Well, William G. Melton not only looks the part, he is the “part.”
Now in his 86th year with 30 years and one day in three wars, he is of the Greatest Generation, a long-ago kid from Pineapple, Ala., who wound up in Germany before he was dry behind the ears.
Along the way he married “the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen,” came up with three kids, walked across Europe, got shot at in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam. He rose to Command Sergeant Major before finally settling in with that “prettiest girl,” some bird dogs, and a dozen or so fishing rods.
Command Sergeant Major?
One definition I found ...
“There is no higher grade of rank, except Sergeant Major of the Army, for enlisted soldiers and there is no greater honor.”
The prettiest girl ...
Her name was Alvice Rhinehart Melton, she was from tiny Marion, Ala., and she left him back in February ... after 64 years together. Plagued by ill health, she slipped away in a living room recliner.
“She’ll be my sweetheart until I go. She was constantly my strong arm and had the sweetest smile you ever saw, could charm anybody. I dated her a couple of times in high school. I was 16 and she was 14. Had to go to her house to see her.
“We were married in State Line, Miss., because there was no waiting period over there. Her brother and his wife and two nieces were at the wedding. We honeymooned in Laurel, Miss., for three days and came home.”
Looking around the spotless family room through misty eyes ...
“Everything I look at in here reminds me of her. I think about her all the time ... all the time.”
From a teen-ager in love to a soldier carrying a rife was a fast track that may have had Melton wondering ... at the wonder of it all.
“I got my notice Aug. 22, 1944. They picked me up down in Wilcox County. I was the only one on the bus. When we got to Ft. McClellan, it was standing room only.
“Went to Camp Shelby in Mississippi and got our gear. Nothing fit, got classified. They asked me what kind of experience I had. I told them I had worked for the state highway department in the summers and I knew how to use a transit, stuff like that. I was one of 80 they sent to engineering school at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana.
Somewhere along the way, the Army got it “right,” pulling the “round peg out of the round hole.” He wound up in George Patton’s Third Army in Germany ... in the spring of ’45 ... being shot at.
One incident along the Danube remains fresh ...
“We’d crossed the river and were getting a lot of fire. I told my guys to roll over and get up against the bank of the river. We did, started taking fire from the other side. We got back up on the bank and dug in like everybody else had.”
In three wars, all entailing combat, he received just one nick, a tiny bit of shrapnel popped his elbow in passing.
“The medic cleaned it and put a Band-aid on it and said for me to go see the captain and I’d get a Purple Heart. I told him I wasn’t going to do that. I had a brother shot down over the Pacific and if I’d done that I couldn’t have lived with myself.”
The brother, John, was a gunner on a B-25 Mitchell. Shot down over the South Pacific, he was one of only two crew members to survive. A “flying boat” plucked him from the ocean.
“My brother was four years older than me. He was my mentor and I looked up to him all my life. He really looked after me growing up.”
In some ways, maybe the Army took over where his brother left off. For whatever reason, Melton “re-upped” nine times before finally retiring.
The first “re-up” came shortly after the war ended. He was in Linz, Germany, at the time.
“I really didn’t have anything to come home to. My parents were dead and I’d been living with my sister and brother-in-law. They were very good to me, but I just didn’t feel like I wanted to impose on them another three or four years.
“I decided to stay. They sent me home for 60 days and then to Panama. I had a choice, but if it hadn’t been for Uncle Sam I’d never have left Wilcox County.”
Retirement came in September of 1974.
“I could have stayed another five years over my commanding officer’s signature, but I’d been kicked around for 30 years and it was time for me to go.”
Home was Lawton, Okla.
“I told my wife that I was going to hunt and fish and do what I wanted to for the next two years. I had a dog kennel in the backyard, some of the greatest bird dogs you’d ever see, and I think I caught all the fish in Oklahoma.
“My wife would go fishing with me — she loved it — but I think she went hunting with me maybe twice, don’t think she ever pulled the trigger.”
But leaving old Army habits was not all that easy.
“For about eight months after I retired, I would get up at 5 in the morning, shave, clean up, put on my clothes and have the urge to go to Fort Sill. My wife said ‘You’re crazy.’
“Finally I got over it, got where I could sleep an extra hour or so.”
A bottom line for today’s visit ...
The Greatest Generation, especially those who fought in World War II, made my generation The Blessed Generation. Such as William G. “Billy” Melton are also vanishing from our lives ... and theirs.
Monday is Memorial Day.
Take a moment to salute the men and women who gave us much more than we’ve given them.
George Smith can be reached at 239-5286 or e-mail: email@example.com