I once knew a man by the name of James. He was born and raised on a small farm in northern Richmond County. James was born in 1918; the youngest of three brothers. When they were old enough, all three walked several miles to attend a one room school by the name of Covington. As time went by, James’s brothers dropped out of school but his Ma was determined that James would finish high school.
Later on a lot of small rural schools closed their doors and buses started picking up the kids. James was assigned to the school at Ellerbe. At the time, this was one of the best schools in the state. The principal of the school, Mr. Richard Little, was a stern but well educated man. He saw to it that each one of his students left his school a respectable and responsible person; even if he had to paddle a few.
In the 30s, a high school student didn’t have to go but to the eleventh grade to graduate. In James’s case it took 12 years because he failed his senior year English class. It seems his English teacher loved for her students to write themes, but that wasn’t James’ thing.
When James got old enough he started driving a school bus to pick up $7 a month. He also got a job on Saturdays at a local grist mill called Capel Mill. The mill was located right below his house on Mountain Creek and was run by a man named Jenkins. James loved his job at the mill because Mr. Jenkins took time to show James how to grind corn into corn mill and wheat into flour. James would also take an old truck out into farming areas to buy corn for the mill to grind and resale. James couldn’t wait to finish high school and go to work at the mill full time, but that was never to be.
In the 30s and early 40s, all of Europe was at war with Germany and her allies. The Japanese were invading and taking over other countries day by day. A time of war was at hand all over the world. The U.S. had managed to stay out of the war until Pearl Harbor in the Pacific; all the while German Subs were sinking U.S. ships all over the Atlantic.
Our country was just recovering from a great depression, but during a time of war people are called upon to do some extraordinary things. The draft was reenacted and young men were called into service unless they could prove they could better serve their country on the home front.
This would be a sad time for lots of families seeing their sons, and in some cases, their daughters; shipped overseas to fight yet another World War. Some never came back but gave the ultimate sacrifice, while others came home with physical or mental scars.
In 1941, James was drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped to Louisiana for basic training. While there on a night training mission, four soldiers accidentally set up their tents in a bed of rattlesnakes and later died.
James was so homesick for North Carolina that he volunteered for a new division that was being formed known as the 82nd Airborne Division. Fort Bragg and surrounding areas were the training grounds. Men were trained to be paratroopers and glider personnel. Being flatfooted, James was assigned to a glider unit, even though the highest he’d ever been up was in the top of a pine tree.
Finally, after some tough training, the 82nd was on a troopship headed to North Africa. They would be co-allies with the British troops in Operation Torch. This operation was meant to push German Field Marshall Ervin Rommel and his Afrika Korps out of North Africa.
When the U.S. troops landed on the coast of Africa, James said he had never seen so much equipment and men in his life. All these men had to be fed and there was a lot of fresh goat meat in Africa, so the army cooks started feeding a lot of goat meat to the troops.
“If you got in the front of the chow line, you might could eat it but if you were bringing up the rear and the food got cold, all you could do was close your eyes and swallow,” James said.
The Allies finally beat Rommel at his own game in Africa but would later face him in France. In a few weeks the 82nd dropped into Sicily at night to face both the Italian and German troops. Their mission was to keep the enemy busy until U.S. General Patton and his tanks could establish a beach head. After some tough fighting, Sicily was ours. Then with their new Gen. James Gavin — the youngest U.S. general since General George Armstrong Custer — plus a lot more U.S. troops and our allies, all marched into and took the country of Italy from the Axes.
The European campaign was far from over, for on the early morning of June 6, 1944, the biggest invasion this world has ever seen took place along the French coast, called Operation Overlord. The Germans were well entrenched and laid down some murderous fire on the Allies as they went ashore. The mission of the 82nd Division, before daylight, was to drop behind enemy lines, take control of bridges, take out gun emplacements and try to prevent a German counter attack.
Before daylight the day of the invasion, James and fifteen others were cut loose from the main plane. Their glider sailed silently down toward their intended landing sight. At the last moment, the pilot yelled “I’m going to have to land this wooden crate between two trees; hold on.” When the glider stopped, both wings had been knocked off but sixteen soldiers scrambled out of their so-called plywood coffin to face an uncertain fate behind German lines.
James and his division still faced many hard battles that were yet to be fought before Germany surrendered. The fighting would take them through Holland, Belgium over the Rhine River and the last great battle push by the Germans (the Battle of the Bulge) in the Ardennes Forest.
James had been wounded twice by shrapnel and received a Purple Heart before he got in the motor pool and started driving a jeep to transport the officers.
As the War ended in Germany in 1945, James was told by his Lieutenant to pick up three more soldiers and meet the rest of what was left of the division at a seaport in France. James said it was cold as all get-out and a heavy snow was falling the day they left. The men were wearing all the clothes they could put on but with just a windshield and a small canvas top it was still cold. It wasn’t long before they ran up on an old bombed-out chalet where they found two kegs of wine in the cellar. James said “between all them clothes and that wine; we made it to France.”
James was one of the lucky servicemen to make it back home alive, although he carried the many bad memories of the horrors of the war and the shrapnel in his leg for the rest of his life. He never spoke about those bad memories unless he was drinking. He said to his knowledge, he never shot a woman or a child and that he didn’t harbor any bad feelings against the German soldiers because they were just doing their job just as he was doing his.
The day of his discharge from the Army, James’s dream of going back home and working at the grist mill also came to an end. The old mill burnt to the ground that very day.
Folks, we should be proud of every man or woman that has every served or is serving our great country. I know for a fact I am proud that my Dad, James Bolton Sr., was part of the greatest generation our country has ever known.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writer’s Club, Richmond County Historical Society and the Story Spinners in Laurinburg.