by Frank Kilgore
A recent visit to the most serene of mountain cemeteries brought into focus how improbable it must have seemed to our World War II generation of Appalachian young men just how drastically their lives would change. How could they have known that a life of cutting trees with axes and cross-cut saws; grubbing stumps with picks and mattocks; clearing stones by hand and horse sled from steep mountain farms; mining coal with hand-turned breast augers, picks, and shovels; digging roots and herbs to sell for pennies; staying up all moonlit night to keep the still fired up and guarded from “revenoors;” brawling in the nearest town on Saturday nights; and going to dances to give the prettiest girls the “brush off” could transition seemingly overnight to basic training with other young men from every state in the nation, then finding themselves far away from their mountain redoubts in war-torn Europe or the killing fields of the Pacific Theatre.
Arthur Kilgore, my father, and his best friend and cousin, W. N. Holbrook, quit school at very young ages and entertained themselves with learning every tree and animal in the woods and becoming experts at shooting squirrels in the head with .22 rifles and stopping lightening-fast grouse on the fly with a single shot Winchester 20 gauge shotgun. Stealth, young reflexes, and the family’s need for meat on the table forged hunters and future warriors throughout the Appalachian Mountains. Drill sergeants and war planners in every branch of the military sought out mountain boys because of their shooting skills, self-discipline, patriotism, respect for authority, and a fierce loyalty to their buddies. In short, these rangy mountain boys made superb fighters and have produced hero after hero in our country’s military history.
W. N. Holbrook was the first to go to war. After an expedited training period, he ultimately found himself assigned to the 91st Engineers, a unit that saw much action throughout Europe and found themselves in the midst of the “Battle of the Bulge.” W. N. was killed on December 21, 1944, in a battle Allied military experts denied could happen despite numerous scouting reports that the Germans were preparing a “do or die” counter-attack in the forests of Belgium. He and 19,000 other soldiers returned home in military coffins; 60,000 more were maimed or wounded.
W.N.’s family and friends carried his remains up the steep hill above his beloved home on Honey Branch near St. Paul, Virginia. Small hemlocks were planted by his father, Alfred, in the gap of the ridge, and W.N. laid there, a military grave marker resting at his head, while he patiently waited to be joined by his parents and many of his fourteen siblings as they passed away from mostly natural causes.
The Holbrook Cemetery sits through the seasons, the hemlock trees continuing to grow and shade out all understory. The small American flag planted near W.N.’s military headstone constantly waves in the prevailing breeze that funnels through the small gap. Flag after wind-tattered flag is replaced by surviving family members as dignity dictates.
After W.N.’s funeral it was time for my Dad to accept the U.S. Army’s invitation for an all-expense-paid trip to Europe along with a chance to show off the marksman skills honed in the hollers and ridges of one the nation’s most remote and hardy sub-cultures, the Central Appalachians.
Dad won his division’s shooting competition, and the top ten sharpshooters (mostly from the mountains and the Deep South) were given a weekend pass just before shipping out to war. They made fun of their New Jersey buddies who shot into the ground far more frequently than nailing distant targets. Once in Europe, these mountain ninjas found themselves at the front lines while their less accurate companions were relegated to the relative safety of providing food, ordnance, and supplies to the human spear tips that clashed with well-trained but retreating German forces.
Fortunately for Dad, the war in Europe was in its last throes when he arrived, and his unit, the 104th Infantry Division (“Timberwolves”), had a need for mop up units to chase down the last of the hardened SS troops who used their own countrymen, mostly young boys and old men, as diversionary shields as they retreated and attempted to blend in with civilians. The 104th had seen heavy action in Northern France, the Rhineland, and Central Europe, so bringing down the SS stragglers was more akin to hunting weasels in the hills than full-scale combat.
Once the war with Germany ended, thousands of American troops were hurriedly sent home to the West Coast and positioned to proceed by flotillas to Japan for the invasion of the Imperial homeland. U. S. casualties were projected at more than a million men killed and many more wounded. A half million Purple Hearts were ordered in advance of what was called “Operation Downfall.” The carnage to Japan’s military and civilian populations was projected to be many times more.
By this time, most of Japan’s air defenses had been disabled, and waves of American bombers leveled and burned great swaths of Tokyo and other population and manufacturing centers. Tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians died horrendous deaths during these ceaseless air raids, yet Japan’s leaders vowed to fight until the last breath.
Many post-war critics typed away from the safety of their office desks about how President Truman’s bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was overly brutal and unnecessary. They apparently were not among the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers fresh from Europe or expedited basic training being loaded onto hundreds of ships for what would become a loss of American lives that would eclipse fatalities sustained during the entire Civil War.
My Dad, who was poised to load onto one of those ships bound for Japan, found many reasons to shout at the TV during his later years, but his most vocal diatribes were aimed at any “soft-bellied” critics of President Truman, flag burners, and anti-military protesters.
Fresh from college back in the 1970s, I tried to impress my Dad with an objective analysis of how our war veterans ultimately fought for and secured the right of any and all Americans to assemble and peacefully protest the war of his or her choice. That pseudo-intellectual effort was a big mistake on my part.
When I last visited the Holbrook Cemetery in the gap of the ridge right after the great snowstorm of 2009, I reflected upon my now deceased father and his unfaltering loyalty to our nation. I stared at the cold, somber military gravestone of his best friend for several spine-tingling minutes as the frigid wind whispered through the hemlocks. Only then did I fully appreciate the difference between theory and reality.