In H.R. Carey’s children’s eyes, he is more than their father. He’s their hero. France agrees. 

Hasper Ralph Carey, who has lived in Lebanon for the past 68 years, has toiled as a farmer, milkman, grocer, factory worker and maintenance man, but last Friday the 98-year-old Tennessean went to his closet, put on his Army Air Corps uniform and stepped back 77 years, transforming one more time into a soldier.

As Corp. H.R. Carey, he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II in the 9th Air Force from Feb. 20, 1943, to Dec. 8, 1945. Among other duties, he and his comrades supported Gen. George Patton’s army during the Battle of the Bulge.

For his bravery and sacrifice in the name of freedom, Carey was awarded the Legion of Honor, aka the National Order of the Legion of Honor, at the Wilson County Veterans Museum last Friday afternoon.

Later, the former Clay County country boy held the medal in his hand and proclaimed, “Ain’t that purty?”

Wilson County Veterans Service Office Director ZaBrina Seay opened the ceremony by thanking the soldier for his “selfless service, dedication, duty, strength, pure grit, determination and overall greatness.”

Before pinning the Legion of Honor medal to Carey’s chest, Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto noted, “This gentleman has made history, lived history and seen it in living color.”

Carey, known to his friends as simply “H.R.,” responded to the award, saying, “I would like to thank Dr. John Hill for helping me get this medal and my daughter Renae. Thank everybody for coming. It’s a great day for me. It’s a great honor, yeah.

“When I went through France, I saw how badly the Nazis treated French people. It was awful. It was heartbreaking. I want to thank all the people of France for this medal. I’m glad I could be part of freeing France and the good ole U.S.A. Always be thankful for your freedom and for your country. God bless you all and the good ole U.S.A.”

A daughter’s tribute

Afterward, Carey’s daughter, Renae Carey Hudson, the youngest of his four children that include Sandy Phillips, Brenda Hicks and Randy Carey, performed “What a Soldier Knows”, a song she wrote for her father.

“Growing up, I heard his stories about the war. I always thought they were so interesting. I decided I wanted to write a song for him,” said Hudson. “One day he and I were talking, and he said, ‘There are things I can’t talk about. Nobody knows what a soldier knows.’ And I knew I had my song.

“I co-wrote it about two years ago with Jerry Salley, a Nashville songwriter who’s had songs cut by Reba McEntire, Wild Rose, John Anderson and Wade Hayes.” 

(Salley also produced Hudson’s recent album, “If You Want To Walk on the Water,” and co-wrote nine of the 10 songs with her.)

Hudson described her father’s personality, saying, “My dad is kind and gentle and caring. He’s had a lot of struggles in his life. He lost his wife, our mom in 2015, and he lost sight in his left eye two years ago due to cancer. He perseveres. He’s my hero. He always told me, ‘Don’t ever say I can’t.’ He would tell me ‘You can.’ ”

As for Hill’s role in Carey’s being recognized by France, Hudson said, “He has been one of Dad’s doctors for several years. I took Dad for a visit one day and found out Dr. Hill’s father was a (veteran), and he used to take his father to France. He told us about the French Legion medal and then got in touch with Pierre Frechette at the French Consulate in Atlanta.”

She noted a representative from the consulate would have been at the event if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

A witness to war

To be considered for the Legion of Honor award, the highest decoration in France which was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, a veteran in the southeastern U.S. must contact the Consulate General of France’s office in Atlanta to request an application. A veteran must have fought in one of the four main campaigns of the liberation of France — Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France and have been honorably discharged.

Carey, who served in Northern France, Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe, grew up on a farm near Red Boiling Springs, about 45 miles northeast of Lebanon.

Recollecting his adventures in the military, he said, “I went in Feb. 3, 1943. I was 19. I never had been away from home.”

After completing his basic training in St. Petersburg, Fla., he eventually wound up with the 86th squadron at Camp Shanks and at Mitchel Field near New York, where he was a driver in the motor pool. Among others, he chauffeured Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

“I went out in a Jeep to his plane. I parked and he got in the Jeep, and I hauled him to headquarters. He was a nice man. I saluted him, and he said, ‘At ease.’ We serviced his plane. I helped clean it up and gassed it up. I also met boxer Joe Louis and got to shake his hands. I met a lot of great and famous people.

