Murray Kight recalled having to go with the pastor to tell his father that the younger Kight’s brother had been killed in action in Korea. Tommy Allen remembered the young sailor whose place his late uncle took in the engine room stopping by their house after the war. John Kieffer told the story of the telegram his grandmother received on the front porch of her home. Jesse Simmons said his birthday will never be the same.
Simmons’ birthday is two days before May 3. It was May 3, 1968, when Simmons’ brother James A. Lanier died from hand grenade shrapnel in Vietnam.
His older brother was in Vietnam for only 168 days but regularly wrote his mother, Simmons said.
"Then, she didn’t hear from him for a long time," Simmons said. "She said, ‘Jesse, something’s wrong. I haven’t heard from James.’"
It wasn’t long before the family received a telegram, telling them James Lanier had been killed in action.
The four family members who spoke at Monday’s community Memorial Day observance had tales of telegrams reaching homes, informing family of their loved ones being killed halfway around the globe.
Fred Chriss Allen Jr.
Tommy Allen’s uncle Chriss Allen was a motor machinist mate first class aboard the USS Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer escort.
"Chriss was home on leave in early 1945 and when he left to go back, he told his mother, ‘do not worry, the war is virtually over, and I will be home soon,’" Tommy Allen said.
Chriss, who joined the Navy in 1942, had brought home many of his personal belongings and his diary. His ship was docked at Jacksonville, Fla., and wasn’t scheduled to return to action
But the fear that German submarines would launch V-1 flying bombs at the East Coast prompted Operation Teardrop, and destroyer escorts were dispatched to the Atlantic Ocean to find and sink the U-boats.
On April 24, 1945, Chriss Allen went to the engine room for his duty shift.
"He went early that day to relieve a friend and told him, ‘I’m not doing anything, so I came early,’" Tommy Allen said.
Minutes later, a torpedo from the U-546 tore into the ship, one of the smallest ocean-going warships in the fleet. It struck the USS Frederick C. Davis in the engine room and within minutes, the ship broke in two. Of the 200 men aboard the ship, only 80 survived.
The USS Frederick C. Davis was the last U.S. warship sunk in the Atlantic theater. Later that week, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. A week after that, German forces capitulated.
A month after the Frederick C. Davis was sunk, the family got a telegram informing them of Chriss Allen’s death.
"The family was not aware of the incident," Tommy Allen said. "It’s not like it is today where you can catch it on the news or on the Internet where you can see things happen right then. My mother has told me many times she will never forget that day."
The sailor whom Chriss Allen relieved visited the family after the war. Tommy Allen’s father George and his brother Albert met with other USS Frederick C. Davis at a Savannah reunion of the ship’s crew nearly 20 years ago.
"That reunion gave my dad and his brother some closure as they had the opportunity to share some stories about their brother Chriss," Tommy Allen said.
He never knew his uncle, but Tommy Allen paid honor to him by naming his son after him.
"We felt we knew him from the stories told to us by our dad," he said. "Chriss never had the chance to come home and continue his life. George, my father, will be 90 in November. But every April 24, he reminds us, ‘this is the day Chriss died.’"
William H. Webb
Known as Bevo, William H. Webb enlisted in the National Guard on Sept. 16, 1940.
"He wanted to see more action," said John Kieffer, "so he asked to be transferred to the 10th Mountain Division."
Webb’s transport landed at Naples, Italy, on Jan. 13, 1945. From Feb. 18 until the end of hostilities, the 10th Mountain Division fought in three major engagements. April 14, 1945, was the bloodiest day for the division, Kieffer noted. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, also a member of the 10th Mountain Division, was wounded badly in fighting outside of Bologna, Italy.
On the same day and in the same battle, Kieffer said, Webb was killed.
"Bevo was killed in action. He exposed himself to heavy artillery and mortar shells to guide his comrades safely through a minefield in northern Italy," Kieffer said. "While being fatally wounded, the lives he saved by this action were many."
