There are people like Gene Dinkins in every Baptist church in North Carolina.
He’s the older gentleman who always sits as close to the back row as he can get, not because it’s the cool place to be but instead so he and his wife can get in and out of the sanctuary a little easier.
Every Sunday morning they’re able to attend, he very carefully and gently helps her with her walker. Always soft-spoken, he’ll smile, shake hands and exchange a greeting or two. Most of his fellow church members know he was in the military a long time ago, but not much more than that. Fellow church members wonder about it, but don’t press the issue.
Yet there’s so much more to the story.
On Oct. 9, his 90th birthday, Dinkins was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in the darkest days of World War II during a ceremony at Maplewood Baptist Church in Yadkinville. A member of the Army’s 79th Infantry Division, Dinkins hit Utah Beach on June 14, 1944, eight days after the initial landings on D-Day.
For the next 10 months, he and the rest of the 79th fought their way across Europe and saw action in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
“As you know, our World War II veterans are becoming a scarce group,” said Jimmy Lancaster, Maplewood’s longtime pastor, during the Sunday-morning service honoring Dinkins. “Because of their age, we are losing them in record number. When I was called several months ago and asked if there was a way we could take time to give proper tribute and to pay honor to a gentleman who had served our country abroad, I said, ‘By all means.’”
The medal was made possible by an act of Congress authorizing the Bronze Star for World War II veterans who served in combat and had not already received the decoration. David Shore, commander of American Legion Post 336 in East Bend, made the presentation to Dinkins. Dinkins was accompanied by his daughter, Carol Hamel; granddaughters Michelle Stevens, Jessica Stevens and Katy Hamel; and son-in-law Pierre Hamel. Dinkins’ wife of 65 years, Joyce, was in the hospital and could not attend.
Reading from the citation, Shore said Dinkins received the Bronze Star “for exemplary conduct in ground combat against armed enemy forces in the European theater between 6 April 1944 and 1 December 1945.”
With that, other veterans in attendance saluted Dinkins while the congregation applauded.
Dinkins is a man of few words as well as humble, but that makes what he does say about his experiences all the more powerful.
Originally drafted in October 1942, Dinkins spent the next 18 months stateside, on maneuvers in different parts of the country. Then, on Easter Sunday in 1944, he boarded a boat in Boston Harbor that was bound for the nightmare in Europe.
He had no idea what he was headed for, and freely admits he probably couldn’t have made it if he had.
“I’ll tell you … it was hell over there,” Dinkins said, and left it at that.
Landing in Glasgow, Scotland, Dinkins wound up in Plymouth, England. There, he spent time waterproofing vehicles in advance of the crossing of the English Channel and crawling around at night practicing to find land mines with his bayonet.
Everyone knew that an invasion was imminent, but they didn’t know when or where. Once it did take place, the division nicknamed the Cross of Lorraine began landing in Normandy, France, on June 12, 1944, with Dinkins coming in two days later.
Photo by Rick Houston
Gene Dinkins, above left, daughter Carol Hamel, granddaughter Michelle Stevens, son-in-law Pierre Hamel.
In 248 days of combat, the division sustained 15,203 total casualties while taking an astounding 35,466 prisoners of war. Three of its number – Carlos C. Ogden, John D. Kelly and Robert E. Gerstung – were awarded the Medal of Honor.
“It was pretty rough,” Dinkins said. “One time, we hit what they called ‘Bloody Hill.’
“It was some high ground. There ain’t no telling how many we lost. We fought all the way into Cherbourg (France), then.”
Out of about 160 men, Dinkins remembers maybe 13 who escaped uninjured. An ammunition bearer for his company’s water-cooled machine guns, Dinkins was one who never received even a scratch.
“They all didn’t get killed,” he continued.
“Some got wounded and some cracked up. They couldn’t take the pressure. It was hard to take, I’ll tell you that. I’ll bet I dug enough foxholes to reach from here to Raleigh. Every time we’d stop, they’d tell you, ‘Dig in, dig in.’ We’d move maybe half a mile or so … ‘Dig in, dig in.’”
For Dinkins, there are no funny – or even remotely humorous, for that matter – stories to tell of his time on the frontlines.
“I was scared to death all the time,” Dinkins admitted.
“I can’t remember anything funny happening. I dreaded seeing night come worse than anything in the world.
“At night, you didn’t know if you’d get a bayonet through you or not. … Cold, rain, there ain’t no place to go when you’re out there. You can’t run in the house every time it rains. You get cold, you can’t run in the house and get warm. You’ve got to stay right in the cold.”
In Dortman, Germany, when the war ended, Dinkins became part of an occupying force that stayed in the war-ravaged country until returning to the United States on Dec. 10, 1945.
A couple of weeks after returning home to Yadkinville, he met Joyce Hutchens. They were married a few months later in July 1946. Sixty-five years later, they’re still together.
The war is a thing of the past, but whether it’s a fortunate thing or not, Dinkins’ memories of it are not.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rick Houston is a freelance writer based in Yadkinville. Houston is also a member of Maplewood Baptist Church, Yadkinville.)
History of Veteran’s Day
World War I – known at the time as “The Great War” – officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles in France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, Nov. 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.” In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. The U.S. Congress officially recognized the end of World War I when it passed a concurrent resolution June 4, 1926.
An act approved May 13, 1938, made Nov. 11 a legal holiday – a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.” Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I. In 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting the word “Veterans.” With the approval of this legislation on June 1, 1954, Nov. 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars. After some confusion with the Uniform Holiday Bill (1968), on Sept. 20, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed a law returning the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original date beginning in 1978. (Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)