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Please indulge me as I try to capture the spirit of our nation 75 years ago, when the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. My father was of “that” generation; the exceptional period of existence that is described in our present age as “The Greatest.” December 7, 1941 changed the course of his life, as it did so many like him.
It had always been my intention to write a fitting tribute to my father, who was such a complex, and at times, difficult man to understand. Born in 1925, he was a mid-West farm boy who, at the inexperienced age of 17, answered his nation’s call after the horror of Pearl Harbor. He served valiantly as a tail-gunner in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet of PV-1 Ventura’s, and along with his older brother, came home to resume their lives in a changed America.
Like most men who go to war, both talked little of their wartime experiences. When he died in 2007, at the age of 82, I grieved over the lost opportunity to know how that fateful day of December 7, 1941 had changed him. I gave the eulogy at his funeral, and I could share the one aspect of him that I knew well: his patriotism and love of country. We requested a Naval Honor Guard at his graveside service, and it was a moment I will always treasure. His service to our Nation had not been forgotten, and the Navy’s own paid him proper respect.
But I was sad that I was left with only a few WWII mementos of my Dad: a photograph of him looking young and innocent in his Navy dress blues; a collage of his flight crew in front of their plane; and his poplin flight suit and fur-lined leather flying cap. I proudly keep them alongside the folded flag presented at his funeral. But I couldn’t ask questions of these inanimate objects and they revealed no insightful answers.
I felt my chances were slipping away of ever capturing what that era was like…. until one Sunday in the fall of 2009. Sitting amongst the fifteen or twenty members of my small Sunday School class in Austin, Texas were four of the most interesting and captivating ladies I have ever met. All in their mid-eighties, they had lived the WWII experience, and they were my path to the past. This is their story.
Nearly eight years ago, four of the most precious women I’ve ever met — all in their 80’s — sat around my kitchen table and told me their impressions of what it was like on that infamous day 75 years ago, when the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor swept the nation.
I recorded their stories and wrote a 28-page biography, chronicling their impressions and memories. Here is the opening paragraph of that biography: They sit grouped together, a quartet set apart by age, wisdom, and their status as widows. But they are so much more. They share a common history, yet each has a unique story of her own to share. They all grew up in the innocent years before Pearl Harbor. They experienced the Depression, the war years, and the expansive growth that was a result of that hard-won victory. Their lives are a lasting legacy of the enduring American Spirit, and they embody the different facets that, as a nation, we have inherited from all who came before us.
But I want you to hear their voices; and re-live those days when faith and war were so intricately bound. Hear the innocence and the resolve that were hallmarks of that generation. Read these excerpts from their stories and ask yourselves if this current generation is as strong and resilient and determined to overcome the hardships we may face. And listen for the evidence that God was ever present…
Mary Ann Holcomb was born in 1926 in the small town of Nursery, Texas, so named because a nursery for fruit trees was started there in 1882, along the tracks of the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railway. The small Texas town was located on the coastal plains of the Southeast portion of the state. Her dad had been a farmer, like his folks before him, and also worked in the insurance business until the Depression hit.
|Mary Ann and Bill Holcomb on their honeymoon
Times were hard for the family, which included Mary Ann’s two sisters, who were more than 10 years older. At the height of the Depression, her dad decided he wanted a divorce, so he could leave to try to find work. He took Mary Ann, who was nine, and her mother to Austin, where they were able to rent a little room. Mother and daughter were desperate for a while.
“I remember wearing a piece of linoleum in the bottom of my shoe. Whenever I’d get a hole, it would go flap, flap, flap. I wore lots of patches on my clothes.”
Before long her mother was fortunate enough to get a job at the State Library in the Capitol Building. Her two sisters were receiving training as nurses, so their room and board was provided while they attended nursing school. Circumstances were tougher for her father.
“My dad left Texas and traveled across the country in search of work. He told me stories of standing in soup lines to get something to eat. He’d barter for food. He would go to a grocery store and get a quart of milk for five cents, and then go to a bar, with the milk wrapped in a brown paper bag. In those days, the bars would provide hard-boiled eggs and peanuts if you were seated at the bar drinking. So he’d take his paper-wrapped milk and pretend to be drinking a bottle of liquor. That’s how he ate a lot of his meals.”
