January 12, 2012 11:50:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- When a Starkville man graduated high school in the 1940s, there was little doubt what his next move would be.
The United States was in the heart of World War II, and any able-bodied man was bound for military service, either by choice or through the draft.
"That was back in the day when your only fear was that they weren't going to take you," Joe Stockwell said. "There was a crying need for soldiers, sailors and airmen.
"I don't know how many people we had under arms in those days, but it was a lot."
Stockwell, a native of New Roads, La., became a staff sergeant in the 410th Infantry Regiment. He was immediately sent to France, where he spent more than two years fighting alongside British and Soviet soldiers to thwart Adolph Hitler and Nazi-ruled Germany, which dominated French forces and took over the country in under two months.
It took five years for Allied forces to push out the Germans.
France, whose army was nearly wiped out by the Germans, hasn't forgotten.
Stockwell and 16 other American soldiers from the across the southeast will be honored this afternoon with the French Legion of Honor during a ceremony in Atlanta.
Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest honor in France. It recognizes eminent services to the French Republic. Recipients of this honor are designated by the president of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Consul General of France in Atlanta, Pascal Le Deunff, will present the Legion of Honor to soldiers who saw most, if not all, of their ground combat in France.
The award is the equivalent to being knighted in Britain, Stockwell said.
"It's a beautiful gesture. Absolutely beautiful," Stockwell said.
The retired professor of English at Mississippi State University traveled to Atlanta with his wife, Rebecca, and two children.
Stockwell didn't keep up with any of the soldiers from his regiment after he was discharged in 1945 but often made trips to France after meeting French citizens in the United States. He spent six months in a civilian clerical position in France before returning to Louisiana to begin his undergraduate studies at Tulane University.
He doesn't know any of the other 16 veterans chosen to be honored today, but he was eager to meet them.
"Atlanta will be quite the experience," Stockwell said. "It says something that I'm even going. It'll be a totally unique experience to meet the others. And to essentially be knighted, that's a whole new experience."
Life as an infantryman
It was never pretty during Stockwell's two years in France.
He was usually cold, wet and dodging German mortars because, as a mortar man in the weapons platoon, he was an easy target for return mortars.
Any forward missions were made on foot.
"We were usually tired and scared," he said.
To the left of the Seventh Army sector of the U.S. front, Stockwell said, was the Third Army -- better known as Gen. George S. Patton's Army.
"We didn't participate in any of the fabled events, but it could get you just as dead," Stockwell said. "We had many a close call."
He and his regiment helped liberate cities Alissas and St. Die, and a monument to their division stands in St. Die, he said. But victories were few and far between when facing a strong German army.
"The German army hit France in 1940 and went through like a hot knife through butter," Stockwell said. "It was only in April 1945 that us, the British and Soviet Union were able to stomp those rascals into submission. They were tough and very well-equipped, and their equipment, in many cases, was much better than ours.
"Sometimes, they seemed to be enjoying it. You came home with a lot of respect for how they fought."
Infantrymen, even in modern war, have the toughest fighting conditions. But during Stockwell's era, soldiers had it tougher. There was no time to feel sorry for oneself or to mope about missing family and friends back home. There was no email, Skype or long-distance telephone calls. There was just mail, which usually came in bundles with multiple letters because of the difficulty of delivering mail.
But everyone accepted it and got on with their jobs.
"There are similarities in that people get shot up, and it's a scary business," Stockwell said. "But back then, we were gonna by God win the war. You didn't get into these situations like Korea and Vietnam when you're fighting not to lose. That's what sent people to the loony bin."
Life as a civilian
Upon returning to Louisiana, Stockwell enrolled at Tulane.
He joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, where many of his brothers were military veterans.
"The average age was about 29," he quipped.
Stockwell went on to earn a doctoral degree from Louisiana State University and began teaching English at the university level.
He started teaching at MSU in 1966 and met his wife, who taught history at Mississippi University for Women, in Starkville.
Both are retired and live in Starkville, where they stay entertained by a library's worth of books, many of which chronicle World War II.
"You can see how we spend a lot of our time," Stockwell said.
For Rebecca, learning about the war from her husband has been an enlightening experience. Her early memories were of blackout drills, rationing and her father receiving notice that he'd been drafted into service.
"I taught Western civilization, and by the end of the semester, we'd only have one day left to cover World War II," she said. "(Joseph's stories) made the time period come alive for me. It's a new dimension."
Upstairs in the Stockwell home is a wall of wartime photos. Of the 15 to 20 photos, only four are of Joe Stockwell. The rest are of servicemen he later befriended in college or when he was teaching in Starkville.
Though he has a positive outlook of his regiment's missions in Europe, he said he'd hate to relive the experience. And while he didn't suffer the post-traumatic stress disorder often associated with Vietnam and Gulf war veterans, the deaths of fellow soldiers still resonate.
"On Sunday, I still pray for the guys in the unit who didn't make it," he said. "Pray for their souls. I haven't forgotten all of it. I'm 86 years old and in fairly good health, having enjoyed a long life.
"I think back to the guys snuffed out at 19 and 20. It really works on you. It eats at you."