The Heroes of
378 Who Fought Democracy's Battles
by Don Kehne and M.L. Faunce
The cafeteria is, for the most part, empty. A dozen or so elderly men sit scattered at tables about the room, the last remnants of the breakfast crowd that tarries here before getting on with their day. Some converse quietly in twos or threes, an easy laugh rising now and then among them. Others sit alone, gazing in silence at the sunlit courtyard or contemplating cups of coffee.
Sitting across the table is Norman Allers, a burly, hale 81-year-old who is here to talk about his life - especially one rather extraordinary part. Today, Allers is our introduction to the 378 residents of Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in Southern Maryland, the first of many soldiers - both old and not so old - whose stories and experiences of war you are to hear.
"See these guys?" Allers says, pointing around the room. "Every one of them is a hero."
It is not easy to imagine what heroics those aged, faded bodies could have performed. A glance out to the hallway, where a frail, wheelchair-bound octogenarian slowly scoots his way along, doesn't help, either. That guy - a hero?
But you instantly trust Allers, whose warm smile and embracing voice tell of a good and happy life, a life that has little room for untruths. They are heroes, you're sure of it.
Yet, at the same time, you never hear Allers - nor, for that matter, any of the old soldiers here - include himself in that class.
"I'm no hero," demurs the former Navy quartermaster who served both in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II. "I just cleared the way for those guys, that's all."
Of course, as you learn time and time again at Charlotte Hall, "that's all" means more - far more - than the rest of us can ever hope to understand.
What they experienced, however commonplace at the time, was never so trivial. Some faced the worst they'd ever face, felt and behaved as they never would have or would again, saw what no one hopes to see. Along the way, they got the ride of a lifetime, going from small towns and farms to the streets of Washington or Paris, the coral atolls of the central Pacific or the jungles of Panama.
All of them, no matter where and when they served, know their years in uniform changed them, made them who they are.
Now, years later, behind the easy smiles you sense a mingling of pride and sadness, of contentment and loss.
Bodies that saw them through the best and worst of times, once full of vim and vigor, are failing. Friends and loved ones have passed on. For many, living on their own was impractical. For more, it was impossible. These Maryland veterans have come to Charlotte Hall to serve out the rest of their years.
Forever After: Charlotte Hall
Charlotte Hall's ties with soldiers go way back. At first a military academy, Charlotte Hall was one of the early educational institutions in the United States. Merged from the free schools of St. Mary's, Charles and Prince George's counties in 1774, the all-boys military school operated nearly 200 years. The school was named in honor of Queen Charlotte of England, but the feminine gender played only a small role in the military school's long history, for the school went co-ed in 1972, only to close its doors in 1976.
Those old ties to the military were forever secured when the Maryland General Assembly established a Maryland Veterans Home Commission in 1975. The action paved the way for the state of Maryland and the federal government to jointly purchase the Charlotte Hall School and convert to a home for veterans.
In 1985, Charlotte Hall opened its doors to 126 veterans; it is now home to about 370. Maryland residents with an honorable discharge from active service with the U.S. armed forces are eligible for admission. Residents pay according to their income, often with the help of a federal Veterans Administration per diem allowance.
The 378-bed state home is privately operated not as a hospital but as a facility to meet the special residential and long-term health care needs of both men and women veterans. Charlotte Hall has two wings for long-term nursing care, including a unit for Alzheimer's patients. This year, to ease the growing backlog of veterans waiting for a room, the state put up $8.1 million for another residential wing on the home's 127-acre campus. Once the new wing opens next winter, Charlotte Hall will house and care for 504 veterans.
Sitting back from Route 5 in northern St. Mary's County and near the town by the same name, Charlotte Hall is ablaze with fall colors this time of year. The small and historic 'White House,' part of the original military school, is the first building visitors notice.
Entering the main residential building, visitors leave the serene country landscape outside for a bustling home-like atmosphere where residents, skilled professional staff and countless loyal volunteers cheerfully interact.