Mary Ann’s existence improved as her mother worked and saved to rent a little house. By the time she was fourteen, her mother remarried and they moved to the new Austin suburb of Hyde Park. The ensuing years were filled with the joys of childhood; bicycle riding, swimming, and learning to dance. Her innocent childhood was shattered on that December 7th morning in 1941.
“Pearl Harbor happened on a Sunday morning. I remember that I was reading the comics and they announced it on the radio. We were all stunned! I was fifteen at the time, and everyone wanted to do their part to help fight the war, but there was really nothing constructive I could do to help the war effort. I was too young to go to work.”
But as the war ground on, and Mary Ann’s friends from school began going off to war, some she knew well were killed, and the seriousness of the War became evident. She would eventually marry Bill Holcomb, a high school classmate, after the war. Mary Ann recalled that Bill experienced hand-to-hand combat while serving in the Philippines and suffered from nightmares his whole life; and he continued to sleep with a Ka-Bar knife under his pillow until the day he died.
Jeanne McNabb has the most engaging smile and her eyes sparkle as she tells her story. It is classic “American”. She was born in 1926 near the small town of Bertram, 40 miles north of Austin, Texas. She grew up in the country, feeling isolated and as though she didn’t have the advantages of town kids, who could get together and play. Little did she know that at the age of eight, she would meet her future husband. He happened to visit his uncle who lived across from her family’s farm. He would tell her years later that he remembered her as a skinny little girl who looked like “one of those fence posts.”
|Jeanne and Clint McNabb, 1945, while
Clint was home on furlough
“Growing up, we didn’t even realize there was a Depression. Living in the country, we had plenty of food, and parents just didn’t talk about it in front of their kids.” But Jeanne remembers Pearl Harbor with complete clarity. She was on her first date when she heard the news.
“We were in this guy’s Model A Ford and it was broadcast on his radio. We were with another couple, having a great time laughing and talking, and didn’t realize until the next day just how serious it was.” It would soon affect her personally. In high school, she became reacquainted with Clint McNabb, the young boy she had befriended when she was eight years old. And it was only three months before Jeanne became both a Child Bride and a War Bride. At the age of 17½, she and Clint were married one month before he went into the service.
“He knew he was going to be drafted, so he enlisted before his number was drawn, so he could be in the branch of the military he really wanted.” Clint settled on the Army Air Corps and completed his basic training at Kessler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. He then served a short stint on the East Coast before spending the rest of the war in Gander, Newfoundland, as part of a Combat Search and Rescue crew who went out to try and find downed pilots when their planes were shot down.
“He only came home one time during his four years of service, and he didn’t talk about what he’d seen or experienced. He did get frozen feet from the cold winters in Newfoundland, and would eventually get a ten percent medical disability as a result.”
Jeanne served her country as a secretary/typist in the Intelligence Office at Bergstrom Air Base. “The mission of the Intelligence Office was to detect saboteurs or anyone that might be trying to harm the United States. The Special Agents would intercept letters, read them, and if there was nothing damaging in the contents, the letters would be resealed and passed on. I would type reports on an old manual typewriter, and have to type 10 or 12 copies of a report with carbon. It was tedious! And boy, was it hot in that barracks-type building! We never did uncover any kind of sinister plot, but it was an interesting job.”
Wynette Harris has a personal history that is anything but boring. Her parents were secretly married when her mother was only 15, and her daddy began a life as a professional gambler. But after the birth of her sister, other parents wouldn’t let their children play with her because her father was a gambler. He just couldn’t take it, so he began going to night school to learn a trade.
|“Blue” and Wynette
Eventually her father became a civic leader in town and was the president of the Trade and Labor Council for many years. He was also a Deputy Constable and the Police Chief presented him with a pearl-handled, chrome plated .45-caliber pistol, which Wynette’s son now proudly owns. Her pride in her father is quite evident: “He is proof that you can raise yourself up and change for the better!”
Her future husband, Elmer “Blue” Templeton, was like many young men in those Depression-era years; he quit school at the age of 15 to apprentice with a trade. His brother-in-law was a Master Plumber, and by the time Blue was 19, he was the youngest journeyman plumber in the state of Texas. He traveled the country, in search of ever-higher wages, and when the opportunity came to help rebuild Pearl Harbor, he jumped at the chance.
