WWII vet Charlie Jacobus of Smyrna served with valor

Susan Harber, May 7, 2018

Charlie Jacobus

Charlie Jacobus (1923-2013), a citizen of Smyrna for 48 years, was an accomplished baker and well known in our nation for his culinary skills.  He also served in World War II’s largest engagements, including D-Day invasion of Normandy and in Cherbourg.  Moreover, he was on a ship off the coast of Japan near Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, to end the war.

Every student in Rutherford County needs to hear his historical journey firsthand.  Charlie’s life was based on honesty, hard work, good attitude and a strong faith.  This story will converge into a three-part series that covers a breadth of time spent in expansive lands while focusing on his love of home and Rutherford County.

Charlie’s wife Zamah Cookston, current resident of Smyrna, was born in Sequatchie County in a rural community.  She met Charlie in a bakery in Chattanooga when he hired her to work in sales, and they were wed in 1960.

Zamah is a hand quilter and designer known statewide for a masterpiece collection of quilts she has stitched over decades.  She is an ongoing participant in the Sam Davis Home living-demonstration series for quilting.

The Jacobus family has a military lineage.  Zamah’s youngest brother drove an ambulance in Vietnam, and her father fought in World War II from 1942-1945 in Germany.  Zamah’s grandson Seth Barker has been in the Army for 10 years and is now stationed in Germany.  Charlie’s own father served in the Army in the early 1900s.

Charlie had four children: Glenda Beard of Memphis, Joye, Charles Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Harold of Watertown.  His daughter Joye lives in Smyrna, and sons Charles Jr. and Harold Jacobus are deceased.  Harold worked 22 years at Bridgestone in La Vergne and died at age 47 in 2011.  Charlie was blessed with seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

I knew Charlie for 20 years, and he had a wit like no other. He was a lot of fun and carried a razor-sharp memory at every turn. His story is extraordinary start to finish.

Charles Frederick Jacobus was born in Memphis on Aug. 6, 1923, into complete turmoil.  His parents were O.C. Jacobus and Jewel Price.

Charlie lived with his mother to the age of 6 at which point she was no longer able to care for him due to crippling tuberculosis.  The last time Charlie saw his mother (age 29) was in May 1935 when he carried her violets to her hospital room.

His father was not a presence in the family, and all was stressful. Charlie’s brother died at age 3 and his sister at 5 months old.  While his mother was ill, Charlie briefly lived on the streets in Memphis and was quite savvy at a tender age to the wiles of the world.

Charlie lived in St Peter’s Orphanage, Cheerfield Farm and the Porter-Leath Orphanage.  These temporary homes were not an ideal environment in any manner.  He once escaped by freight train to Fulton, Kentucky, and found roadside gardens of fresh vegetables on which to survive, only to be shipped back to Memphis.  He also skipped school to watch a Memphis baseball game.  He knew every player in the Southern Association.  He viewed the game through the keyholes until the seventh inning.

His saving grace was his assignment as head waiter at the orphanage.  Working in the kitchen gave him great knowledge that would serve him a lifetime as a cook in the war and in his illustrious career as a baker.

Charlie’s first paying job was throwing newspapers in Memphis for $10 a week.  He also unloaded news print for $10 per truck for fewer hours.  He quickly learned the value of a dollar and how to manage his sparse money.

Charlie attended eight schools in one year, making his ability to receive an education impossible.  He was thrown into a rough crowd of students, but he wanted to make better grades and steer away from the atmosphere thrust upon his fragile existence.  He finally entered Humes High School of Memphis and made the Honor Roll.

At age 15, he found more good fortune when his Uncle Lewis, a pharmacist, and Aunt Clara offered him a home for a couple of years.  Uncle Lewis stated “come only if no smoking, no drinking and no hanging around service stations or drug stores.”  Lewis was the only father Charlie ever knew, and he was strict but fair in the end.

By 10th grade, Charlie joined the Navy for a six-year commitment but remained in the Naval Reserves for 19 years. His initial pay was $21 a month.  Consequently, Charlie felt comfortable receiving three square meals, clean clothes and free haircuts on his ship.

He received his high school diploma after his discharge from the Navy.  He had no valid birth certificate to identify himself and was classified as “no-name Jacobus.” Fortunately, he found his mother’s scrapbook with his birth date of Aug. 6, 1923, and the Navy was his new mission.

