WAXAHACHIE — They say dynamite comes in small packages, which is certainly true for all-around American, Charles Atchley. The spry and courageous 91-year-old World War II veteran embodies the American spirit through and through, as Atchley is a force to be reckoned with — regardless of physical stature.
“I was very active. I loved to play football, but I was only 100 pounds. I loved to play basketball, but I sat on the bench a lot. Regardless, I was ready to play,” Atchley chuckled at the irony.
According to HistoryNet.com, the Second World War was arguably the most significant period of the 20th century. It brought about major leaps in technology and laid the groundwork that permitted post-war social changes including the end of European colonialism, the civil rights movement in the United States, and the modern women’s rights movement, as well as the programs for exploring outer space.
The primary combatants were the Axis nations, which included Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and other smaller allies. The Allied nations, led by Britain and its Commonwealth nations — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United States of America — banded together and later became victors.
In a time where the world erupted with the terrors of war, one of America’s most vital moments in history needed an Atchley on its side, ready to dive into the biggest problems with an unstoppable attitude.
RINGING THE BELL
Before beginning his journey with the U.S. Army, 17-year-old Atchley was passionate about one thing – boxing.
“I was a senior in high school and, on my 17 birthday, I was doing the Golden Gloves in Dallas, Texas. I was a member of the Dallas YMCA boxing team, and I was runner-up in the 102-pound class, called ‘Fly Away.’ They had different weight classes. I wanted to be either an airline pilot or a professional boxer, and I was pretty good at boxing,” Atchley admitted with an elbow nudge.
In 1923, the Golden Gloves was established through a Chicago sports editor, Arch Ward, who originated the amateur boxing tournament to help youth and to promote amateur competition. Throughout the years, the annual tournaments grew and spilled into Texas culture, earning an enviable reputation for sending first-class teams to the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, one of which Atchley competed through the YMCA.
“They had a coach down there teaching you how to box. Later on, the coach with these kids, like the poor kids who lived in West Dallas, he’d always get a team of them, and they always win – boy, they were tough,” he shook his head amazed. “It’s a tournament, and they have it in different cities, as far as I know they have it all over the United States. From the time I fought in the Golden Gloves until now, it’s been about 74 years."
Although Atchley’s boxing career seemed bright, World War II was a dark and unpredictable time. Born to farming parents in Allen, Texas, Atchley could not ignore the call to action when it rang loud and clear, wanting to leave home as quickly as possible.
“After I graduated in ’43, the Navy gave a test, I made a perfect score, and they wanted me to come into the Navy. The thing is if the Navy wanted you they would send you to college for two years, and you would learn how to fly and graduate college in the Navy as an ensign, which is the same as a second lieutenant in the army,” Atchley recalled.
“But my parents would not give me permission to go. Of course, I got mad at them. It was the first time I got mad at them,” he laughed. “I had wonderful parents. They really did good. And they said the war would be over in another year, and they were close to right."
The more the war crept into Atchley’s view, the more he wanted to serve no matter the cost. Jumping at the first opportunity to join the military, the dream of becoming a professional boxer was put on hold as Atchley entered the fight outside the ring.
“We declared war on Japan in ’41, and that was during the war, and we had a draft, and I had to go sign up for the draft on my 18 birthday. When I signed up, I just volunteered to go right into the army. I wanted to volunteer and not be drafted. It was very important to me because then in 1944 we were all Americans, we didn’t have all this diversity crap. That was just always how I grew up, my attitude was just to do things,” he expressed.
Not even the social status quo could stop him, as Atchley set course to become a skilled soldier.
Beginning basic training at the Field Artillery Reserve Training Center (FARTC) in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Atchley endured 27 weeks of weaponry boot camp.
“I volunteered and went into the Army and took basic training in field artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was in basic training in field artillery on a 105-millimeter Howitzer, and they didn’t need artillerymen, they needed military men,” Atchley expounded. “We were there for 27 weeks, and we learned basic army stuff. But mostly it had to deal with artillery."
Developed by the United States, the Howitzer consists of a cannon, recoil mechanism, and carriage, making it a dangerous and intimidating machine. As stated by olive-drab.com, the cannon itself is a single-loaded, air-cooled, and uses semi-fixed ammunition, firing a 105mm projectile, which can be adjusted for distance and target.
