William Horace Wilkerson, A Vintage Vignette
William Horace Wilkerson
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
September 27, 2010
A little over four years ago, Sherri Wilkerson Shamwell and I went to her old home on Keith Springs Mountain in Franklin County, Tennessee to visit with her uncle, William Horace Wilkerson. Sherri is a daughter of Prentice Stewart Wilkerson, brother of Horace. Sherri was a tennis coach and has taught for 18 years in the Madison City School System in Discovery Middle School since it opened in 1996. The purpose of the interview was to include Horace's story in archives of World War II service personnel.
Horace was born May 28, 1925 to Ernest and Mae Wilkerson along the Elk River near Winchester, Tennessee. He was the first of 15 children in the family. The part of the mountain where the family still lives was then called Denson's Cove. Today it is known as Wilkerson's Cove. Because he was enraged that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Horace tried to enlist at age 17. His parents refused to sign, so in 1943 when he was old enough to be accepted, he enlisted at Fort Oglethorp, Georgia. After training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Horace went to Camp Phillips in Kansas. From there Horace was taken by train to Boston, Massachusetts for a few days before departing for England on the ship “General Gordon” with about 5,000 other troops on four ships.
Due to the German submarine threat, the ships kept a zig-zag course that lengthened the voyage from the normal six days to seventeen. On the second day from port, German subs did attack the convoy, but our destroyers sank the subs as Horace watched torpedoes zing past his ship. Horace later participated in the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He fought in the hedge rows of France around Cherbourg and other areas. He was first wounded at Looneyville in 1944. He was close by when a “Bouncing Betty” land mine killed his unit's highest ranking officer, Col. Nelson. Horace was first a scout, then became a “bazooka man”, and later a radio man. During a tank and artillery attack, he knocked out two tanks with his bazooka, for which he received a Bronze Star. When a mortar shell hit the lip of a crater that he was in, Horace was hit in the leg by fragments, but his buddy was hit in the heart and died instantly beside him. Horace got his first Purple Heart for this wound. He never saw it until he got home from the war because it was sent to his mother.
After about a week in the hospital, Horace saw action at Avocourt, France, that got him a second Purple Heart within a month of the first. He also received a Silver Star for stopping “friendly fire” onto his unit from American tanks at that location. Horace saw action not only in northern France and Germany, but also in Africa and the Middle East. He was awarded numerous other medals plus service and theater decorations. When the war ended, he could have come home, but he volunteered to stay in Europe as part of the Occupation Force. His experiences included stopping General Patton while on sentry duty, and he later saw the General on the same day that Patton was killed by a vehicle wreck in 1946. Horace refused to sign up for an additional three years after his initial occupation enlistment expired, returning home in May 1946. He married a German girl that he met overseas when she came to America as a translator. They were married in Huntsville by Judge Thomas Jones. As Horace told Sherri, he “went over there so that she wouldn't have to speak German unless she wanted to”, signing up “to stay until it was over with or to go home in a box”. This was the journey and experience of a lifetime for a Keith Springs Mountain youth who had never been further from home than Manchester, Tennessee before joining the army. His life story is like a model for Audie Murphy war movies – a true American hero.