The headlines are telling: “Seven U.S. Marines killed during tragic live-fire training exercise in Nevada;” “2 Soldiers Dead, 20 Service Members Injured in 3 Training Accidents;” and, “2 dead, 23 injured in training incidents at Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, Camp Pendleton” (the last dated September 2017).
Many people sign up to serve their country, but never make it to battle. Whether on the front lines or the home base, danger lurks around every corner — especially when you’re training for active combat duty.
Just ask Chilton resident Raymond Eugene Patterson.
Patterson, 95, is a World War II-era veteran who didn’t plan to fight in the war. Born in Oklahoma before the onset of the Great Depression, he moved with his family to Central Texas and “never really left,” he said.
Like most young men growing up in the 1930s, Patterson worked to earn money to help the family make ends meet. He picked cotton and stripped ribbon cane to make syrup. They went from farm to farm for as long as a job would last.
Patterson attended school in Adina in Lee County but didn’t finish. (Twenty-six years later, he would enroll at Texas A&M.)
He briefly ran a large grocery store in Cameron after the start of the war. His boss was working on getting him a deferment from the military, as anyone who worked was eligible to put off or suspend their service altogether. And Patterson was just fine with that.
I must go and serve
But then, something happened that changed his mind: A couple of young men working for him were killed in the line of duty. He decided he must serve. “I didn’t want to go — same as they didn’t — but I decided I didn’t want them saying I didn’t do my part,” Patterson said.
It was off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he enrolled in the U.S. Army. He went to Brownwood for his basic training, followed by advanced training at Fort Hood, where he joined the 653rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and became a platoon corporal waiting for his sergeant stripes that were due.
He was charged with training 36 men for their primary duty: combat in the European Theater. Its primary focus was guns of all sizes used specifically to destroy tanks.
It was during a live-training exercise that Patterson became a casualty of the U.S. Army. During live training, gun rounds are fired, and simulated bombs are set off in trenches to give them a real taste of live combat.
“You learn to be in fear of it, so you won’t get blown up,” he said.
He described it as an artillery field with several marked-off squares, many of which had TNT or something similar. The idea was to crawl under wire and maneuver in and out of the trenches, avoiding explosions or live-fire rounds. When the coast was clear, the men would get up to run and dodge some more.
Injury leads to trouble
On one occasion, Patterson got up to run, but tripped and fell in one of the trenches. His shoulder and head hit the dirt wall, and then there was an explosion. He tried to crawl through, and did so, apparently well enough to get out. But it wasn’t long before there was a problem – Patterson started bleeding from his nose and ears. A lot.
“I would go to sleep in the field and wake up and there would be blood all over me, over my sheets and pillows,” he said. He would rise early every day to wash out his linens, so no one would know, but eventually it was discovered.
The likely culprit was concussion, but it was never diagnosed, and he was discharged from the Army after serving about nine months. He was supposed to sign up for disability benefits, but when he was in the hospital, he saw the war-wounded and felt they needed it more; he naively signed away his rights.
Fast-forward years later. Patterson soon discovered he couldn’t work, because he couldn’t control his bleeding. After many years, he finally pursued the Veterans Administration to recognize and treat his disability.
Partners for life
He and his partner, Wilhelmina Sudbury, have spent some 13 years together now. She was raised in the West area and served the war effort in civil service.
Wilhelmina, 94, also worked as a child, and served the military even before she went into civil duty, sewing tent skirts for the troops. After a military recruiter approached her, she enrolled in a program to learn the building trade. She plied that trade for about 15 months at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth.
Wilhelmina built the house the couple now lives in, and she also is a successful painter who has sold paintings on large cross-cut saws for hundreds of dollars. They are happy and content with their life.
And Patterson doesn’t regret a thing.
“I did love the Army, or I wouldn’t have gone,” Patterson said. “I wanted to do my part.”