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Fred Williams - Purple Heart survivor

Fred Williams Fred Williams

(Fred Williams, Sneads, FL served as a heavy machine gunner in the U. S. Army from his induction on 3 March 1943 until his discharge on 23 May 1945.  He went ashore on the beaches of Normandy, fighting in Belgium and France to help defeat the Nazis.  As he grew less able to ambulate as a result of his war wounds, his family encouraged him to write an account of his life, particularly his early history and his participation in WWII.  The quoted materials in this article are lifted from his own handwritten account.

Fred died on November 28, 1997 after having become non-ambulatory as a result of the wounds he sustained on September 17, 1944.   A list of awards/commendations he received (dated 4 November 1993) are the Bronze Star Medal(2), Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, American Campaign Medal, European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Combat Infantryman Medal, Belgian Fouragerre, Honorable Service Lapel Pin, and the Marksman Badge w/Machine Gun Bar.

As a boy in elementary school at Sneads, Florida, Fred Williams read all about Madagascar and many other foreign countries.  At that time, those places seemed very far away to a youngster who might expect, at the most, to tag along when his daddy had an infrequent business trip to Marianna.  Though he could never have imagined doing so, travel to faraway countries was going to be part of his life and he would not be waiting very long before finding himself in places he had only read of before.   

Being born in 1923 meant that young Fred experienced the Great Depression as a child growing to adulthood.  Life was hard with hardly any free time and extremely few luxuries for the farm boy who grew up north of Sneads near Lake Seminole.  The oldest of his siblings in a family of four, he assumed major responsibilities for routine farm chores at an early age.  By the time Fred was a young adult, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich struck fear into the hearts of Europeans and, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II became a fight that America could no longer ignore.   Like so many other young men, Fred found himself drafted into the service of his country.  By the end of his basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Fred’s rural background with its “ hunting out of necessity “caused him to be selected for the role of heavy machine gunner.  This meant that not only was he to be in the heat of battle, but also he was expected to carry, care for, and assemble on demand his heavy gun which was a 30 caliber water cooled Browning.  The gun itself weighed about 40 pounds with the tripod weighing about that much and the ammunition which weighed another 30 pounds.  The weight of the gun, tripod and ammo meant that each gun was operated by a three man crew.  Still, carrying the weapon was quite a load for a slightly built young Fred who weighed no more than 130 pounds himself.  According to his handwritten account, Fred declared that he “knew everything there was to know about handling that gun” and that he could take it apart, clean it, and put it together again even in the darkness of Utah Beach.  He gained those skills while assigned to Advanced Individual Training at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.  

Having completed this training, Fred joined the soldiers assigned to the “Golden Lions” the 106th Infantry for the trip across the Atlantic to Europe.  In one of the worst events affecting him during his military service, he contracted the mumps with complications while onboard the ship.  Extremely ill, he was at first accused of malingering and then hospitalized due the seriousness of his illness.   Due to his illness, he was separated from the 6th infantry and later reassigned to “D” Company, 22nd Infantry with which he went ashore on Omaha Beach.    Fred wrote that he could “hear the shells going off while his group was crossing the channel.”  Once ashore, his first order from the Lieutenant was to clean the gun of lubricant and reassemble it in preparation for battle.    From the beachhead, the squad marched toward St. Lo, France headed to Paris.   One of Fred’s more pleasant memories was of a French woman who passed by where he was digging one of the many foxholes of his tour.  In a few minutes, the woman returned bringing him a “stacked” layer cake.  According to his written recollections, the French people were excited to see the American army and shared whatever they had with the soldiers.  They shouted verbal encouragement to the soldiers and though the language was French, the appreciation was clear.

Fighting through Sessions, Belgium and on to Luxembourg, the soldiers marched and fought, digging foxholes and shooting all the way to the Siegfried Line.  Williams wrote that he dug as many as 10-15 holes in a day, a necessity as the fighting forces advanced.  Fred also wrote that he walked every step of the way and never once rode on anything until after he was wounded.  At 10 am on Sunday morning, September 17, 1944, Fred was wounded behind enemy lines.  According to him, he was hit “in my shoulder, my leg, my stomach, my left arm which was busted up next to my shoulder and broken in 10 different places.” Fred and a fellow soldier were forced to lie still pretending to be dead until the cover of darkness allowed them to make their way back to the battalion headquarters.  They survived through sheer will and the ability to give themselves shots of morphine to ease the incredible pain. Still covered with his own blood and mud from the field, Fred was asked by the sergeant of the rifle company they had been supporting where the battalion headquarters was. “I told him I knew where it had been that morning when we jumped off in attack, so I got up and walked to the command post to show him.”