Back in Springfield, Kieffer’s great-grandmother and Webb’s mother, Roosevelt Webb, was getting ready for the Sunday school convention. It was May 9, 1945, nearly a month after Bevo was killed.
"She was sitting on her porch on Cleveland Street when she saw Pastor Smith from the Springfield First Baptist Church and several church members approaching," Kieffer said. "She knew instinctively why they were there."
It was another two years before William H. Webb’s body was returned to the U.S.
"So as we reflect on the blessings of our liberty, we ask our Heavenly Father that we may be faithful stewards of the freedoms we have been granted," Kieffer said. "We cannot rightly celebrate the joy of our freedom without remembering the price paid for that freedom."
Amos Louis Kight
Murray Kight said his brother Amos Louis Kight wanted to go to Georgia State Patrol school.
"And he never changed his mind," he said.
But Louis Kight finished school three months shy of his 18th birthday and he was too young to go to State Patrol school. After getting a job in Savannah, he heard draft-eligible young men could join the Army for a year and spend five years in the Reserves to fulfill their obligation. He decided to do that, rather than attend State Patrol school and get drafted while he was there, Murray Kight explained.
Amos Louis Kight joined the Army in 1949 and got out in January 1950. But he was recalled to active duty in September 1950 after North Korea invaded South Korea in what the United Nations referred to as a "police action."
"To my family," Murray Kight said, "it was a war."
A month after boarding the bus in Springfield, Amos Louis Kight was in Korea. On Jan. 25, 1951, Amos Louis Kight was killed in action.
The pastor of Springfield United Methodist asked Murray to accompany him to find his father.
"I wondered why he wanted me to come talk to daddy," he said, "and I saw the telegram sitting on the seat in his car. I had a pretty good idea what it was about."
The Kights had been living in Effingham for about six years when Amos Louis Kight was killed.
"You could not believe the outpouring of love that came to us," Murray Kight said. ‘It was unreal. For that, I will always be grateful."
A young soldier from Waycross who was with Louis Kight when he was killed came by the Kight home and told the family the story of how Louis was killed.
Louis Kight was a squad leader and his unit advanced to the edge of the woods, they saw an open area. Kight decided he and another soldier would start up the hill to draw sniper fire, so that the entire unit wouldn’t get picked off at once.
Halfway up the hill, Kight and the other soldier were hit by enemy fire. Kight was shot in the neck.
"My mother was sitting right there, listening to that, and I kind of wanted to put my fist down that fella’s mouth." Murray Kight said. "Later on, I said to my mother, ‘I’m sorry you had to hear that.’ She said, ‘no, no. I had always worried he had gotten shot and laid there for hours and froze to death.’"
‘War is hell’
In a letter home, Louis Kight told his family how cold it was — temperatures plunged to 30 below zero in some combat areas. "In his words, ‘war is hell,’" Murray Kight said.
"I just wish that mankind could learn to live together in peace," he added. "War is hell. And if you’ve been in war, you know this to be true. If people around the world would learn to live a Christian life, respect one another, we would not have these terrible wars over and over. I believe if some of the people who are responsible for starting some of the wars had to fight in them, there would not be quite as many wars."
Lamar Crosby, a Vietnam veteran and the master of ceremonies for the event, said it was important to remember that war is hell.
"Others who have been there know," he said. "Certainly the world would be a better place without it. But we are in a better place because of those who served and died for our country."
Jesse Simmons recalled how his father didn’t cry at the news of his brother being killed in action, and though his mother and sisters were crying, he decided he wouldn’t, either.
Now, with each birthday he has, he is reminded of the loss of his brother.
"I reached down and pulled up my bootstraps and I didn’t cry no more tears," Simmons said. "Me and my father was standing like soldiers, not shedding any tears. I always wanted to be a soldier. And I thank God for all of you who’ve been on the battlefield and all of you soldiers today, thank you. And I’d just like to say, I’m proud to be an American."
Said Murray Kight: "This is a great country. We may have some problems, but this is the greatest country on Earth. For you who have served, I salute you."