For Veterans’ Day, an East Tennessee kid who served in two wars
By John Mathews
Normally I confine myself to compelling tales specific to Memphis and the Mid-South. But when a storyteller runs across a tale that screams to be told, we are obliged to do so.
It’s about an East Tennessean that will make you proud to claim the consanguinity of your fellow Easterners. It begins during World War II and features a young boy from Johnson City, TN.
We all have that friend or acquaintance that seems to have been watered and fertilized more than the rest. You know, the boy that seemed to go through puberty shortly after moving out of diapers, six feet tall and fully muscled up and shaving by the 6th grade. These were the guys that we sent to the mini-mart to buy beer when we were teenagers (or so I am told).
Homer Pease was this kid.
In 1942 the United States was embroiled in an existential fight against the Axis Powers. The U.S. drafted or otherwise accepted into military service just about any warm body that could be conscripted or would volunteer. Draft age was 18, but military recruiters were not always the most discerning types, and let’s just say, not all undersized fish were thrown back into the lake. However, when Homer Pease walked into the Marine Corps recruiting office at age 13, he was politely refused conscription and told he could return at the earliest at age 18 or 17 with his father’s personal permission and appearance.
Undaunted, Homer secured the services of a random hobo, found him a clean shirt and some food and offered him a couple of quarters to pose as his father. Together they walked an Army recruiting station where the hobo uttered his one rehearsed line – “This is my boy, he is 17 and he wants to kill Germans.”
One signature later, 13 year old Homer Pease was officially inducted into the US Army.
After completing basic training and then Jump School, Private Pease was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and transferred to England. There he continued airborne training as US armed forces prepared for the pending invasion of Europe. Finally, the kid from Johnson City saw his first action June 7, 1944 as a paratrooper who dropped with one of the first waves in the early morning hours of the Allied invasion of Normandy. In his own words, with his jump into the inky dark skies over France, “It’s the skeerdest I ever was.”
Homer tromped his size 13 boots all over Northern France fighting Nazis in the perilous hedgerow countryside, dodging artillery fire and squeezing off rounds from his M1 Garand at enemy solders who were obviously trying to kill him first. This was a far cry from the 7th grade playground where he had been a few months prior.
While fighting in France, Homer was wounded. He received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for bravery and upon recuperation rejoined his unit that was battling its way eastward towards Berlin. By this time holding the rank of Sergeant, Homer saw heavy action in the Ardennes Counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge and Berchtesgaden where he was again wounded and received his second Purple Heart.
However, during his recuperation it was discovered that Sgt. Pease was at that time only 15 years old. Due to military regulations, Homer was honorably discharged and when well enough to travel sent home to Tennessee.
Sometimes irony can be so thick and rich as to defy reality. Back home and bored with civilian life, Homer decided he would use some of his combat pay to purchase a 20-gauge shotgun in order to hunt rabbits. At a local hardware store, Sgt. Homer Pease, the combat hardened paratrooper twice wounded and decorated veteran warrior, was told he had to be 18 years old to purchase a firearm. It is true that, many times reality is far stranger than fiction.
Still not excited by the classroom and unable to hunt rabbits, Homer Pease again tricked the Army recruiters and volunteered for duty. This time he made it as far as Fort Bragg until again being discovered and sent home. Left with no other choice, Homer enrolled in Science Hill High School and upon graduation into East Tennessee State University.
Although a member of the National Guard, he resigned himself to civilian life until 1965. That year he volunteered for service in the little known but growing conflict in a country called Vietnam.
As a US Army Ranger, Homer Pease became an official “advisor” to a company of South Vietnamese. On November 19, 1966, at a skirmish near a village called Ba Tri, Major Homer Pease became one of the first of ultimately many combat mortalities of America’s most controversial conflict of the century. Then again, Homer Pease personified the comment Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver once made to a colleague, that his constituents never ask what a fight is about; they only want to know where it is.
I don’t know about you but it seems we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for those so willing to charge into the breach, to stand on the wall, to valiantly sacrifice their lives in defense of our hearths and homes. These are truly our heroes. They constitute the definition of what it is to be a real man – even if this one happened to be a boy.
John Mathews started contributing to StoryBoard Memphis earlier this year. The other pieces of his John’s Uncommon Denominators can be found here.
Tennessee is a very long state. The stem-to-stern distance from the southwest corner to the the northeast tip is 503 miles – hell, as the crow flies, Bristol, TN is closer to Toronto than to Memphis! Not only separated by a vast distance we are dissimilar in culture, attitude, accents, politics and a host of other differences. Our disparities are as pronounced as the difference between cotton and tobacco, blues and bluegrass, BB King and Jethro Bodine – not to put too fine a point on it. Other than our license plates and state government, we have little in common. But some stories are too good to pass up.