My dad, Woodrow Wilson Stephens, and two of his younger brothers, Bruce and Sam, all served in World War II. They were three poor Kentucky boys from a tiny backwater town called Royalton tucked away in an Appalachian holler. The Stephens boys had neighbors named Whitt who had two sons named Byron and Forrest who also went off to the war. These five boys represented a large proportion of the eligible bachelors of Royalton at the time.
Of the five Royalton boys who went off to battle, only Bruce, my favorite uncle, is still with us. Some time ago he sent me a family genealogy that included a nine-page autobiography he wrote a few years ago as he approached his eightieth birthday. To honor my father, my uncles Bruce and Sam, and the two Whitt brothers on this, the anniversary of the day that forever changed the lives of the “greatest generation,” I would like to reproduce a portion of it here:
I will always remember where I was on December 7, 1941. It was a Sunday and as usual, there was little to do for entertainment. Mostly we just loafed, but this day a couple of my buddies and I were playing cards and listening to one of the few battery radios in Royalton. We were at Ashland “Goose Eye” McFarland’s at a shanty-like garage he used for a home on Willie Shepherd’s farm at a place on Licking River called the Narrows. We could only get two or three stations: KDKA in Pittsburgh, WLW in Cincinnati, and WHAS in Louisville. Over whichever station we had on, the announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came over the air repeatedly, which put an end to our card game. Young men in the area rushed to enlist, but at seventeen, I was not old enough.
My brother Woodrow and our neighbor, Bal Whitt’s son Byron, were already in the navy. My brother had only recently been shipped out of Pearl Harbor and thus escaped the attack, but Byron Whitt was serving as a gunner’s mate on the USS Arizona and was killed and went down with the ship. Years after the war ended, my wife and I visited the USS Arizona memorial where Byron Whitt’s name heads the last column of those killed.
In January of 1943, Uncle Bruce was finally old enough to enlist. He continues with his own wartime experiences where he served in the navy on a hydrographic survey ship at Iwo Jima:
The first battle we engaged in was Iwo Jima. We operated close in to the beach and had a ringside view of the awful action occurring before us, but surprisingly our ship was never struck by enemy fire. We were several times endangered by the falling empty cartridges from our own planes strafing enemy positions on shore.
I had occasion to accidentally come in contact with Byron Whitt’s younger brother Forrest, a marine, as our two ships almost touched each other on our way to Iwo Jima, which many say was the bloodiest battle of the war. We spoke to each other briefly but I never saw him again. He was killed in action on Iwo Jima. Because his brother Byron was entombed on the Arizona, his father and mother elected not to have Forrest returned to the United States and he was buried on Iwo Jima. Both are where they fell fighting for their country. Our neighbors, Bal and Josie Whitt, lost two sons. My two brothers, Woodrow and Sam and I all survived without a scratch. Seems unfair, but sometimes that’s the way it is.
Thanks Bruce, and Sam, and Byron, and Forrest.
And thanks to you, Dad. … I miss you.