EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember…
My name is Hubert Autrey. I spent my early years growing up on a farm near Corsicana, but later my family moved to a farm near Bristol. I was the seventh of eight children with four brothers and three sisters. Our family was very close and we all worked hard to make a living off of the land.
My parents, Joe and Katie Autrey were farmers, better known as sharecroppers. Times were hard during those days, and we all had to pull together to make ends meet. We raised a lot of our own food, and Mama and the girls did the canning.
As soon as I was old enough, Dad taught me how to drive the tractor. We put in long hours together in those cotton fields, but I really loved to drive that old tractor. It made me feel important to be at the wheel.
I played on the basketball team at Bristol High School, and had a girlfriend down in Ennis that was pretty special to me.
I earned some money working a summer job in Waxahachie as a lifeguard at the swimming pool. I also tried my luck at boxing, figuring that might be a way that I could make some easy money. But I soon learned otherwise when they put me in the ring with a professional boxer. I lasted four rounds until that guy broke my nose, and straight away I reconsidered my future in the ring.
In ’37 I persuaded my folks to let me join the Civilian Conservation Corps. I moved to the CCC camp in Waxahachie, and learned what it was like to be without Mama’s home cooking and Dad’s good advice. They worked us fellows pretty hard, but I enjoyed it and made lots of new friends, besides none of us could find a decent job anywhere else.
When the war came, it was not long after Pearl Harbor that I decided to volunteer. I wanted to serve and I was happy to be a part of the big war effort. I was so proud of my new uniform. It made me feel as though I was doing something important for the cause. Not bad for a sharecropper’s son from Bristol, I figured.
I was assigned to the 33rd Armored Regiment, and they sent me to the Mojave Desert in California for training. I also did some time training in New Mexico, and at Camp Polk in Louisiana, and at Camp Pickett in Virginia. I never had been through such an ordeal in my life, with all of this moving about the country.
I learned how to take orders and how to fight. Life in the Army kept me plenty busy, and I had to learn that I was no longer Mama’s baby boy. Being away from home so much, I spent plenty of time writing to the family, and I so much looked forward to the letters from home.
In the summer of ’43, we went through a rigorous train-up period and were told that we would be shipping out soon. I was given a furlough to visit home before we shipped overseas.
It was good to be home again, even if it was a different house. My family had moved to the McIntosh place between Palmer and Waxahachie. Seems like I now had a much better appreciation for my folks.
We didn’t realize it at the time, at least nobody talked about it, but there was that thought in the back of my mind, that I would never see them again. After tearful goodbyes to the whole family and my girlfriend, I headed off down the road, but before they were out of sight, I turned back for one last wave, one last look.
We sailed for Europe in September of ’43. Upon arriving in Great Britain, we were stationed at Warminster in Wiltshire, England.
The locals here treated us very good, what little time we could spend off base. It was cold and damp here, hard to figure how these farmers could bring in a decent crop in this kind of climate.
My Lieutenant let me be his Jeep driver and I really liked that job, but later on they made me the driver of an M-4 Sherman tank. They were partial to us country boys as drivers, because we knew how to operate heavy equipment.
For the next nine months we trained an awful lot and practiced our tank maneuvers on the Salisbury Plain. We drilled in the mud, trained and went through armored field exercises This business was getting fairly serious now, we all knew that the invasion was coming soon, we just didn’t know when.
I grew to love that tank. We were told to give it a name and so we did. I called it the “Freedom Force” and we painted the name on the side.
Finally we received orders to move down to the ports. This was it!
Now it’s time to find out if I have what it takes. Even after all this training, I wasn’t sure how I’d do, or what to expect.
We landed in Normandy a couple of weeks after D-Day and were rushed into the fighting in the hedgerow country. We got our baptism of fire against Hitler’s elite Panzer Lehr Division. This was an eye opening experience for me. I had never seen dead bodies before, much less watched people get killed.
We saw heavy fighting all across France and Belgium. Our regiment took part in the Ardennes fighting, the Huertgen Forest, and the drive on the Siegfried Line. Our regiment became known as the “Sunday Punch” in the 3rd Armored Division’s famous drive across the continent.
