Drafted at 18 years old and trained to be an artillery mechanic, Marietta resident Randy Hunter instead found himself in the infantry in a famous World War II unit known as the "Mystery Division."
Hunter, 86, said almost none of his training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Meade, Md., applied to his assignment to the U.S. Army's 12th Armored Division, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion. It was as much a surprise to him as it was to the captain of the battalion's Company when Hunter arrived in the south of France, around midnight on New Year's Day 1945.
"He said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'This is where they told me to come,'" Hunter recalled. "To tell you the truth, I was 18 and didn't know much. You had to do what you were told anyway."
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Marietta resident Randy Hunter discusses the medals and commendations he received for his service in World War II, including the Bronze Star, awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service.
The 12th was in great need of reinforcements, having lost a number of infantrymen, combat engineers, tanks and more at Herrlisheim, France. Hunter received a crash course in using an M-1 rifle and bayonet from his platoon leader, Elmer Steffey, who taught him "as much about the infantry as he could show me in a couple of days."
About a week later, Hunter saw combat for the first time, which drastically altered his perspective about the war. Up until that time, he'd felt it was just something he had to do, but didn't fully appreciate the magnitude of what was happening.
Hunter was part of a group of soldiers moving toward the front line of an in-progress battle back at Herrlisheim.
Family: Wife, Corlis; two daughters; two stepchildren; four grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; three stepgrandchildren.
Service: U.S. Army, June 21, 1944, to Aug. 11, 1946; member of Company A, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, 12th Armored Division.
"There'd been a snow on, it kind of melted off, and there was a bunch of dead soldiers lying around with white sheets on them," he said.
Hunter has never gone into many specifics about much of what happened after that and throughout his time with the 12th. He's proud of what they accomplished, and discusses the division as a whole, but he's never been able to record his story as other veterans have.
"It was too emotional," Hunter said. "I started to write it; I couldn't finish. I tried to tape it; I can't tape it. I'd like to do it sometime for posterity. I'm closer to it now than I ever was, but I don't know."
Hunter has a collection of history about the division as well as some photographs from his time in France and Germany. They were taken on a camera he and his fellow soldiers found with a roll of film inside. One of the photos shows Hunter standing in front of a pile of rubble that once was a building.
"All the towns in Germany and France were about like that, nothing standing," he said.
In March of 1945, the 12th Armored Division became known as the Mystery Division after being secretly transferred from the Seventh Army to the Third Army, under the command of Gen. George Patton.
"We had to take all the insignias off the vehicles," he said. "They didn't want the Germans to know what our strength was."
Patton sent the division toward the Rhine River, looking for an intact bridge to cross. Although a bridge was not secured, the division cut a swath through German forces, taking more than 7,000 Nazi prisoners and seizing or destroying many weapons and other equipment.
After a week, the 12th was transferred back to the Seventh Army. They continued moving into southern Germany, capturing various towns and villages and eventually liberating prison and concentration camps.
"The first good, deep breath I took that I thought I might make it through the war, we (were) on a German autobahn," Hunter said. "Here came a whole big battalion of 'em (German soldiers), marching in like they were in basic training, marching in to surrender."
After the war in Europe ended, Hunter remained with the 12th for a few weeks before being reassigned to the Second Infantry Division, which was headed for the South Pacific.
"I was one day out of New York Harbor and they dropped the first atomic bomb," he said.
The war ended soon thereafter without Hunter being deployed to Asia. He was discharged on Aug. 11, 1946.
But the 12th Armored Division would still play a role in his life, albeit decades later.
The division held reunions for years but Hunter wasn't invited because he goes by his middle name, while his official military records listed him as "Lewis Hunter." Eventually he saw a number to call on television and met up with his fellow soldiers at a gathering in Myrtle Beach, S.C., about a decade ago.
Upon learning the 2003 reunion in Hampton, Va., would include a boat ride, he hit upon the idea of having the captain marry him and his fiancee, Corlis. When he contacted reunion organizers, they instead offered to throw the couple a wedding, all expenses paid.
"It was probably a $10,000 wedding, and all we had to do was go over there and buy a license," Hunter said.
The couple didn't see any of the decorations until the ceremony began.
"It was kind of scary," laughed Corlis Hunter, 59. "Small-town country girl, it was kind of overwhelming that this generation would put on a wedding for us, and I didn't know anybody."
But the experience was "amazing," she said. The flowers on the archway even matched the bouquet she'd had made back home in Marietta at Aletha's Florist.
The couple wed on Sept. 11, 2003, the second anniversary of the attacks in which terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, crashed into the Pentagon and went down in a Pennsylvania field when passengers fought back against them. The tragic significance of the date was not lost on the Hunters.
"But life does have to go on, and we made that day a happy day," Corlis Hunter said.
Randy Hunter said World War II was a just war and he's proud of the part his division played in defeating Germany.
"Even though they drafted me, I was glad to be able to be there," he said. "It was a fight for freedom."