By Mannix Porterfield
German children astonished Fred Ray Yates with English so fluent he could scarcely believe his ears.
Not sure if their father had survived World War II’s many, bloody battles, three girls and their older brother had more or less “adopted” him as a father after American troops overwhelmed Germany and were busy straightening up an airfield.
Yates was puzzled by their uncanny ability to speak English on his level, so he asked them why.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” the brother explained.
“All boys my age learned English so that when Hitler took the United States, we would become governor of a state.”
Then, the young German lad added, “I don’t think that’s going to work out, do you?”
No, indeed, the 1,000-year Reich didn’t quite pan out, and Yates was among those who made sure the Nazi plans for world dominance fizzled.
Yates recalled his wartime experiences Monday as Beckley sealed off its streets and lent the city to the annual Veterans Day parade, a long line of colorful floats, Army vehicles, marching school bands and youth groups, all united behind the red, white and blue. All that and an array of vintage cars — Mustangs, a Rolls Royce, even the short-lived Edsel.
Pick a conflict in modern times and it was represented — from the Big One of WWII to Korea to Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East.
Flag-adorned military vehicles eased down Neville Street, led by the grand marshal, Korean War veteran John Martin.
“God Bless America” filled the air, courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson High band, while Shady Spring High’s ensemble offered “She’s A Grand Old Flag.”
Abraham Lincoln-look-alike Jim Rubin stood in the back of a special train car and erupted into the Gettysburg Address. Beneath him was a sign, “I’m Abraham Lincoln and I approve these messages.”
Even Santa Claus got into the act, not in a sled pulled by eight tiny reindeer, but some real horsepower — a vintage Mustang.
One man wore a red beret and a T-shirt with this advice, “Kill ‘Em All — Let God Sort ‘Em Out.”
“We repaired old German airfields that they tried to destroy and stuff like that,” the 91-year-old Yates recalled, after riding through the parade in a PT Cruiser.
“Germans could land on sod. They could take a plow and go down through their airfield. We’d have to go in and repair them.”
This was in Darmstadt, Germany, and eventually, Yates and his fellow soldiers in an Army aviation engineering outfit fashioned an airfield on the Rhine River at Sandhofen, where his “adopted” children wished him a Happy Birthday on the day it arrived.
German children, initially attracted, as most youngsters are, by heavy equipment, clung to Yates, using him as a substitute father.
“They didn’t know whether their dad was alive or not,” the Crab Orchard resident said.
“He was in the German army. They didn’t do things like we did. They just buried them and didn’t notify anybody.”
Yates, a retired heavy equipment operator, recalled his harrowing ordeal in crossing the Atlantic Ocean, heavily infested with German submarines.
“We went in a ship without an escort and zig-zagged across the ocean so they couldn’t hit us with torpedoes,” he said.
“The Germans had a submarine fleet that was still going strong.”
When WWII flared, his father, a veteran of World War I, joined with him, and for a while, it was a father-and-son team but soon they were split up.
Like Yates, veterans of other wars remain fiercely patriotic and harbor no regrets in donning a uniform and going overseas to engage a foreign enemy.
“I wouldn’t do it again, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Terry Scarbro of Crab Orchard, a retired federal mine inspector, who served with the Army in the 1099th (Transportation Company) “River Rats” between Long Binh and Saigon.
“It’s something I don’t look back on too much, but I still wouldn’t trade the experiences I had in the military. Yes, I’m proud of my service in the military.”
Scarbro views the American effort in the Southeast Asian country as a humanitarian effort, designed to relieve a suffering people.
“When you see people depressed down and they don’t have anything, you do what you can to help them. You have to look at it that you’ve done a good thing if you’re helping people. If you’ve got a next-door neighbor and somebody is breaking in on them, and trying to do them harm, and you don’t help them, you’re not much of a neighbor to them. So, we need to look at other countries as we do our next-door neighbors and help them out when they need help.”
Carlton Cunningham of Beckley recalled his role in helping the downtrodden, the Montagnards, or mountain people, in his tour with the Army in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
“We used to take food up to the village to them,” he said.
“They were good people. They let us know what was going on around us.”
Serving with the 577th Combat Engineers, Cunningham said his unit largely was engaged in rebuilding bridges that Communist forces had bombed.
“I got some shrapnel, but it was nothing to worry about,” he said.
Cunningham was eligible for a Purple Heart but didn’t bother to pick up the honorable medal.
“I didn’t need that,” he said, with a quick laugh. “I got home.”
Cunningham was at the still-tender age of 18 when he arrived in Vietnam, leaving behind his job in helping Ford Motor Co. build Continentals and Thunderbirds. At the time, America was a divided nation and riots were breaking out in the streets.
“I had to make a decision or be a draft dodger,” he said.
“My mother always told me to do the right thing. I did the right thing.”
His friend, Larry English, also of Beckley, put in Vietnam tours in 1966 and 1968, first in Cu Chi, and later along the Cambodian border, both the Army’s 25th Division.
“I got a few little back injuries, but I’m still standing,” said English, who works for Raleigh County Headstart.
“I’m proud of being a veteran.”
Beneath a cap emblazoned with various mementos, including the prestigious Combat Infantryman Badge, 80-year-old Korean War veteran Bill Nicholas of Piney View proudly watched the parade units file by.
“It was rough, cold,” he said of his 1950 duty in Korea with the 1st Cavalry Division. “Those patrols were pretty rough.
“The biggest thing was the weather. I was there when the Chinese came into the war, in that push. It was terribly cold. I thought my feet were frostbitten. I’d take my boots off and my snowpack would be frozen. That’s how cold it was.”
Mortar fragments showered into his back just beyond the 38th Parallel, but caused no permanent damage, just some occasional pain.
Two years later he was out of the Army, but swapped the land for the sea, starting a 20-year love affair with the Navy and serving on a dozen ships before he retired as a chief petty officer.
“I didn’t care too much for the Army,” he said.
“I liked the Navy and would have stayed in but I was getting old and my kids were growing up.”
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