Kathy Manos Penn is a native of the “Big Apple,” who settled in the “Peach City” – Atlanta. A former English teacher now happily retired from a corporate career in communications, she writes a weekly column for the Dunwoody Crier and the Highlands Newspaper. Read her blogs and columns and purchase her books, “The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday” and “Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch,” on her website theinkpenn.com or Amazon.
Just in time for Veterans Day, I've once again had the privilege of interviewing a WWII veteran. My husband arranged for me to sit down with Cecil Hannaford, a local VFW member. Born in Reid, Mississippi, Cecil was the youngest child of a cotton farmer.
After high school as his friends were being drafted, Cecil enlisted in the Army Reserve. He explains that he fell for the tale the recruiter spun: Enlist in the Army Reserve, finish college, tell us what you want to do, and we'll work it out. He felt pretty smart until, four months later, when he was called up to Camp Shelby, MS in the infantry. From there, he headed to Fort McClellan, AL before shipping off to England in August 1944. He jokes that at least he got his payday sooner than his fellow soldiers because he'd enlisted earlier.
You're probably figuring out that Cecil has quite the sense of humor. Perhaps that's what sustained him during his service.
He crossed the English Channel after D-Day, was sick like most everyone else, and quickly realized the seriousness of his situation when he saw a French hillside covered with crosses. Just as Cecil thought, things soon got serious.
In the Battle of the Bulge, his regiment had been sheltering in buildings in Heinerscheid before his platoon was ordered to set up a roadblock at a nearby crossroads. They dug foxholes in the snow and ice, where for two days, they watched German tanks go by on the main highway. Cecil's theory is that after the war, the Germans used parts of those same tanks to build Volkswagens to sell to Americans. Again, that sense of humor comes through.
The troops left in the village were all but wiped out when the Germans came through, but Cecil's group escaped unscathed. Eventually, his platoon joined the 116th Infantry division. Just before Christmas, walking up a hillside, they were ordered to dig foxholes in the frozen ground. With only a six inch deep foxhole hacked out of the ice, both he and his foxhole buddy somehow dove in and escaped fire as German tanks rumbled through.
With a smile, Cecil described opening his one can of beans for dinner: "If you've never eaten beans frozen with ice, you're missing something." When he painted the picture of how he got frostbite, though, there was no hint of a smile. Ordered to take the highest hill overlooking the Rhine, the men removed their shoes and donned white capes and white rubber boots. Walking through two feet of snow in rubber boots that didn't breathe led to frostbitten feet.
Most of the casualties on that hillside came from shelling. Cecil and many others were untouched by shells or bullets, but instead suffered from frostbite; and many, like Cecil, were evacuated to England for treatment. Cecil received his Purple Heart for his frostbite, an injury which bothers him to this day.
His unit was preparing to deploy to Japan when the war ended. After the war, Cecil spent 23 years in the Air Force Reserve and enjoyed a long career in the life insurance and pension industry.
What did Cecil take away from his WWII and Air Force Reserve experience? What's his message? "Service; everyone needs to get out there and serve. Our country needs us, and service is how we stay strong."
To hear Cecil and other veterans tell their stories, visit Witness to War, http://www.witnesstowar.org/home, whose mission is to preserve the oral histories of combat veterans.
Note: After writing this article, I learned that Cecil had passed away on Oct. 30. I am honored and thankful that I got to hear and share his story, and I will be at his funeral which will be held, appropriately, on November 11.
Find Kathy's new book "Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch" and her collection of columns, "The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday," on Amazon and her website email@example.com.