World War II veteran continues efforts to serve fellow veterans
Monday, December 30, 2013
While a junior in high school, one’s attention often centers on the approaching senior year and all the associated excitements — the dances, friendships and the preparations for college … or possibly a career.
What one would likely not expect is a letter that leads to involuntary induction into military service and youthful exposure to a combat environment.
“I was 18 years old and had just finished my junior year of high school,” said Jack Matthews, 87, Jefferson City.
“That’s when I got my draft letter,” he added.
It was the summer of 1944 and the Bloomfield native never anticipated being torn from his rural surroundings and thrust into military service prior to his graduation.
The young man was soon inducted into the U.S. Army at Jefferson Barracks and completed his basic training at Camp Robinson, Ark., after which he was then given a few days of leave to return home before embarking on his overseas assignment.
Boarding a troop ship in Boston, Matthews recalls his arrival in Glasgow, Scotland, just weeks later and the unexpected greeting he received.
“We were met by Gray Ladies — the American Red Cross — and they gave us a box that was about half the size of a shoe box with food in it for us to eat,” he said. “I bit into a cold piece of meat that turned out to be rabbit … but we really hadn’t had anything but soup to eat on the ship, so it tasted pretty good.”
But the young soldier’s baptism of fire would soon arrive as he boarded an LST (land ship tank) and crossed the English Channel into France.
In January 1945, he and many of his fellow soldiers were assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 314th Infantry Regiment located in Hagnaw, France. They would serve as replacements in a reinforcing battalion that had lost more than half its soldiers the previous evening when captured by German forces.
“At night,” Matthews said, “the Germans started shooting artillery shells toward our foxholes.” With a grin, he added, “If you ever tried to dig a foxhole in frozen ground, it’s tough, but you learn to dig quickly when you’re being attacked.”
Over the course of the next several months, the company moved northward in support of the forces fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, and engaged in combat throughout France, Czechoslovakia, and Germany.
“We got to ‘tour’ a lot of Europe,” he jokingly remarked of his unit’s mobility during the war. “It was either from the back of a 2½ ton truck or on foot — but mostly on foot.”
The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, and Matthews experienced a level of relief when he was appointed as the Jeep driver for his company commander.
“That was the best duty of my entire military career,” he said. “Then they tried to talk to us about reenlisting, but most of us had about all of that stuff that we wanted and were ready to return home.”
Matthews, having earned a Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge, was discharged in 1946 and returned to high school that fall — a combat-hardened 20-year-old — and finished out his senior year.
After moving to Jefferson City in the 1960s to work for state government, Matthews continued his legacy of service when he was hired by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS).
In 1992, he was appointed to the Missouri Veterans Commission (MVC) after his retirement from VETS, and remained a commissioner for the next eight years. True to his desire to help veterans, the former soldier became one of the founding members of the MVC Foundation Inc., which is a non-profit established to support programs for the state’s veterans.
“My time on the commission was one of the proudest moments of my career,” said Matthews. “What better way to serve our state’s veterans than to have been part of helping to establish, fund and build the state’s veterans’ cemeteries at Bloomfield, Springfield, Higginsville, Jacksonville and Waynesville.”
Matthews also believes that his unwavering drive to assist his comrades who have taken up the mantle of national defense has in no way diminished over the years.
“Everything that I’ve done in the past has kind of fit what I’ve devoted my life to since leaving the service … and continue to do,” he said.
“And just because I’m 87 years old doesn’t mean I’m not still trying to do whatever I can to support initiatives that benefit our veterans.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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