A farmer goes to war

This files includes a short biography of my father, his comments about WWII and his addendum includes his comments about his youth, the war and life.

Leonard Edward Thornton was born January 29, 1920 in Putnam County, West Virginia. The first born child of Thomas Jefferson and Harriet Bird Thornton. He grew up on a farm on a ridge near the Putnam/Lincoln county line. He spent much of his early years working on the farm with his brothers raising tobacco, corn and truck crops. His father operated a general store and let his boys do most of the farming. His early schooling was on the Turkey Creek side of the ridge in Putnam county (referred to as Burnside, WVa.). While learning to write with his left hand his teacher forced him to use his right hand. He became a right-handed writer and all his children were right-handed but each of their children had children that were left-handed. He learned much of his musical talents by practice and by ear while listening to the radio. He learned to play the guitar and fiddle (violin) along with his younger brothers Howard and Buford. He married Ina Elsie Johnson on October 10, 1941. Ina was the second child of Hugh Chandos(born March 3, 1903 died July 28, 1991) and Alta Mae Smallridge (born August 16, 1901 died April 4, 1959). Ina was born January 25, 1925. The couple first lived in Charleston, W.Va. before he entered the U.S. Army in World War II.

After the war they lived on a farm on Lick Creek, Putnam County, W.Va. and he farmed, worked at ACF Industries in Huntington W.Va. and studied electronics at home through National Radio Institute. The family moved to 1659 Second Street, Milton, W.Va. in 1951 in order to get closer to his work at ACF in Huntington. The work at the railroad car manufacturer was often cyclical with many layoffs and Leonard setup a television and radio repair shop at Esteps Grocery Store, U.S. Rt.60, Milton, W.Va.(where Stewart Addition Road meets Rt. 60). In order to also help ends meet, Leonard also played fiddle at square dances on Friday and Saturday nights for many years. In the1960’s Leonard was involved in another of his hobbies and used it to his benefit, at that time he became interested in photography and started taking pictures at weddings and other events. He pursued that interest for a few years and later used his camera for family pictures. In addition to this hobby of photography, he also enjoyed using CB radios and coin collecting. Before his retirement he also enjoyed gardening, hunting and fishing. He retired from ACF Industries in 1982 and later moved to warmer weather in Crystal River, Florida. His wife Ina died November 22, 2011 and he died November 18, 2013.

Leonard Edward ThorntonLETArmy_2
Military Service

I was drafted into the army in November 1942. I left home on December 14, 1942 and went to Fort Thomas, Kentucky for assignment. I was there for about three weeks.

My military service number was 35 64 4130 with my identification number was #T4130.

In early January 1943 in great secrecy the unit left Fort Thomas, Kentucky at night. No one knew anything about where they were going or how long it would take to get there. They knew “Nothing”. The next day the troop train we traveled on, pulled into Tullahoma, Tennessee. We arrived at Camp Forrest and the 80th Division Basic Training. I was assigned to B Battery of 314 Field Artillery Battalion. In basic training I was trained in all phases of artillery, ammunition and gun nomenclature. I trained in fire direction, communication, spotting, survival, personal hygiene and military drill.

Then in September we moved to Camp Phillips, Kansas. There wasn’t much training there. I always thought we were in Kansas to get out of Camp Forrest, Tennessee to make room for another outfit. The unit was in Kansas for Desert Training and another unit was in training at that time. The unit had to wait for a while before Desert Training could start. We left Kansas on the first of December and went to Camp Laguna, Arizona. The camp was 14 miles out of Yuma, Arizona. We finally got the Desert Training there. While there the unit studied machine guns, anti-aircraft, artillery, digging holes, filling them up and drinking lots of beer. We traveled on a troop train from Arizona in April 1944 to Fort Dix, New Jersey. There was no training to speak of, just preparation for overseas movement.

While at Fort Dix, we had the unit pictures taken and I was moved to C Battery. Many men were moved based on fitness, health-mental stability and most according to need and ability.

