Earl Pendergrass, 87, of Waxahachie is full of stories.
A decorated World War II veteran with a silver star, bronze star and purple heart proudly displayed at home, retired metalworker and dedicated husband of 65 years, he and his stories span a unique period of history.
Pendergrass, a twin, grew up in the Grapeland area in East Texas. His parents died while he was a child — his mother of cancer and his father of an illness shortly afterward — and he and his siblings moved in with a half-sister to bring her household’s total to 17 children.
“He lived his life on a farm with all these kids,” said his daughter, Linda Rawlings.
The nearby Wood family also had several children and the two groups saw a lot of each other. One of the Wood children, Dorothy, would eventually become Pendergrass’ wife.
“We’d just go back and forth,” she said. “We had all of them on the weekend — the whole she-bang.”
The farm life was hard, but happy, she said.
“We had a lot of good stuff to eat,” she said with a smile.
As the boys in the family grew older, Pendergrass said, many of them chose to enlist in the military.
“Most of the older boys, they left and joined the Army,” he said. “There wasn’t anything else going on, I didn’t have a job. … Me and one of my nephews and my twin brother went down (and enlisted).”
It was 1940 and he was 17 years old.
Pendergrass was part of the 1st Cavalry Division when it was still horses and proudly points out a large-print photo on the wall of the group, several regiments strong, and one of only a few ever printed. He was stationed at Fort Bright, near El Paso, and during his stay there was in the short film “Here Comes the Cavalry” by Warner Bros. In the plot, he and several fellow soldiers were featured in a chase scene to save a kidnapped girl, complete with their regular uniforms and blanks to fire.
“The enemy gave up real quick and we got the girl back,” he recalled.
Pendergrass and his younger brother had joined the cavalry in the 7th and 5th regiments, respectively, and the older sibling earned a bit of a reputation.
“I was kind of ambitious,” he said. “I always wanted to do something.”
In June 1941, Pendergrass married his childhood friend, Dorothy.
“He came home one time on a three-day pass and we went down to the courthouse and got married,” Dorothy said.
But when the United States entered the war, Pendergrass, an accomplished marksman, was shipped to Oregon join a new infantry division. Dorothy moved to Oregon to be near him, but then moved back home to live with her parents after he went overseas to live.
“They started shipping troops out and got rid of the horses,” Pendergrass said. “They were out of date.”
Infantry had challenges different from the mounted units, he said.
“Being in the infantry, you had to walk 90 percent of the time,” he said. “Sometime you wouldn’t get a mile or a half a mile while fighting.”
However, “The cavalry, you had more work in a way. You came back in and you had to groom and clean your horse,” he said.
Pendergrass was then deployed to North Africa for a short time and then on to Italy where he served for most of the war - and it was there he filled the shadow box of medals.
“He was also a hero,” Rawlings said. “There’s a letter that tells what he did.”
The letter, sent by Maj. Gen. William Livesay in 1944, details a harrowing account of Pendergrass leading a squad to flank a German machine gun nest in an act of heroism that earned him a silver star.
“There was about four of us that went around the side and came over the hill and rushed them,” Pendergrass recalled.
Pendergrass and his men crawled about 100 yards and were 50 yards away when the enemy soldiers discovered them and opened fire.
“All their attention was directed toward him as they turned their machine gun on him,” the letter reads. “Realizing that an unobserved approach was no longer possible, Staff Sgt. Pendergrass rose to his feet and charged the position. This daring action so unnerved the enemy gunner that he fired one more burst and fled.”
Pendergrass was hit twice in the leg, but the letter credits his actions for the platoon’s success in seizing their objective.
“His gallantry, daring and will to destroy the enemy exemplify the finest traditions of the Infantry and the Army of the United States,” Livesay wrote.
Pendergrass recalled that his comrades took care of him, keeping him out of harm’s way and helping with the pain.
“They got medication on my leg pretty quick,” he said.
“I ran into something that had to be done right then,” he said of the incident. “It took a little bit more than average doing.”
One of Pendergrass’ more vivid memories from the war is the bombing of the Po Valley to clear the way for the infantry.
“We were getting too much opposition,” he said. “They ordered the Air Force right in this main section to help clear out this area. … It was a terrible noise and sight.”
Following the bombing, Pendergrass’ unit entered the valley with ease.
“They just moved the planes back, so we just went over without hardly any casualties,” he said.
Pendergrass had originally traveled overseas by boat on an 18-day voyage. Though the trip back home was by plane, it took about the same amount of time, he said.
“It took them about a month to ship us home,” he said, as the trip from Italy went by way of North Africa and South America before getting to the United States. “I ended up getting to be on four different continents.”
After spending nearly eight years in the military, Pendergrass, a platoon sergeant, was offered the chance to stay in, but declined.
“I said, ‘No, I think I’ve had enough of the fighting part of it,” he said. “It was quite an ordeal.”
After leaving the Army, Pendergrass and his wife moved to the Dallas area and purchased a home in Oak Cliff. He worked briefly for United Motors and then went to work building airplanes for Chance Vought, which became LTV, and put in a brief stint as a security guard with Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Although on the small side, Pendergrass said he did the job well.
“If I heard the least little noise, I was there,” he said, saying he once snuck up on and scared an employee, trying to catch him asleep on the job. “I always tried to be pretty secure about everything.”
The couple worked to give their only daughter a good life, Rawlings said.
“I know it was hard,” she said. “They worked and saved money — they sent me to TCU.”
Pendergrass even struck up a correspondence with then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson as his veteran’s pension was cut more and more.
“They said as he got older, it would get worse,” Dorothy said. “(President) Eisenhower almost cut him out.”
After exchanging letters with Johnson and sending documents about his enlistment, Johnson restored most of his pension, Dorothy said, and offered to do more.
“(Earl) said he was satisfied,” Dorothy said.
Pendergrass also developed a hobby of building shelves and cabinets that continued after his retirement in 1982 and several adorn Rawlings’ home, where the Pendergrasses now live.
Dorothy stays active, cooking and working in the garden, and Earl, who suffers from a poor back and has had other complications in the past, keeps up with veteran affairs.
“Now he calls himself 117 pounds of fightin’ gringo hell,” Rawlings said with a laugh.
“In all,” Dorothy said, “We’ve had a pretty good life.”
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