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Veterans Day: World War II vets remember battles won, lives lost

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World War II veteran Bob Ramey in front of the Aluminum Overcast, a restored B-17 bomber, last month. Ramey flew P-51 Mustang fighter planes in support of B-17 bombing missions in Europe.

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By Kim Grizzard and Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, November 11, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of Veterans Day, The Daily Reflector spoke with three veterans of World War II. These days, there are fewer in their ranks. Members of what has been called the Greatest Generation die at a rate of nearly 350 a day, leaving North Carolina with fewer than 12,000 World War II veterans remaining.

Bob Ramey has received a fair share of recognition throughout the years. The former Greenville City Council member is a lifetime Kiwanian and Mason and member of Disabled American Veterans. But there is one more honor that Ramey's family would like for him to see.

Ramey, a World War II veteran, has lived with shrapnel in his left leg for seven decades, but he was never awarded a Purple Heart. As many as a million Purple Hearts have been awarded to World War II veterans, although the fact that many awards were given during the conflict keeps the estimate from being exact.

“There was no documentation in those days,” his daughter, Barbara Ramey, said. “They patched up your leg and said go back out.

“Dad was never given the Purple Heart like a lot of World War II veterans,” she said. “They just didn't issue them. There were so many wounded.”

Ramey, 95, was 19 years old when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. Within a few months, the Virginia farm boy was assigned to the 8th Air Force in England as a member of the Third Division, 20th Fighter Group.

Ramey, a licensed pilot since age 18, was officially ground personnel. But he also flew fighter planes in support of B-17 bombing missions in Europe.

The group's three squadrons flew 312 missions with 232 victories and 69,113 combat hours, figures that Ramey keeps on a sheet of paper in his wallet.

“It was such a long time ago,” he said. “If I didn't write it down, I wouldn't remember it.”

There are numbers that he would rather forget, like the 125 aircraft the squadrons lost and the 56 pilots who became prisoners of war.

“The 20th escorted Third Division bombers and B-17s,” Ramey said. “The tails were almost shot off of them a number of times. One morning I saw one blow up. It killed all 10 men aboard.”

Last month, Ramey saw a B-17 again for the first time in more than 70 years when the Aluminum Overcast visited Greenville. Seeing the Flying Fortress brought back memories, including some that Ramey has been hesitant to share.

“Going in at 19, I was the smartest dumb butt you ever met in your life,” he said. “When I got out in December of ‘45, the memories I was carrying in my mind, I was the oldest man you ever met. I was 100 years old. I guess everyone who goes through those things is in the same condition.”

When he came home in December 1945, Ramey put the war behind him. He married, had a family and made a successful career for himself in the tobacco industry. Moving to Greenville in the 1950s, he joined St. James United Methodist Church and became active in local civic organizations. In the 1990s, he served on the Greenville City Council.

He seldom spoke of his military service, even to his family. When Ramey began volunteering with the DAV to drive veterans to medical appointments at a clinic in Durham, Barbara didn't even understand why.

“I don't remember coming home from high school and saying, 'Dad, did you serve in World War II?'” she said. “He never told me. I think I was a young adult before Dad even talked to me about World War II.

“There were no resources back then. You served, and you came home. With a limb or without, you just came home,” Barbara said.

In 2001, Ramey began experiencing severe pain in his left leg, which had been wounded during the war. Doctors discovered that remnants of shrapnel remained in his leg and recommended surgery. But Ramey declined, explaining that he could not afford to be on crutches for several months during recovery because he was his wife's caregiver.

Ramey never even requested a Purple Heart, but Barbara has asked for it to be expedited due to her father's age. She wants to see him receive the recognition he is due for his service to his country.

“It will give him his honor and his pride,” she said.

Ramey is proud of his service and of those with whom he served. He regrets that on Veterans Day, sometimes their sacrifice seems overlooked.

“Sometimes as I look at the history, I think the people have forgotten what my generation did,” he said. “As you progress and do better, you sometimes forget. You want to forget.”

Eugene James

Eugene James was a 19-year-old farm worker earning $1 a day when he was drafted into the United States Army in either late 1943 or early 1944.

James, now 94 and a retired educator and county commissioner, has never shied away from recounting his family’s financial struggles when he was boy. His family couldn’t afford photographs when he was growing up so his first picture is one in his military uniform.

“My mother said go have one made, I’m worried I won’t ever see you again,” he said.

That picture now sits on a bookcase in his Belvoir home.

James was sent to an Arkansas boot camp but his training was cut short.

“They needed troops real bad,” he said. “I was in the Army 12 weeks and then put on a boat.”

He was shipped Scotland and then transported to London, then Paris where he was placed with the 103rd Infantry Division.

“I don’t like to talk about the war. It wasn’t pleasant and I was a mean man,” James said. You had to be mean, he said, to raid German homes and food to supplement their military rations.

“I got so that I loved the round, brown bread,” he said.

Villages were sometimes burned. Once, when traveling by tank through the Alps on the way to Innsbruck, Austria, he watched as a tank gunner fired on a mountainside home, destroying it.

