By Debbie Adams
World War II veteran Earl Childress celebrated his 100th birthday at the Vinton War Memorial on July 17, along with his wife Shirley, who was celebrating her 89th. The couple has been married for 40 years.
Earl Childress was born on July 27, 1921, and grew up in Greensboro, N.C. He was drafted into the United States Army in August 1942 and served with the 630th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion in North Africa and Italy.
In an oral history recorded in 2016, Childress shared some of his experiences from the war. His basic training was at Camp Hulen in Texas, where he learned to fire a 40mm “ack ack” gun, a 50-caliber machine gun, and his Tommy automatic machine gun. He was assigned to duty as a truck driver.
His division shipped out from Boston in April 1943 and arrived in Oran, North Africa, in May. They immediately set up in the harbor to provide air protection. While in Oran, he was assigned to guard German and Italian prisoners of war. His outfit spent the next several weeks training for the invasion of Italy in September 1943. Childress was trained in the use of machine guns.
They landed on the beaches of Italy in flat bottom boats, but the ramps could not be lowered, so the soldiers were forced to go over the side—a problem for Childress, who said he couldn’t swim. When he made it to the beach, his first action was to dig a foxhole with his helmet with a German tank firing in their direction.
Eventually Italy surrendered and his division left for Naples where they set up on a racetrack, assigned to protect American artillery from the German planes. He recalls Mount Vesuvius erupting at the time in 1944 with planes damaged by the eruption. The Germans bombed nightly.
They were located for quite a while at Monte Cassimo, the site of a monastery, where quite a few Purple Hearts were won. Childress finished out the war in Rome. They returned to the states in November 1945. Childress said he was scared from the time he arrived in North Africa until he left for home; he spoke of friends and fellow soldiers who did not return. His mother was waiting for him in the street in front of their home when he arrived. Soon after, he married his first wife Mildred Cockman, who he had known before the war.
Childress lived in Greensboro for many years and then moved to the Roanoke area when he married his second wife Shirley, who is from Vinton. One of the stories shared at the birthday party was how they met. Apparently, both were on dates with other people. Earl saw Shirley across the room, and it was love at first sight. He went over to Shirley and asked her to stay there while he took his date home. They have been together ever since.
He worked for many years as a salesman for Johanson Electric, traveling during the week, but home on weekends.
The Childresses were surrounded by family and friends at the birthday celebration. Their family includes daughters Jeanne Griffith, Debbie Bray, and Karen Gilmore, four grandsons, four great-grandsons, and a large extended family.
Many shared their memories of Earl and Shirley. Almost everyone who spoke talked about the enormous vegetable gardens he planted, the food he shared over the years with friends, neighbors, and family, and the canning they did. He continued to raise gardens up until recently when he and Shirley have moved to assisted living.
He was applauded as a good father, a great provider, and a devout Christian.
The family reminisced about trips to the beach, and trips to Costa Rica, the Bahamas, and Montego Bay; Earl’s famous sense of humor (“he’s a hoot,” one said), and the hospitality always found in the Childress home.
Larry Cockman, a retired firefighter and battalion chief in Greensboro, and brother to Earl’s first wife, thanked him for always being a haven for him as a child, for letting him drive Earl’s car on his first date, and for being a great influence on his life. He also reminded those attending that Earl is one of the few World War II veterans still living and that “we wouldn’t be here today if not for people like Earl.”
Earl’s daughter, Jeanne, recalled her dad taking her hunting (she with a BB gun) as a child. She thanked Shirley for coming into her dad’s life.
Stepdaughter Karen, who organized the celebration, recalled some laughable mishaps involving a lawnmower blade replaced upside down and brake pads put on backwards as they did attempted repairs together.
Neighbor Bill Reynolds talked about their swaps—Earl gave him food from the garden in the summer; he kept Earl’s driveway cleared in winter.
Several talked about the countless birdhouses Earl built. Son-in-law David Griffith said that “people all over North Carolina have Earl’s birdhouses.”
A former neighbor, whose father was a minister, joked that his father walked the straight and narrow until he met Earl. In one memorable incident, the two went turkey hunting and then decided to hunt for mushrooms. The resulting tickets from a park ranger for $75 apiece for possessing guns overshadowed the one mushroom Earl was able to find in the woods.
Congratulations to Earl and Shirley on their milestone birthdays and their joyful lives well-lived.