Whitesburg KY

Taken for granted

Imagine you are in a dark, closed-in cell. You’re cold, hungry, and lonely. All you know is that you are in a foreign country and you have just learned that Hitler has ordered his soldiers to kill every prisoner.

Though this may be a perfect start for a fiction story, this was a very real two years of James Breeding Jr., my grandfather’s, life. When we were little we listened to stories about Peter Pan and other characters that did heroic acts. But the true heroes, the real life courageous men and women, are the brave Americans like my grandfather James, the soldiers of our country.

James Breeding Jr. was born in Jeremiah on October 16, 1924. His parents, Vina Caudill and James Breeding Sr., were at their house as James was being delivered by a midwife. James had three brothers and two sisters of which he was the oldest. James always provided for his family; he left school in the eighth grade to help support his family. The jobs he had to support his family throughout his life included taxi driver, coal sampler, and factory worker. But his most important job was his scariest and most life-changing job, a soldier for the United States Army.

James joined the Army in July of 1943, which was when he began his basic training. He had to lie about his age so he could join the Army to support his family. During his basic training, James fell and broke his right foot. But a broken leg didn’t stop James from continuing on to pursue his goal of becoming a soldier. After his basic training was complete, James hopped upon a ship that was part of a convoy headed straight to England. James and his fellow volunteers braved seasickness on their journey, which would not allow them to eat for three days.

James and his men then sailed to France where they courageously traveled through the hedges of southern France. Though many of the fellows he knew were killed or injured during this journey, James and his men traveled onward until they came upon a base called the Secret Line. While at the Secret Line, James and his men survived a shortage of basic supplies such as food and water.

The soldiers then traveled through German territory in tunnels which were destroyed by German bombs, killing several and injuring many. James’s sergeant was one of the wounded and as he passed by James being carried back to headquarters, he asked that James take over. James, showing his bravery once again, honored the sergeant’s request.

The group then went into a bunker where the Germans wouldn’t be marching. But the Germans melted through the bunker’s door and started throwing grenades inside. James and his men, 15 in all, were wounded and taken as prisoners. His men were required to execute many horrific jobs. They were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp with about 2,500 prisoners. James and his men were taken to villages to carry the dead, including women and children, or any other punishing task the Germans had for them.

These prisoners had to eventually move to another POW camp named Stalag 14. On this journey to Stalag 14, James and his men were loaded onto boxcars where they would be cramped up together shoulder to shoulder without any room to sit. These POWs were allowed no food and no water, only a can to relieve themselves in. While recalling this trip James said, “Once when we stopped one stood up and hollered out for them to give us water. He was shot and fell back among us.”

While at this new camp, James and his men ate only a mixture made from pressing sugar out of sugar beets and mixing this with water. So when the opportunity came to work on a farm instead of staying at the camp, James took it. The Russians started closing in on Stalag 14 and James and his men had to move once again. They marched every night for about 15 days. While marching, if any soldier became weak and fell back, he was shot by the Germans.

By the time James and his men reached the camp, he was extremely sick. When the Americans took the soldiers from the Germans, James learned that his weight had changed from 168 to 92 pounds. James said, “I was so sick I hoped they would kill me.” But James survived his sickness out of sheer willpower and with the help of many hospitals. James was shellshocked for the next three months but eventually overcame it. He was then discharged in August of 1945.

James then went on to live a life full of many other troubles including the loss of his first wife, Marcelene Sexton. He was left to take care of his two children, Larry and Shirley Ann. he later married Shirley Breeding, my grandmother, and became a wonderful stepfather to my mother and my aunt. His daughter, Shirley Ann, died at a young age. James became a patient at the Veterans Center in Hazard about seven years ago. He died on February 12.

James’s story is one of many soldiers’ that went through these troubled times of World War II. Tom Brokaw once wrote a book about these World War II soldiers titled “The Greatest Generation”. This title could have not been any more fitting for such a truly great generation of brave men.

As I sat down at my grandfather’s funeral, I learned many things about his life that I had never known before. If I wanted to, I could make up an excuse for why I didn’t know these things about his life like, “Oh, he went into the nursing home when I was seven and his mind wasn’t very good after that.” But the truth is I took him for granted. Now I understand why so many songs on the radio are patriotic. The people that wrote them understood how much the soldiers of America such as James sacrificed, and how little they can do in return to repay these soldiers. So please, if you know any veterans, ask them about their lives, and whatever you do, don’t take them for granted like I did.

I discovered too late that my grandfather, James Breeding Jr., was a great American hero.

Leave a Reply