Letcher County Yonts Brothers Survived WWII

By Ella Yonts Sparks - 2000

I was born the youngest of 11 children (eight boys and three girls) to Farris and Ada Yonts of Letcher County, in rural Eastern Kentucky. By the time I was born, my older siblings were already approaching adulthood, and by my second birthday, my brothers had begun to enlist in the Armed Forces, just prior to World War II.

After basic training, most of which took place at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the three older brothers were sent overseas. I had no idea what "overseas" meant, but I knew it was not a good place, because it made everyone sad. Because I was so young when they left home, my memories of them faded quickly, and they were real to me only through the conversations I heard at home.

Curtis, the oldest, was in the 220th Field Artillery Battalion and fought in three major campaigns: Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. He received the EAME Theatre Ribbon, three Bronze Stars, the American Defense Service Medal, and a Purple Heart.

Ralph was in the Fourth Armored Division and, also, fought in three major campaigns: Normandy, Northern France, and Rhineland. He was involved in the liberation of Paris, and he brought home a large German flag that was taken from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. His outfit was involved in the fierce combat at Bastogne and the thrust to cut off the Brittany Peninsula. He received the American Defense Service Medal, the Distinguished Unit Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal.

Ralph was married, prior to going overseas, having met his wife, while stationed at Camp Drum, New York. Before going overseas, he and his wife came home for a visit with the family. His wife made a picture of all of us together, which was to be the only picture ever made of all 11 children and both parents.

Jim was in the 36th Armored Infantry Division and fought in five major campaigns: Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe. He received the EAME Theatre Ribbon, five Bronze Stars, the American Service Medal, two Purple Hearts, Oak Leaf Clusters, sharpshooter medals, and many more.

Of the five brothers, Jim probably endured more hardships than the others, possibly as a result of being in the infantry in five major campaigns. In addition to being wounded twice, he was also taken prisoner for a short period of time, but was liberated by his fellow Americans soon thereafter.

The fourth brother in line, Clyde, was drafted at age 18 and was later sent to Okinawa, where he took part in the fighting in the Pacific, especially the Ryukyu Campaign. He was in the 90th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion. He received the American Theatre Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon, one Bronze Star, and the Victory Medal World War II.

The fifth brother, Harold Russell, was too young at the very beginning of the war to enter the Armed Forces. However, he, my father, and my oldest sister went to Baltimore during that time, where my father worked in the shipyards. Russell and my sister worked in a factory making airplane parts, all war-related jobs.

While on a visit home from Baltimore, in 1944, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 49. Only one of the four brothers, Clyde, who was stationed at Okinawa at the time, was able to come back home for the funeral. Jim was on the front lines and could not be reached by the Red Cross until three months later. When the news finally reached him, he was given one day of rest, and then it was right back to the battle, as usual. Curtis and Ralph received the news a little sooner than Jim, but were unable to come home.

When Russell was old enough, with possibly a little exaggeration about his age, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy and was sent to the war zone, near the end of the war. He was stationed on a ship off the coast of Japan and was scheduled to take part in the invasion of Japan, when the atomic bomb was dropped. He served aboard the USS President Jackson in the Asian-Pacific Theatre, the Japanese Theatre, and the China Service. After the war ended, he remained in the Navy, also taking part in the Korean Conflict.

During the time my brothers were overseas, we lived in a small rural area. Each day I would accompany my mother on the long walk to the post office, to see if she could hear any news about "the boys," as she called them. On one such trip, she received notice from the War Department that simply read, "We are sorry to inform you that your son, Jim, has been wounded in battle. More news to follow."

As we walked home, Mom was crying and very upset. I was too little to remember the following story, but she always told it in later years. She said I told her to stop crying that when we came back to the post office the next day, I would put my new puppy in a box and mail it to "the boys," so the puppy would scare off the Japanese and German soldiers. Mom was trying to figure out how she was going to get out of that one, while in the meantime, I was looking for a box.

Our house was located in a flood-prone area. During the night, heavy rains caused severe flooding, and the puppy became trapped in a fence and drowned. Needless to say, I was heartbroken, because I couldn't send the puppy to watch out for my brothers.

Over the years, Mom kept the telegrams, various Christmas cards, Mother's Day cards, etc., that were sent home by my brothers, and now they have become a part of our family history that we cherish. The cards read "Greetings From Germany" or wherever they were at the time, and usually listed the division or outfit in which they served. They were very patriotic in nature, usually being red, white, and blue in color, displaying the American flag and American eagle; probably government issued.

Each night, Mom listened to the radio for news of the war. Edward R. Murrow became a household word, and I can remember thinking that his voice scared me. I now realize it was my reaction to what Mom was hearing and how it affected her, rather than his voice that scared me.

