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Ashe County Veterans History Project: Bill Hargett
Before boarding the ship for Europe, he had free time and visited several New York landmarks. A photographer saw Bill as he passed by his shop and asked him to come in for a picture. (NYC photographers made a lot of money taking pictures of soldiers before they left the States. Almost all soldiers wanted pictures to share with family so photographers stayed very busy.) He took several pictures of Bill in uniform. With the last picture the photographer adjusted Bill’s collar before snapping the picture. This was Bill's favorite picture from the war. He didn’t receive the photos until 1944, in France, two years after they were taken.
After being in France for a few months and after the worst fighting was over in the capital, soldiers often used their free time to become tourists. Bill and a buddy were in Paris visiting landmarks and saw this very attractive young lady coming towards them. Bill wanted to send home a picture of this woman standing with him. Not being very conversant in French, Bill pointed to his friend’s camera and said to the woman, “Photograph?” in “pigeon-French.” She smiled, said “Oui,” and Bill put his arm around her waist. The photograph was taken, the woman gave Bill a smile and a nod of her head, and then continued on her way. Bill was so proud of that photo and shared it with the folks back home. His mother said later that this photo really did prove “war is hell!”
Date of birth: July 9, 1921. Date of death: October 22, 2005.
Military service: 1942–1948, Air Force Service Command, administrative / mechanic unit, European Theater.
Bill Hargett was born in Marshville, North Carolina, on July 9, 1921, to Joseph Press Hargett and Mary Jane Strawn Hargett. He married another Marshville native, Gladys Helms, in 1949. They had two children: Karen, born 1954, and Bill born, 1957. He and Gladys lived on the family farm until they could no longer care for themselves; their son and daughter-in-law, Bill and Debbie Hargett, who also lived on the farm, provided many years of loving care but when 24/7 care was required they moved up to live with their daughter and son-in-law, Karen and Richard Moll, in Grassy Creek. Bill died in 2005 from complications of dementia and Gladys died in 2016 of multiple medical problems.
Bill was living on the farm outside of Marshville when he joined the army. After being inducted in early 1942 at age 21, he was ordered to Fort Bragg for basic training. After basic, he was sent to New York City to board a ship to England. He was assigned to the 9th Air Force Service Command which had two functions: 1) supplying the 9th Air Force, and 2) maintenance and major repair of airplanes and other equipment. He landed in Normandy D-Day +18, moving to St. Lo (71 miles from Normandy), then Belgium, Luxembourg, and finally Germany, ending up in Berlin.
Bill took mechanics courses early in his Army career, but with Bill’s business degree from King’s Business College in Charlotte 1940, he was ordered to the administrative offices of his outfit’s camp. He was responsible for ordering supplies dealing with airplane repair, transfer orders and requests, and other administrative duties. Bill loved telling the story of how his name appeared on a list to be transferred to a new unit being formed. He really didn’t want to leave his unit so he simply “missed” his name on the list. All the others on the list were transferred out but he remained (and his CO never said a word!) – he said this part of his job was one of the few perks of being in the army!
In Belgium, his outfit was bivouacked near a farm. Bill and his two best buds were befriended by the family who owned the farm. Being a farmer himself, he felt an instant connection with this family. The family gave the US soldiers fresh eggs, milk, and other food from time to time. (Typical of many European farmers, the family lived above the barn so the animals were always underneath. Bill said there was never any odor.) Neither “side” spoke the other’s language but with hand signals and drawing pictures of what they were trying to say, a friendship developed and continued throughout the length of the soldiers’ stay. The family often invited the three to supper. Bill said there was a lot of laughter because of the “pigeon French” and “pigeon English” spoken, and a general fondness for each other was evident. (This family’s main crop was Brussels sprouts. Bill completely lost his taste for Brussels sprouts after eating meal after meal of this vegetable. After moving on, he never ate another Brussels sprout again.) The family had survived the war fairly well but pictures Bill took of the devastation showed they had suffered. There is a picture of Bill with a buddy and the farmer’s extended family. The kids were always happy to see “their soldiers” who often brought chocolate for the children and cigarettes for the adults.
Bill shared the story about wanting to fly. It was something he had wanted to do for a long time and the army seemed to provide a great opportunity. The first two times he applied, he got as far as the physical exams and was told on the first exam that he had a thyroid cyst so he failed the exam. A year later he reapplied, and in that physical exam nothing was mentioned about the cyst but he failed again because of something else. He tried a final time in 1944 after D-Day. So many pilots had lost their lives and the army was getting desperate to find replacements. Bill thought he was a shoe-in for sure because of the need for pilots. He once again made it to the physical exam part and . . . failed a third time for another reason, and again the first two reasons he failed were not mentioned. (The family does not remember what these last two medical issues were.) Bill said he finally realized that God must have had a reason for him not to fly, and failing the physical exam three times was the sign God was giving him.
