Lincolnton native John David Abernathy, who served for 15 months during World War II, is considered the last surviving member of the United States Army’s 105th Engineer Combat Battalion.
Nicknamed by the Germans as “Roosevelt’s SS,” the military unit — part of the 30th Infantry Division — spent months overseas working to keep Adolf Hitler’s men from advancing further across Europe by engaging in dangerous duties that included clearing mine fields, rigging demolitions and fighting as infantry, according to 105th.org.
Much of his infantry unit’s work has also been published in Robert L. Hewitt’s book, “Work Horse of the Western Front: The story of the 30th Infantry Division.”
Six months after signing up for the National Guard at age 18, following graduation from Lincolnton High School, Abernathy was sent to Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., where his entire 164-member National Guard brigade was forced to become U.S. Army infantry.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
Following a year down South, the unit was divided, and he eventually found himself moving from one base to another, from Jacksonville, Fla., to locations in Indiana and Boston, Mass.
It wasn’t long before his unit was placed on a ship, headed from the Northeastern seaport to Europe to fight on the war’s front lines.
“We were in one of the biggest convoys that had ever been put together (at that time),” he said, “and had all kinds of ships around us.”
However, before the ship even left port, a bomb exploded near them.
Abernathy explained how a German ship, traveling near the area, dropped a “depth charge” on a U.S. submarine, startling he and everyone else on board his vessel.
The specific warfare was used by ships and airplanes during that time to target submarines by dropping underwater explosives at a fixed depth.
When asked if he was scared during the event, he answered comically but honestly — his eyebrows raised with excitement over his clear recollection of the deafening sound.
“Is the Pope Catholic?” Abernathy said, chuckling.
His total time overseas lasted from September 1943 to December 1944, less than a year before the war ended.
He noted how the seemingly short period of combat time forever changed him and his Army friends.
“That war will change anything,” he said. “It’s like one man said, ‘There’s one thing about being in the infantry — you won’t never find an atheist in that foxhole.’”
Abernathy was lucky to survive the same fight that he noted took the life of one of his five brothers in Italy and also severely wounded a second brother.
“He got tore up pretty bad by the Germans,” he said of his one brother who survived. “He had five major operations before he ever regained consciousness.”
Abernathy’s most vivid war memories include being surrounded by the German Army in France, trying to survive on just one K-ration of food — sardines, cheese, crackers and a pint of water — for seven days and nights and a separate incident in which his infantry unit raided a residence filled with German women, who were stationed at the place to breed males for the military.
Baby girls were not welcome in the male-dominated effort.
“They sent all the girls born to the fire,” Abernathy said. “Adolf Hitler was a nut, if ever there was one.”
He also remembered how he and his men once used 50 lbs. of TNT to annihilate 26 German buildings, each fashioned together as part of a fortress for soldiers.
In order to carry out the cunning operation, one American soldier had to carry the explosives to the German side by way of a pole, Abernathy said.
His division’s final operation took place just 12 miles from Berlin, he noted, where the group engaged with the Germans once last time in a most unique way.
Terrified of the large, intimidating U.S. ally Russia — whose soldiers the Germans dubbed “Ruskies,” Abernathy said — Adolf’s men begged their opponent to take them.
“The Russians were coming in on the other side of the Elbe River,” Abernathy said, “and the Germans were swimming over to ask the Americans to take them.”
It wasn’t long after the event that Abernathy was allowed to return home to his tiny Southern hometown, more decorated and mature than when he left, and all his belongings packed in a single duffle bag.
He was allowed to return home because of his high number of battle stars, he said.
With seven, Abernathy was more decorated than any other man in his company.
He explained how each star maintained a certain number of points, which added together allowed the men certain privileges.
The Lincoln County man will forever remember the moment he heard the news he could leave Europe.
“Words can’t explain it,” he said.
His very first battle star actually got him in trouble with his mother after he told her he had been spending time in the Army playing baseball rather than engaging on the front lines, he said.
She later learned the truth of his war contributions when she read a story in the Gaston Gazette about his receiving the battle star.
“She was worried,” Abernathy said, “because one son was killed and another turned up badly (in the war). She said, ‘If I catch you telling that story again, I will wear you out; I don’t care how old you are.’”
Some of his battle stars were awarded for his unit’s famous Invasion of Normandy and their spearheading the breakthrough in St. Lo, as well as crossing the Rhine River, Abernathy said.
Not long after settling in back in Lincolnton, he said he bought the now-defunct Boger City Restaurant, which he sold after three short years and went to work for an employer in Hickory, delivering food items across the area.
He also spent many years continuing to dabble in the sport of baseball, playing for teams associated with local mills in Cherryville, Hickory and Maiden, he said.
From 1944-1982 he moved, with his now-deceased wife, to the South Carolina coast, but the threat of three hurricanes prompted him to come back home.
Three years after his wife died, Abernathy rekindled a friendship with Hazel Weaver, his current wife.
The two had known each other for most of their lives.
Abernathy laughed about how she and one of her high school boyfriends used to come into his restaurant on a number of evenings, moving the tables and dancing until closing time.
He and Hazel met up again at a church function at an area nursing home, where Abernathy was singing as part of the choir with First Baptist Church of High Shoals.
“She tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I bet you don’t remember me,’” he said.
Four years ago, the pair married, after both swore they never would again.
“I don’t know what I would do without him,” Hazel said.
The former Army staff sergeant’s body may have weakened over the last several decades, but his mind remains sharp.
As only one of nearly 20 World War II veterans left in Lincolnton and part of the Last Man’s Club, Abernathy and his generation of war heroes are often forgotten by the community.
Yet, he’s certain the memories of his past life — the blood, sweat, tears, vivid combat and lives lost — will never fade from his memory.
“You just wonder why the Lord let you live,” he said.