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My trip to Harlan County



That date in June 1950 when the Pentagon canceled all discharges of our military men and women because of the war in Korea was a sad and emotional time for them and their families they were going home to. Most of them had made plans to go back to school, find jobs, get married and start a new life, and now everything had to be put on hold.

I never saw so many grown people crying in my life.

This news did not hit me as hard as it did everyone else. I was debating on getting out or staying in the military. I had thought I would go back to Letcher County and start a oneman print shop.

A cutoff date had been set for personnel getting their discharges. A run was made on our printing department to get their orders. They did not understand that there was nothing we could do for them. We had to wait until their orders came from base personnel.

My men and I were offered money and gifts of all kinds to get their orders to them. I never felt so sorry for so many people in my life. Our AWOL rate during this time went sky-high.

The military started opening new training bases all over the United States to train young men for war. It would take six months to get these bases ready to receive the first trainees. They started drafting, enlisting, and taking reenlisted personnel, but only had a couple of bases to put these new men.

They ended up with thousands of new troops and nowhere to house some of them. The military had really screwed up.

At Lackland Air Base, we had young boys sleeping on the gym floor, on the ground between the barracks, and on the parade fields. You had to watch where you walked at night to keep from falling over them.

I never saw so many GIs on one base. The lines at the mess hall were at least a mile long, and all this would last for over three months.

Working in the print shop with a top- secret clearance, I saw a lot of strange things during those months.

Of all the new bases they opened for the new men, I will never understand why they picked Sampson Air Base, N.Y., as one of them. They found out later it was a bad location on the Finger Lakes of upper New York State with very long winters, and was the coldest place I would spend my next four years.

It was no surprise to me when I was picked to open the print shop at Sampson. I would be one of 37 airmen from air training bases all over the Untied States to open their departments before the first trainees would get there, in 90 days.

I had reenlisted for three years and received by $350 bonus they were paying. It was the most money this old boy had ever had. I bought a 1946 Oldsmobile, my first car, with some of the money. I would use the rest to get a place off base for my wife and new baby daughter to live in New York.

I left San Antonio, Tex., in mid Dec. 1950 in a car I knew very little about. I had been driving on the farm since I was about 10 years old, but this trip on roads I knew nothing about and in a state I had not been in before, I hoped I could make it in the dead of winter.

In those days in some of the poorer Southern states, some of the main roads were still unpaved. You had to drive through all of the towns; there were no routes around them.

I found out that most gas stations closed early, and a couple of times when I was low on fuel I had to sit in front of a gas pump until they opened the next morning. I did a lot of night driving and was a poor map-reader, and got lost a few times.

When I got to Kentucky and started driving in the southeastern part of the state, I felt good being that close to home. I somehow ended up driving through Harlan County and a few miles on the other side of town a pickup truck roared up behind me flashing his lights and blowing his horn, scaring the pants off of me.

I parked on the side of the road. This big guy came up to my car and put his light in my eyes. He wanted to know where I was going in such a hurry. I knew I had not been speeding. He did not show me a badge or tell me who he was.

I did not know if he was going to rob me or what. I thought he pulled me over because of my Texas plates.

I showed him my military and Kentucky driving permits. I told him I was on my way to Jenkins to visit my family before going on to my new assignment.

When he found out I was from Kentucky and in the military, his tone changed and he started talking very nice to me and told me that he was a World War II vet and talked to me for some time. He then told me to have a nice trip. I drove on to Jenkins with no trouble.

My family was very glad to see me. I saw my daughter Danna Kay for the second time. She was so pretty.

Contributing writer Everett Vanover lives in Fairfi eld, Calif.



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