For most, information pertinent to World War II is but a faint memory from a history class. A limited few can recall details as broadcast firsthand from various media outlets. And a rapidly diminishing number of distinguished individuals can conjure up images of the brutality of the war, though most would rather not.
Ninety-seven-year-old Statesboro resident and native Euel Akins’ recount of his time during WWII is as fresh and clear as if it happened yesterday.
A young married man with three small daughters at home, Akins was drafted and entered active duty in June 1944, with 17 weeks of training at Camp Blanding, Florida. With just 10 days home following the training, Akins was assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland for movement to Naples, Italy and overseas combat infantry duty.
For seven days, Akins and so many men that the bunks were stacked five on top of one another and crowded in the belly of the ship made the journey across the ocean. Akins, who said he never got seasick, was warned by someone load-ing the ship with him to “get a top bunk.” Many of the soldiers stayed sick for most of the trip.
“We were packed in like sardines,” said Akins. “There were so many that each of us was allowed only one hour on deck per day. We bunked next to the engine room, with noises and bells and clashes all night long.”
Landing in Italy
Once on land, Akins crowded in a replacement tent, shivering in the cold, awaiting instructions. In just a short time, Akins was assigned to the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division as a heavy machine gunner.
“Our job was to get the Germans out of the mountains,” said Akins. “They were dug-in in the Apennines Mountains.
“Three companies, all three went different directions. We went up the back side. The Germans weren’t watching there — that side was too steep. We topped the mountain — they were having breakfast. We surprised them and took them out.”
For 19 days, the heaviest of the grueling mountain battle continued at Mt. Belvedere. The heavy machine gun that Akins fired could shoot 600 rounds in a short amount of time. Most of the troop was armor bearers of heavy artillery for the rapid-firing machine gun.
Akins explained that the company would lug the guns and armor, set up and fire until the Germans retreated, and then pack up in pursuit, backing the Germans out of their mountain hold.
The Army soldier said he relied on his faith and tried not to think about losing his life during the battle.
“My sergeant, he was right in front of me and took a hit. He fell to the ground, but we couldn’t even stop for him. He was too far gone; we had to keep walking, right past him.”
Germans retreat and Mussolini
Akins remembers one other comrade who took a non-fatal hit. “We were pinned down by artillery. One of the men received gunfire and said, ‘I’m going home. I’m going home.’ He was back on the field in two days.
“The Germans were in retreat continuously for 19 days. We were taking so many prisoners that we just pointed our thumb behind us and told them to keep walking. We didn’t have anything we could do with them, and we sent them to the troops coming up behind us. We crossed the Po River in boats, and kept them going until they surrendered at Lake Garda in the Alps.”
Just a month before the surrender, Akins and others in his company saw firsthand the hanging bodies of the deposed Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci.
With the German surrender in May 1945, Akins’ division was chosen to part of the occupation troops, but, as his troop was one of the youngest divisions, other experienced divisions balked and were chosen to stay behind instead.
“I got to come home for 10 days, and then I was headed to the Pacific. But the day I landed in Newport News, they dropped the first atomic bomb, then the second.”
With that incident, Akins no longer needed to return to combat. A blessing for him, he says, but some comrade friends in the occupation troops waited three years to return home.
Akins received the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster for “meritorious achievement in ground combat against the armed enemy during World War II in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of Operations.” He was also awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, World War II Victory Medal, EAME Campaign; medal with two bronze stars and Good Conduct Medal.
Additionally, Akins entered Georgia National Guard, 230th Field Artillery Battalion and served from 1948-1951 and was commissioned as second lieutenant and served as forward observer.
Akins’ veteran experiences can stand alone as a stellar accomplishments and a life well-lived, but there’s so much more to his almost century-long life.
For starters, he met the love of his life when he was only 10 and she was 8.
“I was born in Statesboro, but we moved to Savannah, across the street from her family. Doris Johnson. The first time I saw her, I said, ‘That’s my girl.’”
Akins meant it, too. Each day, the pair walked to school together and he carried her books. They married after she graduated from high school, and when he was drafted, she went to work for the Army Medical Depot in Savannah.
“I didn’t even know where I was, but because of her job, she knew where my outfit was all the time.”
After leaving WWII, Akins began working for Union Camp. When his wife’s job was transferred to Ft. Stewart, she instead began working with Union Camp, too. Just like walking together to elementary school every day, now the couple rode to work together every day.
“Sometimes, we rode home for lunch, then went right back to work.”
Going to Alabama
When he was transferred to Alabama with the company, so was his wife, and they lived there for 20 years. It was while the couple was in Alabama that both finished their degrees from Troy State University, hers in an accounting concentration and his with an engineering concentration.
With retirement from their second careers, the two moved back to Savannah, and then eventually to Statesboro in 1999. The couple was active with First Baptist Church, where Euel Akins continues to serve as an usher and is responsible for the classroom bulletin boards. His beloved wife of 71 years passed away in 2012.
The couple delighted in genealogy research during retirement and his home boasts of book after book of historical information on their two families.
For Akins, distinguished WWII veteran, the majority of that information is stored in his head, too, and he recounts it with clarity and ease. Information that won’t be around forever, though, if younger generations don’t take the time to listen.
Because history books just can’t do justice to this kind of firsthand experience.