By Lacey Loft and James Michaels
*Editor’s Note: These features were produced as a “Profiles in Courage” series by Mark K. Dolan’s narrative journalism class at the University of Mississippi. They were originally published in Circle and Square magazine, produced by Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni’s Magazine Innovation Center students.
William Strickland, former Memphian, was just 16 when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. Prior to the draft, he lived in a small house near Bellevue Baptist Church with his parents and his six mostly older siblings.
Growing up was tough, though nothing like what he would see during World War II. On his first day of elementary school, a teacher struck him across his chubby cheeks, leaving him wondering what he did to deserve it. The memory still burns in his mind, and he has trouble making it through a Sunday school class without being reminded of that slap.
William Strickland has seen his share of frightful happenings, but he remembers the positives most. When he can’t locate a positive, he creates it. Whether arranging worship services for veterans or recalling the war, his ever-present optimism is contagious.
He was drafted in high school. Never having to attend another class delighted him at first, although looking back he bemoans his lack of education. What he lacks in education, he makes up for in life experience.
Strickland was drafted in 1941. He boarded a train not knowing where he was headed. He saw oil derricks from the passenger window, and guess he was headed west.
“I landed in Camp Fannin, Texas, which was an Infantry Replacement Training Center. I thought at that point I had reached the lowest point in my life.”
Not long after his arrival to Camp Fannin, the camp managers swung open the doors and began mocking him for being assigned kitchen duty. It was a grueling time, but Strickland completed his training, eager to participate in combat.
In 1944, after he turned 19, Strickland joined the infantry, and his spirits lifted.
“I joined the 104th infantry division” he recalls. “I was so proud of my division. We were called the Timberwolves, commanded by General Terry Allen. I joined in Weisweiler, a small town that had just been taken.”
In Weisweiler, Strickland’s platoon began to search the newly-seized area for German soldiers. They were investigating cold cellars of area houses, discovering one was occupied.
Inside they found an old German couple along with three little girls of varying ages, and two German soldiers that didn’t have any fight left in them, he says.
“The grandmother was just absolutely terrified, just shaking, thought we were about to kill her, and it was pretty obvious what it was on her mind, although we couldn’t communicate. I saw that, and I put my rifle behind me, and held out my hand.”
They escorted the family out of the home, getting them away from the combat area and out of immediate danger.
This left a lasting impact on Strickland, and years after the war he sought to locate the couple whom he had rescued. He and an interpreter scoured the neighborhood, but the couple could not be found.
Hours searching and no results, just before giving up completely, he stumbled upon a man tending his garden who spoke English.
The man, coincidentally, knew the family and took Strickland to where they now lived. What happened next impacted Strickland more than the original rescue.
“Mind you, this is 19 years later, the old lady’s mind was gone, but the man realized I was the one who helped his wife get up after we went inside to his home,” Strickland explains. “He wanted to do something for me, obviously, but he didn’t have anything. He goes into the attic, gets a cigar, brings it back, and gives it to me. My light came on. I took the cigar, tried to smoke it, of course put it out, and then kept it for many years.”
Events and people during the war Strickland remembers vividly. One of his friends, Saul, was the epitome of a combat soldier – resourceful, cunning, tough. Saul was Strickland’s squad leader and carried an ornate ceremonial dagger that he took from a German prisoner.
Strickland’s squad was once seized by a German patrol at midnight during an assignment to setup foxholes outside of a recently-taken house.
“I didn’t do a darn thing but duck down in my hole, scared to death. You couldn’t see well, we’d been badly outnumbered. One man was fatally wounded. He happened to be the medic. They got all the way to the house, and Saul was in there, with the rest of the platoon. They walked right into the house,” he recalls of the ensuing firefight during which both Americans and Germans were wounded.
It was Saul that turned the tide of the battle, as he stood on the second floor and reached out of the window and began open fire on the first floor. The platoon eventually backed off with the exception of one member, Saul.
No one could find Saul for weeks, and then one day in Weisweiler, Saul appeared as if from nowhere. Strickland learned later that Saul walked off the battlefield after being shaken by the firefight and was rushed to a Belgian hospital, the same one where his brother was employed.
He received medical care from his brother, who offered to let Saul stay there and not have to suffer through the dangers of fighting anymore, suggesting he work in the hospital instead. Saul agreed, but after two or three days a change of heart occurred. “He told his brother ‘I can’t do this, I got to go back.’ And he did, he came back to us.”
At the end of the war, Strickland’s platoon was returning German prisoners. They were ambushed by German soldiers. “A Kraut popped up and shot Saul, and so I shot him.”
Strickland’s friend died the day after the war officially ended. Saul had a wife and an unborn child waiting for him back home. He was looking forward to the war’s end and to seeing his growing family. “That’s just the way it was.”
Despite the horrors of war, the tragedies, he dwells on the positive aspects of humanity. “Even in the midst of a vicious war, there was still a place for human kindness,” Strickland says, smiling broadly.