Veterans Day is special to me. My family has a long history of military service, most recently from my two grandfathers. While I’m not as familiar with the story behind my Granddaddy from Mobile’s service, I’m very familiar with Papaw’s story- he’s my mother’s father. And he grew up in my hometown. His name was Herbert Elmo Simmons, Jr., but everyone knew him by his nickname: Smokey.
The way the story goes, he was an only child with a ton of cousins during the Great Depression. One uncle was on city council and the other was chief of police- so a LOT of people knew him. Macon, Georgia somewhat of small town, but was even smaller back then. His family had been here since just prior to the Civil War.
He decided to enlist in the military, saying later it was because he’d “rather fight the Nazis than continue to put up with the Baptists at Mercer University.” He had some experience prior to enlisting, as he was in the R.O.T.C. at what was then Lanier High School for Boys.
Smokey – it feels strange to refer to my grandfather by his real name – joined the Army Air Force in 1942. He was stationed in England with the Eighth Air Force 445th Bomb Group serving as a ball turret gunner in a B-17.
On April 1, 1944, Smokey and his squad were shot down over Germany and held in the German Prisoner of War Camp Stalag 17B in Austria. When he arrived at the POW camp he was greeted by another Mercer University classmate and Kappa Alpha Order brother who would say to him, “Well, it took you long enough to get here. I’ve been waiting on you!” That kind of humor is just one example of what would get my grandfather, and countless others, through their time in the camps.
He would be liberated in May of 1945 after spending one year, one month, and one day in the camp. Following his release, Smokey was awarded the Air Medal, Two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Croiz de Guerre from the French Government along with other medals.
As with many great Southern storytellers, you never quite knew if Smokey was telling the truth or a slightly embellished version. I never heard him talk about the hard times of the war, only fanciful stories of playing pranks on the Nazis. He later shared more from his time in Stalag 17 with the cast of that play when it was performed in our hometown at Theatre Macon.
Upon his return, a friend introduced him to the woman who would become my grandmother, Eugenia Corley. They got married, and then Smokey joined the Air Reserves. Even after all he experienced in WWII, he went on to serve in the Korean War as a Public Information Officer at Robins Air Force Base and then later in Seoul, Korea.
It was always my grandfather’s humor that I will remember. Before the days of Elf on a Shelf there was his story of Tiny Tad: Santa’s elf who would watch us from the windows, generally at his home while my parents were out running errands (read: Christmas shopping), and disappear just when we would turn to look. And let me tell y’all- my brother and I BELIEVED HIM. Even during his funeral when the trumpet player couldn’t quite get Taps out due to the cold, we said he was up above laughing.
I believe it was that sense of humor that likely saved his life in the camps.
This Veterans Day, I remember my Papaw, my Grandaddy, other veterans in my family, and all of those across the world. Everyone who has fought for our country – regardless of my views on war and peace – I am grateful to each of you for literally putting your life on the line for mine. God bless each of you and your families.
Molly McWilliams Wilkins is the Digital Content Editor for The Southern Weekend. Portions of this article originally appeared on her website Southern Bon Vivant.
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