It was Tuesday, Dec. 15, 1942, and in Nashville a band of young men from Lebanon took the first step of their journey halfway around the globe into World War II.
Leonard J. Ballard, Clayton Foster, Joe Graves, Ernest Hunter and Fitzhugh McCown enlisted in the U.S. Army on Dec. 1, 1942. Houston McCartney followed suit a week later. For the next three years the six would become bosom buddies, practically attached at the hip as cooks in 985th Ordinance Depot Company.
But they didn’t simply deal with the heat of the mess hall. They knew how to use an M1 carbine as well as the next GI and saw action in in five major battles: Normandy, Northern France, Central Europe, the Rhineland and the Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge).
The Wilson Post recently talked with three of the children of these late WWII veterans: Tom Hunter, Pam Graves Tomlinson and Larry McCown, who shared what they knew of their father’s wartime experiences. (There are no surviving offspring of three of the veterans.)
“These guys joined together, and they stayed together I don’t know if it was just a twist of fate or just random. Young men were joining all across the country, lots of them 17, 18 and 19 years old. These six were maybe five or six years older than most enlistees and in their early-to-mid-20s. They were all sent to California for basic training. They were all friends,” said Tom Hunter, who lives in Gladeville and has three brothers, Bill, Mike and Curry, who reside in Watertown.
“The thread here I think is kind of fascinating. In this ordinance company, which basically is right behind the front line, they supply the food, water, uniforms, ammunition, weapons and medical supplies, all the stuff it takes to run the army, and they would get thrown into action when there was an emergency. I grew up thinking they were in the rear with all the gear, back out of harm’s way. My father and these five guys just did not talk about this. He would answer specific questions but didn’t just sit down and lay it out.”
Larry McCown confirmed that this Lebanon band of brothers kept mostly mum when it came to their wartime tales
“When I was young, I would ask him, ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ He would frustrate me and say, ‘I killed 44 Germans by throwing biscuits at ’em.’ When they got together, they always talked about different pranks they pulled but never talked about anything combat-wise,” recalled McCown, noting he picked up a few anecdotes as a child sitting in a corner and eavesdropping.
“From what I understand, they all enlisted the same day (except for McCartney). They went in Dec. 15, 1942. I do not know that any of them were drafted. How they all wound up being cooks. I never got a straight story. Dad said Joe (Graves) woke up one night on the train hungry and started cooking some eggs. A sergeant saw him and asked, ‘Are you a cook?’ He said, ‘No, I’m hungry.’ And the sergeant said, ‘No, you’re a cook now.’ And so, he said, ‘How about all my buddies?’ And they made them all cooks.
“They were assigned to be cooks with the West Coast defense but got assigned to ordinance.
They were not an infantry unit but were always forward, between infantry and artillery. The 985th was referred to as ‘the forward depot.’ They backed up the 106th Infantry.”
Pam heard practically nil about her father’s wartime exploits, saying, “My daddy never really told me much. The family never heard him say anything. Most of what I learned came from the women. My mother and several women went to California when their husbands went to basic training. They drove a car to California. My mama went to work at Hammond Aircraft and was sort of like Rosie the Riveter.”
She does possess a newspaper clipping that briefly reports on her dad. The article, taken from the Camp Anita paper at Arcadia, Calif., reads: Joe Graves sleeps in Sea Biscuit’s former stall which makes him the umpteenth hundred turfbird to make the state, Joe, an ex-cop from Lebanon, Tenn., got the army itch last year when the army maneuvers were held on his beat. Graves is in A of the 24th for the basic training part of which involves cutting down the 48-inch waist overhang. Lumbering along like a M-4, Joe’s getting streamlined for blitz war and has parked thirty pounds on the parade ground.
About 13 months into their military careers, the six and their company rode a troop train to Massachusetts and from Boston sailed to England where they landed in Liverpool on March 11, 1944. Their next cruise left Southampton for France on Aug. 3, 1944, and concluded in a short trip in a landing craft from which they waded ashore Utah Beach in the middle of the night.
Two months later they found themselves with the Third Army in Belgium, and from early March 1945 until the end of the war in Europe saw plenty of action in Germany.
Said Tom, “Larry overhead his father saying that in one instance all the Lebanon guys were riding in one side of a truck and the other soldiers on the other side of the truck, and a German fighter came over and began dropping bombs and there was machine-gun fire. The Lebanon men bailed out in a ditch on one side and the others went into the ditch on the opposite side and were all killed. That was startling to me.
“They were in five major battles, and I think I read or was told that during the Battle of the Bulge they retreated for 45 days, falling back from the German counterattack. So, they were in a lot more action and risk than I thought.”
Larry shared that his father only twice said anything about firing a weapon on the battlefield.
“My dad got scared one time when assigned to clear a building. They were told, ‘If you see a nice soft bed or a picture of Hitler on the wall, don’t jump on the bed or knock the picture off the wall because they’re booby traps.’ After clearing one room, he swung around and fired three times before he realized he was looking at his image in a mirror,” said Larry.
