ALBANY — U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once said: “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”
For Edgar Wilson, honor was delayed 77 years.
Earlier this week, the World War II veteran received the medals and ribbons for his service 77 years ago. When Wilson was discharged at Fort Gordon in 1945, he, like so many other war veterans, was just happy to have survived the performance of his duties overseas and did not in many ways think he had done anything special.
Through the efforts of his family and a close friend, though, that oversight of almost eight decades was rectified this week.
In 1943, Wilson left his job at the Cudahy Meat Packing Co. in his hometown of Albany to travel to Ft. Benning near Columbus, where he was inducted into the United States Army. Following his basic training, he was shipped to Fort Hood in Texas for specialty training in the operation of heavy equipment. Following his training at Fort hood he was assigned to Co. 3221 of the Quartermasters Corp. and shipped overseas.
“That was some boat ride,” Wilson recalled.
Napoleon was the first to recognize that “an army marches on its stomach,” and the responsibility of insuring that the supplies necessary for this to happen, as well as the responsibility of insuring all the other material and supplies necessary to support a fighting force on the move, has been the responsibility of the Quartermaster Corps since 1775.
On June 6, 1944, when combined Allied forces crossed the English Channel to attack the German forces in Europe, they undertook one of the most massive military operations in history. Six million people were involved on the Allied side. For more than 10 months following the initial landing on D-Day, more than 2,500,000 troops and 4,000,000 tons of supplies would flow through Mulberry Harbor.
Wilson was part of that human tidal wave and one of those responsible for moving the critical supplies from the harbor to the front lines, which rapidly expanded to cover hundreds of miles. Ironically, this effort was further complicated by the actions of the French Resistance when they destroyed more than 1,500 trains that had operated in the region prior to the invasion. This action insured that the Germans could not utilize the railways to move troops to oppose the invasion. Unfortunately, it also prevented the Allies from being able to use them to support their efforts.
In a letter to the Stars and Stripes Newspaper on Aug. 10, 1944, PFC James P. Hatchell wrote, “No one seems to think a soldier in QM ever gets to smell any gunpowder, dig any foxholes, get into any fighting. ... Our QM outfit hit the beach on D-Day right in when the heat was on, and more outfits are hitting the beaches every day, unloading and loading rations, ammunition and all other equipment supplies. Opening and running dumps under combat conditions is a tough job. We sleep in foxholes, wash and shave in helmets, dig slit trenches, eat in the open, as do other Army outfits. We also have bazooka men, machine-gunners and operate 24 hours a day — and about 50 percent of that time in the rain and mud.”
The letter echoes Wilson’s memories of his actions during the campaign.
“What we saw, you couldn’t believe,” he said. “They bombed us, and there was nowhere to go. The Germans were bad. But we were their Boss. It was some bad stuff over there. A lot of guys you were with couldn’t make it. They tried but they just couldn’t make it. I did some of everything. I was with the ones with our rifles in our hands all the time.”
While he spoke with a slight quiver that periodically interrupted his smooth speech pattern and soothing voice, Wilson left no doubt that the memories from almost eight decades came at an emotional cost he carries to this day.
When Wilson returned to Albany following the war, he married Lenora Billingsley, and they had four children: Carmen, Yvonne, Edgar Jr. and Charles. Like so many of his generation, he just wanted to have a peaceful life. In 1968, the couple moved their family to Cleveland, Ohio, where Wilson became the first black carpenter to be employed by General Motors at the plant there. However, this was not the only first that Wilson had experienced. Looking at a wartime photo, the young man bearing a striking resemblance to Joe Louis was obviously serving in an integrated unit.
Yvonne elicited a quick smile and a laugh from him when she stated that he had named her after a French nurse he was fond of during the months he spent recovering from frostbite and the shrapnel wounds received during a German bombing of his unit.
This Herald reporter had been invited by Wilson’s daughter, Carmen Works, to see her dad’s reaction to receiving his medals and ribbons for his service 77 years ago. Through the efforts of his family and a close friend, Johnny White, the error of omission was finally overcome. For years the group attempted to get the medals Wilson deserved.
On one occasion, Works said she was told that he could purchase them if he wanted to. She responded, politely but firmly, “I do not think he should have to purchase something which he had earned.”
After years of dealing with a slow-moving governmental bureaucracy, honor delayed was finally honor recognized as White, a Vietnam Veteran who serves as 1st Jr. Vice Commander of Chapter 27 of the Disabled American Veterans, solemnly pinned the long overdue decorations on Wilson’s chest.
Among the medals received were those for the European-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign, the ribbon and medal for victory in WWII, the medal and ribbon for the American Campaign, his medal for Rifleman M-1 qualification, and the Honorable Service lapel pin.
It was an honor to be a part of the celebration of his service and to observe a tradition dating back to antiquity, when Egyptian warriors wore a golden necklace decorated with flies to signify they were a pestilence to their enemies. The history of the ribbons that complement the medals and have become known as “fruit salad” can be traced back to a period when only officers of high rank received medals reflecting the valor of “their” military actions. They would snip sections of the brightly colored ribbons that suspended their medals and secretively place the small sections of cloth into the hands of the troops serving under them that made their actions possible through their sacrifice and service.
It is truly fitting that Edgar Wilson finally received the formal recognition from his country for the sacrifice and service he made to insure that Victory in Europe was achieved.