Answering the call to serve
by Shane Dunaway
“War will make a man out of you," 90-year-old World War II veteran Marvin Brewer said as he stared into the distance from his porch at his home just outside Talladega’s city limits. “You didn’t have a choice.”

For Brewer and two of his childhood friends, John Woodard and Harold Woodard, the journey into manhood carried each of the trio down a different fork of the same road and back again.

The adventure started with the draft initiated during World War II that conscripted more than 50 million men ages 18-45, according to figures from the National World War II Museum website, Those chosen via the draft were required to serve at least one year in the armed forces.

The draft first claimed Harold, the oldest of the group, on Nov. 20, 1942. Six weeks later on Dec. 31, 1942, Brewer was called to serve. They both joined the U.S. Army.

John followed his brother into the service via the draft eight months later on July 1, 1943. He joined the U.S. Navy.

Harold left his wife and 1-year-old son behind to attend basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. After graduating from basic training and completing field maneuvers in Tennessee, he went to Fort Bragg, N.C., and traveled by boat to his assignments in France and Germany, spending the bulk of his tour in Alsace-Lorraine, Stuttgart and Heidelberg near the Rhine River.

“My duty was to be a messenger between the company headquarters and my platoon’s anti-tank gunners,” Harold said. “That meant I had to travel roads that hadn’t been checked for mines or snipers.”

Brewer’s Army path led him to basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas. From there, he traveled to Fort Carson, Colo., before being shipped out from Camp Patrick Henry, Va. to North Africa.

“I spent my 19th birthday in North Africa,” Brewer said. “The Germans had taken control of North Africa and we were the first Americans to bring the fight to them.”

As a tank operator for the 1st Armored Division, Brewer took part in operations in Salerno, Italy; Rome and the Alps.

“We had to invade Italy,” Brewer said. “They were allied with the Germans, but they would eventually surrender.”

Gruff and tough behind the wheel of a heavily-armored killing machine, Brewer also showed a lighter side during his service.

For five days, Brewer’s unit stopped to rest in Siena, an impoverished town in Italy that had somehow withstood a barrage of bullets during the war. After eating their meals each day in a barn converted into a makeshift mess hall, the Army soldiers received a chocolate bar — basically a protein bar that was equal to three meals.

“There was a little girl in the village that was about 6 years old, but she was small and pale,” Brewer said. “I didn’t like the chocolate bars, so I would give mine to her. Near the end of our time there, her mother thanked us by giving us prayer cards. She told us if we kept them with us during the war, we would return home safe. I’ve kept it with me ever since.”

While Harold and Brewer were serving in Europe, John attended basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. Once he graduated, John set off for Norfolk, Va., to catch a ship bound for his first duty location in the Pacific Theater, Australia.

“I worked in a supply unit supplying warships traveling through our area,” John said. “Being in a supply unit like that, we had our own little barracks away from the main base, which was two or three miles away. Every day, we had to go back to the main base in a truck to eat our meals.”

John spent a year in Australia before moving on to New Guinea. While discussing his service, he stressed the fact that he did not see quite as much action compared to Harold and Brewer.

“I really enjoyed the service,” John said. “I didn’t have it as rough as most people. My brother and Marvin had a pretty rough time in the Army. The place I was in was a supply unit, and we just had to supply the ships when they came.

“Unless you’ve been in a lot of action, there’s not a whole lot you can tell,” John added. “You’re there and if they needed you, you had to go, but it wasn’t like we were out there carrying our rifles or digging foxholes. We didn’t have anything like that when we were in the Navy.”

While each played their own role in the course of history during World War II, they each learned valuable lessons as they grew into men.

“The best thing I learned was that you have to respect people,” John said. “That’s the main thing. I worked in Oxford for 27 years (after my service) and I was a supervisor when I left there. You’ve got to treat people like you want to be treated. That was my theory when I went into management. If you can’t treat people like they need to be treated or want to be treated, then they’re not going to have respect for you or anybody else.”

Harold said the duties entrusted to him were pivotal components in his growth into manhood.

“All of the responsibilities placed upon me at such a young age helped make me the man I am today,” Harold said.

All three men developed a modest, humble attitude and a deep sense of admiration for their brothers in arms and those currently engaged in today’s conflicts.

“Anybody that’s ever been in the service, I have a lot of respect for them,” John said.

Harold was fortunate to avoid the snipers and landmines, but he was quick to recognize all his brethren who were not so lucky.

“The ones out there on that battlefield paid the ultimate price,” Harold said.

Brewer held a similar viewpoint on whether his actions during the war merited the term of heroism.

“I’m no hero,” he said. “The heroes are under all them white crosses.”

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© 2013