We moved so fast and so far that the maps that they gave us were usually of terrain that we had already crossed over. There were no plans, no briefings, and no objective short of Mr. Hitler’s house, wherever that was.
Our only orders were to “Push, Push, Keep Pushing Forward!” Every mile forward was a mile closer to home.
Our 33rd Armored earned the nickname of the “Men of War” because more times than not, we were up front, the tip of the spearhead, so to speak. We did our best to give those Nazis the old what-for.
I remember there was this one fellow in our outfit that led a spearhead column flying a Texas Lone Star flag on top of his tank. He just wanted the Germans to know what hit them I guess. Sometimes we moved so fast that we ran out of gas and ammunition and had to hold up and wait on our supplies to catch up with us.
As we passed through the countryside, the women, children and old men were so glad to see us Americans. They would run out to greet us by the roadside, waving flags, blowing kisses, and throwing flowers. It sure made us feel good.
Once some of the locals put us up in an old house, as their guests. We had gone for weeks and weeks without a bath, and it was sure nice to be able to wash up. They treated us to a feast of sorts, cooked meat for us, and told us that it was a roast. I figured it was really horsemeat, but it sure tasted good, under the circumstances.
When the bad weather hit that fall, it was the coldest that I had ever been. I never experienced anything like this back in Bristol. I wrote to the folks and asked them to please send warm clothes pronto. It was a miserable winter and we sure didn’t have what we needed to keep warm.
I spent many a night shivering in a foxhole with no way to really stay warm. We huddled around a campfire when we could, but some nights it just wasn’t safe to build a fire.
There were flashes of artillery on the distance horizon, and cracks of gunfire in the distance. It was so cold, so dark, so isolated. I felt we were forgotten out here in this terrible war. Anyone that said they weren’t scared was a liar.
There was this one time that a G.I. came walking up on us in the night. He hollered out to us in the dark, “Don’t shoot me, I’m from Waxahachie, Texas!” Turns out that I knew him from back home. We had us a good visit, out there in the middle of the cold fog in the Belgian countryside.
Our regiment was the first Allied unit to cross over the Rhine in force, and also the first unit to capture a German town. Now that we were inside the Third Reich, the locals weren’t so friendly, but many of them put out white flags on the front of their homes. No flowers thrown on us here.
The German Army was putting up more resistance now that we were fighting on their fatherland, especially the SS units. The fighting was getting really rough now, and it seemed as though the killing was only picking up. I saw a lot of good men die.
All my romantic notions of being some kind of hero were now long gone, we were all just fighting for each other and the day that we could go home.
It was such a strange feeling, standing there looking down at a buddy that was dead. Medals and speeches had no meaning to him anymore. An hour ago he was one of our best friends and now he’s gone, we’re still alive, and nobody knew why it happened to him and not to us.
The farther we pushed, the worse it got. The roads were full of dead horses and carts. There was burning wreckage and bombed out buildings everywhere. There was lots of smoke and the smell of death was in the air.
The radio in our tank gave us trouble, and finally it just gave out. Many times we ran short on ammo, sometimes we just ran out.
I wrote long letters to the home folks whenever I had the chance. Have asked the folks to please send a new toothbrush, as mine has gone missing.
Somehow I sensed that I would never see them again, and I told them as much in my letters. I figured that my war would be over soon, one way or another.
Whenever we got mail call, I so hoped that they would call my name. It was one of the few things that we had to look forward to.
I never really appreciated some things until I didn’t have them anymore – clean writing paper, dry socks, hot water, a shave and a bath.
All I wanted to do was make a difference. Soon this will all be over and everybody can go back home.
On Nov. 17, 1944 it was cold and dark. There was a heavy fog in the air and low visibility. I could hardly see up ahead, but I inched the “Freedom Force” on forward.
Suddenly we were being fired on. I did my best to drive us out of the line of fire, but they were hitting us from both sides.
It was a Friday, and I was 24 years old.
Remember us. We were soldiers once and young.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.