Norman Allers is part of the banter in the main hall. On this day, the music from the Halloween party in the cafeteria is competing with greetings exchanged by the men Allers calls heroes. Some respond in kind, calling each other names apt here - 'Sarge,' 'soldier' and 'jarhead' - barked in firm, friendly tones.
Norman Allers: A Modest Hero
If not for the Boy Scouts, Norman Allers might never have become one of Charlotte Hall's modest heroes.
"The Boy Scouts taught me what kind of person I should be," the 81-year-old Baltimore native says, snapping off with military precision what kind of person he means: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. "And they taught me to be patriotic," he adds, "To love my country."
But he craved the sea.
As a 15-year-old Eagle Scout, Allers followed that call and joined the Sea Scouts, coming aboard Ship #1, the local troop in Baltimore. Skippered by James McBridge, the superintendent of Maryland Dry Dock, a mock ship set up in their headquarters was where these sea scouts learned their seafaring skills.
Soon, Allers learned bow from stern, starboard from port, and all other things nautical that make landlubbers queasy.
For a taste of real seamanship, the scouts worked on a 24-foot Navy whaleboat docked at the Maryland Yacht Club. Later, McBridge, a former shipbuilder, helped the scouts design and build three sailing vessels. Between boats official and homemade, Allers learned how to run a ship.
At 18, Allers did what was expected of every loyal Sea Scout: he enlisted in the Naval Reserve.
As a reservist, Allers trained each summer aboard Navy combat ships, including a battleship. Life aboard wasn't always grand on those cruises, especially when restricted to the ship, but Allers made do.
"We had 'spyglass liberty,'" he says, "Which means we'd look at apartment windows with the ship's spyglass." For extra money, Allers cut shipmates' hair, charging 25 cents a head.
When not on cruises or drilling with his unit, Allers settled into a comfortable routine in Baltimore. He attended college to study accounting. In 1940, at age 23, he married.
Then came the war.
Less than two weeks after his wedding, Allers was told to report for active duty. The following day, with no time to officially register for service, Allers shipped out for the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he worked in his ship's signal tower manning a semaphore light.
Before long, the Navy ordered Allers to Boston to help outfit four fishing vessels being converted for mine-sweeping service in the Atlantic.
At the shipyard, Allers watched workers transform the old three-masted, 89-foot Gloucester schooners into modern fighting ships. Masts were removed, diesel engines installed and the ships fitted with the latest gear to sweep mines.
Along with a new look, the ships got new names: Egret, Blue Jay, Canary and Flamingo. Allers, along with a number of sailors from Baltimore, took his place on the Egret. His place was in the pilot house.
Once commissioned, the Egret - now U.S.S Egret (AMC-24) - sailed for Navy Mine School on the James River in Virginia.
There Allers and the rest of Egret's crew learned the skills that would ultimately save hundreds of lives - theirs included - during mine-sweeping patrols out of Cape May, New Jersey, their new station.
The Egret's job, explains Allers, was to clear the way for convoys sailing the shallow coastal waters off New Jersey and Delaware, waters seeded with mines left by German U-boats.
To foil the mines, the Egret dragged two saw-like "oropesa" sweep cables that would cut the steel tether that moored mines to the sea bottom. When the mine floated to the surface, the crew destroyed it with gunfire.
For magnetic mines, which detonated when a steel hull passed nearby, electrical generators in the Egret's hold sent out magnetic fields to detonate the mines prematurely.
Acoustic mines, tripped when engines throbbed overhead, were likewise tricked into exploding by the Egret's electronic gadgetry.
In whichever case, the results were terrifying.
"When those things blew, they'd send water up 100 feet into the air," Allers recalls.
One June day in 1942, Allers witnessed that terrible power unleashed on a ship. A civilian tug, the John R. Williams, risked sailing ahead of the mine-sweepers. Off Fenwick Island, it struck a mine, one of 15 laid by the German sub U-373. The explosion blew the tug apart.
"They were gone, just like that," Allers says. Even worse, he knew one of the crew. When Allers saw the explosion, he was sure the friend had been killed.
The next day, however, Allers ran into the guy on base, a meeting "like the Apostles seeing Jesus at Gethsemane." As fate would have it, the day the tug went down, the friend had stayed on shore.
