Story by Sarah Naron
When Bald Hill resident and JC Penney’s employee Thomas “Boe” Freeman received a “Dear John” letter letting him know that he had been “selected by your friends and neighbors for the Army,” in 1942, he had no second thoughts or apprehension about answering the call of duty.
“That’s the reason they like young people, you know – because they don’t know what they’re getting into until they get into it,” said Freeman, now 96 years old. “My mother and daddy – oh, my daddy did everything in the world to try to keep me from going, because I was a farm boy.”
Freeman recalled that his father even went so far as to draw up a petition to have his son removed from the service.
“I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want out,’” Freeman said. “’I wanna finish this fight.’”
With his mind made up, Freeman went on to become a member of General George Patton’s 3rd Army.
“I went to Tyler for my physical in December 1942,” he remembered. “I came back, and they let me stay here ’till ’43. Then, I went to Camp Walters and got my orders up there.”
Freeman’s next stop was Camp Flor in Mississippi, where he was assigned to the 520th Ordinance Company.
“It was an Alabama company made up of volunteers,” Freeman explained. “Most of them were all around 38 and 40 years old, so they were twice my age.”
Freeman received much of his basic training at Camp Flor and remained there for more than three months before his return to Texas. He was then stationed at Camp Hood – known today as Fort Hood – where he completed his basic training.
“Then, they sent me to school in Tacoma, WA,” Freeman said. “I stayed up there three months, working on machines. I came back to Camp Hood and got on a troop train and went to Camp Kilmer, NJ, and boarded Queen Elizabeth.”
Freeman was one of 20,000 passengers aboard the ship. While segregation between African-Americans and Caucasians was still active in the United States, Freeman said, it had no place on the Queen Elizabeth.
“We were stacked in there like everything,” he said. “We would be sleeping, and there would be a white man, a black man, and a white man all stacked together. It didn’t bother me no more.”
After four days on the ship, the group caught up with its convoy, which had left for Glasgow, Scotland seven days prior.
“We went on a troop train to London, South Hampton,” Freeman said. “We were preparing for the invasion; for D-Day. I was uncrating half-tracks when the planes were going over, strafing in France.”
The attacks, Freeman remembered, lasted throughout the night.
“They started at midnight, and it was all night long,” he said. “Those planes would blow over, turn those gliders loose, come back, and their cables was hanging down. We was all overjoyed, because we knew we wasn’t gonna get to come home until all that was over with.”
Freeman and his fellow troop members remained in place until August 7 before crossing the English Channel to Saint Lo.
“We went to Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge, and that’s where the enemy general told us to surrender, or he was gonna push us back to the English Channel,” Freeman said. “Our general told him, ‘Nuts to you!’ We took one town after another, all the way from then on.”
Freeman was a member of the artillery and responsible for making firing pins.
“They’d come up there and get a box full of those things that I’d made,” he said. “It was cold, and they’d freeze and break. The captain said it was because of the German’s sorry metal.”
Some of the materials utilized in the creation of the pins had been manufactured in Lufkin, and Freeman recalled being teased by the welders that Lufkin was to blame for the issues rather than the quality of German metal.
In addition to making firing pins, Freeman’s responsibilities included repairing machinery.
“Our company was usually around 10-12 miles behind the front,” he said. “Our biggest job was, they was strafing and bombing us. They’d get up in these steeples in these French churches, and they would fire on us. And I was lucky enough that I never did get taken out.”
Freeman said that attacks by “Charlie” – a term used by the troops to describe the enemy – were a nightly occurrence. Despite the obvious danger of the situation, not all members of the company acted accordingly.
“Some of those old Alabama boys wouldn’t get in their foxholes,” Freeman remembered. “They’d get drunk on beer and wine and stand outside their foxhole.”
From Saint Lo, Freeman said, “we took every town from then on to Czechoslovakia.
“I went from there down to Wolfrantz Housing, below Munich, until time for me to come home,” he said.
Rather than returning to America immediately after the war’s end, Freeman remained in Europe for a number of months.
“I fixed me an old jeep up, and I’d just come in at mealtime and eat and then take off to some other country – Austria or Czechoslovakia – until some GI stole my jeep and I didn’t have a jeep anymore,” he said. “It sounds like I was having a good time, but it wasn’t no good time.”
Nevertheless, Freeman managed to uphold a positive attitude, which he credits with carrying him through the less than enjoyable days.
“Most of the men that was in there were married men and had families. And they had long faces,” he said. “Everything was funny to me. I’d laugh at them. I took everything easy like; I laughed and carried on. I guess that’s what kept me going.”
In December 1945, Freeman finally headed for home on the Queen Elizabeth. The voyage was a rough one, complicated by seven storms.
“They finally had to take the tables down, because the coffee would slide clear across the ship, and the floor was slick,” Freeman recalled.
The journey was made even more unpleasant for him due to intense seasickness.
“Every time I hit the floor, I’d start vomiting,” he said. “They had changed our money from French money to American money, and I’d lay up on the bed and read everything on that note. I couldn’t do nothing else.”
Despite the difficulties, the ship eventually arrived at its destination of New York City.
“A band met us out in the harbor, playing music. The Statue of Liberty was there,” Freeman remembered. “I looked up at her, and I said, ‘Old lady, if you ever see me again, you’re gonna have to do an about face.’”
Freeman went on to return to work at JC Penney’s, where he reconnected with a woman named Helen, who would eventually become his wife.
“The first time I met her was before the war,” he explained. “She was 16, and I was 18, and we were in the library. My wife was smart, and I had to dig for everything I had. And she come around bothering me. I said, ‘Well, you go on; leave me alone. I’ve got to graduate.’”
Their next encounter was at Penney’s, where Freeman was the manager of the shoe department. The two began dating and were married five months later. They would go on to have three sons and one daughter.
“We had a wonderful life,” Freeman said. “We moved back here and built this house on the farm. This was my daddy’s farm, and he deeded me 40 acres of land. I’ve been here ever since.”
The couple was married for 65 years, until her death earlier this year.
After reminiscing on days gone by, Freeman provided his opinion on the goings-on of the present day – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s awful. I’ve stayed in the house for all this time,” he said. “My daughter in Beaumont made me a mask; I put it on when I go to the grocery store.”
Freeman praised the state and national leadership for their handling of the situation.
“I think our governor’s doing a good job. I think Donald Trump’s doing a good job, and I hope he is elected again,” he said. “He knows what he’s doing. They’re giving him a lot of trouble, but I hope he’ll get elected again.”
Freeman acknowledged that the world, in general, is “really in a mess right now.
“I think this world was in a mess before this even started,” he said. “Things is getting to where it may be the end of time, you know. I think He’s warning us. There’s so much sin in this world now that it’s not good at all. There’s so much meanness going around this day and time; I can’t understand why people have to be like they are. I think it’s awful that our country is going like it is.”
Freeman reiterated his belief that the current situation may be a warning from God.
“He’s warning us that we better change,” he said. “He’ll forgive the sins – regardless of what they are – if you’ll just listen and be baptized and be with Him all the time. I think everything will be alright if people will just change their wicked ways. You can’t do it yourself. You’ve gotta have somebody from above.”
Freeman’s faith in God, he said, is how he has made it to this point in his life.
“That’s the only thing that’s kept me going,” he said. “He’s leaving me here for something.”