(EDITOR’S NOTE: As a newspaperman in Calhoun for more than three decades, one of the joys of my life came whenever I received an envelope full of stories written by my good friend Vernon Brookshire. He had been my uncle Grover Dinsmore’s boss at the old Echota Cotton Mill in Calhoun for years, so I always knew of him as I was growing up. But it was as an adult that I grew to appreciate what he and other veterans of World War II had done for our country, preserving the freedoms we sometimes take for granted these days. I’m so grateful that Mr. Brookshire took the time in his later years to write down his experiences during and after the war. I still have a box full of those envelopes and decided that he would be thrilled to know that a new audience was waiting for him to share his memories in The Best of the North Georgia Mountains.)
By VERNON BROOKSHIRE
After three years and seven months of training, my 609 Tank Destroyer Battalion embarked on the troop ship U.S. Hermitage and disembarked at Liverpool, England on Aug. 24, 1944. We went to Llanover Park Camp near Monmouth where we accumulated our equipment, performed maintenance, and prepared for combat.
My brother, Lester, was in the Army Air Force’s 391st Bomb Squadron, 34th Bombardment Group. He was a Flight Engineer in a B-24 bomber somewhere in England. I had not seen him since I was drafted on Jan. 16, 1941.
(Although I did not know about it at the time, Lester had just finished his 25th bombing mission deep into Germany on the famous B-24 bomber, “The Duchess.” On his last mission, his plane received 3,000 silver-dollar-size holes, damaged some equipment, and wounded my brother in the neck.)
I asked my First Sergeant for a three-day pass to see if I could find my brother. He asserted that no one could get a pass. Furthermore, he reasoned that the secrecy of units, the uncertainty of travel, and the short period of time to go and return that I would not be successful anyway.
So I went to the Battalion Executive Officer, Major William Hatina, and asked him if he could help me locate my brother. He was sympathetic and promised to try. I had previously volunteered to help him with a special project. Two days later, he informed me that my brother’s unit was in a general location on the northeast side of England. He advised me that I would have to go down to London and up the east coast of England. He gave me a three-day pass and explained that he could not provide transportation, warning me that if I missed going with them to combat that I would fail my comrades and I would be court-martialed. He shook my hand and wished me well.
So, by determination and faith, I started hitch-hiking toward London. I don’t smoke but had the foresight to fill my pockets with canteen cigars. British Lorries (trucks) sped past me with signs in their windows that read, “POSITIVELY NO RIDERS.”
After a few minutes, I held up a fist full of cigars, and I was picked up and in London in a few hours. A few more cigars, and I was at the train depot in London. I asked for a train ticket to a depot which I thought might be near where my brother was located. The ticket seller replied that he was sold out, but when I pushed two cigars to him, he let me have a ticket and pointed out that I would have to stand up all night.
Next morning I arrived at this forgotten little depot. The depot clerk said that he did not know of the location of my brother’s Air Force unit. I gave him some cigars, showed him my credentials, and insisted that he find out. After several telephone calls, he reported that my brother had been wounded. Then he called the Air Force hospital and learned that my brother had been dismissed.
No one that he called knew the whereabouts of my brother. My time was running out. I bought a ticket to London and sat outside on a bench in the warm sunshine. I was tired, hungry, and disappointed. But I waited and hoped and prayed, “Lord, surely I haven’t come this far and not see my brother.”
After dozing awhile, I raised my head and saw a man far away in an Air Force uniform. “No,” I thought, “it couldn’t be.” I dozed again, heard my name called, and when I raised my head, I looked into the eyes of my brother! He had found me – after someone had informed him that I was here.
We walked through this little village, and talked, and ate fish and chips. After spending the night in the home of an elderly English couple, we separated.
We didn’t know if we would ever see one another again for I was headed for combat. I rode and hitch-hiked my way back to my unit – I made it just in time! My comrades congratulated me on my incredible luck, but I knew in my heart that I had unseen help.
When I met my brother in England, he had just finished his last combat flight. He had done heroic acts that saved his plane and crew. In my possession I have several papers of his “Awards and decorations” of which I will quote a few lines.
Citation: “For exceptionally meritorious achievement while participating in heavy bombardment missions over enemy occupied Continental Europe. The courage, coolness, and skill displayed by Lester E. Brookshire upon these occasions reflects great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”
In brief, he was awarded the Air Medal with Silver Oak Leaf Cluster, medals for Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, European African Middle Eastern Service medal with 3 bronze stars, Good Conduct, and the Purple Heart.
Like thousands of other World War II civilian-soldiers, Lester E. Brookshire was an unsung hero. He died of cancer on April 21, 1989.