Editor's Note: It was hard to choose profiles for this Veterans Day series, but Vernon Cureton's tale of a small-town boy in a big-ass war, told with modesty and gentle humor, exemplifies themes that I heard over and over from Dade's WWII veterans. "I wanted to get in the cavalry and ride them horses,” he remembered. He died last year at 91. I am using this photo from his obit.
Vernon Cureton: A Good War
On January 16, 1945, PFC Vernon Cureton caught a German bullet near Liège, Belgium. His right elbow joint was shot out and there was a hole in his hip big enough, as he puts it, to stick a football in.
Rescue didn’t come until nightfall, so all day long he lay bleeding in the waist-high snow, developing a nasty case of pneumonia to add to his wounds.
Still, Cureton is surprised when another veteran is referred to as having had a “good” war. To Cureton, his war was as good as anybody else’s. “A lot of them didn’t come back,” he says. “I look at it like I had a good war because I come back.”
From another man, it might sound hackneyed; from Cureton, it is a defining statement. Modest and quietly happy with what he has, he gives you a pretty good idea of what the Greatest Generation is all about.
Ralph Vernon Cureton spent the first 17 years of his life in Mullins Cove in Marion County, Tennessee. His family situation was unhappy, and he enlisted during World War II, lying about his age, because “I was more or less wanting to get away from home so bad,” he said.
The Navy was his first choice, but the Navy recruiters had made their quotas the day he tried to join up, so young Cureton went to a U.S. Army recruiter instead. “I told him I wanted to get in the cavalry and ride them horses,” he said.
The country boy didn’t realize that machinery had replaced animals in modern warfare until he was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., where he asked where all the horses were. “There was just acres and acres of medium tanks,” he said, “and they said, ‘Pick you out one.’ ”
So Cureton was fated to charge into battle not riding a noble steed but driving a halftrack, a treaded military truck, in the U.S. Army’s Fourth Armored Infantry Division.
After basic training, Cureton got two days’ leave which he used to visit a cousin in Tiftonia. There he met Christine Fryar, a friend of the cousin’s. His mother had always told him, “Stay away from them Fryars,” but such taboos don’t work in real life any better than they do in literature. His aunt, looking out the window at the couple, said, “That’ll be a wedding before you know it.”
“And sure enough, it was,” said Cureton with a roguish glance at Christine, now his wife of 63 years. “She had latched onto me.”
But the wedding had to wait. For now, Cureton was shipped to England, where his impressions were few and gastronomic: some sandwiches served by the Salvation Army and one plate of fish and chips. That was all he had time for. “They put us on a train and shot us across England,” he said. “We did nothing but whistlestops over to Tidworth.”
They were on their way to the Channel. It was June of 1944, and the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France had begun. The first foot soldiers had gone in at Normandy on the 6th. The Fourth Armored Infantry rolled in a few days later at Le Havre.
Or splashed in, rather. Landing craft carried the trucks and tanks within a few hundred yards of the beach. At a signal, the boats dropped their gates and the vehicles drove off into three feet of water “If we didn’t go, the ones behind us would push us,” said Cureton. They got across the beach and to the top of the hill before the Germans began shelling them from the hedgerows.
These thick, matted hedgerows that crisscrossed the European countryside dictated the nature of combat during the invasion. “The farms over there, that was more or less their fence,” said Cureton. “You could run up against them and just bounce off.” Germans dug in behind the hedgerows and attacked from there. “You could hear them but you couldn’t see them through that thick stuff,” he said.
From Le Havre, Cureton hoped wistfully to go to Paris, but the Germans had other ideas and he instead found himself embroiled in heavy fighting at St. Lo. “They fought like tomcats in that,” he said. “I mean, it tore the town up.”
But the Allies prevailed at St. Lo, and Cureton and his unit charged on through that summer and autumn. “We went right on up through France. We hardly stopped,” he said. “Old Patten, he was up there running around showing himself, and he drove us right on up to Aachen.”
The Allies took Aachen, a German border town, in October, at a cost of about 5000 lives, then in November marched into nearby Strasbourg on the French side of the border. What Cureton remembers about Strasbourg was a Thanksgiving dinner he didn’t get to eat.
On Thanksgiving Day, the men had caught a chicken. “We had pretty good quarters, so we was going to hole up there for a while and eat that chicken,” said Cureton. But late that night, the Germans began retreating. “They took off towards home and we took off after them,” said Cureton. “Boy, we had them on the run. That’s when they sucked us into the Bulge.”
The Germans led them to the Siegfried Line, where the fiercest part of Cureton’s war began. “That was a line the Germans built that there wasn’t nobody going to cross,” he said. It was a fortified 300-plus-mile stretch along the border meant to defend the Vaterland, and it was the Allies’ present objective to push the Germans behind it.
However, unbeknownst to them, the Germans that fall were preparing with great secrecy a counterattack code-named Watch on the Rhine. Their plan was to encircle and divide the Allied armies in the Ardennes Forest, then retake the ground they had lost. It very nearly worked. The resulting conflict, the Battle of the Bulge, took over a month and about 19,000 Americans lives.
And that’s what Cureton’s outfit was being sucked into.
The Bulge officially started on Dec. 16, but for Cureton the fighting was more or less constant from the Siegfried Line on. “That was every day’s business,” he said.
It was getting colder and colder, and in the morning the vehicles took some cranking to start up. “And them Germans could hear that and they knew what it was, and they would open up on you,” he said.
So the vehicles were abandoned and Cureton advanced on foot with his unit and his submachine gun. “I walked from the Siegfried Line to Liège, Belgium,” he said. “I was still in the armored infantry, but we didn’t have any armor.”
Like many World War II vets, Cureton doesn’t talk much about the blood-and-guts side of his war, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten it. “There’s still times that I can go to sleep and I’ll get right in the middle of it,” he said. The combat he describes as foxhole to foxhole, hedgerow to hedgerow, and eyeball to eyeball, but he was never to know how many casualties he had caused. “You don’t know who you hit when you’re shooting,” he said. “You just shoot.” The Germans shot, too, and by the end of the fighting only three or four of his original unit were left alive.
But on Cureton advanced, on with the armored infantry that didn’t have armor, on toward Bastogne.
He didn’t quite make it.
“I think I was running, then all of a sudden I stopped,” he said of that morning at Liège. Shot, he fell into the snow, and his war was over.
Patched up in the field, Cureton was carted slowly down through France. He remembers spending fevered nights in a frozen railway station and in a mental institution at Marseilles, even one in a polo pony barn. But he survived, and recovered from his wounds at a hospital in the States.
After the war, Cureton got his discharge and married his Christine. They had three children. He got a job at Combustion Engineering and stayed at it even after his division was sold to U.S. Pipe, working in the same building over 40 years.
Now, leaning on a cane in his Slygo home, he declares himself against the conflicts in Iraq and Afghaniston – “I’m not for war, period” – but does not regret his own service. “World War II was brought on us,” he says. “It was pushed on us.”
Even then, though, he could never bring himself to hate the enemy. “That was Hitler and his bunch that done all that,” he says. The ordinary German people he found friendly and kind.
In particular, he recalls a German soldier who found him while he lay bleeding at Liège. “He looked at me and he just kind of smiled and walked away,” he remembers.
Cureton was grateful for that small mercy, as he’s been grateful for all that life has given him since. “I’m not bitter,” he says. “I guess you might say I asked for it, I brought it on myself, but I got a whole lot out of it. I had me a girlfriend who’s now my wife, and we’ve got all our kids, our grandkids, and our great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids. We’re living pretty good. No complaints.”