He rode the famed Red Ball Express and served in the Battle of the Bulge. He’s one of the remaining members of the “Greatest Generation,” but Hamilton resident Leamon Carl Wagner, 96, would more likely consider himself a simple farmer.
Like many children of his day, farming was a typical way of life, and Wagner was no exception. The Priddy, Texas, native helped his father on the farm when he was old enough to do so. By this time, the family had moved to Hamilton County. When he was in fourth grade, the family was able to borrow money and purchase a farm (at $7 per acre) in Springdale. Wagner was often absent from school, working on the farm. He attended when it rained or there was bad weather.
By the 10th grade, Wagner left school altogether to help his sick father on the farm. He worked there until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. He went to Camp Howze in Gainesville. He had his choice of occupations and chose the motor pool, where he trained to be an ambulance driver.
His first duty station was in Alexandria, Louisiana. He was there a year in training before he was sent by ship overseas to join the war in Europe. They went across Scotland and into England, where Wagner served with the 84th Infantry Division.
His first assignment was an exciting one. Trained in first aid, he was sent to France to assist as an aidman. It was harrowing, to say the least. It was there he traveled with the famed Red Ball Express, a convoy of trucks that kept Allied forces in supplies during the war.
Wagner’s second part of the journey with the 84th Infantry was spent in Germany, where he finally drove an ambulance.
“We were in Germany a month. We thought we were going to rest up,” he said.
Instead, he was sent to the front lines to pick up the injured or the dead. They were gradually moving toward the Ardennes Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.
Life in war was not easy, and small things like taking a shower would become a luxury. Once a month, they would pick up supplies, and Wagner could take a shower at the coal mine next door. It was the only time he got a change of clothes. They often slept in the ambulance and never changed clothes while working, which they did in 24-hour shifts by one sleeping and one driving. They ate C rations, which later became K rations.
“It was either cloudy every day or snowed every day,” Wagner said. “We didn’t even know what day of the week it was.” The roads were so slick and icy, that vehicles were sliding all over the place.
It was in Germany that Wagner faced his toughest moment. He and another man were driving in the ambulance when they started to come under heavy fire. The men got out of the ambulance and took cover.
When things quieted down, they headed back to the truck. The driver got in, and Wagner was sitting next to him. The next thing he knew, his driver was dead, hit in the face with a mortar round. Wagner himself was injured by the shrapnel, for which he earned a Purple Heart.
“That was a crazy mess, I tell you for sure,” he said. “That’s just part of (the job) and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Wagner went to an aid station and was back on the job in time for their trek to the Ardennes. When they arrived in Liège, Belgium, they were there 24 hours before they were told the German had captured Americans and were wearing their uniforms to trick the Allies.
“They could speak English as well as you or I could,” he said.
The 84th marched to the Elbe River in Germany, where they met the Russians at what would become known as East/West Germany.
It wasn’t long after that Wagner was able to return to the States. He was honorably discharged as a T-5 on Dec. 27, 1945.
Wagner went back to the farm in Springdale, where he would remain a farmer for most of his life. “I was so glad to be back. All I wanted to do was get on a tractor.”
He stayed single for many years before finally marrying Lydia Peters in 1991. They’ve been married since.
Although his memories are fading some after all these years, Wagner remembers enough to still cause him occasional nightmares.
“We’re just lucky we didn’t get killed,” Wagner said. He might attribute his success to a prayer book his pastor gave him before he left.
“I guess I needed to serve,” Wagner said. “Somebody had to.”