I had a 10 day furlough when Diann was born on February 11, 1943 and in September 1943 before I moved to Kansas I had a 15 day furlough. After I moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey, I had a 7 day leave and took Ina back to Fort Dix with me. Ina was there about a month or so. When the Allied Forces invaded France, the entire East Coast was on Alert and in Black Out. On the next weekend I went to Washington, DC with Ina and put her on a train to West Virginia. On July 2nd we went to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The entire 80th Division plus other units loaded onto the Queen Mary. It took time to get loaded but there was a lot of people already there and the unit was out to sea on the 4th of July 1944.

The unit and Queen Mary traveled from the United States to Scotland in only 7 days. The ship really traveled fast and changed direction every 7 minutes. The German submarines needed 10 minutes to set up and zero in. That way if the ship was spotted, by the time the submarine was ready the Queen Mary was gone. The unit landed at Glasgow, Scotland and moved to Marbury Hall, Great Britain. The unit stayed there a few weeks and tried out the new artillery toys. The units then moved to Wales for artillery practice.

Sometime in the later part of July, the unit moved to France, landed at Omaha Beach, Cherbough, France. Cherbough, France was almost German free when the unit got there but the outskirts were still active. It wasn’t long before Patton was in the show and a show it was.

My unit at that time was called Wire Section but it is probably called Communications now. Wire Section, C Battery, 314 Field Artillery Battalion, 80th Infantry Division. The unit lost General McBride shortly after they got in France and I never met the new general. The names of all the officers are not remembered, there was a Lt. John Ryan, Lt. Carter, Capt. Boston, Capt. Monnehan, Lt. Beard, and many more.

The units movement across France was rather complex, this way, that way and always toward the Germans. Sometimes they would miss the Germans and sometimes the Germans would miss them. Patton’s philosophy was to keep moving, keep shooting. I don’t remember town names much and there wasn’t much left to remember. St. Lo gone, Cherbourgh gone, St. Avold gone, Metz and Nancy pretty much tore up. We got to the Meuse River near Argonne Forest around September 1, 1944. The unit ran out of gas and was there two and one half months waiting for supplies. A sort of holding action with plenty of action.

Some of the large cities seemed to be missed by the war. No noticeable damage and other rather small towns were completely demolished. I guess it had something to do with the war effort such as transportation, communication and command centers. I saw Strasburg, Saarbrucken, Luxemburg, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Kaiserslautern, Mannheim, Frankfurt, Baden Baden, Bamburg, Neurberg, Regensburg, Munich, Kempton, Memmengen, Innsbruck. I didn’t get to Italy or Switzerland but was close a few times. The most amazing river was the Danube. All the rivers were amazing but the Danube was like the Greenbrier in West Virginia, only much larger maybe 4 or 5 times larger, faster and clear. There were fish in the river that never had been caught.

Our unit was considered in the invasion of France and battles all across France. Then there was the Bulge in Luxembourg and Belgium. The unit spearheaded the break through into Germany. One spearhead was with the 4th Armored Division and the other unit was the 10th Armored Division. The crossing of the Rhine was a major maneuver of Patton. Patton found a spot in the southern end of the German line and the Germans were not expecting anyone. There was no defense and Patton sent half the division around and across the Rhine. The pontoon were there fast and the unit was across with very little resistance. There was some resistance, a few towns had some kids and old women trying to keep the unit out but an ax couldn’t do much to stop a tank.