Bill was honorably discharged in 1948 as a Tech Sergeant (T SGT) after being stationed in Germany during the first years of Allied occupation.
Bill’s family was not immune to losing a loved one during the war years. Bill’s younger brother, Jack Hargett, was drafted in July 1944, and died of a sniper’s bullet near Bruckhausen, Germany, while crossing the Rhine River in early 1945. Bill visited the Henri Chappelle Cemetery near Brussels, Belgium, where Jack was interred. He was buried in this cemetery until his remains were exhumed in early 1948 and sent home to Marshville. Bill was granted leave to come home for Jack’s service. His mother said she was happy and sad at the same time: “One son came home and one son didn’t.” (The Henri Chappelle Cemetery No. 1 still exists and is beautifully maintained to this day. There were 17,235 American soldiers buried in the cemetery, the largest at that time. Yearly remembrances are held for those American liberators by local townspeople.)
Bill often said that he probably shouldn’t have made it home alive. He was not on the front lines but close enough to hear gunfire and bombs falling. However, the men in his outfit rarely had to shoot their guns. But when they heard German aircraft, they took their pistols and shot at the planes returning to base after their missions. The Germans apparently weren’t too worried since the gunfire never came close to hitting the planes.
The reactions of those under occupation made Bill and his fellow servicemen proud to be Americans. They were showered with flowers, treated to food and wine, and made to feel very welcomed in the towns and countryside they traveled through. They felt they had had a real purpose in being over there and that they had met their goal.
Around 1990, Bill stopped at the Wagon Wheel in Marshville, the local diner and a landmark still in operation today. A local family friend sat down and told Bill that he had wrestled with telling the Hargetts that he had seen Jack the day he died. He told him he saw Jack sitting on the bridge over the Rhine shortly before he died. He stopped and asked Jack if he was all right. Jack told him he was just resting. The family friend found out later that Jack had been shot in the chest and was probably in shock when he saw him. Bill’s parents were consoled that a local boy who was also a good friend was probably the last man Jack saw.
Bill became good friends with the men in his outfit. He, like his brother Jack, never met a stranger. Like many others, he lost touch with those with whom he had served. After the war, in the early 1960’s, he called the operator at the Marshville phone company and asked to be connected to the operator in Hendersonville, North Carolina. (This was, of course, in the days before cell phones and the Internet.) The connection was made and Bill was given the phone number of one of his buddies, Foy Garren. The two men immediately recognized each other’s voice. Gladys and the kids were gathered around Bill – calling all the way to the mountains was a very big deal back then! – and their friendship resumed after 20 years. They made plans for a small reunion involving both families. The Hargett and Garren families became very close and took turns visiting each other for years. Both sets of kids remain good friends; Foy’s oldest daughter Lynn and Bill’s daughter Karen stay in contact at least a couple of times a year. Foy is still living at 95 years of age. (Mr. Garren’s war years are chronicled in Paul Sailer’s book, “I Had a Comrade," published by Lodin Books.)
Bill often said that his years in the military were the best times and the worst times of his life. He was serving his country, he had the opportunity to visit different countries and he made friends in every place he was stationed; but he also saw the tragedies for soldiers and local families who were caught in the middle of this conflict. Bill very rarely shared the stories of these tragedies, becoming very quiet and sad when viewing a TV program about the war.
After discharge, Bill returned home to the family farm, farming until he started working with his dad in the family’s sawmilling business. As with most service men upon discharge, he went to work, married, had children, and returned to life as usual. It took a period of time before Dad could settle in to the normalcy of civilian life, though he fortunately did not have the nightmares and other problems related to PTSD, as far as anyone knew.
After returning home, he enjoyed getting reacquainted with family and friends. His high school French came in handy during the war; however, at a high school reunion a couple of years after returning home, his French teacher said she was glad Bill had at least a limited working knowledge of the language but said “Billy Hargett barely passed” her class so she was impressed that he managed to do as well as he did with the language.
It’s been said that Bill and Jack never met a stranger, always had a joke or good word to share, and made friends wherever they went. Bill often remarked that Jack had more of a happy-go-lucky attitude than he did and he admired the way Jack got along with everyone. Bill probably had a little “survivor’s guilt” because he came home from the war while his baby brother died over there. He only occasionally spoke of this devastating tragedy and the loss he felt many years after the war. When he did speak about Jack, he spoke in a softer voice than normal, the pain of that loss coming through his words. His mother became a Gold Star Mother, presiding over the Union County chapter for several years after the war. The Town of Marshville dedicated a section of the Marshville Cemetery and placed a marker with the names of the Marshville boys who served in WWII. Asterisks are by the names of those family and friends who gave their all for their country.