By summer’s end in 1943, he had enlisted with the Seabees, who were the Construction Battalion of the US Navy. Primarily recruited from the civilian construction trades, they were responsible for building airstrips, bridges, roads and housing. Wynette recalls, “We were engaged the night before he sailed out of Seattle on New Year’s Eve, headed for New Hebrides (a group of Pacific islands west of Fiji). Two battleships escorted the troop ship he was on. On the way to their destination, they encountered a typhoon. Both of their battleship escorts sunk, and their own ship lacked only two degrees from having waves swamp the smokestacks. They were without power for two days, and subject to attack by Japanese submarines at any moment. Help eventually arrived and the ship was hauled to Bora Bora for repairs, before continuing on to the New Hebrides islands, where he served for the next sixteen months.
When Blue came home in November of 1945, he was discharged at Camp Wallace near Galveston, and the two planned a whirlwind wedding ceremony. “My girlfriend went with me to pick him up. It took three days to get your blood test results, so three days after he landed in Galveston, we were married on November 30, 1945!”
Jeannie Paxton is a born storyteller. She is proud of her birthplace, Cowpens, South Carolina, which was the site of one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and his ragtag colonial militia routed a much larger British contingent under Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton. That same stubborn American spirit would be ignited once again in her generation.
Jeannie was one of 13 children, and all the members of her family worked in the Southern Textile mills. “My mother had a hard life. She had 13 children and I was the youngest. She lost three or four children to the diphtheria epidemic, and all within three months time. But we grew up in a happy household. We didn’t have a lot, but we always had food. Everyone that lived on that mill road was allowed to have cattle, and we raised ours in a pasture back behind our house. We also had a garden every year, and a couple of peach trees.”
|Joe and Jeannie Paxton, 1946
Faith was an important part of the family’s life and Jeannie describes her mother as “the most Christ-like person” she has ever known. Her mother’s influence led her to a Bible study group, being taught by two women in Cowpens. They invited several young girls to study the Book of Revelation with them. “I was 14 or 15, and we’d heard the rumblings on the radio of what was happening in Europe, and these ladies were convinced Hitler was the Anti-Christ. We’d study every week, and I would tremble, I was so afraid! But I read in the Bible that ‘Blessed are you if you read this Book’. So it eased my mind some. But these ladies were convinced that Germany was the Gog or Magog of the Bible. Then when Pearl Harbor happened, it became the Japanese we were fighting, not the Europeans. So how did that work into the Book of Revelation? It was a very frightening and confusing time for me, as a teenager.”
She would meet her future husband, after the war, when he was finishing up his 4-year commitment to the Army at Fort Blanding in Florida. He accompanied her brother-in-law home on leave to South Carolina, and after one weekend, he announced, “I’m going to marry you.” Jeannie and Joe would exchange letters over the next few months, and although she would only see him three or four more times before marrying him, she felt she knew his character. “Joe would never come to the house without wanting to say hello to my mother. He was just that way. My mother was such a good judge of character and liked him from the first moment she saw him”. Joe came home on two week’s leave in July of 1946 and they were married.
All these precious ladies agreed with Jeannie Paxton when she said, “I think we all wrote almost everyday to our husbands or boyfriends. And my husband would ask me to write things that made me blush! Our letters were so sentimental and personal.” In today’s world of explicit and open displays of public affection, I found this era’s discreet expressions of passion and love to be both refreshing and romantic. There were often long periods of time where the lovers were stationed abroad and the mail was the only connection they had to each other. Today our military are oftentimes able to connect to their families and loved ones through instant email, texting and video link-ups. But during WWII, families often went weeks without any idea of the location or status of their loved one.
And all the ladies echoed this same sentiment: “The nation prayed a lot. We prayed openly in our churches for our military, and we would conduct all-night prayer vigils. We prayed in school the first thing each morning, along with standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It was common for Bible verses to be read over the loud speakers at the beginning of each day.”
Jeannie Paxton’s cousin was a living example of the power of prayer during the War. “My cousin Albert lied about his age, and went into the military before WWII at the age of 13. He served in Africa, and later went up through Europe and ended up fighting at the Battle of the Bulge.”
The Battle of the Bulge was fought in the Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium during the brutal winter months of December 1944 through January 1945. Estimates of American casualties range as high as 89,000, with 19,000 killed and as many as 26,000 captured and missing. It was the single largest and costliest battle for the American military during WWII.
