John Rankin: Remembering a true American hero on “VE” Day
MADISON – More than thirteen years ago on this 75th anniversary of the “Victory in Europe” Day of May 8, Sherri Wilkerson Shamwell with her father and myself went to the Wilkerson ancestral home on Keith Springs Mountain in Franklin County, Tennessee, to visit with Sherri’s uncle, William Horace Wilkerson.
Sherri is a daughter of Prentice Stewart Wilkerson, brother of Horace. She was a tennis coach and taught for about 20 years in the Madison City schools, mostly in Discovery Middle School and later in the first years of James Clemens High School.
The purpose of the interview near Winchester, TN, was to include Horace’s story in archives of World War II service personnel and to capture his memories for future Wilkerson family generations.
About 46 minutes of audio-visual files were made, and then the visit was concluded with about 33 more minutess of audio-only recording. Digital copies of these files have been donated to the Heritage Room of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. Digital copies can also be made available to the Madison City School System upon request for use in the various school libraries.
Excerpts of the recollections of Horace Wilkerson about his life and wartime experiences are given below.
Horace was born May 28, 1925 to Ernest and Mae Wilkerson along the Elk River near Winchester, Tennessee. He was the first of 15 children in the family. The part of the mountain where the family still lives was then called Denson’s Cove. Today it is known as Wilkerson’s Cove.
Because he was enraged that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, Horace tried to enlist at age 17. His parents refused to sign to allow his enlistment, so in 1943, when he was old enough to be accepted without parental permission, he enlisted at Fort Oglethorp, Georgia.
After training at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Horace went to Camp Phillips in Kansas. From there Horace was taken by train to Boston, Massachusetts, for a few days before departing for England on the ship “General Gordon” with about 5,000 other troops on four ships.
Due to the German submarine threat in the Atlantic Ocean, the ships kept a zig-zag course that lengthened the voyage from the normal six days to seventeen. On the second day from port, German submarines did attack the convoy, but our escorting destroyers sank the subs as Horace watched torpedoes zip past his ship.
Horace later participated in the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He fought in the hedge rows of France around Cherbourg and other areas. He was first wounded at Looneyville in 1944. He was close by when a “Bouncing Betty” land mine killed his unit’s highest-ranking officer, Col. Nelson.
Horace was first a scout for the army, then he became a “bazooka man” and later a radio operator. During a tank and artillery attack by the Germans, he knocked out two tanks with his bazooka. For this action, he received a Bronze Star.
Later, when a mortar shell hit the rim of a crater that he was in, Horace was hit in the leg by fragments. At the same time his closest buddy was hit in the heart and died instantly beside him. Horace got his first Purple Heart for this wound. He never saw his Purple Heart until he got home from the war, because it was sent to his mother back in Tennessee.
After about a week in the hospital, Horace saw action at Avocourt, France. This battle got him a second Purple Heart within a month of the first. He also received a Silver Star for stopping “friendly fire” onto his unit from American tanks at that same location. Horace saw action not only in northern France and Germany, but also in Africa and the Middle East. He was awarded numerous other medals plus service and theater decorations.
When the war ended, he could have come home, but he volunteered to stay in Europe as part of the Occupation Force. His experiences included stopping General Patton while on sentry duty, and he later saw the General on the same day that Patton was killed by a vehicle wreck in 1946.
Horace refused to sign up for an additional three years after his initial occupation enlistment expired. He returned to the United States in May, 1946, and underwent surgeries to repair wounds from his war experiences.
During his recuperation in the northeastern states, he sent for Vera, a young German girl that he had met at a dance in Germany when she was only about age 16. Vera had been a post-war translator for the Occupation Forces. When she got to America, she sent a telegram for him to come meet her in New York, but he was still hospitalized for recovery from his surgeries.
Red Cross personnel took her from New York to Tennessee, but Horace was not informed of the situation. When he was released from the hospital, he immediately traveled to New York to get Vera. Then he found that she had gone already. He always thought that they probably crossed paths without realizing it, but eventually they got together in Tennessee and came to Huntsville.
Horace and Vera were married on October 28 of 1946 in Huntsville by Judge Thomas Jones. Horace learned about the electrical trade in Huntsville and took a job with Paine Electric Company at 62 1/2 cents per hour. Later he had many other jobs in the area, including over 30 years with General Motors.
As Horace told Sherri during the recording sessions, he “went over there so that she wouldn’t have to speak German unless she wanted to.” He had signed up “to stay until it was over with or to go home in a box”.
This was the journey and experience of a lifetime for a Keith Springs Mountain youth who had never been further from home than Manchester, Tennessee, before joining the army. His life story is like a model for Audie Murphy war movies. William Horace Wilkerson was a true American hero of what today we call “The Greatest Generation” of Americans.