Jess Clarkson, Jr., 86, of Kings Mountain is still “tough as a pine knot” like he was when he fought his way across Italy, France and into Germany during World War II. The former infantryman’s memory is sharp as a tack too and his recollections of his journey from Lincoln County to a German POW camp are as vivid and smooth flowing as a well edited movie. In our continuing effort to capture as much of the county’s living history as possible, we recently sat down on Clarkson’s, or “Junior’s”, deck to listen to his story.
“Junior is what they call me; I’m pretty old to be a junior aren’t I,” he asked before introducing his wife, of almost 65 years, Gladys.
Pearl Harbor and still has his hunting license showing his age of 15. Three years later, after his 18th birthday, he was drafted into the Army and began his journey towards the war in Europe.
That journey wasn’t without a few false starts. Clarkson’s father passed while he was in basic training and had to start all over again after the funeral. Once he completed heavy weapons training at Fort Meade and boarded a ship bound for North Africa his journey was interrupted again when he was sent ashore, having contracted a case of the measles. After he recuperated, Clarkson was again recycled through training and he figured that was what toughened him up to face the arduous battles that lie ahead, “Of course, I spent my whole life on a farm and I was tough as a pine knot anyway,” he laughed.
Clarkson fondly recalls entering the Mediterranean Sea and passing the Rock of Gibraltar after more than three weeks underway. “It was the most beautiful sight I’ve seen. The water was crystal clear and so smooth,” he said.
But danger was literally on the horizon and, and as he and the other soldiers lounged shirtless on the bow, they saw German planes in the distance. “I bet the hit us tonight, boys,” he recalls saying. And they did. The Navy shot down four of the 14 German planes that attacked them, one of which struck a glancing blow with a bomb to the hull of Clarkson’s ship as it steamed towards Naples. “That was my introduction to war,” he said.
After some additional training ashore, Clarkson, who had trained in heavy weapons, was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. “Air and water cooled .30-caliber machine guns, .50-caliber machine guns, 81-millimeter mortars and to be a scout, that’s what I was trained to do,” Clarkson said, and he was sent to Anzio and assigned a machine gun.
“We trained hard, that sure was a rough outfit,” Clarkson said of the 3rd ID, the unit he would spend the rest of the war with. After a few days on the line Clarkson said his unit moved out of Anzio and began fighting their way to Rome. “Jerry threw everything he had at us,” he said, but by September of 1944 they’d reached the Eternal City and everyone was relieved. “Rome had been declared an open city and we didn’t have to fight for it,” Clarkson said.
The young infantryman and his fellow soldiers enjoyed a two break, guarding the opulent building where Mussolini had made his last stand before, heading back to the sea. “We thought the 3rd was going home,” he said, but the unit was reassigned to VI Corps and began amphibious training in the Tyrrhenian Sea on beaches that resembled those of southern France, their next destination.
“We’d climb down those ropes to the Higgins boats and land on the beach then train all day ashore in those rugged mountains. We did that for eight weeks. We got up to hiking 30-miles in one day with all that crap on our backs,” he said.
On the morning of Aug. 15, 1944 Clarkson was in the first wave of landing craft ashore and said, “I could hear those Jerry machine guns going before we landed.” After the landing, his unit pushed inland, occasionally catching rides on a jeep or the side of tank. “We’d hit a little town or village and have a terrible fight,” before moving on, he said.
One night, after giving a challenge to what he thought was a returning patrol, he got a German grenade and burp gun fire instead of the password. Despite being wounded in the hand and leg he stayed with his unit as they continued to press toward Germany.
In mid-September he was scouting ahead of his company when German artillery caught the unit in the open. Clarkson was one of seven soldiers not killed or wounded in the bombardment. He jumped into a German fighting hole and when the artillery ceased, looked up to see “a 200 pound German” standing over him. “The Lord was with me. Why didn’t he kill me? We’d been tearing them up,” Clarkson said of his captor. But he quickly realized they had run into a professional outfit. “You’ve never seen soldiers like this. We really ran into an army when we hit them,” he said.
Clarkson ended up in Stalag 7 where the conditions were brutal. As the winter of 1944 descended on the POW camp near Munich temperatures dropped to 18-20 degrees below zero and there was very little food. While on a work detail at a German sawmill Allied planes flew low to the ground and Clarkson said, “It made me feel like we were so close to home.”
Rumors began circulating that the allies were close and the POWs began receiving Red Cross supply packages for the first time. Finally, in the late spring of 1945, Clarkson and his comrades were liberated by US forces and repatriated.
Clarkson was on furlough in Florida when the war ended in Europe and he was sent home. For his service, Clarkson was decorated with the Purple Heart medal, the POW medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the European Theater ribbon with three battle stars, several campaign ribbons and he also earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Since the war, Clarkson had been farming and raising a family. He and his wife Gladys had a girl and two boys on a 150-acre place that they had to sell to the Southern Railroad. They’ve been on their farm in Kings Mountain for the past 50 years. “I’ve been a tobacco farmer and barn builder. I’ve logged and hauled logs and coal. I’m still trimming trees at 86. The Lord had been good to me,” he said.
Over the years he kept up with his comrades and fellow veterans in the area but they’ve all passed on. When asked if he ever thinks of his war experiences he said he does, “But they don’t bother me, the Lord’s been with me the whole time. I was in a rough unit that trained the tar out of us and I was prepared for all of the stuff I went through.”
Tough as a pine knot
Kings Mountain WWII vet tells his story
Jess Clarkson, Jr. fought in WW II in Italy, France and Germany before being taken prisoner in the fall of 1944. (Photo by Michael Broihier)