Practically everyone knows Mr. James T. Sapp of Rincon and calls him a friend but few like me probably know very little about his military service in World War II. He was recently selected to travel with Honor Flight, an organization of military officers and their wives, who escort World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. to tour the capital city and war memorials. The escorts are known as “Guardians” and pay their own way, about $300 each, to perform this wonderful service. He has become fast friends with his guardian and others he met on the trip.
Mr. Sapp, a native of Stilson, was living in Port Wentworth and working for the Savannah Sugar Refinery when World War II broke out. Realizing that he was soon to be drafted, he enlisted in 1942, hoping to get into the Air Force. With that area of service already filled, he wound up in the Army in Miami training recruits and could have stayed there throughout the war. When he applied to become a paratrooper, his company commander questioned his desire to leave his safe post and explained that this was one of the most dangerous positions in which to serve. Undaunted, he finished jump school in November 1942. In April 1943, he was sent to New York where he joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Staff Sgt. James T. Sapp was attached to Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. He spent 29 months overseas with 371 days in combat.
Staff Sgt. Sapp was first sent to Northern Africa and served in three countries there. Combat followed in Sicily where postponed air drops led to heartbreak when he was witness to mistaken identity by our own troops. Twenty-three allied planes were shot down that night and half of his platoon was killed. Involved in the invasion of Italy at Salerno, he later saw service in Holland and was sent to England. Not only did he survive the Battle of the Bulge, he was in Germany when the Army met the Russians.
Mr. Sapp says, “The Lord was with James Sapp.” Losing company commanders, leaders and soldiers on his right and left, Mr. Sapp states that he came out with nothing more than a minor scratch with many close calls. He is a testament to his own words, “A man does not have to be physically injured to have wounds of war.” When he first returned to the States he commented that, “It was rough.” Over time the recently turned 88 years old has dealt with the emotional toll remarkably well by staying very busy, although admitting to a flashback almost every day. Upon arrival home, Mr. Sapp made a vow to honor those who gave their lives for this country: his commanders, friends and fellow soldiers. He vowed to honor their memory by becoming the best man (father, son, and husband) that he could be and he lives a life of service to others in testament to that promise.
Upon returning to the states after war, while awaiting discharge, he boarded a bus for home from Fort Gordon, with his uniform pressed and shoes shined. His parents lived in the Port Wentworth area and he got the bus driver to leave him at a local store owned by the Wendelken family. When he entered the store, he saw the most beautiful black-haired, brown-eyed beauty he had ever met and over the course of time, Mary Wendelken, the storekeeper who also noticed the handsome soldier, became his wife. They married Jan. 12, 1947, making their first home in Savannah. He had by then gone to work for Union Bag (now International Paper) and felt that he could financially provide a living for his bride. They moved to Effingham County in 1954, buying and operating a farm in Guyton until the Sapp family sold it in 1964 and came to reside in Rincon. Always lovingly referring to his wife as “Miss Mary,” Mr. Sapp spent a few months shy of 60 years with the love of his life. He still lights up with the mention of her name and is continuing to grieve his loss to this day. Mr. Sapp occupies himself with his son Jimmy and daughter Beverly Smithey and their families. He continues service to his church, Rincon United Methodist, veterans’ organizations, civic organizations, historical societies, and speaks often to groups including school children about World War II, keeping the story of his experiences of the greatest generation alive and fresh.
About 40 years ago, he learned clock repair from Mr. Colson in Springfield and occupies many hours in fine tuning clocks and performs restoration on vintage models that no longer run. Recently, he was featured by WTOC during a telethon to raise money for a World War II monument to be placed on River Street in Savannah. Mr. Sapp is consulting now with Port Wentworth in a historical church building restoration and the beginnings of a historical museum for the town. At his age, he remembers a lot about Port Wentworth that he can share.
Honor Flight selected him among 15 from this area to go to Washington. Due to the costs of flights with the veterans’ permission this group, from the Savannah Chapter of Honor Flight, traveled by Amtrak leaving on May 21 and returning very early in the morning on May 23. Mr. Sapp related the events of this opportunity of a lifetime full of pride and appreciation for the group that provided the trip. He also notes new friendships among the 25 veterans and guardians on the trip. He had known three prior to the trip through the Savannah American Legion. Everything that was needed was provided for the veterans with no expenses for anything; snacks, meals, photographs and personal care items were supplied. They arrived in Washington about 6:40 a.m. and were treated to breakfast in a cafeteria. After a bit of rest they boarded a bus for an all day tour of Washington. Harvey’s provided a box lunch of choice for the veterans on the bus during the day. The tour began with a stop at the World War II monument. They attended the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where they were told to expect a special salute, pointed out to them by their media representative. They were placed at the end of the walking route of the guards away from the usual spectators and the guard coming near them clicked his heels to acknowledge the veterans as his special salute to them. The tour included stops at the Vietnam and Korean War Monuments among other sites. A drive by tour of The Capitol, The White House and other important Washington buildings was great. They were driven all over Arlington Cemetery to view the 368,000 graves. After the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stop, an Army representative from the Pentagon met and greeted them. He was a two-star general from the 82nd Airborne and his first order of business upon greeting the group was to meet veteran Staff Sgt. James T. Sapp. You see the general’s unit was the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, the same one that Mr. Sapp had belonged to about 75 years earlier. Mr. Sapp grinned from ear to ear sharing this information. After a full day and an evening meal in the cafeteria, the tired veterans slept in their reclining seats on the train on the way home. Arriving back in Savannah around 6 a.m., Mr. Sapp was escorted home by his guardian, from Daisy near Claxton.
It was indeed my pleasure to make an oral history tape of veteran Staff Sgt. James T. Sapp for Historic Effingham and to assemble this information. This humble man so full of life, a walking talking history book, recalls every city or place he served and every battle despite his age. In every way he is the picture of health, still slim enough to wear his uniform of war. A hearing aid has improved his hearing greatly of late and he is eager to share or spend time with friends. He says that he has the most friends of anyone in Effingham County and I am sure he is correct because any stranger he meets soon becomes his friend.
Medals and awards of Staff Sgt. Sapp include: the Bronze Star; Good Conduct Medal; Presidential Unit Emblem of European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with six stars; World War II Victory Medal; Army of Occupation Medal; Expert Combat Infantry Badge; Belgian Fourragere (an ornamental cord worn on the shoulder); Netherlands Orange Lanyard; Honorable Service Lapel Button; World War II Parachute Badge with three stars and the Bronze Arrowhead.
Effingham County and our country are so lucky to have Mr. James T. Sapp and all of the veterans who served or gave their lives for our freedom. We salute Honor Flight, the organization that provided Mr. Sapp his first trip to Washington D. C. at age 88. It is wonderful that this trip was provided for this humble man who has served God, our country, his family, and has set an example of a Christian life of service to others. He is after all the role model in my book for one of the finest men of “The Greatest Generation.” We might not be here experiencing the freedom we have today in our country without Mr. Sapp and those like him. Please join me in saluting one of Effingham’s best and thank him for his service.
Honor Flight is supported solely by donations from the public. To help send our local WW II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the WW II Memorial, make checks payable to Honor Flight Savannah and send them to: Honor Flight Savannah, P.O. Box 60176, Savannah, GA 31420. All donations are tax deductible. For further information visit the Web site: www.honorflight.org.
Thanks to Carol Megathlin, media representative for Honor Flight Savannah, for her photograph and Honor Flight information. This article was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have comments, photos or information to share, contact Exley at 754-6681 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.