The Bronze Star I received was issued after the fact. We were billeting in a little town called Dietmans Reed. The first Sargeant Medson called me in and said here it is, that’s all there was to it. During the second crossing into Germany in the Strasburg area we moved into position on Sunday. I would say mid-January 1945. There was three of us that went to the front, a jeep driver, observation officer and myself, a radio operator. We all dug our fox holes there, settled in for the night and we were rudely awakened at 3 am by artillery fire. It was dark and we couldn’t do anything until daylight. The artillery fire lasted until 4:30 am, still 2 and one half hours before daylight then our infantry pushed on and all Hell broke loose. It seems that the Germans, what was left, had dug in pretty good and still had some life left. Shortly after daylight they counter-attacked and drove our boys back. My jeep driver and observation officer were both wounded and left when our men pulled back. That left me there above with all the equipment and couldn’t get to the jeep without giving my position away, so I just stayed put until I was relieved the next day, after the infantry drove the Germans on into Germany. I was on high ground for observation and the Germans and the US infantry maneuvered around me all day and part of another night. I kept the radio going all the time. I don’t know and never did know if I was any benefit but I did what I could.

The winter was about like all winters except I was in it with both feet. We didn’t get any snow until late October or November but when we went to Luxemburg the snow was deep and cold, must have been 4 or 5 feet deep. The sides of the roads had been plowed and you couldn’t see over the sides standing in the back of the trucks. When you dig down into the ground for a fox hole the ground seemed warm and made a good place to sleep.

I carried a M1 carbine but never used it much. I remember one time I used it as an anti-aircraft weapon but I didn’t see any feathers fall. At that time we didn’t see very many German planes and when we did, I think about everyone shot at them more or less to get rid of stale ammo.

We went along with the 10th armored across Germany until we met the Russians. We then back-tracked to Nurenburg and stayed there 2 to 3 weeks, then we moved south to a small town near Austria called Swinestadt. We were there at the foot of the Alps for 2 to 3 weeks. We went to Austria near the Czech border, we fired our last shot into Czechoslovakia on May 5, 1945. A week of so later the Big Wigs somewhere was having trouble with a Marshall Tito. So up in the mountains of Austria we went. We were ready to show him who was boss but before we could get there and into position, he said he’d had enough. While we were there Patton got word that the big show horses was in the area (Lippezan). He loaded a few army trucks and drove to the area, picked the horses up and brought them to the allied side so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of Russia. There was several truck loads of them, beautiful white horses that I saw.

Our food was pretty much stabilized if we were in bivouac, the mess truck was there and the food was about the same as anywhere. Canned goods, dried goods, some but very little fresh foods. A good cook can do wonders with dried beans and powdered potatoes. In the field we had C rations, K rations then later we got Package rations called 10 in 1. Supposed to be enough for 10 men but if you was very hungry you didn’t feel like it was enough. We’d dig potatoes in the fields, pull their beets, gather apples, trade chocolate for eggs, anything to fill up a gut. Once when we was in the Argon Forrest on the Meuse river they rotated a FO squad to a little place on a hill. It might have been a town but I don’t think so, there was only 6 maybe 10 houses and each house had a garden. The people was gone I don’t know where, one of the houses had a lot of rabbits, we turned them loose so they could get food and water then we started eating rabbits when our rations got low.

We had our sleeping bags and we’d put them down anywhere we could find room for them. In the back of a truck, fox hole, sometimes an abandoned house, sometimes just on the ground if things was quiet. Occasionally we would put up tents to sleep in if we stayed in one place very long.

I was never in but one plane but that was enough. The only reason I went then was because the only available Radio Operator was on sick call.

I never saw but one dogfight the entire time that I was over there between allied and axis planes. That was in December 1944 in Luxembourg. This P47 was chasing a Nazi ME109 and didn’t seem to be making any headway. But I guess it was a planned scheme because out of the sky came a P38 from above and that was the end of the ME109. The German pilot ejected and was captured. The ME109 crashed inside the enemy lines and we didn’t see it any more. Another tidbit about this area, we had a fellow in our outfit named Quincy, an Indian from Oklahoma. He was one of the FO jeep drivers and had been up on the front in the Ettlebrook area and I was on switchboard duty and when he came in he brought a fiddle in. He said, “ Here’s you a plaything” and went on and went to bed. I’ve had the fiddle ever since. It must be a pretty good fiddle because a fellow on the ship home offered me three hundred dollars for it.

