In the years before the United States engaged in World War II, then-Telford resident Jack Wilhoit was a high school teenager who taught himself to play guitar and was on the school basketball team.
Born in Knoxville, Wilhoit was 5 years old when his father suffered a paralyzing stroke and the family moved to Telford. They lived off the earth, grew what they ate, and raised tobacco, corn and wheat.
He became a born-again Christian during a school assembly at Washington College school. Somewhere along the way, his oldest brother bought a guitar but left it behind when he went to CCC — Civilian Conservation Corp. — camp. Wilhoit took up the guitar, learning on his own, and “I got pretty good over the years,” he said.
But he didn’t tell many people he could play because that was the era of big band music and he didn’t want to be called a hillbilly, although “that’s probably what I was,” he said. He met a buddy from Limestone who also played and the two would “thumb a ride up to Bristol,” for the amateur hour at WOPI.
But the innocence of his hardscrabble life wouldn’t last long after he graduated from Washington College High School — now Washington College Academy — in 1942. By the end of that year, he had been drafted into the Army and had orders to report for basic training in January 1943.
Wilhoit, now 90, spent the following year in training at several bases in the U.S., first learning the trade of a radioman and then took training attached to a half-track unit in Fort Stewart, Ga., where he trained as an air cadet and before joining an anti-tank weaponry unit in Mississippi.
But it was that first certification as a radio operator that landed him a spot with what became known as the Fighting 69th Infantry Division.
By that time, 11 countries had declared war on the U.S. and American soldiers were fighting Japan in the South Pacific and the Germans in Europe.
“We’d lost a lot of radio men fighting over there .... they sent me to the 569th Signal Company,” Wilhoit said Monday as he recalled the events all those years ago.
The Army needed more skilled code operators on the ground, and it’s something Wilhoit learned early in his training and still remembers today. His company would ultimately provide the secure communications from the front lines to the command post, wherever it might be.
The 69th Infantry Division was a combination of servicemen highly skilled in communications, engineering, construction and maintenance. The division prided itself in its ability to work together to get its missions completed successfully.
Wilhoit wasn’t the only one in his immediate family to serve during WW II. Four of his five brothers were also in the military, serving in the Air Force, Marines and Navy, while one worked with Southern Railway, considered an essential element of the wartime effort on the homefront.
Some of Wilhoit’s most vivid memories of his wartime experience was the bitter cold that met and followed the troops wherever they traveled.
“At night, if you took your boots off you might not get them back on because your feet swelled so bad in the cold,” he said.
The 69th made its way into Belgium.
“That’s where we hooked up into the Battle of the Bulge,” Wilhoit said. “Fortunately for me, being in communications, we had a weapons carrier. We had to keep communications going between the troops fighting and headquarters. That’s what we did.
“Cold, cold, cold,” he said, remembering those days.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the 69th went on to cross the Rhine River, but the bridge was blown up before they got there. Engineers with the 69th constructed pontoon bridges so the troops could cross, Wilhoit said.
Throughout the nearly two years the 69th fought in World War II, the division covered 400 miles, captured over 1,000 towns — including Leipzig — took 35,000 German prisoners, freed more than 26,500 Allied prisoners, liberated thousands of foreign slaves and overtook 1/3 of the Nazi’s toxic gas supply.
After the war ended in 1945, Wilhoit didn’t come home right away. Instead, he was assigned to the 7th Army in Heidleberg as a communications operator.
Wilhoit finally earned his way home, and remembers the thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty as his ship sailed into the New York harbor.
“It was really something when I got into New York and saw all those welcoming ships out there,” he said.
Back in the states, Wilhoit got his discharge and began his civilian life. He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, and the couple had five sons before she passed away from cancer in 1968.
He spent his career working in communications with airlines here, North Carolina and Florida before eventually retiring back to the Tri-Cities. He had also remarried, and he and Freda have been married 44 years.
Wilhoit has three sons, John, Steve and Tim, and a stepdaughter, Donna.
When Wilhoit thinks hard about the war days, his emotions get the best of him as he remembers those soldiers and airmen who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“I read about those guys, the Doolittle boys ... I was there in those days,” he said. “They were really brave people. They went off knowing they might not make it back. Those pilots, I’d see them go across the sky ... a lot of them didn’t make it back,” he said, emotion dripping from his voice.
“I just think how fortunate I was.”