William “Bill” Wilkinson was not always a farmer from Johnson County. He didn’t always raise beef, hogs and sheep on the family farm. Like many other farm boys from Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, he served his country during World War II, after the Army drafted him in 1942. He was 22.
That day, his father took him to the Warrensburg train station and wished him good-bye. Mr. Wilkinson boarded a bus full of other draftees and headed for Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
During the following two years, he trained in various camps and ended up Camp Lagoon in Arizona, where soldiers practiced war games in the desert as a proving ground for North Africa. By the time he was ready, though, the war in North Africa was over.
In the end, Mr. Wilkinson qualified as a rifleman and radio operator. He qualified for being a radio operator, he said wryly, because he could read and write.
“This schooling was rare for many of the boys,” he said.
Eventually, Mr. Wilkinson was sent to Britain with the 79th Division. In the spring of 1944, an extraordinary plan to land on the beaches of Normandy, France, had been developed.
The invasion of Europe was originally scheduled for the dawn of June 5, 1944, but bad weather delayed it until after midnight on June 6, 1944. Mr. Wilkinson traveled from Britain to Utah Beach in Normandy, France, on a landing craft infantry. He climbed down a rope ladder and jumped into the sea and waded through the cold water to the shore. His division, the 79th, relieved the 90th on the coast of France for a few days.
The American forces pushed their way into the country, but were stymied on the way to Saint Lo. The land was a patchwork of small fields surrounded by impenetrable hedges, thickets of brambles, vines and trees growing out of coarse earthen mounds. The country boys, now in their element, proved especially good at fighting on that terrain.
Despite the violence surrounding him, Mr. Wilkinson still remembers the beautiful wildflowers and red poppies growing in the fields. But nothing beautiful survives long during a war, and as he marched on, beauty gave way to devastation. Boys who had been with him for two years were killed. Mr. Wilkinson himself didn’t make it unscathed.
“I was wounded in the left shoulder, and was sent back to Britain to heal,” he said. “U.S. troops liberated Saint Lo, France, on June 18, 1944.”
Once healed, Mr. Wilkinson returned to fight again in France. His platoon leader kept him as a private first class, because he needed a good radio operator and runner.
Once again on the fighting field, Mr. Wilkinson said he was “lucky, yet unlucky.” He was shot a second time in the back, just below the first wound. Three boxes of C-rations strapped onto his back saved his life.
At the medic station, the doctor told him to take a drag on a cigarette to forget the pain while he pulled the shrapnel out of Mr. Wilkinson wound.
Mr. Wilkinson was sent to sunny Naples, Italy, to recover. While in the hospital, he played cards and spent time with the other soldiers there.
“We were a good long ways from the war,” he said.
But when his skin graft did not heal, he was flown back to the United States. He ended up in the Air Corps Hospital in Springfield and stayed there for three weeks.
Mr. Wilkinson received the Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, three Bronze Stars and the Good Conduct Medal.
After leaving the military, he returned to his old farmstead — a hard, yet more tranquil life.
Editor’s note: Mr. Wilkinson died Nov. 21, 2002, at the age of 83.