The death and destruction was awful but with what we had to do with it was to be expected. I remember shortly after we landed in France there was a Allied Movement that the Germans wasn’t expecting. The British to the north, Americans 1st Army center and Patton’s 3rd Army south, all except 1st Army moving east, all the while Germans was moving west so at a given time British moved south, Patton moved north leaving a huge pocket with no where for the Germans to go you can imagine what our Air Force along with the British, “BOOM, nothing left”!!! We all loaded in trucks for a tour of this valley of destruction, cows, men, horses, wagons, military equipment of all kinds mangled together, there wasn’t anything left alive except death bugs. I’ve always wondered where they come from but they are always there. Then another little town just after we crossed the German border, Patton’s plan if you move, go in shooting. Then owner of the house was digging in the back yard, we ask why? He said his wife, a little old lady, had died instantly when we started all the shooting. We all helped bury her in the back yard.

Mail at that time was pretty good. I really think it was better than now. It was still at that time a Government Operation, letters traveled there by a system called VMail, all letters and other was censored so while open to be read, they put all mail on microfilm, shipped over seas then remade into a letter and sent on which was pretty fast.

When I started I left Deitman Reed to Munich, joined the 4th Armored Division then by truck to France, then to Southern France by truck, then Blue Ridge Victory Ammo Ship to Hampton Roads, Virginia. Went to Fort George E. Meade Maryland and was mustered out there. Got on a train to Charleston, West Virginia, Greyhound bus to Hurricane and Buford met me there and took me to Lick Creek.

ADDENDUM

I was born at what was then Route #4, Box 104, St. Albans, West Virginia. It is now Route 3, Hurricane, West Virginia. Shortly after I was born, Dad sold the farm to Alvin and Elmer Edwards and bought the farm on the ridge from Fount Carpenter and there the rest of my brothers and sisters were born. We were poor farmers and didn’t have many worldly things to brag about but we always had plenty to eat and something to hide our nakedness. Our recreation and entertainment was created by us playing with kittens, chickens, calves and pigs and playing tag. If we could find something to make a ball out of, we’d play some kind of ball game mostly we’d throw the ball over the house to someone on the other side, we called that “Andyover”. In the winter we went to school about two and a half mile to walk. We tried to have a trap line to look after, we’d catch opossums, skunk, weasel, mink and now and then a coon and a fox. We wasn’t close enough to the river for muskrat but we knew what they were. In the summer time we’d have visitors mostly from St. Albans some of our relation. Our Uncle Billy (W.P.Thornton) and all of his family lived there and ran a merchandise business and most had cars. So when they came in the summer time the only time the roads were fit for anything but horses. So for the first 8 or 10 years of my life the only cars I saw was in the summer time so as you can see according to today’s standard my life wasn’t considered very high on anyone’s wish list but we were all happy as coons in the cornfield and all the dogs tied up. That was our life and that was all we knew about.

In February 1931 we moved from the farm on the hill to a smaller farm with a storehouse down on Turkey Creek. It was much closer to the school only about a mile to walk and we had a creek to play in. Everything seemed to be much closer to what our needs were. Dad created a good business, bought a truck for his business. Although he never tried to drive it, so some of the boys did all the driving and life seemed to be much easier although there was always plenty to work at. I was eleven years old when we moved to the creek and was expected to carry a larger part of the load and my playing time was cut considerably. We found time to groundhog hunt, some fishing and just about all kinds of hunting. There was no deer in that part of the country at that time. Night hunting was a big thing with us, we had a dog, a medium sized white dog, we called it Spot and he was our dog for everything- rabbits, squirrel, coons, possum and was considered quite good maybe only by us but that was all that mattered at that time.

There was no electricity in that part of the world until the late forties. Television had never been invented even radio was still young. Sometime in the late thirties Dad got a radio for the store. A battery radio was good reception and Dad wanted it for news and a few select programs. He liked to listen to the fights and would listen to election returns. Sometimes we would with an invitation go to some of the neighbors and listen to the radio on Saturday night, mostly the Grand Ole Opry. No one used a radio just for the fun of it, batteries was expensive, hard to get recharged, all cost money and no one had much money and no one had any to waste.

