Upland Chronicles: Writer tells of father’s World War II service

Aug. 10, 2013 @ 11:03 PM

During World War II, almost 3,000 men and women from Sevier County went into harm’s way. Close to 100 of them paid the ultimate price. Leonard Huskey was one of the lucky ones, able to return home unscarred, except for the dark memories of war.

In 1916, Huskey, son of Frederick Leander and Myrtle Price Huskey, was born in Greenbrier Cove, now a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In “The Greenbrier Story,” Glenn Cardwell describes the Cove as a thickly-settled community with an estimated 150 families with an average of eight children each.

Many Greenbrier families left their beloved mountains when the government began acquiring property for the national park. Huskey had just finished fifth grade at Indian Creek School when the family sold their homestead in August, 1928 for $500 and moved to the Pine Mountain area outside Pigeon Forge.

In the early 1930s, Huskey married Edna England, daughter of Richard and Nancy Hendrix England. In 1944 at age 27 with six children, his life drastically changed when he was called to fight for our country in World War II.

On February 19, 1944, Huskey boarded a bus to Knoxville’s L&N Railroad depot. There he caught a train bound for Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. He was given a $1 meal ticket for lunch in the train’s dining car.

In July, 1944 after training five months in Georgia, he traveled by train to Camp Swift, Texas. At Camp Swift he became a member of an elite group of soldiers, the 10th Mountain Division, which had just completed arduous training at Camp Hale, Colorado that included Alpine and Nordic skiing, mountain climbing, and high altitude and cold-weather survival skills.

Camp Swift, southeast of Austin, was an infantry training facility built in 1942 on 50,000 acres. Designed to accommodate 44,000 troops, during WWII it reached its maximum strength—upwards of 90,000 US troops, approximately 4,000 German POW’s, and 300 Russian POW’s who had been forced to fight with the Germans.

On August 3, 1944, Huskey was assigned to the 616th Battalion, Battery B, primarily supporting the 87th Regiment. He was trained as an anti-aircraft artillery gun crewman.

On December 16, 1944, he was granted furlough. It doesn’t take military records to prove he came home; nine months later his seventh child was born.

He returned to duty on December 23 and on Christmas Eve 1944, after approximately six months at Camp Swift, the men drew fresh gear and departed by train for Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, arriving December 27, 1944.

Camp Patrick Henry was a troop staging ground built in 1942 on approximately 1,700 acres of predominately virgin forest. In 1943-44 some three quarters of a million troops passed through the camp as they prepared for deployment overseas.

Huskey, with the 10th Mountain Division, set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia (Newport News) on January 6, 1945. As they boarded the USS General Meigs, a band played, “Over There,” and Red Cross volunteers handed out canvas bags containing toiletries, cigarettes and a deck of cards.

Huskey was headed overseas, but for security reasons wasn’t privy to the destination until well out at sea. Winter on the Atlantic brought extreme weather that kept the men inside. On the sixth day out, heavy seas ripped life boats from moorings, dashed sea water onto the deck and into some quarters. Rough seas meant many of the men lost more than a few of their two daily meals over the railings. It took twelve grueling days to sail across the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar, into the Mediterranean and finally into Naples, Italy.

Upon debarking, the men were greeted by Red Cross volunteers; this time with donuts. It was January 18, 1945. Huskey was thousands of miles from home and had no way of knowing that in three days, his father in Sevier County would be dead.

Once in Italy, troops were moved through the Italian countryside to a staging area in the Apennine Mountains between Florence and Bologna. Troops moved mostly under cover of darkness to avoid detection by Germans positioned high in the mountains.

Temperatures hovered around freezing, colder at higher elevations. Sleep was sporadic and was in two-man pup tents or 12-man pyramid tents. If the ground wasn’t frozen and snow covered, it was muddy. The men often rolled up in blankets, paired off to share body heat, and to cover each other’s backs. Sometimes two weeks passed without baths or a change of underwear or socks.

As they trekked up mountainsides on foot, they found narrow, rocky roads that often snaked along steep ravines. Sometimes the fog was thicker than the proverbial pea soup and they couldn’t see the man in front of them, let alone the enemy. The uphill climb was slow and arduous. At first the men were given five minute breaks every half hour. Soon, they had to stop five minutes out of every 15 to rest.

Mules, being surefooted and able to negotiate areas vehicles could not, were vitally important in the Italian campaigns. It took twelve mules to transport one unassembled 75 mm howitzer which weighed approximately 1,400 pounds.

It was so cold, and the climb so treacherous the Germans didn’t bother to post night watchmen. It was a decision that would cost them dearly. They had never expected the 10th Mountain Division.

After Riva Ridge was secured, they hauled their machine guns and pack howitzers to the top to assist in the assault of Mt. Belvedere where the Germans had a stronghold. It is said that it wasn’t marksmanship that saved the day, but mountaineering skills.

Not a single man was lost during the climb, but the area was littered with bodies after the first day of fighting on February 18, 1945. The generals had been hopeful the troops could take Riva and Belvedere in two weeks. These brave mountaineers took them in five days! After this, it was downhill into the Po Valley where intense fighting continued.

The 10th Mountain Division’s 19,000 men in Italy faced some 100,000 German soldiers. Close to 1,000 Americans died; almost 4,000 wounded and 28 became POW’s. The Spring Offensive—three days of fighting—was the costliest of the war in Italy; 1,336 casualties. The 10th Mountain Division fought three major battles against the German army in Italy: February 18-25, March 2-6, and April 14-May 2, 1945.

After Germany surrendered May 2, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division was ordered back to the States to prepare to invade Japan by striking Kyushu on November 2. Fortunately, Japan’s August 15, 1945 surrender made that invasion unnecessary.

Huskey left Naples on August 2, 1945 aboard the troop transport ship USS Mt. Vernon. Nine days later, he arrived in Newport News. He received recuperation leave and traveled to Camp Carson, Colorado—home of the 10th Mountain Division—on September 15, 1945 where he was honorably discharged October 20. He had served one year, one month and 17 days in the States, seven months, five days overseas. He had received a Good Conduct Medal and his EAME Ribbon (Europe, Africa, and Middle Eastern Campaign) had two Bronze Service Stars.

In 1961, Leonard Huskey died from non-war related illness at Mountain Home Veteran’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee. He was only 44 years old. His service, like that of other resident veterans, is a legacy to Sevier County.

— Jo Harris is a free-lance writer residing in Kodak. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.