By Sabrina Bates
Family, friends and community members paid their respects to one of Weakley County’s last World War II veterans over the weekend.
T Joe Walker, affectionately known by many as “Papa Joe,” passed away on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at Weakley County Nursing and Rehab in Dresden. He was 99 years old, and three months shy of his 100th birthday.
In 1943, at 20 years old, Walker was inducted into the U.S. Army and not long after, he was bound for Utah Beach, France. Walker was a part of the 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion, Company B, which was also known as the “Striped-Ass Apes.” The company was responsible for building bridges that were destroyed by the German Army. His unit constructed 40 bridges during his time in Europe.
He was discharged from the Army in January 1946. He earned the Good Conduct Medal with Clasp, European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with 4 Bronze Stars, Croix de Guerre with Palm & Fourragere GO 1286, and the WWII Victory Medal.
Walker and three of his brothers served in the military during WWII.
In 2019, Walker donated a bridge replica, similar to the ones his unit built during WWII, to the Military Exhibit at Discovery Park of America in Union City.
Walker has been seen at every function meant to pay tribute to veterans and commemorate those who gave their all in service. As a retiree of UT Martin, it was common to find Walker at the campus Memorial and Veterans Day services. He retired from UTM as the physical plant supervisor after 52 years of service.
Walker leaves behind a legacy of family members who also devote their time to serving others. His daughter, Sheila Walker Thompson, along with her daughter and Walker’s granddaughter, Christel Laney Thompson, organize a benefit for a family in need every year in memory of the late Joey Guest. Guest is Sheila’s son and Christel’s brother.
Local veterans-support groups gathered Saturday to honor Walker’s life. A burial with military honors was held at Walker’s final resting place in Hatler’s Chapel Cemetery.
A special feature page remembering Walker’s life and the spotlights on his service may be found on Page 4B of today’s edition of the Dresden Enterprise.
WWII Veteran, T. Joe Walker, Recalls Wartime Service
BY DAVID FISHER
* Note – This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11, 2020, edition of the Dresden Enterprise.
This Veterans Day, it is only fitting that members of the Armed Forces of the United States, who served proudly at home and abroad, be recognized for the service they rendered to their country.
An American flag flies atop a flagpole in the front yard of one of Weakley County’s last living WWII veterans, T. Joe Walker, 97, of Martin, who has the distinction of being a member of what has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation.”
The reason the United States and the other Allied nations were successful in defeating the Axis powers, composed of the fascist, dictatorial regimes of Germany, Japan and Italy, was because of patriotic, freedom-loving Americans like Walker.
When asked what the “T.” in his name stands for, he explained it is an initial name, not an abbreviation for a name.
In December of 1923, T. Joe Walker was born to Neal Walker and Lillian Gatewood Walker. The couple raised a total of 12 children to adulthood on their family farm, located in the Hyndsver Community near Martin.
“I grew up on the farm when times were hard, but the Lord has blessed me greatly,” Walker said.
He earned an 8th-grade education at Paris School, which was a one-room schoolhouse near the Hyndsver Community.
Walker was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943 at the age of 20. He was assigned to the 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which served in the European Theater of Operations. His unit was activated at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. Walker said, “A lieutenant told me in Van Dorn, Mississippi, that he was going to make a bridge-builder out of me if it killed us both.”
His group was later sent to Champ Shanks, New York, where they were transported to Wales on the USS Cristobal, which is coincidentally, the same ship they returned on.
Their first camp was on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. Next they were sent to Over Norton Camp, near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. Walker’s battalion left their English base on June 21, 1944, as they prepared to cross the English Channel. They left the English port during the night of June 26 and landed on Utah Beach in France on June 27, which was 21 days after the initial D-Day invasion.
Once in Normandy, the battalion kept going across France into Germany, all the way to Salzburg, Austria, by the time the war was over.
Walker recalled, “Salzburg, Austria, was the most beautiful place I ever saw.” He remarked the mountain scenery was breathtaking.
The German Army placed land mines in the path of the oncoming Allied troops and blew up bridges to slow them down.
The 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion began clearing minefields so the unit could build and maintain the roads and bridges needed for the troops, tanks, vehicles and supplies to advance on the enemy. They also secured water supplies and constructed or demolished obstacles, as needed. Additionally, the unit occasionally acted as infantry. Some of the soldiers in Walker’s outfit were killed by anti-personnel German S-mines, which were referred to as “Bouncing Bettys.” When triggered, these mines were launched into the air and detonated about one meter (three feet) from the ground. The explosion projected a lethal spray of shrapnel in all directions.
Walker, whose rank was Technician 4th Grade (E-4), was a heavy-duty supervisor for building bridges.
“It was my duty to take care of supplies and men and do whatever it took to get the bridges built,” Walker said.
Once installed, the bridges allowed personnel, vehicles and supplies to cross the rivers as they advanced toward the enemy.
Sometimes the Germans would destroy the bridges they built and they would have to go back and repair them.
In order to accomplish their mission, the unit had to improvise, and do things they’d never done before, often with equipment ill-suited for the job, in less-than-ideal conditions.
“We followed the infantry all the way,” Walker said.
They were on constant guard for sniper fire and attacks by German fighter planes.
It was a situation where the soldiers had their rifles with them at all times while they worked.
Walker stated, when he climbed on the back of a truck to move to another location, he suddenly noticed a sniper with a rifle pointed at him. He immediately alerted the others inside the truck and fell to the floor. The driver was wounded in the shoulder, but Walker was unharmed. They sped away, and when they arrived at their destination, Walker saw a row of bullets in the side of the truck. Had he not quickly lain down, he would have been shot. Although his unit was under fire multiple times, this was the closest he came to being hit by enemy fire.
The 163rd Engineers did not have an official battalion crest like many other units, so they used one designed by a commercial artist who served at Battalion HQ. All bridges built by the 163rd sported a sign with an ape holding a hammer in one hand, a rifle in the other, and a bridge truss in the background. The crest signified the name of their unit, which was dubbed the “Striped-Ass Apes.”
Between the time they landed in France and VE Day on May 8, 1945, Walker’s group was assigned to 1st Army, 3rd Army and 7th Army. They participated in campaigns in Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe.
Walker recalled an incident that occurred while he was serving with the U.S. 3rd Army. He states General George S. Patton rode by one day while members of the 163rd were working. When a member of his unit failed to salute Gen. Patton, the general had his driver stop the jeep, and asked the soldier, “Do you know who I am?” The solder replied, “No.” He said, “I’m General Patton.” The soldier said, “Pleased to meet you,” and told the general his name. Because he failed to salute the general, as required under military regulations, Gen. Patton had him thrown in the brig, where he spent the night before being released the next day.
Walker said of Gen. Patton, “He was somewhat of a soldier. I was glad to be associated with him.”
A funny story Walker recalled involves his loud snoring, which led to a prank by his fellow solders. After he was sound asleep, they carried his bed outdoors. When he woke up, he was shocked to discover he was outside in the snow.
By war’s end, the 163rd constructed 40 bridges. Some were permanent wooden bridges, but most were temporary pontoon bridges, also known as floating bridges, which could be quickly assembled for rapid deployment of troops and equipment.
When the war ended, the 163rd was in Austria.
Walker was discharged from the Army in January 1946.
“I was glad to be home,” Walker said.
For his service, Walker received the Good Conduct Medal with Clasp, European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with 4 Bronze Stars, Croix de Guerre with Palm & Fourragere GO 1286, and the WWII Victory Medal.
Walker Brothers At War
Walker and three of his brothers served in the U.S. military during WWII. But, not all of them survived the conflict.
In Walker’s home hangs a framed tribute to his brother, Harvey, who was killed in action on the Island of Luzon in the Philippines, while serving as a member of the Air Corps in the South Pacific
Bert, the oldest of the brothers, served in the Army as an infantryman and was part of the Normandy invasion. “Bert and I got together in France one time when our units were near each other,” Walker said. Bert is now deceased.
Harold also served in the Army in Europe. “I met Harold near Salzburg toward the end of the war,” Joe said. Harold was a Dresden resident until his death in 1992.
Two of Walker’s other brothers – Hilman, a resident of Memphis; and Raphael, of Martin are veterans of the Korean Conflict. Both are still living.
Family & Civilian Career
Soon after WWII started, Joe and his future wife, Verna Mae Cavin, both went North to work. Verna was employed at a factory in Chicago, and Joe was working in Michigan. They had kept in touch while they were working up North and had corresponded throughout the war.
After his military service ended in 1946, Walker returned to Martin. Joe and Verna were married on January 10, 1946 – just three days after he returned home from military duty.
Joe began working at Red Rock Bottling Company, located at the corner of Main and College streets in Martin, which manufactured Red Rock colas.
In 1951, Walker’s building and maintenance experience in the military helped land him a job at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he was in charge of heating, air conditioning and plumbing operations.
He left UTM for a couple of years and worked as maintenance supervisor at the newly-built Volunteer Hospital in Martin.
After returning to UTM, he worked full-time until 1985, and worked part-time until he retired in 2003 at the age if 80.
Joe and Verna were married 69 years when she passed away in 2015.
The couple have two children – Shelia Thompson and Sylvia Kemp. Joe has seven grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren.
Walker has seven grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. Additionally, his nephew, Dennis Cavin became a four-star general.
Before his age began to limit his activities, Joe’s hobbies included playing golf, camping, hunting and fishing.
Mr. Walker’s daughter, Shelia, takes care of her father during his twilight years.
In Memory of the 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion
Members of the 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion had reunions from 1950-2006.
Several years ago, Herman P. Shutt, who was a member of the 163rd, built a scale model of one of the bridges and donated it to the Barnett Museum (also known as The Backyard Town Museum) in Martin. This is where Shorty Barnett, who was another member of the battalion, lived and operated the museum.
After Shorty died, his wife, Modine and son, Mike, kept the museum going for a while. But after Mike died, Mike’s wife, Cathy, called Walker and told him to come get the bridge to keep it for members of the battalion.
In 2019, Walker donated the WWII-era, fixed-timber trestle bridge to Discovery Park of America, so others could see what members of his battalion did during WWII. The model represents one of the many bridges he helped build during WWII. The model is on display in the World War II section of The Military Gallery at Discovery Park of America.
Walker’s daughter, Shelia, said, “We are thrilled to see this special artifact on display. It gives honor to not only my dad, but to all the members of the 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion.”
Walker Expresses Love of Country
In reference to the special recognition he has received over the years, Walker said, “I appreciate everything everybody has done for me.”
The WWII veteran and staunch patriot said, “This country is one of the greatest there ever was. I appreciate it very much.”
WWII veteran recounts service to country, UT Martin
Note: Published online at www.utm.edu on November 10, 2020
‘I was one of the lucky ones’
He sat relaxed in his recliner with his 163rd Combat Engineers Battalion jacket laid on his lap, surrounded by worn photos from his service in France, Germany and Austria and transported the room back in time to 1943.
“We were combat engineers,” T. Joe Walker said. “We went into France and built bridges and (were) there on until the end of the war. I was in charge of Company B of the 163rd Combat Engineers. We built wooden bridges, pontoon bridges, treadway bridges, just about every kind of bridge you could think of.”
The 96-year-old Martin native, along with three of his brothers, served in the Army and Air Force during World War II. Walker, a T/4, or technician fourth grade, by the end of 1946, was just thankful he made it home from the war alive and in time to marry the girl who wrote him letters.
Walker received his draft notice from Weakley County while he was working in Michigan and began basic training in Mississippi in May 1943 with the “Striped-Ass Apes,” the 163rd’s nickname. The 163rd’s emblem features an ape with stripes on its rear, a hammer in one hand and a rifle in the other. The battalion coined its name and emblem during training at Camp Van Dorn because they worked with a hammer in one hand and a rifle in the other, Walker said.
“Camp Van Dorn … Sorriest place there ever was,” Walker said. “Ah, but it turned out to be alright.”
Soon after, Walker and the 163rd were on their way to Europe. After preparing for combat at a station in England, the battalion landed on Utah Beach on June 21, 1944, just mere weeks after D-Day. They quickly assumed their responsibilities and began combat support. The 163rd was in charge of clearing roads for troops, building bridges, trucking supplies and occasionally acting as infantry when the situation called for it. They carried what supplies they needed and relied on the land for many of their operations.
“I don’t remember how many bridges we built, but it was a bunch of them,” Walker said.
The 163rd traveled from Normandy, France, to Linz, Austria, building bridges to transport troops, vehicles, munitions and supplies across Europe. Overall, the 163rd built 42 bridges totaling in 4,844 linear feet. A model of one of the bridges Company B built was donated by Walker to Discovery Park of America in Union City and is currently on display.
One of Walker’s most memorable experiences began while operating at a gravel pit near General George Patton’s headquarters. During the invasion of France, the 163rd served with the 1st Army, but as they moved inland, the 163rd transferred to General Patton’s 3rd Army. While crushing rocks, a Jeep carrying Patton arrived, and seeing the three-star emblem on the jeep, everyone except for a corporal stopped working and saluted. General Patton noticed the corporal and approached him asking if he knew who he was.
“No,” the corporal said.
“I’m General Patton.”
“He said, ‘I’m glad to meet you, I’m Andy,’ and stuck his hand out to shake Patton’s. He got chewed out,” Walker said through laughter. The corporal was thrown in the guard quarters for the night and never forgot who General Patton was.
Even though Walker worked as an engineer, they often operated under enemy attacks.
“I went up to the front lines once; I didn’t care for that much,” Walker said. “It came close a lot of times … I was one of the lucky ones.”
Walker’s three brothers Harvey, Herald and Bert, served alongside him during the war, but unfortunately, Harvey wasn’t as lucky. After Harvey was killed in action, all four brothers returned home to bury him together.
When Walker returned home from the war in January of 1946, he waited only three days before getting married, twice. He and his soon-to-be bride Verna had only met once before Walker left for the war, but their love for each other grew through the letters they wrote, becoming a source of light in a dark time.
“Yeah, we wrote a lot of letters …” Walker said smiling.
At Christmas, Walker wrote Verna and asked her to wait for him to get home before she left Martin to return to Chicago to work at a munitions plant. When he arrived home the next month, the couple was married at their preacher’s house in Gibson County.
However, Walker and Verna had received their marriage license in Weakley County and were legally required to get married in the same county they received their license from. After noticing the discrepancy, the preacher rushed to their parent’s house in Weakley County to remarry them, creating their iconic story that has been shared with the many generations their family has grown to be.
The couple was married for 69 years before Verna passed away in 2015. Now, Walker remembers her light through the letters, photos and a lifetime of memories shared.
After the pair married, Walker tended to his family farm until deciding to go to work for the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1951 as the head of mechanical maintenance. Walker was responsible for the heating and cooling system on campus.
Walker retired from his full-time job at UT Martin in 1985, but quickly returned as a part-time employee until his retirement in 2003. He has seen many changes over the years and cherishes being a part of the growth of the university that provided a livelihood for him for many years.
As Veterans Day approaches, Walker and his family can be found celebrating his, his brothers’ and so many others’ service and sacrifice to this country, just as they do every year. Until recently, the 163rd held reunions for many years after the war, growing in participation each year. Eventually, there were 163rd “Striped-Ass Apes” coming to West Tennessee from all over the country to reunite with fellow soldiers and families.
The population of World War II veterans is dwindling as time passes and spending time with Walker is evident of that, but he will always remember the men he served with and the sacrifices each one made for their country.
In honor of the veterans who have served in the Martin community, the UT Martin Office of Veterans Services will host a virtual Veterans Day observance that can be viewed at utm.edu/veteransday2020.