By Donna Thornton/News Editor
When Cherry Creek Village Assistant Executive Director Barbara Pavey welcomed two new residents at the Attalla retirement village, she discovered both has served their country in World War II.
That led her to investigate how many other residents were veterans from that “greatest generation.”
Pavey found 11 residents who served in the military and six who served during World War II. Pavey and the staff at Cherry Creek Village decided to devote an afternoon to honoring those veterans on Sept. 10.
Several of the veterans agreed to share some memories of their service in World War II.
James Davis said the defining event of his military career came June 6, 1944, when he was among the allied forces storming the beach at Normandy.
He made it through without injury, but saw many soldiers who did not, who were “hurt, killed, blown apart.”
After Normandy, Davis said his unit traveled through southern France and continued all the way to the Rhine River.
Davis said he enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served through 1945. He was 18, living in Jasper, Ala. at the time, working in a coal mine.
“Jobs were hard to find then,” Davis said, so he decided to try the Army. He found the Army was segregated — “ we didn’t get over that til Truman stopped it in the ‘50s” — but not when the fighting started.
After stateside training Davis said he was shipped off to England, where troops prepared for the D-Day landing. He spent his time fighting in Europe, earning him a European Theater Medal, and marking one of the proudest chapters of his life.
While traveling the south of France might sound inviting, Davis said there was little time for sightseeing.
“When you’re following Gen. Patton you don’t get much time to look around,” Davis said. He saw lots of combat, he said. “It was all hit and run.”
When Davis came home, he found the jobs were still hard to come by.
“I was making a dollar a day, working from daylight til dark,” Davis recalled. “That’s a tough way to feed a family.” So he turned again to the military, enlisting in the Air Force and making a career of it, earning the rank of sergeant. He was in Okinawa, Japan when the Korean conflict began, and he served there, earning a Far East combat medal.
David Parker served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
“My first role was working in the pharmacy on the Queen Elizabeth as it carried troops to battle and wounded servicemen back,” Parker said. He served a similar role on another ship, and was later attached to an evacuation hospital during the ground war in the European theater.
Parker said he served in Scotland, England, France and Belgium. As a member of the medical corps he was not directly involved in much of the fighting, But he saw its effects while caring for soldiers in the hospital.
Parker was drafted into service and became a squad leader, rising to the rank of sergeant. While in camp in Texas, Parker said, he met his wife, a member of the Women’s Army Corps. Soon after they married she got pregnant. She was discharged from the service, and Parker had to leave for overseas.
Parker and his wife had two sons and were married 65 years, until her death in 2008.
He said he was living in a veterans center in Colorado after she passed away, and he flew to Alabama to fish on Weiss Lake.
“I’d always heard about it,” Parker recalled. After that trip, he decided he wanted to live closer to Weiss Lake and he found Cherry Creek Village on the Internet.
His military service was not a long period of his life – he served three years and two months – but it was a time that shaped his life.
“It’s not something I’d every want to go through again,” Parker said. “But I wouldn’t give anything for it.”
Sand Mountain native J.D. Harris was 17 when he enlisted in 1944. He found himself serving on an amphibious gunship and he stayed on ships through much of his 26 months of service.
Harris was asked if spending that much time on board ship was difficult.
“When you’re young, nothing’s tough,” Harris said with a smile. “That’s why they want the young ones. They’ve got courage.”
He said he served in four major campaigns and earned four stars, six ribbons and a Purple Heart. When he was wounded, Harris said, he left ship for about six months, then returned and was among the force that hit the Phillipine Islands under Gen. McArthur’s command. He served in Leyte, the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands.
“I came home with malaria and I thought I was going to die,” Harris said. He recovered, and recalls his time in service as a growing time.
“When you go into the military you grow up,” Harris said. “They make a man out of you.”
Jerry Geiger was drafted into the Army at age 18, “still wet behind the ears.” He went into the service in 1944, he said, and saw a lot of “front line stuff’ in the infantry. Geiger served in Europe, landing in the south of France and stopping in Austria, after hitting all points in between.
Geiger was awarded a Silver Star for using a “beehive” bomb to take out a pillbox of German soldiers.
“We were marching prisoners, putting them behind fences when we passed this pillbox,” Geiger said. “The Germans started shooting their own men in the legs.” Geiger said they apparently thought the prisoners had given up to the Americans.
Whenever there was a dangerous mission, he recalled, the first sergeant would choose someone to go, keeping track of who had been placed in jeopardy before.
Taking care of the Germans in that pillbox fell to Geiger and another young soldier, and they made their way across 400 0r 500 yards of ground below the covering fire from their own men.
