Jonesborough man recollects his WWII experiences as part of 69th Infantry Division
Jack Wilhoit reflects on his WWII experiences.
By Karen Sells
“I was just a boy,” said Jonesborough resident Jack Wilhoit. “They called us men, but we were green behind the ears.”
Wilhoit was drafted in 1942, soon after graduating from Washington College High School, which later became known as Washington College Academy.
After a bus ride to Chattanooga for a physical and aptitude tests, Wilhoit was sent to Camp Wallace in Galveston County, Texas, for basic training.
He had an interest in radio and received training in Georgia and North Carolina to install and operate a communications system to relay messages and provide information to headquarters.
Skilled code operators on either side could distinguish the enemy operators by the CW swing, in many cases identifying the ship or station location.
“Learning code is like learning the alphabet. I can still do it, I haven’t forgotten,” he said, offering a demonstration of the rat-a-tat-tat sound used in CW code.
He later took the Air Cadet course hoping to go into the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, and was sent to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss.
Wilhoit returned to the Army when he was transferred to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss., and assigned to the 69th Infantry Division. After earning his combat infantry badge, he learned he was being sent overseas with the 569th Signal Company.
“The biggest boat I had ever seen up to that point was a rowboat,” he said.
Wilhoit served as a staff sergeant and T-3 technician in the communications division of the infantry.
An Award of Meritorious Service was presented to Maj. Gen. E.F. Reinhardt, commanding officer of the 569th Signal Company on May 24, 1945.
The citation reads: “569th Signal Company, 69th Infantry Division, United States Army, for superior performance of duty in the accomplishment of exceptionally difficult tasks from Dec. 13, 1944, to May 6, 1945, in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Germany.
“Throughout the division’s great strides across Germany, it was never without adequate means of communication. In 21 days, when the Command Post made 13 moves, the 569th Signal Company assumed numerous burdens, working day and night, installing and maintaining communication in all echelons.
“When over 70 miles separated regimental and divisional headquarters, the 569th Signal Company’s radio teams insured vitally needed contact between these headquarters, under enemy fire and the most adverse road and weather conditions.
“The performance of the 569th Signal Company included the highly skillful operation of the Message Center, Construction Section, and Division Signal Supply and Maintenance Sections. Their combined efforts were of the utmost importance in the success of all combat missions.
“The cooperation, skill, and devotion to duty of the men of the 569th Signal Company reflect the highest credit upon that organization and the armed forces of the United States.”
Wilhoit served in World War II with four of his five brothers. Kenneth was in the Air Force, Howard and Bill were in the Navy, and Roger was in the Marines. Brother D.C. remained at home to work with Southern Railway, which was considered one of the essential services for the country and the war effort.
“I was never stationed close to any of them, but all of my brothers made it back,” Wilhoit said.
One of Wilhoit’s strongest memories of the war is linking up with the Russians at the Elbe River near Berlin.
“They weren’t our enemies at the time,” he said. “They were fighting the Germans, and we came together.”
Wilhoit said the group had to stop for the night, and found a room in the basement of a house to hide.
“One of the Russians was running around with hand grenades strapped all over him,” he said. “That was probably the more dangerous part of it.”
Not long after that experience, he said, Germany surrendered in 1945 and President Roosevelt died.
Wilhoit was almost sent to Japan to fight in the Pacific War. “President Truman dropped the atomic bomb twice, and Japan surrendered, so I didn’t have to go,” he said. “It probably saved my life.”
Instead, he remained in Germany and was assigned to the Military Police. “I worked communications for them because they still had to round up the Nazis,” he said.
He was then shipped to Heidelberg and stationed with the 7th Army in communications.
Wilhoit said soldiers returned home in a seniority order. “You got to come home by earning points,” he said.
Wilhoit served in Denmark and France before completing his total of three years and three months in World War II. “That was a thrill, to sail by the Statue of Liberty and be welcomed home,” he remembers.
In March 1946, he was discharged from Camp Atterbury, Ind. “I weighed 136 pounds when I came back,” he said, displaying the jacket he was wearing that day. The 69th emblem is on one arm, with the 7th Army emblem on the other. One of the medals on the front is for good conduct, and stripes on the sleeves represent his 18 months overseas. “I wish I’d kept all of my uniforms,” he said.
He returned to the Telford area and two months later accepted a radio position with Pennsylvania Central Airlines at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
Wilhoit is the father of three sons with his first wife of 23 years, Dorothy, who died from cancer in 1968. In addition to sons John, Stephen and Tim, he has a stepdaughter, Donna. He and second wife, Freda, have been married for 44 years. The couple have multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He stayed with the airline company for 35 years, working in the Tri-Cities, Knoxville and Asheville, N.C., before retiring as supervisor of customer service in 1981 from the office in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Four years later, he took a job with Atlantic Federal Savings and Loan. “It was going to be part-time, but ended up full-time and then I was promoted to maintenance manager,” he said.
After moving to Deltona, Fla., he bagged groceries part-time for three different stores.
Wilhoit has attended many of the annual reunions of the 69th Infantry Division, though he says, “there aren’t many of us left.” While serving in the army enabled him to see the world, Wilhoit said he would have preferred to spend those years at home.
He moved to Jonesborough in 2001 and bagged groceries part-time at Food City for almost seven years. “I worked Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8:30 to 1:30,” he said. “I met a lot of people.”
Recent health problems and his approaching 90th birthday in October led him to decide to slow down a little, though he and Freda are active members of Trinity Baptist Church.
A framed flag presented to grandson Steven Wilhoit, an Air Force F16 fighter pilot who flew cover over Afghanistan during the capture of Osama bin Ladin, is displayed in the living room, an example of the patriotic tradition that continues.
America is fighting a different war today, Wilhoit said, though the attributes of the enemy are the same. “It seems like we always have to go to war against people who don’t care to die,” he said.