The Egret had close calls as well. One day, she crossed paths with a U-boat lurking off Cape May. Because the Egret had no depth charges - explosives used to destroy a submerged sub - such encounters were harrowing. Fortunately, says Allers, the U-boat slipped away with a fright but not a fight.
After months on the Egret, Allers was still Seaman First Class, still assigned to the ship's signal tower. Allers still gave haircuts on the side, "making a fortune at it," he says. At their home in Cape May, Allers and his wife enjoyed a happy life; but they never forgot what might happen each day a few miles out to sea.
Nothing, as Allers knew well, stays the same for long in wartime.
Around this time of year in 1943, Allers got orders to transfer to the assault command ship U.S.S. Rocky Mount (AGC-3), a converted merchantman recently commissioned in Hoboken, New Jersey for service in the Pacific.
Aboard his new ship, newly promoted Quartermaster First Class Allers sailed for the West Coast, where the Rocky Mount became flagship of a mighty armada bound for the Japanese stronghold of Kwajalein Island.
"We really pounded that place," Allers says of the naval bombardment that opened the amphibious assault on Kwajalein. Spectacular as it was, the battle never fell short on terror, even out on the ships.
"One day, enemy planes came over," recounts Allers. "I saw one of my shipmates just fall to pieces, he was so scared. It was terrible to see a man like that."
After five days, the island fell.
As flagship, the Rocky Mount was home to Rear Admiral R. K. Turner as well as the staffs that commanded the assault. Allers worked on the ship's bridge during the battle, but he never met Admiral Turner. "I wouldn't recognize him if you showed me his picture," he says. "It was a big ship."
How big was made even more poignant by a chance meeting with another resident at Charlotte Hall.
Fifty-two years after the battle for Kwajalein, Allers learned that resident Bootie Langford had been aboard the U.S.S. Rocky Mount with Allers. Though the two men never met aboard ship, they quickly became good friends.
"But his pin number was called in last year," Allers says. "That's what we say around here: the bank called in your pin number."
After Kwajalein, Allers was transferred to a naval training facility in San Diego, where he spent the remainder of the war as an instructor, preparing enlisted men for two more terrible battles: Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
"I'm not a hero," Allers repeats, shaking his head. "Those guys, though - they gave so much. They gave everything."
Betty Bennett: A Wartime WAVE
Betty Bennett saw service the same time as Allers. She's one of only 16 women veterans living at Charlotte Hall. As a WAVE during World War II, she served in this country, not overseas. But coming from the small town of Rogersville, Alabama, "only eight miles from Muscle Shoals - you've heard of Muscle Shoals" - that military service was a world of experience for her.
Bennett reminisces about her high school graduation in Florida in 1941, and how "all the jobs down there were seasonal, like picking fruit, packing fruit, things like that.
"I couldn't get in with the city - you had to know somebody in town to get those jobs, and they paid very little. Then, I went to work for a defense plant making military shoes."
Bennett was the first woman in that plant to be hired to do a man's job, a job she enjoyed and is proud to say, "I did it." Bennett did every job and could use each machine, she says, of the plant that made the military shoes of "real leather." Black for the Navy and another color for the Marines and Army, "and they had to be perfect."
Later in 1941, as more and more men were drafted, the plant took on more women to do the men's jobs. That's when Bennett decided to join the service. But she had to wait until 1943, when she turned 21, since "my Dad wouldn't sign for me. He said, 'no girl of his was going into the military.' So when I turned 21, I joined the Navy and became a WAVE.
"I went to Birmingham to take the examination, and then to boot camp at Hunter College in New York. We were trained by Marines, but oh, the language - they could cuss like I don't know. They didn't spare anything, but we stuck in there," she reminisces. "And snow and rain, you marched, it didn't make no difference what."
How did a young woman from a small town fare with a bunch of tough marines, like some of those calling each other 'jar head' just outside in the hallway now? Bennett says, "I loved it. I still look back on it. It helps to make you, I think."
