Mississippi WWII veterans tell their stories of service
By BOBBY PEPPER | Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo | Published: October 1, 2019
TUPELO (Tribune News Service) — Ever since he read the book "Band of Brothers," Judge Stephen Bailey has wanted to meet a member of the "Easy Company" featured in the book and later portrayed in an HBO miniseries.
Bailey didn't realize until recently that one of the "brothers" lives about 55 miles away.
The Chancery Court judge's wish came true Sunday afternoon when he shook hands with 95-year-old Bradford Freeman. A Caledonia resident, Freeman was a member of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into France on June 6, 1944, to start the D-Day Invasion.
Freeman was one of four World War II veterans who shared their war experiences to about 60 people who gathered in a Lee County Justice Center courtroom.
The audience included a group of amateur historians, including Bailey, who began calling themselves the "Gettysburg Boys" following a visit this year to the Civil War battle site.
"One thing I learned at Gettysburg is that you can get a lot out of a book about history, but you get so much more when you reach out and see history and touch history," Bailey said. "I wanted to meet one of the 'Band of Brothers,' but I didn't know if any were left."
Three of the veterans — Freeman, and Columbus residents Joseph Johnson and Edwin Humphries — served in the Army. The fourth, Harry Martin of Tupelo, was in the U.S. Air Force.
The 1992 book "Band of Brothers," written by Stephen E. Ambrose, details the service of the 101st's E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. HBO turned the book into a 10-part miniseries in 2001 with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks serving as executive producers.
Freeman spent about 40 minutes Sunday telling the audience about his war experiences.
"I was on plane 70 when we flew in," Freeman said of D-Day. "When we jumped, they didn't cut their speed on the plane like they had been doing, so we fell out and were scattered out a little further. But that was all right. Our accompanying plane went down, and all of them were killed. That made us a little short, but we made it. We were the first ones to land."
Soon after Freeman and his company landed in France, Johnson and his infantry division joined in the D-Day invasion at Utah Beach. Johnson expressed his appreciation to Freeman for going in first.
"I want to thank you for saving my life," Johnson said. "You jumped before I came in."
Freeman told how Easy Company parachuted into the Netherlands a few months after D-Day as part of Operation Market Garden and then took part in the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Freeman was one of 60 veterans who traveled to Normandy this year for D-Day's 75th anniversary. He met President Trump during the visit.
"He shook my hand and said, 'Howdy,' " Freeman said of the president.
Freeman said Easy Company hosts annual reunions to bring back the "brothers," but his post-war career as a postal worker kept him from going for a time. "I didn't go to one for 32 years," he said. "I was running a mail route six days a week."
Johnson, 94, served in the Third Army under Gen. George S. Patton, fighting in the Battle of Bulge and other clashes.
"We went all the way to Berlin and lived to tell about it," Johnson said. "It was an honor to rub shoulders with General Patton. He was a special person."
Johnson took a moment to praise the wartime contributions of U.S. women who worked in factories to build weapons and make supplies for the troops.
"If it weren't for the American women, we wouldn't have been able to do it," he said. "We won it with the supplies they built and sent us."
Humphries, 93, was an Army infantryman in the South Pacific.
"We landed in the Philippines and we were pushing our way to the north," he said. "The Japanese were doing everything they could to stop it."
Humphries contracted an eye infection and hepatitis during his service and was flown back to the U.S. to recover. He lost sight in his right eye and hearing in his right ear.
Humphries and Johnson both told about the horrors of war. Humphries recalled flying back to the U.S. with servicemen who had been tortured in Japanese POW camps. Johnson said he saw a railcar filled with bodies of women and children who had been exterminated by the Nazis in Poland.
"It's by God's grace that we're here," said a grateful Humphries.
Martin, 94, enlisted in the Air Force while in college and went to navigation school. He was a reluctant participant in the panel. He had planned to sit in the audience but was encouraged to join the other three vets before the start of the program.
"I didn't come here to talk about what I did," Martin said. "I came here to shake the hands of these men and to thank them."
Jak Smith, a Tupelo attorney and member of the "Gettysburg Boys," also thanked the veterans for serving their country.
"We are the ones who are honored here today to have gentlemen like you who served our nation during probably the worst time it's ever had," he said. "People think we're having it hard now, but it's nothing compared to what it was then."