A Great Generation: Remembering the call

It was 1944 when a young Eugene Medlin was driving an Army Jeep somewhere in Germany - he can't recall exactly where now - when he came upon a convoy of U.S. tanks.

He had stopped and parked to wait for them to pass when he heard a whoosh above him.

He had only just realized that it was a German plane making passes overhead when he saw something drop. He dove under his Jeep and waited for the imminent explosion.

Nothing happened.

It was a dud, Medlin explained with a smirk.

"It was as far from me as here to the corner," he said, pointing from where he sat in his recliner out the front window of his Concord home.

Now 86, Medlin proudly wears a World War II veteran hat, shows off a black-and-white photo of him holding a German rifle and talks candidly about his memories of the war.

"It's almost like a dream," said Medlin. "I was one of the millions that helped save our country."

Answering the call of the now iconic "Uncle Sam wants you" posters, millions of young Americans went to war - a war that would leave more than 400,000 of them dead.

The Great Generation

"They call them the Great Generation," said Travis Waldron, director of Cabarrus County Veterans Services. "It's true. ...You don't hear any complaining from them. They put people before themselves."

Waldron said Cabarrus County is home to about 12,000 veterans, but it's difficult to determine just how many of those are World War II veterans.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 2,272,000 World War II veterans were living as of September 2009. But statistics released in April show that 850 World War II veterans die every day, leaving the memories of that Great Generation to fade along with those who brought them home.

Untold stories

In a case displayed in the den of his Midland home, 92-year-old James Eudy has several medals, ribbons and patches from his time spent in the Army during World War II. Among the organized rows are a combat infantry badge, medals from French officials awarded to him years after the war and the Bronze Star.

"I've never told anybody how I got that," he said, his voice faltering as he looked at the bronze medal. "It wasn't for bravery, I'll tell you that."

Eudy volunteered for the Navy three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was sent home with the explanation that he had a bad heart; a heart arrhythmia, he later learned.

But about a year and a half later, he received a draft notice from the Army.

"At that time, they'd take anybody if you were moving," he said, smiling.

He went to basic training and was later in training to become a pilot. Then plans changed.

"The Army decided they had enough pilots to win the war, and what they needed was gun fodder," said Eudy.

He was sent overseas in November 1944.

Trained as a heavy tank gunner, he became part of the 66th Infantry Division. But as troops from the division crossed the English Channel to France, a German torpedo hit one of the ships, killing about 800 soldiers and forcing the division to reorganize.

Eudy became a mine sapper, the nickname given to soldiers responsible for digging up mines and booby traps.

The mine sappers used metal detectors, but they weren't always reliable, particularly when the Germans began making mines without any metal, said Eudy. Instead, he and two others would comb suspected mine fields at night, crossing the field in a line as they probed the ground with their bayonets. But the bayonets had to be shoved into the ground at an angle to avoid setting off the firing pin atop the mines.

Eudy said he was most afraid of the German S-mine, known not so affectionately as the "Bouncing Betty." When set off, the mine could bounce to waist level and spray shrapnel in all directions.

"I came back whole," he said. "You came back whole or you didn't come back at all."

Eudy's division was sent to southern France to help restrain 60,000 German soldiers who were backed into submarine bases along the coast. There was combat nearly every day, he recalled.

Some people ask him about the war, particularly young people who want to know what it was like.

"I can't talk to them about it," said Eudy. "I just don't talk about combat."

He reads about the war and watches documentaries, but he avoids combat scenes like the ones in the 1998 box-office hit "Saving Private Ryan."

"I don't need anybody telling me what combat is like," he said.

The Jeep

Eight years ago, Eudy mentioned to his son, David, that he'd like to have a Jeep like the one he used to drive from one minefield to another during the war. His son knew of an old Jeep left deserted in a Monroe pasture, and after removing the vines that had grown inside and replacing the battery, he got the car working.

With two more Jeeps bought for parts and a little paint, it was finally complete. Eudy drove the Jeep in Harrisburg's July 4 parade.

He doesn't know many World War II veterans anymore.

"They're dead," he said bluntly.

Eudy has traveled to France several times since the war. He was wearing the uniform he was issued in the 1940s when he sat on stage near Omaha Beach in France with "the big dogs," such as President George Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell for the ceremony honoring the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

He wore the same uniform to a recent veterans' appreciation day event at Home Instead Senior Care in Concord.

"I'm glad to have been part of it," said Eudy of the war. "I'm proud of what we did."

From farm to war

Eugene Medlin was 19 years old when he was inducted into the Army. When he left for Europe in 1944, the last thing he saw of the United States was the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty.

In August, he landed on Omaha Beach, where only months before the bloody D-Day invasion left more than 4,000 Allied troops dead.

Over the next year, five months and 26 days, the farm boy who grew up in Union County, would travel across France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Medlin was part of the 39th Signal Battalion, a communications outfit attached to the 29th Infantry.

When he reached Europe, he was picked to drive officers and deliver messages from Army headquarters to outposts and combat zones.

His job came with a lot of close calls.

He had to be cautious of German planes, land mines and snipers.

One night while driving in the dark, he heard a shot.

"I felt that bullet whistle right by my nose," he said. "I just kept going."

When the war was over, the military used a points system to determine who would be sent home. Points were awarded based on the number of months spent overseas, awards received and other criteria.

Medlin didn't have enough points to come home, so he was sent to Berlin for the occupation of the capital.

While he was there in 1945, he visited Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's underground bunker where he and Eva Braun had once stayed. He explored Hitler's apartments there, and another soldier pointed to a bed: Hitler's bed.

"So I laid down in it," said Medlin. "Just to say I'd done it, I guess."

Still a soldier

When he returned to the States, he moved to Concord and worked at Gibson Mill for 39 years.

He didn't talk about the war when he was young. Not even with his wife, Colleen, who died in March. They had been married 63 years.

"When you get older, you get more emotional," he said.

He recalled how he once sat on the bank of a hill and watched the execution of convicted Nazi SS officers.

When the first man was brought out in front of the firing squad, his hands were bound and a wood coffin was lying ready nearby.

"The bullets hit him like that," said Medlin, beating his hands against his chest. "Pat, pat, pat!"

Medlin paused.

"I sat there and watched them kill all six," he said. "By the time they got done, there was blood everywhere."

It didn't bother him at the time, he said, but the memory has haunted him as he's grown older.

"I still think about that," he said. "It was 60-some years ago, and I still think about that. People aren't meant to kill each other."

But Medlin said he's proud of what he and his fellow soldiers accomplished back then.

"I still feel like I ought to salute," he said. "I still feel like a soldier."