Respect for America’s “greatest generation” runs deep, especially for succeeding generations with strong military family connections. This is especially true for local real estate broker Becky Miller, who regards the life of her grandfather, retired U. S. Army Lt. Col. Charles T. “Tom” Cox, as exemplary.
Born May 26, 1919, Col. Cox will celebrate his 100th birthday on Memorial Day weekend. His military career, from 1935 to 1967, spanned World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War, ending with the Vietnam War.
“My grandfather has spent his whole life serving others,” notes Miller. “We can’t imagine the changes he has witnessed – a young kid going overseas in the 1940s, going from farm fields to battlefields.”
Cox, who now lives in Heritage Hunt in Gainesville, began his military career in 1935, when he joined the North Carolina National Guard. He served with Battery A of the 113th Field Artillery, based in Greenville, N.C.
He was underage when he enlisted – only 16 – and lied about his age to get in. “It was during the Depression and being paid 75 cents a drill was big money back then,” he recalled. “I thoroughly enjoyed being a guardsman.”
Discharged from the National Guard in 1939, Cox was recalled in September 1940 when his unit was mobilized. He notes that his records at National Guard headquarters in Raleigh didn’t show that he had been discharged. He had to sell his service station business in Greenville and spent the next year in training.
Sent to camp at Ft. Jackson, S.C., Cox rose quickly through the ranks, completing his training as a sergeant. With the U.S. entry into World War II, his enlistment was extended by Pres. Roosevelt for “…the duration plus six months.”
Later qualifying for Army Officer Candidate School, Cox earned his commission as a second lieutenant in 1942 and was assigned to Battery B of the 25th Field Artillery.
Cox’s first post was in Puerto Rico, where a U.S. force was preparing to invade one of the islands in the Caribbean held by the French, who were by then under the control of the German-controlled Vichy government.
“My battalion commander gave me the job of seeing how to float a 2 ½-ton truck across a river in Puerto Rico,” said Cox. Using large tarps stuffed with palm branches for flotation, the experiment was a success. But then the French capitulated, and the invasion was called off.
Cox’s unit returned to the U.S. for more training. As the Allies prepared for Operation Overlord – the assault on Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” and the liberation of Europe – Cox’s unit was sent overseas as a separate unit on board the Queen Elizabeth.
During the confusion of the massive movement of men and materiel, Cox’s unit was off-loaded at sea, and taken by barge to Scotland and loaded onto a train to England. They were taken to France as the D-Day invasion, already inland, was raging. But where was all of their equipment?
Their howitzers and other assets were still in England with the advance party, and it would be almost two weeks before the unit was rejoined with their equipment. Until it arrived, they had to wait on the beach.
“We were a bunch of stragglers living off the land,” said Cox.
Finally equipped to fight, the 25th was assigned to the 9th Army Group and sent to the most northern sector of the American forces. They were shifted from corps to corps, supporting British and American divisions along the front lines, sent to the hot spots and continuously in combat.
“We were strafed by German aircraft and there were incoming shells, but we were fortunate,” said Cox. “We had some men who were wounded, but they all survived.”
The most critical fighting took place during the Battle of the Bulge, fought between Dec. 16, 1944, and Jan. 25, 1945. Cox’s unit was attached to the 8th Division and found themselves in the Hurtgen Forest, outside of Aachen, Germany.
“We were at the top hinge [of the Allied forces] and we were firing to the east for days,” Cox recalled. “Then all of a sudden, we were firing southeast, and eventually just south, as the Bulge expanded.”
The biggest threats were infiltration by German soldiers dressed in American uniforms, and the fact that they never knew where enemy fire was coming from.
“There were a lot of nights you didn’t sleep, due to the constant firing, and it was extremely cold and muddy,” said Cox. “One of the worst times was when we were stuck in the Hurtgen Forest. When their incoming rounds struck the treetops, we had more casualties from splinters than anything else.”
Booby traps placed by the enemy were constant. Abandoning their jeep on the road when a German fighter attacked them, Cox and his driver found themselves in a field covered with trip wires and booby traps.
“It took us half-a-minute to get out there, and a half-hour to carefully make it back,” he recalled.
The Allies pushed the Germans back, and Cox’s battery was attached to a forward unit of the 83rd Division, keeping up with a mechanized unit and crossing the Elbe River. They halted just short of Berlin as the war ended.
The occupation of Germany provided many memories. After his unit withdrew back into the countryside, Cox was made the commandant of several small villages. While in Zell, he befriended a former German officer who had a sick child. Securing medical attention for her from his unit, the two former adversaries became lifelong friends. The German died a few years ago, but Cox still stays in touch with his daughter.
His tour of duty over, Cox returned to the U.S., where he was commissioned an officer in the regular Army. He was sent to Italy, serving with the 88th Division in Trieste. What followed were tours back in the states where he served as an instructor and completed the Advanced Artillery Course at Ft. Sill.
Korean War and beyond
The Korean War was at a stalemate when Cox was sent there, serving as operations officer for a 155-mm artillery unit in the far western part of Korea. They supported a British unit positioned next to them, and due to the static nature of the war, they didn’t move around much.
Artillery duels with the North Koreans and firing in support of the British troops were routine, as was the bitter winter cold, which was hard on both men and equipment. Somehow, his battery completed their tour without taking casualties.
Over the next 14 years, Cox held a number of positions in Army headquarters, with duties ranging from overseas tours and instruction to working with the U. S. Air Force and the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) on atomic warhead artillery shells then in development.
“Only one of those atomic shells was ever fired, and it was done by a battery of the 25th at a range in New Mexico,” he recalled.
As the U.S. entered the war in Vietnam, Cox volunteered to serve in combat there. However, due to the extent of his security clearances, he was told he would only have a secure job behind a desk in Saigon. This was not what he wanted, so in 1967, he retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Returning to civilian life, Cox worked for the Southland Corporation, and served for many years as an usher at the First Baptist Church in Springfield, Virginia. He moved to Heritage Hunt in Gainesville in 2010.
Cox views his military service as central to his life – the training and education he received, his many and varied experiences, and the camaraderie with fellow soldiers he enjoyed.
For many years, the 132 members of Cox’s National Guard unit that was mobilized in 1940 held reunions. He notes that last year, there were three who still survived, and today he is the only one – a thought to reflect upon for Memorial Day 2019.
Contact John Toler at email@example.com