“I’ll never forget the day he came home. It was near Christmas of 1945 and my brother went to the bus station in Spartanburg to pick him up. My mother had made a huge breakfast for him: biscuits, red-eye gravy, ham and sausage. He sat down at the table and just cried.
He said to my mother, ‘Aunt Patsy, I know you were praying for me when I was at the Battle of the Bulge, and I want to thank you. I was in a foxhole and people were dying all around me. Everyone in that foxhole, but me, was killed. I know that Jesus held that foxhole.’
Jeannie continues, “The amazing thing was that we later figured out that the very night he survived, my mother had a sense that Albert was in the middle of a fierce battle. She stayed up all that night, praying for him, and he knew that was the reason he was alive.”
Another common memory was how much the nation sacrificed for each other and the war effort. Jeannie Paxton made sure I understood the way it was. “They didn’t ask us to sacrifice. They didn’t have to! We were willing to do it. It was ‘What can I give up? What can I do?’ “ She laments that “Now it’s “What’s in it for me?’“
Jeanne McNabb chimes in and shares a poignant memory. “My dad, bless his heart, gave up his grandfather’s Civil War guns during a metal drive.” Such was the sacrifice those citizens were willing to make. Everyone in the country was behind the war effort. Movie stars used their popularity to sell war bonds, and several high profile stars even put their careers on hold to serve their country. My, how times have changed!
But sacrifice was the byword of the nation. Rationing became commonplace among American homes. Among the items rationed were coffee, sugar, gasoline, oil, kerosene, nylon and silk. All the women remembered giving up their nylon stockings, and they laughed, remembering how they would draw an imagined seam on the back of their legs to resemble the phantom stockings. Wynette gave up sugar on her cereal and in iced tea, and doesn’t use it to this day. Jeannie remembers that her in-laws mixed their small allotment of coffee with some kind of leaves. Imagine asking Starbucks junkies to consider making that sacrifice!
But the biggest sacrifice came in the number of American lives lost. It is estimated that, over the course of the War, nearly 416,000 American military personnel died on the beaches of Normandy, in the fields of Europe, and among the islands of the Pacific.
America paid a high price for securing the freedom of millions of Europeans and Asians from the diabolical plans of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. But with the end of the War, these returning soldiers and my four ladies set their lives in motion, taking the steps that would lead them to me. And as each of the women reminisces about the young men they married, it is quite evident that their respect and love grew with the increasing years.
Jeanne McNabb, who married at the beginning of the War, settled down in Central Texas. Her husband Clint came home in 1946, and attended the University of Texas on the GI Bill. While in college, he became a member of Alpha Chi Omega, a service organization, and followed up on his pre-war involvement with the Boy Scouts. It was a life-long commitment, and an activity he so enjoyed. His professional career included various sales jobs, and a major position with Retail Credit Company (now Equifax), which took his family to Corpus Christi, TX, Atlanta, GA, and back to Dallas, TX. In the early 1970’s, terrorism was becoming a threat to the nation, so Clint once again went to his country’s aid and served as a Sky Marshal.
In his later years, Clint’s pride and joy was his garden, which included peach, pear, and plum trees, berries, and four raised vegetable gardens. He was very successful, and the neighborhood benefited from his green thumb! “He was a conservationist before it was popular.” Another of his loves was working with the youth of Irving, TX. He was active in the baseball and football programs of his community. Jeanne said she spent many hours sitting in the bleachers! And then after 45 wonderful years of marriage, Clint passed away in 1989.
But as with all of these men, Clint’s greatest legacy was his family. Jeanne tells me how proud she is of their only child, Clinton Edward McNabb, now a Captain with Continental Airlines. She also takes great pride in her two grand-daughters (both Texas A&M graduates) and her three great-grandchildren.
Mary Ann Holcomb married her husband Bill, the high school soda jerk from the drugstore, in 1949. Bill also went to college on the GI Bill, and they both were in school at the same time. But she didn’t finish “because I was so in love and just wanted to be married.”. He studied Business Administration at the University of Texas, and began working for the Texas Highway Department at a monthly salary of $300. She remembers those lean, early years of their marriage and saving $500 for a vacation to California in 1951 or 52.
Meanwhile, Bill’s career at the Highway Department lasted for 32 years. He was the Assistant Director of the Purchasing Division for the entire state of Texas, and his duties included submitting the annual budget for the Department, as well as being in charge of Right-Of-Way purchases.
