Aspen WWII veteran reflects on little-known aspects of the war
October 11, 2010
ASPEN – Charles Collins has a firm handshake, despite only two fingers and a thumb on his right hand after an accident during World War II.
A rifle grenade exploded as he was trying to disarm it during his tenure with the Navy Construction Battalion on Attu Island, the western-most island – “Practically in Siberia,” he says – in Alaska’s Aleutian chain.
The three years Collins spent on the island ended in the blast, which sheared off his right pinky and ring fingers and sprayed “a considerable amount” of shrapnel into his legs.
The horrific injuries led Collins, originally from New York City, to discover his mountain paradise.
After being treated in the Hotel Denver in Glenwood Springs, which then served as one of several convalescent hospitals in the western United States, he went back to New York City, decided he didn’t want to stay and returned to Aspen, where he still resides.
“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
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Collins, 87, was one of a group of WWII veterans who were flown last week to Washington, D.C., for an honorary tour of the city’s war memorials. The trip was organized by Grand Junction’s Western Slope Honors Flight, a nonprofit agency dedicated to recognizing military service. It is part of a national organization that flies veterans to and from memorial sites free of charge.
Collins has been a part of such honorary activities before, including a trip back to Attu Island in 1999 to observe a Japanese memorial dedication.
But that’s not the most important aspect, according to his wife Janice. The most impressive part of her husband’s story is the fact that the couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary next year, she said.
While Charles Collins was obtaining his civil engineering degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder, they met at a party in Denver in 1950, but neither remembers many specifics of it.
“That was some party,” he joked.
The years following included Collins giving his time to public service. He worked for the city of Aspen since 1966 as a civil engineer and served eight years on the City Council.
A living dictionary of WWII history, Collins has tales of little-known aspects of the war, such as the heavy combat that took place on American soil as Japanese forces assailed the Aleutian Islands.
Working for the Construction Battalion, made up of soldiers who are known as SeaBees and were subjected to the moniker “Confused Bastards” by other branches of the military, he remembers sleeping on the floors of the Quonset huts the battalion built after thinking they were being bombed by Japanese forces.
The explosions turned out to be what Collins thinks were 90-mm anti-aircraft artillery.
Asked if he thought the SeaBees lived up to their nickname, he says, “Oh, hell, no. I knew what was going on.”