After training, Betty spent her time in the service stationed at American University, where barracks were being constructed for servicemen. "There was no mess hall. No administration building at first. They brought our food from Anacostia in old moving vans," she recalls. Betty helped clean and prepare the seven new barracks, "scrubbing floors and walls down, getting the officers quarters ready."
Betty and the cleaning crew would have a special reason to remember the opening day.
"I met Mrs. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, that day it was dedicated. Shook hands with her, each one of us in the receiving line. She took time out to spend at least 10 minutes with us and talked to us personally. She was a wonderful woman. Big hands. Her hands were bigger than most men's. Strong, long fingers, a big woman. She had a wonderful personality."
As more barracks were built, "we worked hard to get them ready, I enjoyed every bit of it," Betty remembers.
She made second class petty officer by the time she left the WAVES and met her future husband, John Bernard Bennett. 'I called him Bernie," she says, proudly showing off the photo of a smiling couple.
"I've enjoyed my life," Betty reflected, "even the hard work and hard times because something good always comes out of it."
That's a philosophy more than a few residents seem to have at Charlotte Hall when they talk about their military service and look back on their lives.
Petticoat Junction Regulars
Charlotte Hall's veterans love to socialize. They visit each other for chats, meet over morning coffee, gather on benches outside to gab, take any opportunity to shoot the breeze.
Every afternoon, one group of regulars collects in the hall near a prominent crossroads known to residents as 'Petticoat Junction.'
There they swap jokes, catch up on gossip, rib each other like barracks buddies or just enjoy time in good company.
George Harrell, 89, wheels up to his usual place.
A stroke has slowed the World War II vet down at bit, but he's never late for his daily dose of friends.
A 34-year-old draftee, Private First Class Harrell was already a respectful age when he landed in France in 1945 with the 1253rd Combat Engineer Battalion.
Even today, just as they did back then when he helped bridge the Rhine River for the American armored drive into Germany, the younger soldiers gather around him.
"What's new?" Harrell asks.
Jeff Pearce: Charlotte Hall's Youngest
At age 33, Jeff Pearce is the youngest veteran at Charlotte Hall, arriving three years ago after a neck injury left him partially paralyzed.
But Pearce's youth and vigor have served him well at Charlotte Hall. Not only has he represented the home on the Paraylmpics basketball and archery teams, he often acts as a spokesman and advocate for the folks who aren't able to do so for themselves. That's a veteran for you.
But Pearce also reminds us we live in a dangerous world.
Born and raised on the Army Proving Grounds at Aberdeen, Maryland, Pearce was a certified Army brat. Understandably, when Pearce decided to enlist in 1982, he chose the Army.
During his eight years in uniform, Pearce served first as a combat engineer, then as a member of the Army bomb squad. As a bomb expert stationed at Ft. Lee, Virginia, Pearce shouldered one particularly impressive responsibility: protecting his boss, the Commander-in-Chief.
Every month, Sergeant Jeff Pearce, U.S. Army, conducted routine bomb searches at the White House, scouring the building roof to basement. But vigilance didn't stop at the door. Before the President traveled anywhere, Pearce's squad had to check out both motorcade routes - sewers included - and hotel accommodations, even the most famous executive suite of all: Air Force One.
In his 18 months around Washington, D.C., Pearce never had to face a terrorist bomb. But on his next, and final, assignment - Panama - all that changed.
In Panama, then ruled by Manuel Noriega, relations with both civilians and officials had reached a breaking point.
"The Panamanians hated U.S. military personnel," Pearce recalls. "They loved Noriega, because he took care of his people." Bombings were common. During his time there, Pearce went out on over 60 bomb calls. Once he had to remove a bomb from a bus.
Even more common - and just as dangerous - were the routine shakedowns by local police.
"Their police aren't like ours. They all carry machine guns," Pearce explains. "Every payday, they would stop you at a red light, point a machine gun at you and want money. I got pulled over for changing lanes. I gave the guy 20 bucks, and he let me go."
Others weren't as lucky, says Pearce. "The police would lock up our guys for no reason. Our MPs would have to deliver food to them until they got out, because the police refused to feed prisoners."