“Later, they came upon a concentration camp, and they made the (German) townspeople come up and bury the dead. The first thing they gave the Jews was chocolate and food even though they had been told not to give them any but to just let them have a sip of water as their stomachs could not handle much.
“Dad said they were 80 miles from Berlin when the war ended. They sat there for several months. Later they asked the quartermaster, ‘Where are we going?’ He said, ‘’Ya’ll got mosquito nets. You’re going to a place called Saipan Island in the South Pacific.’ There were three options: go home or stay as part of the occupation Army in Europe or go to the Pacific. The atom bomb caused the war in the Pacific to end so they returned stateside in November 1945. When he came back, he threw his mess kit overboard in New York Harbor. He said the harbor was full of mess kits.
“My dad went in the Army at 26, classified as an old man. He kept a Bible with a metal cover on him the whole time,” said Larry, adding that his father had nicknames for his comrades. He’d call Ballard ‘Ballard’ and McCartney ‘Cartney.’ Joe Graves he called ‘Header D.’ Foster was ‘Moto’ and Hunter he called ‘Boodnick.’ After the war Ballard got him a job at the Woolen Mill and then he landed a job with the city of Lebanon as a dispatcher and wound up assistant commissioner of public works. He died in 1993 at 77 years old.”
Pam, when asked if her father cooked for the family during her formative years, answered, “No, but we ate a lot of eggs when I was growing up. He was sheriff of Wilson County the four years of my high school and we lived in the jail. He was a city policeman after he got out of the Army and ran Joe Graves Service Station before he was sheriff. He was 56 years old when he died in 1967.”
Recollecting that his father brought home a few souvenirs of his military service, Tom said, “For years we had a dummy hand grenade. We had his uniform and a pup tent that he used. My brothers and I were in the Boy Scouts, but he never wanted to go camping, I remember he told me that he slept on the ground for two years. He was bald, and he swore that wearing that Army helmet made him bald. He was a salesman rep worked for several different businesses. He died in 1979 and was 60 years old.”
In assessing the ties that bound these six Lebanonites for life, Tom said, “There was a big bond with all those guys because they had been through so much. None of them were hurt, and they all came back and lived probably within a square mile of each other. We lived on West Meade Drive. Joe Graves lived on West End Heights. McCown and Foster lived on Clearview Drive. Ballard lived on Castle Heights Avenue and McCartney on Coles Ferry Pike.
“I didn’t even know this configuration growing up. Every now and then my father and I would run into one of these guys, and he would stop and have a word with them, and I would say, ‘Who was that?’ He would say, ‘I was in the war with him,’ and you could tell it was just a different depth of relationship than any other. They didn’t run around together other than my father and Joe Graves and to some extent Houston McCartney.
“After going through all that you would think that would get together and reminisce on weekends, but it was not that way. It was a subtle special relationship among those guys. Even as a boy I could sense it. I kind of remember him saying a few times, ‘Well, it was just something we had to do.’
“There are things each generation has to do. We look at where we are today and the question raises again about the things we have to do. Looking back over my father’s papers, when he left, my brother Bill was about a year-and-a-half old. So, he left with a little boy and was gone for over two years without coming back. There was no leave to home. You came home when the job was finished.
“So, it was a huge sacrifice that most of us have not been called on to make in our lives. Yet it made all the difference. These six guys from the Volunteer State, they were just a little-bitty, tiny cog in the big wheel that was the war effort. They were not unlike a few million other men from small towns and cities across the country that gave up a lot to make sure this war was won.”
985TH ORDINANCE DEPOT COMPANY
In his book, “Reflections on World War II,” Pleasant Jack Davis shared his memories of the 985th Ordinance Depot Company, giving a rundown on where they were and what they did. Here is a summary of their movements:
- · On Dec. 19, 1942, the men took a troop train on a five-day trip to Camp Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., east of Los Angeles, where they went through basic training until March 1943. The company took a train to San Francisco, where it arrived April 3, 1943. Every member went through an infiltration course of live overhead machine gun fire on the beach.
- · The company, which had five commissioned officers, one warrant officer and 183 enlisted men, left San Francisco on Feb. 16, 1944, for Oakland and then took a troop train to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Mass.
- · The company sailed from Boston Harbor aboard the “HMS Britannic” on Feb. 28, 1944, and reached Liverpool, England, March 11, 1944. It was reassigned on April 28, 1944, to the Third Army. The company sailed for France on Aug. 3, 1944, and waded ashore on Utah Beach in the middle of the night.
- · After being cut off while in the Fougeres Forest, the company spent several nights under bombing. In October the company went into Belgium and in early March 1945 entered Germany.
- · After the war ended, the company sailed back to Boston in November 1945. Most took the train to Fort Knox, Ky., and then rode a Greyhound bus to their hometowns. The 985th Ordinance Depot Company held two reunions in Nashville: in September 1970 and April 1976.