He goes about his duties with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office with the dignity and professionalism intuitive of a World War II combat veteran and distinguished career as an FBI agent. At 91-years-old, Jack Simpson is the oldest active police investigator in America.
“I do not intend to rust away sitting in a rocker on the front porch,” Simpson said. “I plan to be productive and active as long as the Good Lord lets me.”
His childhood dream was to become an FBI agent.
“As a youngster I watched Depression era movie reels featuring G-men (FBI) collaring hoodlums like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson,” he said. “I worked eight months in the FBI’s fingerprinting section after high school but the draft board classified me 1-A which meant I was a goner since WWII was in full swing. So I joined up.”
Simpson chose the Army, following in the footsteps of his uncle, David Bougher, a Silver Star recipient for bravery during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At Fort Butner, NC, Simpson qualified on the track-mounted 105mm howitzer. He recalled, “I shipped out with the 45th Infantry Division, 179th Infantry Cannon Company. “I operated the .50 caliber machine gun, served as weapons loader, plus set the elevation.”
After brief fighting in North Africa, Simpson and his crew were sent to Naples, Italy to help stage an amphibious landing behind German lines. The formidable landing would enter the history books as The Battle for Anzio Beach. By midnight on Jan. 22, 1944, over 36,000 troops had crowded the beaches of Anzio and Nettuno, supported by 2,600 aircraft and 3 Naval Task Forces. Only one thing was missing: Initiative.
Simpson said, “We received orders to halt the advance and dig in. That is not what an invasion force wants to hear.” Ordered a dubious two-prong objective from his superiors to ‘divert enemy strength from the south and prepare defensive positions,’ the corps commander, General Truscott, followed orders and stopped the offensive to ‘consolidate and reorganize’ the beachhead. The Germans took advantage of the Allies lack of initiative and poured seasoned troops into the area.
More Allied troops were hustled onto the beaches, over 100,000 troops soon called Anzio ‘home’. Reminiscent of WWI trench warfare, dug-in soldiers lived in filthy rain-soaked dugouts, foxholes, and trenches. The misery would last for four months. On Jan. 30, the Allies launched an offensive, mistakenly, into the jaws of 36 enemy battalions marshalling for their own offensive. The Allied offensive was a catastrophe. In one ambush, 767 Army Rangers ran into the claws of two seasoned German Divisions; only 6 of the Rangers made it back to Allied lines.
Simpson: “Our foxholes were right next to the 105 howitzer. We used anything we could get our hands on to cover up. The Germans shelled us, their planes strafed our position, snipers tried to pick us off, spent anti-aircraft shells from our own ships peppered our dugout. A soldier could lose his life several ways on Anzio Beach.”
The blackness of night offered no letup. “Parachute flares turned night into day,” Simpson said. “The beach was well-lit. Our Navy shelled the Germans all night, but the Germans pounded us right back. Sometimes our crew would fire 10 rounds from the 105 every half hour to keep the Germans on their toes, but of course they’d shoot right back to keep us on our toes.”
Death knew no bounds.
“Ships would explode and disappear as quickly as a man,” Simpson said. “We’d see huge formations of B-17s flying overhead only to watch them get hit, catch fire and spiral out of control. We saw helpless airmen in their parachutes machined gunned by enemy planes. That was really sickening.”
Simpson on the infamous Anzio Annie. “The Germans had two massive rail guns, Leopold and Robert, but we didn’t know there were two guns, so we called them collectively Anzio Annie. The guns were tucked safely behind the Alban Hills more than 20 miles from the beaches. We couldn’t touch them. They hurled 15 rounds per hour at targets 40 miles away. Imagine a freight train passing over your head….that’s exactly what it sounded like.”
The ‘breakout’ finally occurred in late May, 1944 after four months of slaughter. The butcher’s bill: 29,200 Allied deaths, 37,000 non-combat casualties. The Germans: 27,500 casualties. James Arness, who played Sheriff Matt Dillon on the hit TV show Gunsmoke, walked with a limp the rest of his life from severe wounds received on Anzio Beach. Jack Simpson’s unit, the 45th, was first to arrive in Rome, but their battles were far from over.
August, 1944, the Southern Invasion of France at St. Tropez: Simpson recalled, “That invasion was a cakewalk compared to Anzio. We didn’t get heavy German resistance until they made a stand near Epinal in the Rhine Valley. While we were waiting for a pontoon bridge to be built, I took a hike to a nearby hill and took some pot-shots at rabbits.
They were huge, the size of baby kangaroos. I didn’t kill them; I just wanted to see them jump. Well, suddenly 20 German soldiers stood up from behind a wall with their hands up. They figured to be surrounded so they wanted to surrender. One spoke perfect English. He said they were starving, so I offered them what food I had then marched them back to my unit. My buddies were amazed.”
Simpson and the 45th fought all the way to Munich by the end of WWII where they joined the Army of Occupation. A recipient of two Bronze Stars for bravery, he returned to college after the war and earned his Master’s Degree from George Washington University. Simpson lived his lifelong dream to become a special agent for the FBI, including a stint as special investigator in the Martin Luther King, Jr assassination.
He retired after 23 years with the FBI, served as the Rockdale County bailiff for 20 years, has authored 3 books, writes a weekly column for a local newspaper, is a noted public speaker and civic leader, and at 91 years of age continues to battle and reconnoiter the ‘bad guys’ as an investigator with the Newton County Sheriff’s Department.
Simpson’s final comment: “I plan to stay healthy and as active as long as I can. In other words, I intend to hang around for a long time.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.