By Matt Myers
The pitch storm-cloud of war hung heavily over Europe in 1943. Churchill’s bold plan to crush the Axis’ forces by way of what he called the Italian peninsula’s “soft underbelly,” had failed. Americans, from our foothills here in northeast Tennessee to the bustling metropolises of Chicago and Los Angeles, were becoming more and more disparaged with what they read in newspapers of the day. From the Fallschirmjäger-defended stone fortress of Monte Cassino, to the Malaria infested beachhead of Anzio, young Americans were paying a perilous toll amidst the fight against Hitler’s armies in the mountainous Gustav Line.
It seemed as if the Allies would never find an adequate route into the heartland of the Third Reich’s naked aggression. It seemed as if the muddy purgatory of battle that Italy had become would stretch out and consume the whole of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean, or perhaps the whole of Europe itself.
And then the early summer of 1944 came, and with it a renewed allied plan for penetrating “fortress Europe.”
The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 was the action adjacent to the Eisenhower-led plan that would remedy the bleak situation for the Allies. The invasion forces, as well as resources allocated for the invasion, composed the largest amphibious military operation in the history of our planet. In the wake of the invasion’s might, an influx of American citizen soldiers braved the U-boat wolf-packs in the English Channel together, and flooded into the hedged farmland of Southern France to fight.
One of those citizen soldiers was Horace Calhoun. He was 19 years old.
Calhoun was born and raised in the Roan Mountain community by the clear waters of Heaton Creek. Like the generations of purely agrarian Americans before him, Horace’s father, Edward, tilled the farmland of the Roan valley to provide a living for his wife, Blanche, and their children. During his teenage years, Horace’s competitiveness led him to the gridiron. In 1940 he became the first quarterback of the Cloudland High School Highlanders, an accomplishment that places him at the very beginning of the dominant program’s lineage.
Horace’s life changed irrevocably after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he candidly spoke about it.
“I knew at that moment, when the paper said the Japanese attacked, that I was going to serve my country overseas,” said Calhoun in the comfort of his Hampton home. “The attack was so quick and without warning. It all felt amiss to me; something had to be done. I had heard about Hitler and the Nazi regime when I went to sign up in ’41, and even whispers about some of the (atrocities) being committed in camps. The army recruiter I saw at that time, he talked a lot more with us about the European conflict. I signed up wanting to go to Europe, but I would not see action for another two years.”
In the period between 1941 and February of 1943 Calhoun was stationed stateside in a maintenance company. It was during this period that he gained his expert status in field communications, as Calhoun became a top level field radio operator with a mastery of Morse Code. He still retains the aforementioned Morse skills to this day, and demonstrated them on the kitchen counter in his home. A clear S.O.S. and an even clearer tap-spelling of my name showed me the depth of his continued proficiency.
In 1943 Calhoun was transferred to a combat-ready unit attached to General George S. Patton’s 2nd Armored Division. He would make a 16-day journey across the Channel with his unit a few weeks after the Normandy invasion. Lahar, France became his new home for the time being, and General Patton became his new supervisor. General Patton’s outlandish propensity for the forward advance in infantry and armored warfare, as well as the his infamously foul language, had an immediate impact on the teenager from Heaton Creek. He laughed while recalling the commander’s unique disposition.
“The instant you were on duty you knew he was around, I mean even when he wasn’t around he was around, you know. We had standing orders and there were severe consequences if it wasn’t carried out as he saw fit. Some of the other boys loved him, some, you know, they didn’t. But I always kept my mouth shut and went about my duty on patrol, or when we kept the prisoners. He had a certain way about him, the way he would yell that mess, people listened and if you didn’t, you got outta the way!” Calhoun shared.
After a year of combat action as a radio operator on a halftrack and an infantryman on patrol, Calhoun was tasked with guarding Nazi prisoners in Western Germany. It was during this time that he spoke with high-ranking Wehrmacht officers on a daily basis. One general in particular spoke to Calhoun about the relief he felt when he learned his captors would be American and not Soviet.
“One day we were out in the yard and a new General came in. He was in full dress like most of their people. They (the Germans) were very disciplined soldiers. They never went around in sloppy dress. Anyway, this General comes up to me and tells me that he thanked God when he saw Patton’s tanks coming towards his troops. He and his men had prayed that the Russians would not get to them first. They were all in this pocket there in southern Germany so it was very likely that the Red Army would pick them up if we didn’t. They didn’t want that. They knew that we would not mistreat them. There was a real fear amongst them when it came to the Russians,” Calhoun recounted.
He came back to the mountains of Northeast Tennessee in 1946, after three years of service in the last World War. He married his next door neighbor, Ruth Jones, in 1948, and would remain her devoted husband until her passing in 2010. With her he raised two children, Debra Calhoun-Little and Jerry Calhoun. He took a job at North American Rayon as an electrician in 1947, a career he would retire from 50 years later. He is still a spiritual leader and deacon at Eastside Freewill Baptist Church, and will continue to be for many years. He is a peaceful, humorous man that I have been proud to call great-uncle for the past 27 years. For the friends and family around Calhoun today, he has been and continues to be a joyous father, grandfather, and personal mentor.
Debra and Jerry would each start families of their own with Danny “Zeke” Little and Teresa Tipton-Calhoun, respectively. Danny and Debra have two children of their own, Alan Little and Jennifer Little-Hicks; while Teresa and Jerry are the proud parents of Jessica Calhoun and Sara Calhoun. Jennifer married Brian Hicks, and they in turn made Calhoun the proud great-grandfather of two boys, Bryson and Brody Hicks.
In this our own age of strife, we should never forget to remember those who have sacrificed overseas by name. By taking a moment to reflect on the peaceful lives of men like Horace Calhoun, we can also reflect upon the need for peace in the lives of military personnel in overseas conflict today. We can all honor everything that our veterans have fought to preserve by looking constantly at their individual histories, and hopefully think about bringing them back to share their joy with family and friends again. The impact of having them around serves to enrich our collective lives. Just ask anyone that knows Horace Calhoun.