CLINTON — Woodrow "Woody" Wilson New remembers creating a makeshift shelter between large crates of cargo aboard a military ship in the Mediterranean Sea in 1943.
He slept there to avoid the calamities of severe overcrowding below deck, as the U.S. Army was transporting thousands of troops in unsanitary conditions, as he recalls, to Port Said, Egypt.
It was during that trip that he saw one of the largest maritime disasters of World War II, a little-known event during which 1,138 men died when a British troop ship, the HMT Rohna, was sunk by a German missile. The only greater loss of life at sea was the sinking of the USS Arizona, a well-known and highly memorialized ship, which was docked at Pearl Harbor at the time of its demise.
New said the hole shot through the Rohna was "large enough for a semitruck."
The retired staff sergeant was drafted into World War II at the age of 23 and spent four years working with explosives, disarming deadly mine fields and testing atomic and hydrogen bombs. He counts himself lucky that he didn't contract cancer from exposure to radioactive materials and celebrated his 100th birthday on Wednesday.
"I tease him about having green blood from all the radiation," New's great-nephew Ren Holmes said. Holmes took New in several years ago after he broke an arm during a fall from his roof at age 94.
New moved to the Country Pines Retirement Community a little over a month ago and has been making friends, singing as he pushes a walker through the halls, and telling jokes ever since.
"I've never heard a negative word from him," said Becky Breitenbeker, resident care coordinator at the assisted living facility in Clinton. She said New is a joy to be around and is "quite the lady magnet."
The 100-year-old showed off a full head of silver-colored hair and never stopped smiling Wednesday, which staff said is completely typical.
"He's such a sweet, sweet man," said Jen Kay, activities director at Country Pines. "He calls us his 'precious girls.'"
New's mostly clear recollection of the war, during which he served in a number of countries (including China, Burma, India, North Africa and the Pacific), has earned him the respect of many, including Holmes — one of the centenarian's only living relatives — who has collected and archived his great uncle's stories, sometimes comparing them to research known about various events in history.
"These stories must be told and appreciated by all," Holmes said, encouraging others to "listen" to and respect veterans.
New, Kay said, doesn't subscribe to notions of post-traumatic stress disorder, even though he's seen a lot of death and hardship in his life. "He just lives and loves life."
His health is good and he requires very little assistance in his daily life, Kay said.
"I have good days every day, no matter what you say," the World War II veteran said. "I'm fine all the time."
New has a rhyme for everything — as if his smile isn't enough to spread his contagious optimism.
When asked to share his secret for a long life, New said, "my vitamins and me."
"I just keep going like that bunny rabbit with the battery," he said. "I may have to change the battery once in a while … but I always smile."
He poured over old photographs put on display during a celebration Wednesday, recalling many details about his decorated past. New has earned two Bronze Stars for his military service, but, there seems to be so much more to him now.
"I figure all of my years are good if I'm still here," he said.
The Ogden native remembers living in Mexico and filling up a tiled pool in the backyard for relief from the heat. Lush, green mountains framed the horizon outside his Hawaii home, which he loved. He talked about adopting a baby girl who was only 9 days old. He also spoke of his late wife, Jean, very fondly.
"Not everybody can be that upbeat," said Matthew Glencoe, executive director at Country Pines. He said New is a great influence to other residents at the home and "represents a lot that we can still touch of that whole generation."
New's keen mind keeps him talking, too.
"He's kept it lively," Glencoe said, adding that New's positive attitude "is infectious."
"I don't think I want to live to 100," he said. "But, if you could be like him, it might be OK."