After Pearl Harbor, Charlie reported to the Tulane Hotel in Nashville on Dec. 26, 1941.  He then caught a train to Norfolk, Virginia, and started boot camp.  This structured facility was much like his childhood with following rules and marching to a beat.

Charlie’s instructor was from World War I and favored the Tennessee soldiers.  In six weeks, Charlie was aboard a ship where he was Seaman Apprentice and learned mechanics of every sized gun.  On-the-boat training took place along the coasts of Newfoundland and Iceland.

During this time frame, Charlie was on the famed and armed dreadnaught warship USS Arkansas when a German submarine edged near his ship with no damage inflicted.

On his vessel was a foremast, machine guns and lookout posts.  Curtiss Reconnaissance planes (SB2C) landed in the water by the ship and eased near a crane that would pick the planes up and set them on the catapult.  This ship was one of the heaviest armed battleships in the fleet and held 1,200 men on board, although the USS Arkansas was initially designed to hold 800 seamen.

Perched on the USS Arkansas were a dozen 12-inch guns with a range of 20 miles.  Several guns were 5-inch 50s on each side, along with 3-inch 50s. Traveling along the coast and gaining experience in firing these guns while cleaning the ship was a full day’s work.  Charlie received his Seaman First Class rating and was self-educated on learning the knots, painting, placement of rat guards and tying up the ship properly.

Charlie’s quarters were below deck.  Large steel plates would open in an air castle on deck, and he resided below in a restless environment.  At night the temperature was so cold, soldiers feared freezing to death in their bunks. During his first year on the ship, he slept in a hammock.  Also, below deck were magazine and fire and engine rooms. Charlie was now in a division to man 3-inch, 50 caliber guns with a projectile velocity of 2,100 feet.

Charlie was a leading seaman in the 8th Division on the USS Arkansas.  His officer was Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Wesson, whose grandfather Daniel founded Smith and Wesson gun factory.  Wesson encouraged Charlie to serve as boatswain mate.  In his promotion, Charlie operated 3-inch guns, 5-inch 50s and a Bofors 40-millimeter gun.  Charlie was alert on his ship at all hours for pending danger.

In World War II, battleships such as USS Arkansas (BB-33) were enormous in size and broad at beam for long-range firing.  These war ships were constructed to shell beaches and named after individual states.  They were often over 500 feet in length and could weigh 70,000 tons when fully loaded.

Charlie was on the USS Arkansas for two years.  The ship was 562 feet long and 93 feet wide.  His major role was paint work at this time.  The ship was commissioned to the Navy in 1912 and served in World War I and II.

This vessel escorted convoys to Europe through 1944.  With a task force in a convoy, it could take 15 days to reach England.  In June 1944, the ship supported the invasion of Normandy.  By 1945, USS Arkansas was in the Pacific bombarding Japanese positions during the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  By the end of the war, the ship carried soldiers back to the states on Operation Magic Carpet.

USS Arkansas made a dozen trips to and from England, in addition to several trips to Casablanca, Morocco and North Africa.  While stationed in North Africa over three months with his invasion force, Charlie enjoyed attending a USO show featuring Martha Raye.  He later heard Irving Berlin playing his song “This is the Army” in the South Pacific in 1945.

Charlie remained in Casablanca for two years, escorting ships that were ready to sail to France.

Charlie relates that a convoy was comprised of 25 merchant and troop ships.  One command ship was in charge of a task force.  Destroyers were a screen for cruisers and equipped to listen for subs.  If contact was made, the ship would often drop ash cans over and attempt to blow out water as a depth charge.  Charlie had successful escorts that spotted subs. He referred to destroyers as supreme over carriers and the backbone of the fleet.

Charlie’s first and only casualty at sea on the USS Arkansas was his witness of two small planes with a gunner and pilot on patrol.  The pilots were having fun and flipped the plane over only to sink and were never found.

Charlie transferred to USS O’Brien in 1943 with a first operation in Normandy for a D-Day invasion.

We will soon continue the adventure in Part 2 in the true story of World War II veteran Charles Jacobus and explore his active presence in Rutherford County.

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@ hotmail.com

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