Saturday, March 8, 2008

Mystery solved: Jack Palmer’s military gear

The volunteers cataloging historical artifacts at the old Cleveland County courthouse building in Shelby, N. C., at first couldn’t make sense of the nearly three dozen items of military clothing, insignia, and other gear donated years ago by William J. (Jack) Palmer.

For one thing, the clothing items seemed to come from two different wartimes. And unlike many of the other wrinkled uniforms donated for a local museum, these were starched, pressed to perfection, and neatly folded – not a spot on them.

So the volunteers telephoned Jack, 89, former Cleveland County commissioner for 12 years, former three-term representative in the N. C. General Assembly, and former owner of Palmer Mortuary in Shelby.

“We’ve been in your clothes all morning, Mr. Palmer,” they said in effect. “And we think you need to come down here and explain yourself.”

Jack came over from his home a few blocks away, in time to share the volunteers’ lunch of brought-in sandwiches. The old courthouse was familiar territory, given Jack’s years as a county commissioner and his earliest childhood in a home catty-cornered just across the intersection of Washington and Marion streets. He cleared up the mysteries.

Jack had served during two wartimes – World War II and the Korean War. And he had been associated with the Quartermaster Corps, the supply arm of the military responsible for ensuring troops have needed clothing, food, and other gear.

“You wouldn’t have been much of a supply officer if you weren’t a good scrounger,” Jack confessed. “And I have to say we always had plenty of clothes and looked pretty good.”

Or nearly always. He showed up in 1942 for Officers Candidate School at Camp Lee, Va., wearing cavalry boots, campaign hat, riding britches and spurs. “Man, we have got to get you some clothes,” said the officer on duty.

Jack had arrived there from the 124th Cavalry Regiment of the Texas National Guard, in which he had enlisted following graduation in 1939 from the University of Houston in Texas (home state of his mother, the late Ellen Corbett Palmer). The regiment was subsequently activated as war clouds grew. His early service included guarding the border between El Paso and Brownsville.

“Well,” Jack said, “it was Texas and a cavalry unit. We had horses.”

But not automobiles, when he went from OCS to Kingman, Ariz., as a young officer in the quartermaster group serving the U. S. Air Force. Perhaps two or three of his buddies at the base had cars, but gasoline was hard to come by. Las Vegas was 110 miles north, and it had four casinos. So, said Jack, ever the scrounger, “we’d hitch rides on airplanes to get there.”

VE Day came on May 8, 1945, while he was at Kingman. He can always remember because May 8 is his birthday. Then he was at Travis Air Force Base in California, preparing to ship out to Japan, when World War II ended. At age 28, he finished his first term of active duty in 1946.

But the story doesn’t end there. Back in Shelby, he joined the 311th Station Hospital, a local reserve unit, transferring from the quartermaster corps to the medical service corps. On the roster with his were other familiar Cleveland County names, such as Dr. Craig Jones, who headed the unit, Jack Hunt, Charles Sperling, Ralph Mitchem….

The unit was activated in 1951 and sent to Fort Bragg, N. C. Jack was sent on to the war zone in Korea, serving 10 months there before returning home in 1952. He managed supplies for the military hospital in Pusan, a converted old school building receiving wounded from the battlefields.

Back home again in Shelby, Jack stayed in the military reserves and retired at age 60 as a lieutenant colonel.

Seeing his gear at the old courthouse brought back memories.

Jack held up a pair of pants in front of the big pier mirror that’s a fixture in the old Hall of Fame area being used as the volunteers’ workroom. “These might date back as far as the 1930s, “ he said. “You can tell by the buttons….” He recalled what a scramble it was in the 1940s as the military services heroically galvanized for war. “They were using every scrap of uniform they could find…even issuing us wool shirts in Texas.”

He folded the pants back neatly, smoothing out the creases.

This additional note to Jack’s many acquaintances: he’s still sharp as a tack.

Contributor: Pat Poston

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