“It’s a cannon. If you think of a cannon, it’s got big wheels, like car wheels, and the inside of it is about 105 millimeters. And the Germans on their Tiger Tanks had an 88-millimeter, but it was a rifle instead of a Howitzer,” Atchley remembered being an Infantry Rifleman. “The Lieutenant would want one over there, and he says, ‘Elevation so-and-so, and latitude so-and-so, fire two!’ That means he wants two sacks to go however far cause he’s like an engineer. So they put it in there, and I was the number one firing man. There were five men on a team. Two guys get it ready and when the guy puts the shell in there, I close the breach block, and he calls out the elevation, so I set the elevation. Then he says, ‘Fire!’ and I pull this lever and it fires. That’s why I can’t hear in my left year anymore. We didn’t know about earplugs back then in ’44."
Progressing to the next level at Camp Maxey for advanced training in Paris, Texas, Atchley was assigned to the 75th infantry.
“They gave all of us advanced infantry training, and they put us in the 75th Infantry Division, A-Company 290 Brigade, and I went overseas.”
A PROFESSIONAL SOLDIER
History.com stated in a recent article that the “Battle of the Bulge” was the start of the German ‘Ardennes Offensive’ on the western front. As the Germans drove deeper into Ardennes in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads, the Allied line took on the appearance of a large bulge, giving rise to its name.
A critical German shortage of fuel and the gallantry of American troops fighting in the frozen forests, proved fatal to Hitler’s ambition to snatch, if not victory, at least a draw with the Allies in the west. The Battle of the Bulge was the costliest action ever fought by the U.S. Army, which suffered over 100,00 causalities.
“The ‘Battle of the Bugle,’ the Germans were trying to go through Belgium and go all the way to the coast because the Germans had a lot of submarines at the time. And what happened was General Eisenhower had four divisions of us, that’s like 4,000 soldiers, sitting and waiting on them and on December 16, 1944. Eisenhower was a very brilliant man and one of the very best presidents. He had intelligence and knew they were coming,” Atchley admired. “When the Germans made their advance into from where they were, they got into Belgium and when they got to us - we stopped them.
"There were four divisions of us, and we stopped them, and around 5,000 people got killed in about a week there, Germans and Americans. Then we followed them into Colmar, France, the capital of Alsace-Lorraine, which is now a part of France."
Amid the wreckage and the many casualties, Atchley always kept one thing in mind that prolonged his life.
“I was in a lot of action, and it didn’t last very long a short time. One thing I always did, whomever you’re under like a Lieutenant, you always obey the orders exactly the way they say it. Like on a football team, the coach yells, and you listen. That’s what you do – you obey the orders,”
From bullets zipping to cannons firing on the battlefield, a crucial part of the war was left in the shadows. Spying became the secret advantage to gaining the lead.
According to a historical article from the Federal Bureau Investigation website, Nazi espionage on U.S. soil had become a real threat. The intelligence arms of the Army and Navy had noticed increased activity by German and Japanese spies in the late 1930s and began working with the Bureau to disrupt it.
Seeing overseas intelligence, Roosevelt decided to assign intelligence responsibilities for different parts of the globe to various agencies, as part of the Bureau’s Special Intelligence Service, sending more than 340 agents and support professionals undercover. By 1946, the Bureau identified 887 Axis spies, 281 propaganda agents, 222 agents smuggling strategic war materials, 30 saboteurs, and 97 other agents.
During the FBI’s spy revolution, the U.S. Army also had to learn such strategies, coding their everyday routines.
“We had a different password every day when we were in a combat zone. See, they caught some guys who were German trying to infiltrate, but they didn’t know the password,” Atchley noted, recalling the men getting caught.
Among the many difficulties the 75th Infantry experienced, the weather proved to be more challenging than the actual battles.
