(Writer’s Note: With next Monday to be celebrated as Veterans Day, I dedicate the following writing to all of the military men and women who have over the years sacrificed their efforts to help secure the freedoms that we continue to cherish as true mountaineers and Americans, especially freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and certainly the freedom to vote for whom you choose. Next Wednesday’s column will again address our local veterans, as the story will concern a one-mile area of Logan County that from 1941 through 1972 produced an amazing 210 veterans who served in the military.)
My father, Carlos Williamson, was a quiet and often humble man. The earliest memory I have of Dad was when I was a very small child lying in bed at night as he told me the story of Jenny Wiley. As many people know, Jenny Wiley was an early pioneer who was captured in Virginia by a small band of Indians in 1789. The Indians killed her three older children and her 15-year-old brother. Jenny was taken captive along with her infant son. Later, when the baby began to slow the savages down in their escape through the hills, — which included Logan County — the baby was slammed against a tree and killed. About a year later, Jenny escaped from the Indians.
The Jennie Wiley story has been handed down through generations of my family and others. The connection to my immediate family is that Jenny’s oldest child, who was born in 1791 after Jenny’s return from Indian captivity, was also named Jenny, which is a nickname for Jane. She married Richard Williamson, who was my grandfather’s (Amos) great–grandfather. The Williamson name is spread throughout parts of Wayne, Mingo, Lincoln, Logan, Cabell and various parts of eastern Kentucky, where in Prestonsburg the Jenny Wiley Theatre and popular State Park is named for the woman often referred to as the “white squaw.”
For as long as I can recall, our family has celebrated each year with a family reunion. This year’s reunion was as usual held at Chief Logan State Park. It was at another family reunion several years ago that I became curious as to my father’s military past. My uncle, Sherman “Rudy” Williamson, dad’s youngest brother, out of the blue came up to me and said, “You know, your dad fought in a bunch of key battles in World War II. You should check into that.”
To the best of my knowledge, my father — who volunteered for the U.S. Army as a 19-year-old — never spoke of the war to anybody in my immediate family. Thinking back, I remember as a small child sifting through a cedar chest drawer and seeing these strange looking objects that I realize now were medals and ribbons. I do not have a clue as to their whereabouts today.
Out of curiosity, I went to the Logan County Clerk’s office, but realized that dad had entered the service when he lived in the tiny rural community of Wilsondale in Wayne County. Therefore, I figured I eventually would visit the county seat of Wayne to view his discharge papers. Sometime later, however, my younger brother, Jimmy, brought some papers to me that he found in a box that had belonged to my mother, Ethel. One of the papers was a certificate I quickly identified with because it was signed by the late Raymond Chafin, who previously served as Logan County clerk. The certificate indicated that my father was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army on Oct. 16, 1945. More importantly, it noted that his discharge papers were on record in the county clerk’s office at Logan and it even cited the book and page number for them. Why my father waited 22 years to record his discharge papers in 1972, I’ll never know.
I spoke to Logan County Clerk John Turner about the discharge papers and later when I went into the clerk’s office to retrieve the papers, John approached me and said, “I was going to make you a copy, but after reading it, I decided to let you get it yourself. It is amazing.”
Born in 1924, dad was 19 when inducted into the service April 8, 1943. He arrived in the European-African Theater just eight days later on April 16, 1944, according to the discharge papers. Less than two months after that, he, along with thousands of Allied forces, would storm the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest amphibious invasion in world history. There would be 120,000 allied casualties as a result of this “D-Day” invasion that was launched from the south coast of England.
In a letter to my grandparents prior to the invasion, my father wrote that, “I’m somewhere in England.” So, it would seem even the soldiers were uninformed of the top secret planned invasion that involved 1,332,000 allied soldiers. Carlos Williamson, who was described on his enlisted record as 5-10 in height and weighing 160 pounds, would receive the first of what would be FIVE Bronze Stars as a result of the Normandy success and other major battles. He was listed as being a “sharpshooter” and a “heavy artillery gun crewman.”
The Bronze Star is awarded to members of the Armed Forces for either “heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.” I will never know the exact reasons for my father’s awards because he didn’t speak of the war — ever. However, his discharge papers show that he was involved in the “Battle of the Bulge,” which was a major German offensive launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Belgium in which United States soldiers incurred their highest fatalities of the entire war — 108,347 American casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,212 missing. This battle was described as “the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces in World War II.”
Three other major battles my father fought in are described on his discharge papers as the battles of Rhineland, Central Europe and Northern France, which basically means that from the time of the Normandy Invasion June 6, 1944, until the end of the war he saw continuous combat action, and moved from one major battle to another. To survive one major battle is one thing, but to survive five is, to me, monumental. The horrors of war experienced by my father must have been awful.
Growing up in a crowded coal camp house, I remember my father moaning and sometimes almost screaming in his sleep. I never knew why. This, of course, was long before anybody had heard of PTSD. I’m sure there were many other soldiers who came home from various wars with the same unidentified problem now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My uncle Rudy, a Vietnam veteran, told me a story my dad had relayed to him one time when the two were having some beers and sharing war stories. Uncle Rudy said that was the only time his brother mentioned anything concerning the military. It turns out that my father one night in a battlefield in France wound up taking refuge in a bombed out building in which several other soldiers from different units were located. When daybreak arrived, a young solider was showing off the brand new Kodak camera his mother had recently sent to him.
When the sound of an approaching airplane was heard at daybreak, the soldier decided to venture outside to take a photograph of the plane with the idea of sending the picture back home to his dear mother. My father supposedly advised the soldier that going outside might not be a very good idea, according to my uncle’s account.
By the time the fighter plane became clearly visible as an enemy aircraft, it was too late. My father told my uncle that machine gun shots fired from the plane literally split the young soldier in half. I do not know what other horrors my father may have witnessed while in the service of his country, but I would think this one atrocity would be enough to cause the nightmares that followed Carlos Williamson even to his grave.
The Jan. 29, 1945, edition of The Logan Banner it listed the names of all Logan County soldiers who were in the military as of Jan. 1 of that year. I counted the names and it turns out that 610 men represented the county. However, I found several deaths from WWII that were in the newspaper whose names were not listed in the 610 number. Therefore, I believe the number to be closer to 700. Based on the many stories in The Logan Banner from World War I through the Vietnam conflict, there were many examples of heroism and bravery displayed by Logan County soldiers, which should make locals proud of our veterans in all branches of service, and in every military endeavor.
Though you won’t find his name attributed to any bridges or roadways like so many other well deserving veterans of the area, I’m proud to tell you that the coal mining father of seven children was a true hero who sought no glory for himself. Nevertheless, I suppose he did want to honor the Supreme Allied Commander of World War II. After all, he did name his eldest son after General Dwight Eisenhower.
My father told me once, “Son, I named you after the general, not the president.”
Eisenhower became President in 1953, the year I entered this world. History reveals it was during the 1950s that southern West Virginia coal miners began leaving the state for factory jobs in places like Flint, Pontiac, and Detroit in Michigan as well as Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and other cities because of loss of employment in the coalfields.
Although the decline in local jobs was mainly because of mechanization that replaced miners during the 1950s, I suppose people blamed the coal jobs loss on Ike.
Perhaps Eisenhower’s greatest presidential accomplishment was creating the interstate highway system across America. However, since my military father never obtained his driver’s license, I reckon that non-military accomplishment really didn’t matter much to him, although I’m certain that serving in the U.S. Army did.
I know it means a great deal to me.