Panama's tropical climate didn't make life any better. "It's six months of dry weather, then six months of rainy weather," he complains.
Assigned to train guards at U.S. embassies from Mexico to Argentina, Pearce got a full taste of Latin America.
"All those countries are terrible," he says. "I hate 'em all. The penalty for DUI in El Salvador is death. The Colombians put a $5 million price on President Bush's head."
While in Panama, Sergeant Jeff Pearce's Army career came to a quiet close after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 1990, Pearce received a medical discharge and returned home to Maryland. At home, he fell and injured his neck.
Since arriving at Charlotte Hall, Pearce has gotten involved in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, organized by the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans Administration. The VA has sent him to the games three years in a row representing Charlotte Hall Veterans Home.
At the games, Pearce competes in archery, air rifle and basketball. So far, he's brought back three gold, four silver and two bronze medals.
Next fall, Pearce plans to attend the World Games in England, where he'll compete with participants from 20 countries. He also hopes to try for the U.S. Olympic Wheelchair Team to compete at the Paralympics.
For those who enjoy a little less vigorous form of recreation than Jeff Pearce, Patricia Rosetta provides. Pat to everyone here, Charlotte Hall's recreation director brings the breathless enthusiasm of a cheerleader to her job. Monthly, weekly and daily, the choices include bingo, ice cream socials, birthday parties, music evenings, Bible studies and movies, both matinee and evening, with popcorn. In-house 'floor activities' in separate non-smoking and smoking rooms include bowling, soft horse shoes and ring toss. Both rooms have pool tables.
"There's a nice wood shop," Rosetta continues, "and invitations to lunch from American Legions at Chesapeake Beach and Waldorf. We have theater trips to see the Port Tobacco Players and the Little Theater of Alexandria."
Rosetta retired from a bank job and came to Charlotte Hall looking for a part-time job 11 years ago just after the veterans home opened. "I just felt I was in the right place," she said. "I love my residents, and when I go home in the evening, I feel like I've accomplished something."
At the Halloween party, it's clear from the attention she receives that Rosetta's varied and full program of activities is a hit with the residents. A singer dressed like the phantom of the opera croons "Witchcraft" while everybody enjoys tasty snacks and the attention of doting volunteers and staff.
J.J. Johnson's Lucky Day
James E. Johnson, called "J.J." emerges from the Halloween party with a wide grin. He's a sight, sitting in his wheel chair with his feet straight out in front, wearing large, rubber bare feet over his slippers. He's chosen feet for his costume rather than a scary mask. Johnson, born in Lusby in Calvert County, served in the Army during the Korean War. He said he was lucky: he didn't see any action in Korea. He fixed telephone lines while serving in the infantry.
Before Johnson went off to Korea, he cut tobacco and helped local fishermen pack hardhead and rockfish destined for the Light Street Market in Baltimore. He remembers how they used to catch "the big stuff" - putting up his hands far apart to show the size of fish once caught in the Bay. "The big stuff is gone," he shakes his head.
Charlotte Hall had just opened when Johnson came here 12 years ago. As Johnson expertly maneuvers his wheel chair back toward his room, he's still lucky. The grin is for the $15 he pocketed after winning a Halloween party raffle.
Slowly, most of the residents also drift back to their rooms, the cafeteria becomes deserted and the banter and hum in the hallways gets quieter and quieter. Staff and volunteers go back to their routines of chores and good works. One party ends as plans for another, a celebration especially meaningful to them, takes shape. Soon, it will be their day: Veterans Day.
Veterans Day should be our day, too, at least in our thoughts. As we zip around in our impossibly busy lives on November 11, set aside a few moments to think about the heroes right in our own midst, the veterans who live down the street or in a home like Charlotte Hall. The men and the women, the young and the old, who say of their military service, "I'm no hero, I just cleared the way for those other guys - that's all."
If you take the time to listen to those vets, you'll know, too, what they mean when they say, "that's all."
Janie White, who volunteers at both New Bay Times and Charlotte Hall, contributed to this story.
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VolumeVI Number 44
November 5-11, 1998
New Bay Times
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