“I drove in convoys hauling boys to catch boats overseas. Then one day they sent me. They put me on the Queen Mary, the biggest thing I had ever seen. We landed in Scotland.”

An eyewitness to D-Day, Carey recalled, “We looked up on the Sixth of June and you couldn’t see the sky for the planes. We knew this was it. In about four days they sent me to France. I had to drive a Jeep off of a duck (boat) and onto shore.”

Once in France, Carey said, “They put me in fly-in control as a central tower operator. The 9th Air Force wanted 12 men to go with Patton and cover his Army with P-51s, P-38s, P-47s and Black Widows. I received messages from pilots over Germany. I gave ’em permission to land and to take off.

“I serviced firefighters and rescue squads and ambulances in case of emergencies. I also drove a checkerboard Jeep. It had written on the back ‘Follow me.’ I would go out and get planes, and they would follow me and I would park them.

“When a pilot flew 125 missions they got to come home. One colonel got 124 done and on his last mission he was killed. A major once asked me, ‘Do you want to go with me on a mission?’ I told him, ‘Yeah,’ but before I could, he got shot down.”

Carey reflected on one incident when two German planes dove at the pilots’ shed where he was working and began strafing and bombing it.

“I ran and lay flat on the ground and the bullets plowed up dirt all around me, but I never got hit. Some of my buddies weren’t as lucky as I was. They got killed. That made it hard on me.

Carey made his way across France as the Allies were closing in on Hitler. The Nazi leader killed himself before he was captured.

“We rejoiced in that. He was a mean guy,” said the veteran, who witnessed the destruction of the French cities and the horrors of the concentration camps where the Jews were killed in gas chambers and their bodies were burned in furnaces. 

Building a civilian life

Once returning home, Carey married his sweetheart, Gladys Adeline Johnson, a union that would continue for 69 years and produce four children, 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

The couple worked in Ohio to earn enough money to buy a small farm in Red Boiling Springs and begin their family. He later labored at AVCO and then they moved to Lebanon where he delivered milk for Johnson Dairy for seven years. He also ran a grocery store before working in maintenance at TRW, where he retired in 1985.

Nowadays, according to his daughter, “He’s kind of known as the king of garage sales. My sister, myself and others will get him where he needs to go. He goes to garage sales a couple of days a week in spring and summer.”

“The good Lord has let me live this long,” said Carey, whose companion is a Boston terrier named Oscar. “I took up going to these garage sales. I love to go and I have two sales twice a year. I make bird feeders and birdhouses and sell them. Last Saturday my son and I built 10 bird feeders.”

As for his recollections of the end of the war in Europe, he said, “We ended up close to the German border. We got news the war was over. We were so happy we hugged each other. We cried. We jumped up and down. The pilots went up and cut the awfullest shine ever was. They rolled over. That was a great day.

“I come back to the U.S. on the SS Washington. The day we got back was foggy, but we could see Old Glory and the Statue of Liberty, and it looked so great,” said the old soldier, whose memories of the good and the bad have yet to fade.


“WHAT A SOLDIER KNOWS”

(Written by Renae Carey Hudson and Jerry Salley)

By the time he was nineteen

He’d never left the hills of Tennessee

Until the day his country called

And he set sail across the sea

To join his band of brothers in a foreign land

Just doing his duty to fight for Uncle Sam

When I hear the stories of things he’s seen first hand

Of a soldier’s fear, blood and tears that’s when I understand

Nobody knows, nobody knows,

Nobody knows what a soldier knows

The loneliness you have to face

Wondering if you’ll live one more day

They know the darkest dark, the coldest cold

Nobody knows, what a soldier knows

Will this be his last breath?

As he sees death at his doorstep

With brothers falling to the ground

The kind of hell you can’t forget

Willing to lay down his life, never giving up

No greater loved could someone show than the kind a solider does

Today at 98, he’s walking in one more parade

As we honor him and all of those for everything they gave

Nobody knows, nobody knows,

Nobody knows what a solider knows

© 2020 Renae Carey Hudson

Recommended for you