Who was Larry Downing?

Johnson City Press • Aug 13, 2019 at 7:30 AM

Over the years the Johnson City Press has had ample opportunities to share stories about America’s veterans. Johnson City has been home to countless veterans in the care of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, since 1903, along with local men and women who served in the armed services.

One memorable local veteran whose story we were privileged to tell was World War II veteran Hugh Collie Jr. Collie was drafted in 1942 and entered the Army after graduating from Johnson City’s Langston High School in 1943. He went to Europe and served as a truck driver in the 3415th Quartermaster Company. He became a buck sergeant in charge of 24 men driving trucks.

“We hauled gas for what they called the Red Ball,” Collie told the Press in 2009. “We hauled gas for (Gen. George) Patton. You don’t hear too much about the Red Ball, but if it hadn’t been for the Red Ball, Patton would have run out of fuel, too, just like the Germans did. It was dangerous because a lot of times airplanes would come by and strafe our column.”

Most of the time Collie would use the back roads that were more out of sight. At night the company would sleep in cemeteries for safety. Despite the danger, Collie never lost any drivers under his command. Immediately after the war, Collie was attached to a mortuary unit assigned to collect decaying bodies in war-torn France.

“I don’t think it benefits anybody ... even the winner in the long run,” Collie said of war.

After his honorable discharge in 1946, Collie returned to Johnson City. With the exception of some time in Ohio, he lived out his days here as a family man — four children, nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren — and a dedicated member of his church and community organizations.

He died July 29 at age 94.

Collie’s story — and hundreds of thousands like it — must be remembered, not just for their contributions to our security, but also for the impact on the human condition.

Unfortunately we cannot say that with Vietnam War veteran Larry Downing. As Staff Writer Brandon Paykamian reported last week, Downing died without family to claim his body. He was buried at the VA National Cemetery a week ago today with aid from Tetrick Funeral Home, Grace Freewill Baptist Church and volunteers from veterans groups and motorcycle clubs.

The volunteer pallbearers and processional escorts knew little to nothing about Downing, yet they stepped forward to be his family on that day. They are to be commended.

We cannot help but wonder how many Larry Downings are out there. We don’t know his life story. We don’t know about his experiences in Vietnam. We don’t know why he died without anyone to claim him.

What we do know is that American veterans should be claimed by us all. Too many are homeless. Too many lack a network of support. Too many struggle to cope with the physical and mental wounds of war.

Take the time to know the veterans in your lives. Take the time to be there for them. Take time to listen. Many may never be as comfortable talking about their combat experiences as Hugh Collie was with the Press, but they might talk about the other parts of their lives, the people they love and the country they served.

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