“On February 4, 1945, we captured Colmar, and the Germans were going back the Rhine River. They were like 50 miles from the Rhine River and the weather in Belgium, Germany, was the coldest it had been in 50 years, and my feet froze like the rest of us because we just had those regular work boots. We called them combat boots, and my feet were frozen, and my hands were frozen,” Atchley added. “Occasionally, we’d sleep in the loft of a barn, and that was great, but most of the time we were moving and just going. We were all 18 years old expect for the officers. Of course, they had jeeps and could ride around in those, but we walked. Sometimes they moved us in army trucks, there could be like 20 of us standing up in the back of the truck, and they could move us. Of course, everything was frozen, really frozen."
According to an article written in All Health, a common problem found throughout the soldier’s wellbeing was not only Frostbite but also Trench Foot, a medical condition, which is caused by the infection of the foot, brought about by prolonged exposure to wet cold and unsanitary conditions. Trench foot develops when the foot is exposed to extremely cold and damp conditions.
Though his feet were completely numb and the war was coming to a close, Atchley’s condition worsened forcing him to the hospital.
“See, I was up there in the bulge, and we stopped the Germans, and then when they went down in Colmar, we went down there and ran them out of there. And then the last battle in World War II was the Rhine River battle. We crossed the Rhine, but I didn’t go because I had to go to the hospital after Colmar because my feet and hands were frozen. It was worse than frostbite, some of the men had lost their feet because they had to amputate them because the gangrene had already set in,” Atchley shook his head. “Anyhow, my feet were frozen, and if you’ve had your feet frozen for like four months, you don’t know you have any feet - I had no feeling in them. And I was down there for two months, and then they sent us home, and about the time I got home, the World War II was over and V-E Day. I got the Combat Infantry Badge, and it shows that you only earned that if you’re in combat. And about the time I got home, World War II was over and it was V-E Day."
In addition to the Combat Infantry Badge, Atchley was also honored with the Bronze Star for both battles, and the French Legion Of Honor in 2013, which is the equivalent to the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Regaining his strength, Atchley returned home without any permanent damage.
Easily comparing Atchley to “Captain America” is a no-brainer likeness. Though Atchley’s compact frame capped his somatic limitations, he refused to let that get him down. His lionhearted spirit pushed him forward, even when World War II seemed to be an unmovable giant.
BRINGING HOME THE GOLD
As things mellowed over the years, and Atchley resumed civilian life, he married his high-school crush.
“The first time I saw her, she was 14 years old in Seagoville when I was 17 years old, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Just before I went overseas, we were dating and then when I came back home, and her family had moved, I was too dumb to find them. So she ended up marrying someone else, and I didn’t see her for 20 something years."
And as time grew sweeter, so did his love for her throughout the years.
“We got married in late 2009, and we were married for six years. Her family had heart problems, and in August 2015 she had a heart attack. They did the surgery, and she was in the hospital off-and-on for 55 days, and she died of that heart attack. She lived 87 years and 13 days. She was a great women, boy, I tell you,” Atchley admired with a smile.
Even as death took its course, Atchley continues to stay positive, striving to stay active.
“I’m just living by myself, try to walk every day, and I flirt with some of these women,” he joked. “I belong to the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, and I also belong to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is a heritage organization.”
Although his dream to be a boxer never died through his years of service, Atchley was surprised with an early birthday present on January 27 at the Dallas Golden Gloves 82nd annual Regional tournament.
“The first thing, when I went in, the first man I talked to was Bob Moore, the President of Hella Shrine Temple in Garland. He introduced me to a lot of different people, and then I went to buy a t-shirt, and he said, ‘No, we’re going to give it to you.’ So he paid for that,” he laughed. “They put me in a ring-side seat. They’re doing so much good, and everybody and all the families of these kids who were boxing in the tournament were helping. They had about seven referees, because they did like 30 matches, in three and a half hours."
Before the bell rang for the first match to begin, Atchley was honored in a big way.
“They announced my name, that I had participated in the Golden Gloves, that I was a World War II veteran, that I was in the Battle of the Bulge, and I got to sit up at the ringside seat. They treated me like I was a celebrity. It was terrific, a dream come true,” he smiled.
As for the future of this incredible ex-boxer and accomplished soldier, Atchley encourages the younger generation to “always be honest and help others when they need it, and help create value for our country.”
Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer