ive branches of the military are officially recognized: Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines. This journalist, though, believes that two other factions should be commended: the Merchant Marines and the Home Front.
Sybil G. Knox epitomizes the Home Front as part of a deep Southern clan steeped in military tradition. Born Sybil Garner at home in Atlanta on Feb. 8, 1923, the Girls High graduate married Ben Knox on July 28, 1941.
"We lived on Memorial Drive," she recalled. "Ben returned from buying milk one Sunday and said, ‘The Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor,’ so we knew war was upon us. Our biggest concern was Ben’s brother, Robert, stationed on Hickam Field in Hawaii." On Dec. 7, 1941, Sybil’s brother-in-law, Robert Knox, slipped on his pants and stepped out of his tent to bask in the beautiful morning blue of Hawaii.
Sybil relayed his story. "Nurses had arrived that week and moved into the men’s barracks. The guys had to set up tents. As Robert stepped out of his tent that morning, he spotted planes overhead and figured the Navy carrier pilots were out early, until one of them dropped what he thought was a wing tank, but then explosions started and Jap planes strafed the field."
One of Robert’s buddies was cut in half by the strafing. Sybil continued, "The poor boy was missing his body from the waist down. Robert took the boy’s last request, ‘Tell my momma I died a good boy’. Robert did relay those words months later to the boy’s parents. He said it was the toughest thing he’d ever done."
A lot of good boys die in war. An uncle of Sybil’s mother, a man called Kinney, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He died on the bluffs of Kennesaw and is buried atop the mountain. On Feb. 15, 1898, an explosion blew apart the USS Maine in Havana Harbor with the loss of 260 men, resulting in The Spanish-American War. The 2nd USS Maine BB-10, a modern battleship, circumnavigated the globe with America’s Great White Fleet, so-called due to the stark white hulls. Aboard was Sybil’s father-in-law. Her father, Roy Garner, served in Word War I after attending Officer Candidate School at Fort Gordon in Chamblee.
During the Great Depression and into World War II, Sybil’s father provided for his family as a firefighter. On Dec. 7, 1946, five years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Fire Captain Roy Garner and his unit responded to Atlanta’s infamous Winecoff Hotel fire. She recalled, "Dad’s unit was the second on scene. It was tragic; 119 dead, many injured. My father stayed all day and all night, entering the hotel the next day to search for victims. On the top floor he found five people in one room playing cards. They had used wet blankets and sheets to seal off the doors and windows. They had no idea of the scope of the tragedy on the bottom floors. That miracle got to my father; he broke down and cried."
After Pearl Harbor, with the world once again at war, Sybil’s husband donned a uniform to serve his country. "We discussed his options," she recalled. "Ben didn’t want to wait to be drafted, so he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He and his boss at the Georgia Power Co. joined the same day at Fort McPherson in April of ’42."
Ben Knox trained at Kessler Field in Alabama and tested potential pilots at several locations, spending his final 14 months in El Paso.
Sybil said, "By then Ben’s acute sinus problems caused him to receive a medical discharge. Our first child was due in two weeks and there we were in El Paso, Texas, facing a train trip back to Atlanta. I figured our first child was destined to be born in a Pullman car, but we made it home, and I gave birth less than two weeks later."
Sybil’s kid brother, James Garner, witnessed the worst of war. I talked to him via Sybil’s cellphone. "I served with the Merchant Marines for 5 or 6 months, then joined the Navy," he said. "I was in charge of a five-man landing craft aboard the AKA-84 Attack Transport USS Waukesha. Later in the war we picked up Marines on Saipan and sailed to assist in the invasion of Okinawa."
Off Okinawa, the Waukesha’s 20mm and 40mm guns kept the Japanese suicide planes (Kamikazes) at bay.
James recalled, "They came in at all hours, any time. We were always at combat stations."
The war won, the Waukesha was one of the first ships into Tokyo Bay. "The Japanese gun emplacements at a narrow channel were marked with white flags," James said. "Good Lord, I’d never seen so many white flags in my life!"
After dropping off Marines and telecommunications gear, Waukesha set sail for Nagasaki, target of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan.
James recalled, "I’ll never forget the sight. The devastation was total, nothing but a few smokestacks left standing. Bodies were everywhere; the stench overwhelming."
Sybil’s two grandsons are serving today. She said, "Brandon’s been in the Navy for 15 years, serving with or supervising catapult crews. He’s served on the carriers USS Eisenhower and USS Stennis. My other hero, grandson Aaron, graduated cum laude from North Georgia College. He was the seventh highest-ranking cadet in the nation. Aaron is presently a 1st Lieutenant serving with the Army in Korea."
Commenting on "The Greatest Generation", Sybil said, "Well, I read the book. It was a nice tribute to our generation, but all of us did what we had to do. You know, as a kid I didn’t realize the horrors of the Great Depression. I was fed, stayed warm, and I was loved. We didn’t have ‘things’ but ‘things’ don’t make you happy, your attitude does."
"I’d like to say one more thing. During World War II, I worked for the H. G. Hastings Seed Co. We sent Bermuda grass to the occupied islands in the Pacificm, but I never knew why. And I remember riding the trolley to and from work and seeing all the Army convoys loaded with young men on their way to war. They’d smile, whistle at the girls, they seemed cheerful, but I always wondered how they really felt. I’d say a prayer for them."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.