Connie Esh and John Butwell, the Murfreesboro Post, May 10, 2016
Not everybody still remembers Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, the top Allied general in Europe during World War II and later, a two-term President of the United States in the 1950s.
But Charles Edward Neal remembers getting chewed out by him, praised by him, asked for a cigarette by him, and even getting hugged by him.
It was all part of his service in World War II during the liberation of Europe for Smyrna centenarian Neal, whose family and friends fondly call him “Big Daddy” like the Burl Ives character in Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The difference is, Smyrna’s “Big Daddy” is as skinny as Ives was portly. But Sgt. 1st Class Neal – the rank he held on his retirement from the Army in 1961 after 21 years of service -didn’t let any grass grow under his feet.
Married upon retiring
For one thing, Neal hurried to Smyrna to marry his sweetheart Orlinda and keep the family fed by working in various garages in town as a mechanic – like the job he also performed in the Army.
For another, he experienced almost every major battle and event in World War II’s final days in Europe. He landed on Utah Beach under German machine-gun fire on D-Day. He got caught in the Battle of the Bulge when the Germans counter-attacked in Belgium, and had to fight his way through it with the rest.
And sadly, his unit was among the Allied troops that faced the grim necessity of liberating a Nazi concentration camp.
100th birthday bash
Neal recalled some of his war experiences before greeting well-wishers Saturday at Smyrna’s Trinity Christian Church, where his two stepdaughters threw a 100th birthday party and reception for him – complete with pulled-pork sandwiches, three different cakes and an honor guard of patriotic bikers to greet arriving guests.
His birthday isn’t actually until Tuesday, May 10. But at 100, who’s counting?
World War II soldiers were generally called G.I.s. But in Neal’s case, that isn’t accurate. The Portsmouth, Ohio, native wasn’t a “government inductee,” drafted to serve his country – he volunteered.
“Everybody was mad about Pearl Harbor back then,” Neal recalls.
‘Lucky to live,’ unwounded
He was never wounded during his service in two wars – both World War II and Korea. “I was lucky, plain lucky,” he says.
Neal also somewhat minimizes his D-Day service in Normandy, explaining, “It was kind of rough, but Utah Beach wasn’t as rough as the other ones.” Still, he notes, “The Germans had the beaches zeroed in.”
The Allies feinted at making a landing further up the English Channel, and Neal comments, “They did some of that, but I never did think they did enough. They (the Germans) were waiting for us.”
Once safely landed, “as soon as we got together, we took off for Paris, and never did stop till we got to Germany,” Neal describes. Of course, there was a little matter called the Battle of the Bulge that slowed them down.
‘Toolbox, shotgun in hands’
“It wasn’t no pleasure, I tell you it wasn’t,” Neal remembers, adding that “in a way I was” surprised by the German counterattack in Belgium. “I wouldn’t have thought the Germans had the power they had, after the beating they took. We gave ’em a pretty big beating. I always thought we could have saved some lives if we’d done a little bit more.”
During the battle, “I had a toolbox in one hand and a shotgun in the other,” Neal also recalls, since that was how Army mechanics were equipped and armed.
But Neal’s encounter with Eisenhower took place before that last great World War II battle, while his unit was still moving through France. Long story short, the general’s Jeep broke down, and Neal fixed it.
‘How I met Ike’
“I met Eisenhower like this,” Neal describes, explaining, “The G.I.s had a habit of cleaning a vehicle with a cloth, and lint would get in the gas. Eisenhower came along and his vehicle stopped. The first thing that came to my mind, they’d been wiping that vehicle and getting that lint in it.”
So? “I took the gas line off and he got on me and said, ‘You can’t do that,'” Neal continues. But not backing down, Neal told Gen. Eisenhower, sir, that it was the only way to fix the Jeep.
When the repair worked, “he put his arm around me and said, ‘You deserve whatever rank you’ve got,'” Neal recalls. “I was a sergeant. He said, ‘You really knew what to do.'”
But that wasn’t all. Eisenhower asked him for a cigarette. Neal tried to give him his entire pack of Camels, but the general refused it.
‘Orders about cigarettes’
“He said, ‘I just asked you that to see if my orders are being followed,'” explainsDottie Sims, one of Neal’s stepdaughters. “Each soldier was supposed to get a bath once a week, a new pair of socks every 10 days, and a pack of cigarettes every day.”
Instead of smoking it, Neal kept that pack of Camels as a memento, and it was on display Saturday in a sort of exhibit about Neal’s life featuring his family and military photos, Army mess kit, baptism certificate from 1916, etc., that Sims put together for Neal’s birthday party.
The collection also includes the program from one of the conferences sponsored by the Holocaust Studies Department at MTSU at which Neal was a presenter for being a surviving “liberator.” But when MTSU called the family to contact him, they told the conference organizers there must be a mistake. Neal wasn’t a “liberator” at all.
‘Some things are private’
Oh yes, they were certain, the organizers insisted, according to Sims. Finally Neal admitted that he just had never mentioned it because “there’s some things you don’t talk about.”
The camp was Mittelbau-Dora near Nordhausen, where about 60,000 people were imprisoned and about a third of them died. The Americans arrived at dusk, too late to go in, and camped on an overlooking hill overnight.
“All night long, they could hear machine-gun fire and screams,” Sims describes. “They wanted so badly to go down there and stop it. Then the next morning, when they did, they were told they couldn’t touch the people, because of lice, and they couldn’t feed them, because it might kill them.”
The G.I.s had chocolate bars and C-rations they would have willingly shared. But food itself can kill a starving person, who has to be carefully re-nourished medically.
‘Try not to let it bother’
“We got there and weren’t allowed to go in until the morning,” Neal says. “I try not to let it bother me.”
These days, Neal still gets up very early, like he did for reveille in the Army, and he reads a lot of Westerns – especially by Louis L’Amour.
His wife of 31 years, Orlinda, died in 1992, so he lives with his other stepdaughterMarilyn Wilson. And he credits his physician, Dr. Chris Thompson, for helping him stay healthy to 100.
Plus, Neal’s role as a veteran and his military service have started a tradition in his family, according to his grandson and great-grandson.
Descendants in military
Grandson Capt. Jay Perry, retired from the Army after service that included Desert Storm, says, “It’s a family tradition, all right. I was in, and so was my father and grandfather.”
Neal’s nephew Pierce Hoyer is carrying on the tradition as well. Midshipman Hoyer is now serving in the Marine Corps. He flew home especially to share his great-grandfather’s 100th birthday Saturday – and his next posting will be Officer Candidate School at Quantico Bay.
“We have a whole lineage of service,” he says. “I’d like to make it a career, but I’m not sure yet.”
His dad was also in the military – retired US Air Force Lt. Col. Stan Hoyer.
Rook on Friday nights
But not all the family’s memories about “Big Daddy” are military. There’s a photo of him with Sims’ husband Roy holding two huge sweet potatoes apiece that they had grown in their gardens.
And Neal’s niece Carolyn Parks recalls going to visit her uncle and his wife with her husband Charles Parks. “We played Rook and gin rummy on Friday nights with Uncle Charles (Neal) and Aunt Orlinda,” she says. “It was nice.”
Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.