“By the grace of God, we made it,” Geiger said. He quickly set the beehive on top of the pillbox, lit the fuse and they ran.
“It went off and all I heard was hollering and screaming,” Geiger said. He didn’t know how many Germans were inside – “I didn’t want to know” – but he knew the beehive destroyed the top of the pill box.
“It was a dangerous mission,” he said. “But God was with me all the time, and I was with a good outfit.” For the mission, he received the medal and 21 points toward discharge, which helped him to get home quicker.
“I saw a lot of terrible things,” Geiger said. “So many men lost their lives.
“War is exactly what they call it, it’s hell on earth,” he said. Geiger said he received two Purple Hearts for minor injuries. “They got me well,” he said, and he returned to the field. He said he knows people at home had him and other soldiers on their minds.
“That’s what got me home, the prayers of my family and the grace of God,” Geiger said. “I was in the thick of it.”
Navy veteran Melvin Freeman split his time in service between the Third and Seventh fleets, he said. He served all over the Pacific, the China Sea and was in the sea of Japan bombarding the city of Hiroshima before the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Freeman said his ship was 150 miles away when the bomb dropped – out of sight of the blast.
“In face, they never told us anything about it,” Freeman said. “They heard about it here in the states before we did.”
Freeman enlisted in 1943 and got married in 1944.
“I still got her with me,” he said. “She didn’t ever send me a ‘Dear John’ letter.”
After training, Freeman said, he spent time in Rhode Island waiting for the ship he would serve on to be completed. He came down with the mumps during that time, he said, and got put into a whooping cough ward.
On board the USS Wisconsin, Freeman said the mission was often to bomb the islands in the Phillippines before ground attacks.
“We bombarded all those little countries,” Freeman said, while other ships and planes were trying to bombard his ship, and at times the weather was against them as well.
“We went through three typhoons. They did more damage to the ship than the Japanese,” Freeman recalled. “They torn our ships up. Three ships capsized.”
Freeman said he earned five Bronze Stars, at which point he was awarded a Silver Star.
There have been a few reunions of the men Freeman served with. He attended reunions in Mobile and in Nashville, and one in Norfolk, Vir. – where the USS Wisconsin is now.
“I’d like to go back there and see it again,” Freeman said.
Charles Rowan Sr. followed a different path into military service. He already worked as a civilian aircraft mechanic in Mobile when the U.S. entered the war.
“They needed volunteers to go to Hawaii and work on planes,” Rowan said, around November 1942. “You probably think about Hawaii like you saw on ‘Hawaii 5-0,’ with all the tall buildings.
“There was nothing higher than two-stories there then,” Rowan said. “Honolulu didn’t seem much bigger than Attalla, Ala.”
While Rowan was repairing airplanes, he wanted active duty.
“I didn’t know when I had it good,” he said, and he kept requesting a more active role in the war. “I’ve got some old letters that have turned brown, from generals telling me they needed me to stay where I was.”
Eventually, Rowan did see active duty, and he spent a total of five and a half years either in the military, or working as a civilian for the military.
The end of his service found him close to home – stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base.
When Rowan was out of the service he said he could have found a job working on airplanes – was offered one at Wright Field in Ohio.
“But I’d just spend more than five years away from home,” the Walnut Park native said.
“I decided I didn’t want to be away from home again,” and he went to work for the U.S. Post Office instead.
Larry Garner is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. He enlisted in 1970, he said, “to keep from being drafted.” He received the Vietnam Service Medal and medals for good conduct.
Army veteran Ray Lambert served in the infantry. He enlisted in 1948 and later was called back into service in late 1950 to serve in Korea. He received an Expert Marksman Medal.
Carl Bellew entered the Army Aug. 5, 1955 and was discharged Aug. 11, 1958, serving three days short of three years. He served in Korea, but he wasn’t in the combat zone.
“I’ve seen what it was like to have a country blown all to pieces. I don’t want to see it in our back yard.” He received medals for Good Conduct and Expert Marksmanship.
Sonny Patty served from 1966 to 1968 in the Army, and considers himself fortunate not to have gone to Vietnam. Stationed a Fort Benning, Ga., Patty’s role was in the training school for officer candidates and Third Rangers.
Willis “Sonny” Murdock served in the Air Force from 1953 to 1958. The largest portion of that time was spent stationed at Goose Bay Labrador in Canada, flying rescue missions on an SA 16 Albatross – an amphibious plane that could land on water and even was equipped with a ski so it could land on snow.