uniquely readied to serve their country in its battles for the Free World, live on through CCC Legacy, “of which I am a charter member,” said Mr. Sulima.
To learn more about The Civilian Conservation Corps', click HERE to read another story written by Chris Felker.
Several sources, including Earth magazine, journal of the American Geosciences Institute, The Lakeland Times (Minocqua, Wis.) and CCClegacy.org, were used in writing this article, in addition to interviews with Mr. Sulima.
Chris Felker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.