During all the years that my brothers were overseas, Mom never complained that it wasn't fair for her to have five sons in the war at the same time. She was a strong-willed woman, who endured whatever hardships came her way.

Life was hard for all of us after Dad died, with no income, no insurance, a debt for the home he had purchased just prior to his death, and a house full of children to care for and send to school. The brothers, who were in the service, helped out at home by sending their Army allotments to Mom.

When the war was finally over, the family was in a happy uproar with news that "the boys" were coming home. With this news, came the sudden realization that I didn't remember who "the boys" were.

As the time drew nearer for their return, I became more apprehensive and felt ashamed that I couldn't be as happy as everyone else about their return. I can remember hiding when each brother returned, and naturally, they coaxed, bribed, and did everything they could to get me to talk to them, including a lot of old-fashioned spoiling.

Shortly after Clyde's return, he married and brought his new bride to the house, at which time I told her she could just go back home. I had grown accustomed to receiving all the attention and was suddenly unwilling to share it.

During the first several years, following the end of the war, I had no real comprehension of what my brothers had been a part of, but bit by bit, stories began to emerge that I have remembered over the years. Even though the oldest three brothers fought in the same campaigns, they were not in the same outfits, and thus had no idea where the others were.

But on one particular occasion, Ralph told of riding a tank through a field during a bitterly cold day, and by some miracle, he spotted Jim; his coat sleeves were gone above his elbows. In desperation, Ralph got off the tank, ran to him, and gave him his coat; knowing that he would be able to get another. It shocked both of them, so they only stared at each other, then embraced. The meeting was short, for Ralph had to return to his tank. Later, neither could remember whether a single word was spoken.

On another occasion, Jim was also seen by a childhood buddy, who later became his brother-in-law.

After I reached adulthood, I developed a keen interest in the events of the war, and sometimes Jim or one of the others would relate a little something that had happened; if reminded of some event from a TV broadcast, a newspaper, etc. They seemed hesitant to talk at length about it, and appeared to want to forget the horror of it all.

Jim once told us that when he was on his way overseas, he was not overly concerned, because he actually believed that the United States was such a mighty fighting force that the war would be over in a very short time, with the United States the victor. He was very young at the time, having falsified his birthdate in order to enlist. He said he didn't realize what it was all about, until he landed on the beachhead of Normandy.

He said as they exited the small carrier boats that took them near the shore, the waves were lapping red with blood. He quickly realized that the American forces were going ashore in the direct line of fire and were like sitting ducks, with dead comrades everywhere. He said, at this time, came the realization that there was a very good possibility he would not make it back home alive, or if he did, it would be by the grace of God.

The months of fighting dragged slowly by, turning into years, and still the battle raged. They pushed on through Rhineland, Bastogne, the Ardennes, and wherever the fighting led them, just trying to stay alive.

Unlike the five Sullivan brothers, the five Yonts brothers were lucky enough to survive the war. However, after returning home, three of the five died at an early age, not many years after the war. All married and had families.

Jim died of pancreatic cancer at age 40. Curtis died a couple of years later of stomach cancer, leaving the family to wonder whether they had been exposed to chemicals, and other agents, during the war. Ralph died of a heart attack a couple of years after Curtis' death.

Two of the five brothers who served in World War II are still living. A few years ago, the local Mountain Heritage Festival was dedicated to World War II veterans from Letcher County. I came up with the idea of doing a window display honoring the five brothers. I enlisted the help of Jim's daughter, Donna, to help with the project. We used the slogan "World War II - Five Yonts Brothers From Letcher County Served On Foreign Soils To Protect American Soils."

We called family members to get pictures, medals, souvenirs, war memorabilia, etc. It quickly became a family project. We were all amazed at the history we were able to put into the window display. I learned so many things, while looking at discharges, records, copies of reports from Bastogne, maps, and old newspapers that had been saved over the years.

At the end of the festival, a ceremony was held to honor all living World War II veterans from Letcher County. My nephew, Roger, who is a major in the Army, made the presentations to the two living brothers, as well as many other local veterans. What a proud and emotional moment for all of us. Family members came from all over for the event.

Eventually, two of my younger brothers, also, served in the Armed Forces, but during peace time. The remaining youngest brother received his induction notice, and Mom finally said, "Enough!" She went before the local draft board and told them she had already sent seven sons and that her youngest son was needed at home to help with the work around the homeplace.

After hearing her story, the youngest son was deferred and never served in the Army. He died at age 50 of a sudden heart attack. Mother lost four of her sons before her own death at age 88.

I offer this information, as a tribute to my brothers, who faithfully served their country; and to my mother, who endured so much during the long years of the war, but without bitterness or complaint.

Ella Sparks, 440 Foothills Road, Whitesburg, KY 41858, 606-633-2926, shares this bit of family history with our readers.