World War II veterans honored at Loray Mill

Nine World War II veterans from Gaston County took a sentimental journey back to their service days in the 1940s.

Held Saturday at the Loray Mill’s Penegar Event Hall, the “Sentimental Journey: A Salute to the ’40s” cocktail party and dance honored the greatest generation’s service to the United States.

Organized by the mill’s Kessel History Center and Preservation North Carolina, the celebration also paid homage to the nearly three-quarters of a century that have passed since the then-Firestone mill earned the Army-Navy E Award for excellence in war production.

The award was presented to the mill’s workers in a ceremony at the plant on March 27, 1944, which was attended by North Carolina Gov. J. Melville Broughton. The prestigious honor was earned by fewer than 5 percent of the more than 85,000 companies involved in producing materials for the American war effort.

Dressed in 1940s-era attire, advisory members of the Kessel History Center welcomed each of the veterans to the event, many of whom were escorted by their wives, caretakers or children.

“I’m excited about it, tonight’s event,” said Willie Rhyne, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. “I’m happy to be recognized along with my other comrades who served. It’s always nice.”

Rhyne is one of several veterans who attended that are members of the World War II Last Man Club of Gaston County. Formed in May 1994, the Last Man Club is a community service organization that provides fellowship for members to reminisce about and share their wartime experiences.

Their wartime stories are recounted by Gaston native and author Martha Cloninger in a 2001 publication about the Last Man Club.

Rhyne was working at the Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly when word came through the switchboard about the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. He joined the U.S. Navy several days later, and soon sailed all over the Pacific aboard the DD 450 O’Bannon.

He told of a surface battle with which he was involved in 1942 between 13 U.S. ships and 26 Japanese ships.

“Shells were flying all over, ships being blown out of the water, going down in front of us,” he told author Cloninger. “Their depth charges detonating felt like we were being blown out of the water. We were passing over sinking ships. That was one of my scariest times.”

After his discharge, Rhyne returned to the Duke Power Company and retired after 43 years.

On Saturday, the World War II veterans were each recognized before the Gastonia Fire Department Honor Guard held a flag ceremony, which was followed by the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The veterans and their guests then danced to Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey” and other nostalgic music performed by a live band.

Military artifacts were placed on the tables and a mannequin dressed as a World War II combat infantry soldier was displayed courtesy of the American Military Museum in Gastonia.

Though the war ended more than 70 years ago, many recounted their experiences.

“All I did was do what they told us to do,” said Tete Pearson, of his service in Europe with the U.S. Army in World War II, during which he was wounded in the arm at age 19. “We were the guys that lived in the foxholes. It’s a pretty tough life when you get overseas and you don’t have any hot meals and you don’t have any inside housing, you live outdoors.”

Joseph Tedder enlisted and was called up to the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 18 in March 1943. Eight months later with the 5th Amphibious Corps, he arrived in Guadalcanal in the Pacific theater. Battling oppressive heat and risk of malaria, his main duty there was to install and maintain telephone wire. He would tour the Pacific supporting the war effort in many locations before landing in Iwo Jimo, Japan five days after D-Day in February 1945.

Ray Stewart was 19 when drafted and assigned to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division, of which he is one of few surviving members. He took part in numerous battles during his service, including the Battle of the Bulge, during which he helped to fight the German 2nd Panzer Division. Two of the tanks he was on were destroyed along the way.

Stewart served as a consultant to producers and actors of the 2014 film “Fury.” He met with actors Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf, who star in the fictional story of a tank crew making a final push into Nazi Germany during the end of World War II.

Fred Goodson grew up in Gaston County and served in the U.S. Army beginning in 1944. He had some laughs with fellow World War II veteran Archie Rawlings, as they both shared their appreciation for the celebration on Saturday.

“This is great,” said Rawlings. “We’re going to enjoy this being with a lot of friends we know. That’s important to me.”

Read full story…

(Gaston Gazette, 11/11/18)