After their youngest son, Hugh, had completed a few days in the first grade, Johnny and Ada Steele playfully asked if he’d found a girlfriend yet. The 6-year-old responded, “Yes, I have found the girl I’m going to marry. Her name is Dorothy Lassiter. Even if I wander the whole world over, I’ll never find another one like her.” In 1947, WWII veteran Hugh Steele married Dorothy Lassiter, and they remained as husband and wife for 65 years until her passing.
Archetypal of our former agrarian society, in 1925 Hugh Steele entered the world on his family’s 175-acre farm in Newton County. He recalled, “I was the baby of the family, the youngest of 12 children. We all had farming chores to do plus attend school. Farming is a sunrise to sunset enterprise.”
Like many southern farmers, cotton was the main cash crop to generate revenue, but Steele stated, “We grew a little bit of everything but most of the corn crop was used to feed our two work mules, Amos and Laura. Most farms then didn’t depend on horses; the land was cultivated with mule-power.”
Steele recalled December 7, 1941: “We were attending the afternoon service at High Point Baptist church when a lady came in and told the congregation that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese. We knew war was upon us, but we had no idea where Pearl Harbor was.”
Bullets and bombs win wars, but food keeps the soldiers happy. Steele was given a ‘farm deferment’ upon his 1942 graduation from Covington High School. “I worked the farm until March of ‘45 but decided my duty was to join the war. I called the chairman of the draft board, Dr. W. K. Swann, and told him to change my status to 1A so I could be drafted. I remember his response, ‘All right, we’ll do it, but you’ll have to take the blame and tell your parents.’ I never told them.”
Assigned to the infantry replacement training center at Camp Blanding, Fla., Steele said of his first impression of Army life, “I figured I must have been insane to volunteer for this.” A southpaw, Steele learned to fire the M-1 Garand right-handed. “I was told in fairly rough language that I’d learn to fire right-handed because firing left-handed caused the hot spent cartridges to eject right across the tip of my nose.” Steele learned well, earning Expert on the rifle range.
After basic training, Steele traveled to Fort Ord, Calif. for what could have been a one-way voyage to Okinawa. Preparation for the invasion of the Japanese homeland was in full swing. Over one million Allied casualties were expected along with 10 million Japanese casualties.
Steele recalled, “Our convoy was halfway to our destination when we received news that something called an atomic bomb was dropped on Japan and the war might soon be over. The convoy was in a black out, but when we heard that news every light in the fleet came on. We had a great celebration.”
Diverted to the Philippines for a brief layover, Steele boarded another transport for Okinawa. “The second atomic bomb was dropped while we were in the Philippines,” he recalled. “But we sailed for Okinawa anyway because the Japs had yet to surrender.” On the island of Le Shima near Okinawa, Steele saw the massive buildup of vessels for the planned invasion. “It was unreal,” he said. “Large carriers, small ones, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, transports, the ships numbered into the hundreds, vessels as far as the eye could see.”
Then Mother Nature did what Japanese Kamikaze pilots couldn’t do: almost wipe out the Allied fleet. Steele explained, “We got hit by a big typhoon. Ships were sunk, men were lost, 140 mph winds blew for 24 hours, and there we were in pup tents. A lot of those sort of vanished.”
The war was finally over, but duties still had to be done. Trucked across the middle of Okinawa to another embarkation port, Steele recalled the sobering experience, “We didn’t see a single tree standing or a building that wasn’t reduced to rubble. I knew the boys that fought on Okinawa paid an awful price for that real estate.”
Shipped to Inchon, Korea, Steele was assigned to a small base north of Seoul near the 38th parallel. “That’s the first time I became part of a unit, a heavy weapons unit of the 32rd Regiment, 7th Division. Because I had experience in a grocery store when I was a kid, they placed me in the quartermaster section. At least I stayed busy while the other guys continually field-stripped heavy weapons.”
Of Korea in ‘45 and ’46, Steele said, “It was called the Hermit Kingdom for a good reason. It was poorer than 3rd world; only one structure in Seoul had running water, and during the hot days of spring and summer the odor was horrendous.” “Honey wagons” loaded down with human waste used as fertilizer traversed the roads, much to the displeasure of G.I.s.
Steele recalled, “It was cold during the winter, I mean real cold. During the day it would warm up to 10 degrees, but at night the temperature was anybody’s guess.” In November of 1946 Steele’s service was over. Shipped home, he attended Emory University for about a year until he and Dorothy tied the knot in 1947.
Steele spent 11 years at the Bank of Covington before starting his own business, the Steele Insurance Agency which he operated for 40 years. After retirement, Hugh and Dorothy moved from Ellen Court near the town square in Covington back to Steele’s family farm.
His final thoughts: “I never saw combat and was a bit hesitant to take the Honor Flight to Washington this coming Wednesday, but I met one WWII veteran that played the tuba for 4 years. So I guess all of us have earned the flight no matter what we did in the military.”
On the cost of freedom: “We’re called The Greatest Generation, and in a way I guess we were. We survived the Great Depression, which made us tougher and helped us get through World War Two. I remember the dark days America suffered after Pearl Harbor, but Americans hunkered down and got the job done. We switched from a peace-time footing to a war footing almost overnight. There was no whining about shortages or having to do without certain things. We were patriots and loved our country. I still tear up when I hear Kate Smith sing ‘God Bless America.’“
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.