TUPELO – Wars start and wars end, but they never completely go away for the men and women who lived through them.
“A lot of those fellows went through much more than I did, but still, I was right there with them – a lot of good friends, a lot of good buddies,” said James Davis of Belden, a 90-year-old veteran of World War II.
He was a military policeman who went from directing traffic to dodging bullets in the Pacific. When storming a beach, he stayed low in his boat while shells exploded all around him.
“We hit the beach. This Indian, we called him ‘Chief,’ he was just a nice, good fellow,” Davis recalled. “He was the first one I saw. He was down on the beach. He had a hole in his back. I never saw him again.”
Davis and eight other veterans recently met at the Tupelo Veterans Museum in Ballard Park to discuss their wide-ranging experiences, from island hopping in World War II to nation building in Iraq, in advance of today’s Veterans Day observance.
All nine were volunteers, and they represented the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and the National Guard.
“Don’t let those folks who haven’t been there forget what was done by veterans,” said Bud Christian, 76, of Tupelo. “Keep it in front of people, what veterans have given them.”
Christian served in the Marines during Korea and Vietnam, and he had to face a strange fact of life.
“Somebody wanted to kill me that I didn’t know,” Christian said. “I was just 18 years old, and somebody was trying to kill me, and I was trying to kill them. I had never faced anything like that before. That’s what surprised me.”
Up in the air over Korea, Sims Reeves, an 82-year-old Tupelo resident, found his job easy at first.
“I had flown four or five missions, and hadn’t been shot at that we knew of,” said Reeves, who also served during Vietnam and the Cold War. “I got to thinking combat, there’s nothing to it.”
Things were different on the next flight, when he could see brightly lit tracer rounds that the enemy used to gauge accuracy.
“They’re just like fireworks, but you knew there were live rounds before and after them, and they were close,” he said. “I thought, you can get killed at this job. I was more cautious from that point on.”
By definition, safety is an iffy thing in a war zone. During World War II, Saltillo’s Eugene Spearman, 85, and the rest of his flight crew owed the Air Force 35 missions before they could go home.
Spearman made a habit of picking up a Milky War bar and keeping it next to his station. He’d eat it only after a successful bombing mission over Germany.
“One time, somebody took my Milky Way. I was convinced that was a terrible situation I was in,” he said, laughing. “One guy always wore the same socks, another wore the same flight suit every time.”
For his last mission, Spearman asked for and received both a front parachute and a back parachute.
“I didn’t really think he was going to give it to me,” he said.
Brad Davis, 43, said he had it relatively easy when stationed in Iraq with the National Guard.
“I didn’t have to deal with heavy combat. We were in a pretty good area,” the Tupelo resident said.
Still, freedoms taken for granted at home become luxuries for deployed troops.
“If you were outside the gate at the forward operating base, then you were armed and ready to go,” he said. “Here, you hop in a car and go anywhere.
“My FOB was three-tenths of a mile wide and seven-tenths of a mile long. That’s where you stayed most of the time.”
For William Shack, 56, of Tupelo, Vietnam was a chance to learn what he could do.
He’d signed up for the Army after high school and found himself handling important and expensive cargo.
“I didn’t expect the responsibility that they gave me. I was basically a kid,” said Shack, who also served in the Persian Gulf War with the National Guard. “They trusted me to deliver pieces of missiles, these big, huge things. That surprised me.”
Veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War would have a hard time imagining the level of communication available to today’s troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Phone calls, e-mails and video conferencing help keep men and women in uniform in contact with their families.
“It’s a whole lot better now than a few years ago in Iraq,” said Mark Dye, a 47-year-old National Guard veteran of Iraq.
But there’s a downside to all that communication.
“We’d sometimes get messages from back home that somebody had gotten hit,” Dye said. “It was a grapevine, and we’d check it out. The rumors weren’t always true.”
You probably could read more about David Scott’s deployments than he’d be able to tell you. The 67-year-old Vietnam and Cold War veteran served on submarine crews for the Navy.
Those were the days of nuclear tensions, when U.S. and Soviet submarine crews harassed each other below the waves.
“Many of the things we did are still classified,” the Tupelo resident said. “I don’t know why, when you can pick up a book and find most of it there.”
He can’t talk about many of the specifics, so the memories remain his.
“It’s something that stays with you,” he said. “Yeah, you think about it.”
Bobby Wilson, a 78-year-old veteran of Korea, didn’t feel like telling his stories when he first returned home.
“I guess I’ve loosened up a bit,” he said.
On a patrol when the temperature was 11 below zero, Wilson took 18 holes in his legs.
“I would’ve had a hard time running for my life like that,” he said.
While in the hospital, a 32-man patrol that he would’ve been on got wiped out when the men came against an enemy battalion.
“Certain things trigger the memories. It’s not on you most of the time, but it’s never off you very far,” he said. “Certain things trigger the memories, especially what you see in the paper these days.”
All nine of the veterans plan to attend today’s ceremony at 9 a.m. at Tupelo’s Veterans Park. It’s a chance to honor the fallen, as well as those still missing in action.
It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the survivors, who bear the memories and, in some cases, the scars of fighting for the U.S. military.
“It was a scary thing,” said 90-year-old James Davis, “but if I had to do it over, I’d go over and do it again. Of course, they wouldn’t take me, now, but I’d go if I could.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal