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GENE PEARCE, EARLY WORLD WAR CASUALTY, REMEMBERED

By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

It was Sunday afternoon and the streets of Folkston were still wet from an early-morning rain. Young Ben Huling was driving his stripped-down skip-jack around town. It was loaded down with young boys, part of the town’s bicycle gang. Dick Mays, Joe Huling, Fred Askew, Jr., Jack Mays and Gene Pearce were among those aboard. The date was December 7, 1941.

Driving away from a water-filled borrow pit near the Homeland Cemetery, Ben Huling pointed the jalopy toward Folkston’s Main Street. Along the way he was flagged down by Fred Askew’s father, Fred Sr. “The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor!” he told the boys in an excited tone. The boys had never heard of Pearl Harbor, neither had Mr. Askew.

The older Askew then related the radio newscast he had heard, and told of the Japanese air attack on our fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. “It looks like war” he told the boys.

One of the boys was unusually incensed. Gene Pearce, with his patriotism showing, told the other boys that he wanted to “join up” as soon as he could. He had just turned 16 in July. The adrenaline began to pump inside all of the boys as they ganged up in front of the Ritz Theatre on Main Street. They wanted to help their country and began to map out their plans to enlist.

Just over two years later, one of the boys, Gene Pearce, who volunteered in August 1943 for military duty at age 17, died a hero’s death. Eleven months after enlisting he became a casualty on a battlefield near Leghorn, Italy. He was among the first of nineteen Charlton County’s servicemen to lose his life in combat in World War Two.

Darkness was falling in Italy. It was July 8, 1944. The Allies were fighting desperately to take control of the Italian city of Leghorn, with its petroleum refineries and storage tanks. The German resistance was fierce. Private Gene Pearce, a foot soldier, one week before his 19th birthday, was manning a 50-caliber machine gun. He was out front, leading an assault on the dug-in German troops.

The Germans fought like mad men. They were determined to prevent the Allies from taking the strategically-important city. Gene was on the trigger end of his machine gun as his 34th Division fought to dislodge the stubborn Nazis. Hundreds of mortar shells exploded overhead, hurled at the Allies from the muzzles of German howitzers. The dead and wounded of both sides cluttered the ground. Exploding missiles lighted the darkening skies.

Suddenly young Pearce fell face-forward on top of his machine gun. Shrapnel from one of the exploding shells tore into his abdomen. He lay motionless on the ground, mortally wounded. His commanding officer, with whom he had become very close, and two stretcher bearers reached the fallen Pearce at the same time. Medics started blood plasma and placed him on a stretcher. He was rushed behind the fighting lines to a field hospital.

The medics and surgeons fought valiantly to save his life. They operated on him in the field hospital to close the deep intestinal wounds, but the young serviceman died just after midnight. Thousands of his comrades joined him in death in one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two, on the outskirts of Leghorn. The city was claimed by the Allies on July 19, 1944, eleven days after young Gene Pearce fell at the gates of the city.

Gene Pearce’s parents, Jim and Lucille Pearce, received notice from the War Department only of their son’s injury. The telegram said that he was “wounded in action.” They were given the address of a hospital where they could send mail to him.

His mother, a clerk in the Folkston post office, wrote lots of letters to him. Some were light V-mail, others were regular mail. She cut the ads from the local newspapers to make them lighter, then mailed them to her son at the hospital address she had been given. Young Gene Pearce had gone into battle with only 17 weeks of basic training, and a five-day leave at home before being shipped to North Africa.

Weeks passed following the first news of Gene’s injuries. The parents and community prayed for the young serviceman’s recovery. An older brother, Jim Pearce, Jr., who volunteered for service in January 1943, eight months before Gene enlisted, was stationed in the west. He had been able to visit his younger brother for only minutes at Fort Meade, Maryland on the same day Gene was shipped overseas. Gene had developed bronchial trouble, and could not go overseas with the group with whom he had trained. He went a week later among only total strangers.

Three weeks after learning of Gene’s battle injuries, his mother reported for work at her job in the Folkston post office early one morning. As usual, the businessmen were clamoring for their morning newspapers to be put in the post office boxes. The postal workers had learned to put up the papers first, even ahead of the first class mail. That morning Mrs. Pearce was to learn of the death of her son in a cruel manner.

The death notice did not come about in the usual way. While putting aside the first class mail that morning, to get to the newspapers, she had come across several bundles of V-Mail and regular mail which had been returned to sender at the Folkston post office. They were the same letters and newspapers she had mailed three weeks earlier to her son Gene at the hospital address. Written in bold script on the top of each bundle of letters were the tragic words “Deceased 7-9-44”. They had been written there by his commanding officer. This was the mother’s first knowledge that her son was dead. She got sick at her stomach.

Postmaster Edgar Allen noticed his nervous postal worker as she attempted to work. She had said nothing about the devastating revelation. When Allen asked her problem, she showed him the message on the returned mail her son never received. The postmaster insisted that she go home.

Before going home she diverted by the home of her brother-in-law, E.B. Stapleton, Sr., who was preparing to go to town to open up his drug store for the morning.

The Stapletons comforted the grief-stricken mother as best they could. Mr. Stapleton, who was a confidante of Georgia’s powerful United States Senator, Walter F. George, vowed to call George and Senator Dick Russell to find out why the mother had not been officially notified. He wanted to know who was responsible for the cruel manner in which a mother learned of her son’s death on a battlefield in Italy.

The protests got results. Before noon, on the same day, three telegrams from the War Department were received by Gene’s parents. Rev. F.J. Gilbert, pastor of the Folkston Methodist Church, where the Pearces were members, learned of the bad news and went to the home to comfort the parents.

Gene Pearce, although born in Jesup, as was his brother Jim, Jr., and sister, Betty, grew up in Folkston. The patriotic urge had caused the popular teenager to quit school to enter service. Young Gene Pearce was built like a prize fighter. His athletic prowess forced him to be in great demand when local baseball teams chose up sides.

A turn at catching behind the plate, for the local baseball team had cost Gene his two front teeth. The replacements provided his young friends entertainment as Gene mastered the art of “clicking” them and making them disappear. Although he was named for two uncles, his young friends kidded him that he had been named for Gene Talmadge, a controversial Georgia governor. Gene faked anger. He was not among the Talmadge admirers.

Memorial services were held at the Folkston Methodist Church soon after the community learned of Gene’s death. The body was returned to his hometown four years later, in November 1948, for burial in Pineview Cemetery. It was five years after the young serviceman had so proudly gone off to serve his country. The Army awarded him the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Gene Pearce’s sacrifice touched his friends deeply. They wept along with his family. Most of his friends were also in the armed forces. All of the young friends who were with Gene on Ben Huling’s skip-jack on December 7, 1941, entered into the service of their country. Only one among them, Oscar Eugene Pearce, did not come home alive after the war ended.

The oldest son, Jim, Jr. was extremely proud of his younger brother. He served with an army radar unit overseas and wanted so badly to avenge Gene’s death. He never got over losing his younger brother.

Jim Jr. died many years after the war, as a result of injuries received in an accident. A sister, Betty Pearce Conner, lived several blocks down the street from her parents’ home.

Mrs. Pearce served too during the war years. She worked for the Draft Board and Ration Board. Mr. Pearce was a timekeeper in a Brunswick, Ga. shipyard. No family served their country with more honor and dignity than the Jim Pearce family of Folkston. No family gave more for the cause of freedom. The fond memories of young Gene Pearce continue to dwell in the minds of his friends and family.

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