When asked to describe her husband, Mary Ann’s first word was, “Wow!” She is clearly moved. “He was one of those tall, strong, quiet, and low-key types.” She likens him to the actor Jimmy Stewart in both temperament and appearance. “But he would light up the room when he walked in; people gravitated towards him. He was affectionate, tender hearted and very romantic. I guess you can tell how crazy I was about him! My heart never failed to skip a beat when I heard his car in the driveway. Honestly, to me, he was the most perfect, loving husband anyone could have.” She was devastated when Bill died in 1981 at the age of 54 years from cancer. Their marriage lasted for 32 years and their only daughter, Judy, has provided Mary Ann with three wonderful grandchildren.
In 1945, after the War, Wynette and Blue Templeton were married “in my home in Port Arthur, Texas; the only house I had ever lived in.” After a honeymoon in Mexico City, they settled in Odessa, Texas where he worked for a plumbing company. By 1948, Blue had become a Master Plumber, and joined with his boss to form Heath and Templeton Plumbing Shop in Midland, Texas. In 1953, the family, which now included their three children, moved to a farm in La Pryor, Texas.
The plumbing business had eroded and the state was undergoing a seven-year drought. The family suffered through five or six hard years, trying to make a go of the farm. So when the heavy construction business began emerging, Blue was quick to take advantage of his opportunities, and was able to support his family. The business consisted primarily of installing pipelines for gas companies and installing underground irrigation pipe for area farmers. By 1970, they owned two farms, a heavy equipment business and a retail business in Del Rio, Texas.
Wynette had this to say about her husband: “He was a man to be admired. With little education and a lot of guts and determination, he made a success of his life. He was very much an extrovert, and made friends easily—and had many. He loved his family and his family loved him.” Blue Templeton died October 25, 2001 in Canyon Lake, Texas. He is buried in Coleman, Texas, where many of his ancestors lie. He and Wynette had three children: Dennis, Janis and Ann, and were blessed with two grandchildren.
Jeannie and Joe Paxton were married after the war in 1946. While attending college in South Carolina on the GI Bill, Joe taught at a trade school, helping men get their GED’s and then pointing them in the direction of jobs in the trades, such as brick-laying and plumbing. He went on to get his degree in Chemical Engineering, and was employed by Dow Chemical, building chemical plants across the country.
In 1951 the family moved to Texas. “Joe was a very smart guy, and had a strong and determined personality. You either liked him or you didn’t. Of course, I thought he was so special!” Jeannie adds that while engineering was his profession, Joe was a farmer at heart. “And he loved to go fishing!” And when Joe needed to escape the pressures of his professional world, he would turn to his love of architecture and designed homes and buildings to foster his creative side.
He and Jeannie had five children, four daughters and a son. The love of Jeannie’s life was tragically taken from her, when Joe died in 1974, at the young age of 48. The long life they had planned together was shortened way too early, when Joe was stricken by a heart attack. Jeannie knows he would have been proud of their nine grandchildren.
So these are the stories of four ordinary, yet remarkable, and unabashedly all-American young men, and the amazing women who loved them. While their lives won’t be commemorated in any historical journals of the day, they led their lives in extraordinary and honorable ways. With thoughts only of responsibility and duty, they answered their Nation’s call, and earned the right to be called “The Greatest”. And that title applies to those who fought, and those who waited at home.
I’d like to think that my dad would have recognized my motives for writing this memoir; to honor all those, who like him and his brother, Clint, Bill, Blue and Joe, stepped up to the plate, and in true American fashion, selflessly put their country first. They sacrificed their youth and got the job done, then came home to get on with the business of living; loving their wives, raising children, and working diligently to provide a future for their families.
And I have to confess that I have another motive for writing this memoir. I fear that only two generations past the lifetimes of these remarkable men, there is an attempt to alter the “heart and soul” of the American character. The hopes and dreams of these men to provide a better world in which their children could work hard and flourish, has degenerated into an “entitlement” society. They were proud to be called Americans and honored the heritage of those who came before them.
They also honored and feared their God, and the nation came together to pray for the safety of these men and for deliverance from the evils of war. We would do well to mimic the simple lives of these amazing and faithful people. Thank you for letting me share their story on the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”