“We were mean, but we had to be because you don’t win wars by being (nice),” James said.

After leaving Paris, but before reaching Innsbruck, James’ regiment fought in eastern and northeastern France before crossing into Germany. The regiment made its way to the Rhine River. The 103rd’s regiments were divided and James was part of the group that liberated Kaufering concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau.

“It was bad, it really was,” is all James can when describing what they discovered.

The regiment crossed the Danube River and then reached Innsbruck.

“When they said ‘let’s go’ we wouldn’t hesitate,” he said.

James was eventually shipped back to the United States, landing first in Colorado and then Washington State as part of mountain combat training he was undergoing in preparation to fight Japan, which after two nuclear attacks, surrendered Sept. 2, 1945. With the war over, James was given 100 days of paid leave and then discharged. He immediately returned home to Pitt County and started thinking about his future.

Although he had never thought about while growing up, James used the G.I. Bill to earn a college degree from at N.C. State University.

“I got in, but then I didn’t know what I wanted to major in,” he said. Because he had been farming he decided to become an agriculture teacher.

He taught first in Jacksonville, then Chicod School and ended his career at North Pitt County School. Whenever he saved a little money, he bought land and farmed. Along the way he married and raised three sons, Paul, a doctor; Eddie, a teacher at North Pitt High School; and Mark, an administrator at the Brody School of Medicine. He also has nine grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, one great-great grandchildren with three others on the way.

He also coached basketball and was a Boy Scout leader. When he retired from teaching, he ran for and won a seat on the Pitt County Board of Commissioners, which he held for 40 years.

James said he never gave much thought to celebrating Veterans Day over the years.

There were several years he participated in a Veterans Day parade that a former student turned friend, the late Charles Coburn, organized at Pitt Community College.

“I’m a very odd person. When I was poor and little we never celebrated a birthday because we didn’t have any money,” James said. He still doesn’t celebrate his birthday.

“I went to fight because my country said it needed me,” James said. In return, his country gave him an education, career and life he could have only dreamed of as a child.

“I’m so proud of what the government did for me. I have so much to be thankful for,” he said.

Warren Burr

When America entered World War II, Warren Burr, like so many his age, was eager to enlist.

Where he lived in California, young men who were old enough to go to war were assigned numbers to indicate how soon they would be called up. A few of his friends went immediately, but Burr was left to wait for his turn behind hundreds of others.

Burr, who moved to Greenville in 2008, found a kinship among fellow veterans at Cypress Glen retirement community, which is home to dozens of veterans. But only a handful remain of those who shared Burr's war experience.

“There aren't that many of us now that are left from World War II,” Burr said in an interview last week.“There aren't that many of us left anymore.”

Burr, 96, was 20 years old when he got the chance he had been waiting for: to enlist in the Army Air Force (which soon after became the U.S. Air Force).

“I was a young, dumb kid,” Burr said, bluntly. “I wanted to get in and fight. I wanted to be a gunner on a bomber.”

Poor eyesight kept Burr from achieving his goal. Recruiters had taken one look at his glasses and turned him away, but Burr would not be deterred. He vowed to sign up in the infantry if he had to, but a sign requesting mechanics for the Air Force ground crew changed his course.

Burr spent months training as a radio mechanic and later as a radar technician before being sent to Italy to serve as part of the 465th Bombardment Group. The group's job was to attack oil refineries, aircraft factories, steel factories and other strategic locations.

While his unit was not on the front lines, its mission was a dangerous one. Burr recalls nights where he and his fellow troops didn't sleep at all but instead spent the night manning their guns to thwart an enemy attack of their airfield.

Though he was assigned as ground personnel, Burr was able to achieve his goal of flying on some missions, including one in which he narrowly escaped with his life.

“On one flight, I got transferred onto another one, and the plane I was on went down,” he said. “I had changed from that plane to another plane before it left.

“When I got back they thought I was gone,” Burr said. “They had already written me up as missing.”

Many of his comrades were not as fortunate. He recalls a friend whose plane was shot down in Germany. Civilians found him and hanged him.

“If you have bad experiences, like your best friend got shot down, you don't want to be reminded of that,” Burr said. “Most of us that served in World War II, you don't talk about that much. That's behind you.”

Following the final battles in the European Theatre, Burr was sent back to California to await his new assignment in the Pacific. But while he awaited his new orders, the United States used nuclear weapons in Japan.

“The Japanese surrendered, and I'm sitting right there in the repo-depo (unit made up of replacements or reserves) to be transferred to Japan,” Burr said. “There's no sense in shipping me to Japan, so I was one of the first ones out.”

Discharged on a Thursday, Burr was back at work the following Monday. That same day, he enrolled in a technical school designed to put his radar skills to work on up-and-coming technology at home: television. Burr got married, had a family and spent his career with RCA.

While he left his military service behind, Burr views it as a turning point in his life.

“You grow up in a hurry,” he said. “It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because when I got out of high school I knew nothing about anything. Once I went into service, you get the hard knocks in a hurry. The service grew me up a lot.”

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