99-year-old WWII Vet shares his story

Published 8:00 am Saturday, November 18, 2023

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By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

Jesse Powers Jr. was born in Washington, on July 31, 1924. At the age of 10 he and his mother, Mamie Jane Taylor Powers, moved to Chocowinity, where they lived in the oldest home in town, a two-story 1872 home. Powers went on to attend Washington High School. Following his graduation in 1943, he immediately went to work at Belk Tyler, which would later become Belk. “About nine months later, around March of 1944, I received my draft notice from the Army,” said Powers. “When I reported to Fort Bragg, I passed every test they asked me to do, but they told me I was too skinny and they sent me home. Later that same year I received another notice to report to Fort Bragg, and this time they took me even though I hadn’t gained any weight.”

Reporting to Camp Blanding, Florida for boot camp, his sharpshooting skills caught the attention of his superiors. He scored 99 out of a possible 100, firing with open sights at a target 1,000 yards away. “The guy in charge asked the spotter if I had been missing the target,” said Powers. “The spotter said, “Heck no, he’s been putting it in the same hole every time”. They told me the only reason I didn’t score 100 was because I hit the edge of center once and not the center of the bullseye as I had with all of my other shots. They asked me how I learned how to shoot like that and I told them hunting squirrels. They asked me if I wanted to be a sniper and I asked if I had a choice. They said yes, and I declined.” Powers was assigned to be a lineman for the 24th Field Artillery Division. He and others would be responsible for laying, maintaining, and placement of telephone wires, as the bulk of communications between the frontline troops and the command centers were done over telephone lines.

Powers said everyone there was young and green. He vividly remembered his first encounter with his drill sergeant. “He told us “I’m your momma and your daddy, and that is the way it is going to be,” said Powers. “He turned out to be a good guy, but he did like to drink. On the weekends he would get drunk and would sometimes have us line up in formation with nothing on but our underwear. At the time I thought basic training was horrible. However looking back, I have to say it was a great experience to grow up in. It really did help guys, including myself.”

In March of 1945, Powers was deployed to France. From there the troops were loaded into train cars, similar to those which carry cattle, and taken to Germany. Powers said you grow up really quick when faced with the unknown of going into battle. “You get there and you are totally a greenhorn and you don’t know what to do,” said Powers. “It is like trying to swim, but you don’t know how. After about 30 days though, you begin to figure things out.” As for being afraid, Powers added, “I didn’t ever think of it as being afraid. I just looked at it as if it was another job. I found out, you really don’t have time to be afraid because everything happens so quickly. That’s just the way the Army is.”

Powers said the guys he was with were nicknamed the “ghost group”, as they never stayed but one night in any location. They had to keep moving in order to maintain the lines of communication with frontline troops. He said they would hang telephone wire from houses, tree limbs, and poles. Virtually anything they could hang the wire on to keep the wire out of the way as the tanks made their way to the front. Powers wore out countless pairs of gloves along the way. “I never received a letter or a box from home because the couriers could never keep up with us,” said Powers. “I remember one night after we had set up camp before moving out the next day, and we saw a German scouting plane buzzing around. One of our guys was on a Halftrack armored vehicle with a .50 caliber machine gun and shot it down. I asked him how he did it, and he said he lined up his sites on a star, and when he couldn’t see the star, he just started firing.”

Powers recalled another time when they were heading into a town, and he saw some US troops along the road and recognized a couple of them from basic training. “One of them yelled out to me and said, “Jessie, where are you going?” I told him we were going into the town and he informed me that it hadn’t even been taken yet. We drove on in any way, without any backup. Fortunately, no one shot at us and we got our job done and moved on.”

Powers said he was always on the move, laying communication lines throughout the country, guarding prisoners, and other assignments that might come up from time to time. He said there was one instance when his entire platoon was supposed to go in and capture Hitler. “Initially we were told that was our assignment,” said Powers. “But at the last minute, we received new orders that would take us in a totally different direction. I really was hoping that we would have had the chance to go in and get him, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Just wishful thinking on my part.”

The one and only time that Powers ever saw General George Patton, was the night that he was tragically killed. “I served in Pattons’ 3rd Army,” said Powers. “I remember it was a cold and snowy night and I was guarding a motor pool, when General Patton, along with his dog, came in to inspect things. He was very brisk with everyone, including his officers who all seemed very nervous around him. When he left, he didn’t get a half mile down the road before his vehicle got into a wreck with a truck, and he was killed.”

But despite the intensity that only war can bring, Powers said there were some lighter moments. “We had stopped one night to pitch our tents in a field,” said Powers. “When my tent partner and I woke up the next morning we realized we were in the middle of a turnip patch. He pulled up a turnip, peeled it, and said, “Ain’t this the life, breakfast in bed.”

Powers would return home at the wars’ end and receive his official military discharge at Fort Bragg in August 1946. “After you have seen so much death and destruction, it changes you forever,” said Powers. “There was the good and the bad, some of which I prefer not to talk about. I’m glad I went over, and if I had it all to do over again, I would.”

Powers came back to Chocowinity where he wed Mildred Weatherly. “We decided to get us some furniture before we got married,” said Powers. “One day she told me, “I think it is time we opened a house together.” I said, “I thought you wanted more furniture?” She said, “No, it is time to get married. Are you going to marry me?” I replied, “I certainly am.” She responded, “Let’s get with it then.” So we did.” They went on to have two children Jessie Powers, III, and Kathy Lynn Powers Carter.

For the last 70-plus years, Powers has shown the same dedication and service to his community as he did to his country during WWII. He worked at Belk for over 47 years, before retiring in 1996. “It was just time to get out,” Powers said. He served on the Chocowinity Planning Board for 10 years, as well as the Beaufort County Board of Trustees. At 99 he continues to drive and still lives by himself in the same brick home that he and Mildred lived in when he returned from Europe. He attributes his longevity to good living and plenty of exercise. “I do nine different exercises every morning and evening,” said Powers. “I sit on the bed and work my arms, and then look down at my knees and tell them, “You better work today too.” It sounds funny but it works. Usually when you get my age you either get really fat or really skinny. I’m trying to keep it right in the middle. I feel very blessed.”