BALDWYN – At 5-feet-4-inches, Billie Hopkins may not be a tall man in physical stature.
But the 84-year-old World War II veteran could be called a giant by any other measure.
On Dec. 20, 1945, Hopkins was discharged from the U.S. Army, having earned three purple hearts while serving overseas for 21 months with the 79th Infantry Division, 315th Regiment.
“I was 18 years old when I was drafted on 18 August 1943,” Hopkins said in a recent interview. “I had originally volunteered to join the Air Force to be a gunner because of my size, and I passed the tests and everything. But when they found out I was color blind they sent me back home.”
His 18th year was significant not only as the start of Hopkins’ military service, but because it was the year he met 15-year-old Betty Isbell of Booneville, now his wife of 61 years.
Betty was too young to date at the time, but she went with her grandmother to the Kroger grocery store where he worked. That was one of the ways they would see each other.
“The only courting we did was me going to her house and sitting on the swing with her family around,” Hopkins said. “After I got out of the service and came back home, we started courting again. We married on 18 April 1948.”
Going to war
Hopkins underwent basic training in 1943 at Camp Shelby, the base near Hattiesburg where most Mississippi National Guard troops go for regular training.
After requesting a transfer to the 79th, he went on to Salinas, Kan., for further training as a ground fighter and scout.
“We went overseas on April 7, 1944, and I was injured on the first day,” Hopkins said. “We landed at Normandy on June 12, 1944, six days after D-Day. I was hit by a piece of shrapnel in my back and a piece went through my (right) shoe and foot. They wanted to cut the shoe off, but I wouldn’t let them do that because I didn’t have any more shoes.”
The medics dressed the foot with penicillin power, changed the dressing the next day and applied more penicillin powder, and Hopkins kept going.
Less than a month later – on the Fourth of July, 1944 – Hopkins suffered his second wound.
“An artillery shell hit us in a foxhole,” he said. “I was unconscious four or five hours, and they thought I was dead. They had covered me up with a coat, all we could do for the casualties in the field, and somebody noticed the coat moving when I woke up.”
Hopkins was taken to the field hospital with injuries that blew out his ear drums. He has artificial ear drums now, enhanced with hearing aids in both ears.
The hospital time was eased somewhat with regular letters from Betty and other family members and friends.
Though he wrote home as often as he could, soldiers weren’t permitted to tell anything about where they were or when they were injured.
Families had to be notified directly by the Army, and often the news was delivered well after the fact.
“They kept me until I got my senses back, could see straight and walk, then sent me back to the front lines,” he said.
For the next few months Hopkins fought with his unit as part of the force charged with taking the port of Cherbourg and its peninsula, with the 79th successfully achieving its objectives.
Then, on Nov. 15, 1944, Hopkins suffered his third injury.
“It was a piece of shrapnel in my same (right) leg where I hurt my foot, and it paralyzed my right side to the hip,” he said. “The doctors said it needed too much surgery to the bone, so they’d just watch it for infection. When infection set in I had to have surgery – on Thanksgiving Day – and I was in the hospital until the day after Christmas.”
Hopkins’ commanding officer thought about the lengthy recuperation ahead of him, and decided to give him another assignment.
“He brought me the radio book and told me to start learning it,” Hopkins said. “I became the radio man from then on.”
The regiment was armed with 81-mm mortars, a short distance weapon the men could pick up and fire themselves.
“People on the front lines, when they needed artillery they would call back and I would receive the message to send them what they needed,” Hopkins said. “Depending on the position we were in, some days we were firing a lot.”
Memories of his service have been a defining part of Hopkins’ life.
He was discharged on Dec. 20, 1945, and returned to the Thrasher community, where he grew up.
A year of farming could not overcome his yearning for a career in the military, and he re-enlisted in the Air Force in 1947.
Hopkins had served three years at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi before he was slated to be sent for a tour of duty in Turkey, an assignment he rejected.
“I was almost killed in Europe, so I sure wasn’t going back to Turkey to be killed,” Hopkins said. “I hadn’t signed my papers yet to re-enlist, so I just left the Air Force then.”
The new career path brought him to Baldwyn in 1950, where he went into the grocery business with his brother. He continued in the grocery and other self-owned businesses until his retirement in 1986.
Hopkins’ wife and their only child, retired Tupelo teacher Emily J. Hopkins, have helped to preserve mementos of his service.
A small Christmas tree constructed of small U.S. flags holds pride of place year-round, an 86th birthday gift on Dec. 3, 2008, from his daughter.
The family room showcases photos of Hopkins and men with whom he served displayed on tables and hanging on walls, and there is a binder with all of his service medals.
He also treasures four massive framed maps of the 79th Infantry’s tour through Europe, stored in an extra bedroom upstairs because they are too large to display the entire collection together on the wall, Hopkins said.
In 2004, Emily surprised him with a framed “Tribute to a Generation” photo of him in his World War II uniform with a list of his service awards and medals. It was the same year the National World War II Memorial was dedicated in Washington.
“It was really a surprise,” he said. “I had no idea she was thinking of doing something like that.”
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or email@example.com.
Combat Route of the 79th Infantry Division
* Departed the Boston Port of Embarkation on April 7, 1944
* Arrived in England April 16, 1944
* Landed in France in June 1944, crossed into Belgium and into Holland
* Entered Germany March 3, 1945 and after VE Day (May 8, 1945) performed Army of Occupation duties in Czechoslovakia
* Returned to New York Port of Embarkation on Dec. 10, 1945
* Inactivated at Camp Kilmer, Piscataway, New Jersey on Dec. 11, 1945
Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal