Lincolnton resident Ralph Conner said he still has pieces of shrapnel in his head — a permanent souvenir and reminder of his World War II military service.
American Legion Post 30 plans to recognize Conner, 89, and his fellow Lincoln County World War II veterans during a special ceremony next month at Post 30 headquarters in Lincolnton.
“It will be their special day,” Dale Punch said. Punch serves as the director of special events for Post 30 and has designed honorary medals for each of the vets who attend the event.
Conner, also a Last Man’s Club member, told the Times-News during a recent meeting that he is lucky to be alive after his body was severely wounded while stationed in Italy, the day before his U.S. Army unit headed to Rome while on its way to invade Germany.
“They say, ‘If you hear the bullets coming you’re not hit,’” he said. “It’s the ones you don’t hear that get you.”
In the incident, he lost his left eye, which has since been replaced with a glass eye.
The military man, who was born in Stanley but grew up in Lincolnton and graduated from Lincolnton High School, also noted how he was one of the first patients around the world to receive penicillin treatment which, at the time, was still considered an experimental drug.
From March 1944 to late 1945, he was in and out of hospitals but still fought hard for his country, obtaining a Purple Heart and two battle stars before leaving the Army.
“War is war,” he said.
While Conner will be 90 next month and has experienced his share of battle wounds, his body is not bound by a cane or wheelchair.
“I’ve always been athletic and kept my body in shape,” he said.
Fellow veteran and club member Robert Hawkins, 86, was just 18 years old when he was drafted into the Army and earned two battles star before the age of 19, two honors for which he’s extremely proud.
“There’s a big difference between a soldier and a combat veteran,” he said.
While most teens today are busy with extracurricular activities and school sports, Hawkins spent his last teen years suiting up in camouflage with a weapon at his side.
“I spent my 19th birthday traveling across Germany,” he said.
However, his infantry division first landed in France.
Better known to the community as “Hawk,” the Lincolnton resident and founder/owner of Hawkins Hawk Enterprises on Victory Grove Church Road, also served his country years later in the Korean War after he said he was called back into active duty, a year after he went into the reserves. Hawkins initially left the Army in 1946, several months following the official end of World War II, but rejoined in 1950.
For him, war greatly transformed his attitude and outlook on life, maturing him from a former “mill hill brat” into a man of integrity, he said.
Additional honors to his name include at least a WWII Victory Medal, handed out to all active duty members and reservists, a conduct medal and German Occupation Medal.
These days Hawkins enjoys a more laid-back lifestyle with three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
William Hoyle Sain, who will turn 91 on Thursday, said he spent time in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland during the war.
“Sometimes it got pretty rough,” he said.
The former Army corporal still vividly remembers hearing word that the enemy was close to his unit’s location.
“It wasn’t funny,” Sain said. “We’re lucky to get back alive.”
Despite the dangerous nightmares of war, he labeled his fighting days a “great adventure,” especially for a boy with wild ways.
“At 19 years old, you’re kindly wild anyways,” he said.
American Legion Post 30 is also looking to honor local World War II veterans who served time in France. According to Post 30 member Tom Hawk, the Consulate General of France in Atlanta, Ga., is reaching out to qualified individuals in six different states, including North and South Carolina. To apply for the Legion of Honor, veterans must have spent time in France between June 6, 1944, and May 8, 1945, according to a French Consulate press release.
For more information on the honor, contact Tom Hawk at (704) 735-0550, and leave a message.
The Lincoln County World War II Veteran Appreciation Day will start noon on April 6 at 1120 N. Aspen Street in Lincolnton. To RSVP, contact Dale Punch at (704) 477-8829 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Jamie Vernon at (704) 736-8506 email@example.com.
“They (veterans) shouldn’t be forgotten,” Punch said.