As you can see my social life was almost nonexistent, maybe once a month or so someone would invite me to the movies with them to Hurricane or maybe Milton. Back in those days they had serial shows continued from week to week (Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers). Some of the Johnson boys usually had a car but not much money so they didn’t do a lot of running around, some had jobs but no job those days paid much but when they could they’d go somewhere.

As you can surmise my worldly activity was almost a blind spot, to me dancing was never thought of. I guess I’d seen some of it in the movies and had read of it in some sort of media but never dreamed that I might try it someday.

After I was drafted into the U.S. Army and while I was at Fort Thomas, Kentucky there wasn’t much to do so we stayed either at the PX or rec. room. In the rec. room there was a juke box and at the PX there was a juke box with beer. Boogie Woogie was getting big at that time and everyone wanted to play boogie, there was no girls so when a good record was on, the city boys would want to dance. There was no alternative but dance with each other so here we go, after 3 or 4 beers it got to be a lot of fun even though I felt as though both feet was left feet, others said they felt the same way. The big brass would decide we needed exercise and get us out to police up the grounds picking up cigarette butts, paper and all other clutter that might be there, a dull life for a farm boy that had never been out of the state.

Then we moved to Tennessee, it was a new ball game, never a dull moment. Six weeks of basic training mostly stuff that I already knew or thought I did and a new slant on life. January in Tennessee is still winter time and if you’re not careful which we learned to be, you can get mighty cold, I remember one time it had been raining and everything was wet. I went to bed with my socks on, over night it turned cold and with my feet sticking out of the tent (always was too short) my socks froze right on my feet, then when the weather warmed up out in the field there was plenty of wild life mostly reptile life but a lot of goats too and some of the most beautiful horses I ever saw anywhere. But the snakes seemed to be everywhere all kinds (blacksnakes, copperheads, rattlers and water snakes of all kinds). While on field training maneuvers we moved into an area for overnight camp and the commander put out the list for guard duty and I had been selected for gas sentry. There was no poison gas but I was there for the night. I took my bedroll and a tent, and made my bed and settled with a rattler den. I don’t remember just how many we killed but there was several of them. I guess its like I always heard people say if you don’t bother them they won’t bother you.

Then we went to Kansas and the first day there I met up with a rather unusual animal that I had never made acquaintance with. I think they called it a porcupine or something that sounds like that, it had a long spine like hair or such and like a opossum, if disturbed would curl up and play dead you could step on it and the spines would hold you up, I guess its toughness was its protection.

While in Arizona, I met up with a lot of different kinds of wildlife, there was the sidewinder, rattlers, gila monsters, big toad like frogs, coyotes, foxes, big cats and a lot of stuff that made a lot of noise at night, that I never knew what it was. You very seldom saw any of the wild life in daylight hours only at night, I guess it got too hot for them, our desert training didn’t call for a lot of night work but when we did we were cautioned to be alert for the night life that was in the area.

Then when we went to Europe the wild life was much different than I was accustomed to. In all my time over there I never saw a snake, no wild rabbits, no squirrel, wild life was almost nonexistent. Somewhere I saw a wild boar I guess it could have been a domestic hog that just happened to get killed but I never seen anything like it. Then after we got into the mountain range I saw a few small deer the commander allowed any of us that wanted to, to go hunting for the deer. I went and even saw one but didn’t get a good shot so I didn’t get him. That kind of hunting was something new to me then and probably had the wrong kind of gun and more than likely had a wrong kind of attitude.

The entire 34 months to me was an experience I wouldn’t take anything for now would I give a rusty nickel for it again. There is no doubt in my mind that it was a part of my trials here on this earth and there was no way that I or anyone else could have done it any other way because I know that it is my nature to not do anything I don’t have to. You go through life thinking everything is going your way, when you look back and see that it wasn’t your way at all but the way of the LORD.

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