  When they finally made their way back to the battalion headquarters, the sentry asked for the password of the day which neither soldier had since they had been wounded and were away from camp when it was given out for the next day.  Faced with the prospect of being denied entry, Fred recalled that he began talking about any and everything American he could think of from baseball to his hometown of Sneads. FL.  The sentry realized that not even a German infiltrator could have come up with “Sneads, FL” if it were not indeed the truth.    Fred recollected that he was “afraid that I was going to survive the wounds of earlier that day only to be shot by one of our own soldiers.”  Finally, the two men were admitted to the command post; then, the major wanted an account of all that had happened that morning.  After hours of going over the details, Fred was loaded into a jeep at about 3:00 am and given more painkillers for the trip to the field hospital.    There, the nurses cleaned his body of the blood and mud, gave him his first fresh pair of socks since D Day, and  the doctors re-broke the left arm so that it could be set.  From that field hospital, Fred was sent by train to the hospital in Bristol, England where he spent several weeks recovering from his wounds.  As part of his prescribed treatment, Fred had to walk each day. Ironically, on these walks, he wrote that he saw “candy in the shop windows which he could not buy because he had no ration coupon for the sweet treats.”  He was there to help free Europe but could not buy a bar of candy.

Eventually, he returned to the States where one of his first actions was to honor a pact he had made with a friend, Darrell Griffith.  The two soldiers promised each other that whichever one of them survived would visit the other’s parents.  Darrell’s parents were from West Union, West Virginia and Fred went there to visit them as he had promised.  Darrell, Fred’s friend, was killed in action in the War.

Though Fred Williams saw some of the worst fighting of the War, he returned home to marry, raise a family, and farm.  Determined and highly motivated, he was regarded as an innovative farmer whose ideas were ahead of his time, agriculturally speaking.    He also served as Jackson County Commissioner (1970-78) and as Florida Chairman of the American Agricultural Movement.  Active and politically involved, he was an independent thinker and believed he had earned the right to speak his mind.  Though he rarely talked in detail about the more frightening aspects of the War, he often said that he had “toted” that machine gun all over Europe walking the whole time until after he was horribly wounded.  While it was true that his was a brutal experience, he also pointed out that, as a result of going to Europe to fight, he had made friends he kept for the rest of his life, visiting with them whenever it could be arranged.  And, it was true that traveling to foreign places and observing aspects of life that he never would have seen or known of otherwise gave him a unique perspective on the world and, particularly, on its people and their economies.    His injuries were serious and many others would have given up, but, like many young men of his time, giving up was not an option for him.  Family, friends and neighbors have observed that, on the contrary, he seemed more tenacious and determined as a result of his participation in World War II.  He persevered then; he could not reconcile himself to less than what he could do here at home.  For the rest of his life, he had a pronounced interest in political and social events.  He often seemed to be trying to get the very most out of the life he had been spared and was highly regarded in his community.  Though Fred, like many other veterans of war, never shared the horrors of battle, he did, according to his children, emphasize the strength of will that it took to “walk all over Europe toting the heavy gun” while digging several foxholes each day during the worst fighting.  He often said that, having been cold during the War, he didn’t intend to be cold and/or wet during the rest of his life.  Still, they report that he managed to maintain a sense of humor and a proactive way of dealing with what must be done.    

Fred’s wife, Inez Tyus Williams, died January 12, 2012.   They are survived by their four children: Burton, an attorney living in Lithia Springs, FL; Gayle (Westbrook), a retired school administrator living in Bascom, FL; Darrell , a farner living on the family farm north of Grand Ridge; and Tony, who also lives on the farm and farms with Darrell.  Though Fred rarely spoke of details with his children, his grandson Zeke and he shared many conversations about the military service and the War.  Before his death, Fred preserved some details used in this article when he wrote some of his life’s story.

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