2014-08-13 / Families & Friends

Army days for Wesley Yonts

Wesley Yonts was born on the cool frosty morning of March 2, 1921 on Millstone Creek in Letcher County to Martin Van Buren and Rosie Alafair Yonts.

His father was a coal miner who provided adequately for the family, and his mother a hardworking housewife and mom. The family was loving, but life was hard, and at the age of six his mother died in childbirth and by age nine his father from pneumonia most likely from black lung disease.

Being the next– toyoungest of 11 children (two half siblings from his dad’s first wife who also died, and nine from Wesley’s mom), he was able to live with first one and then another of his older siblings for the next 12 years of so. Wherever he was living, he did what he could to help out — hoeing in the garden, milking the family cows, trying to hunt with the adults — all the while still being mischievous enough to earn a few whoopings from whoever he was living with at the time. But all in all, he lived a typical life of someone his age in the mountains for that time.

At about age 17 Wesley began to ponder his future, and after finding the employment prospects in the mountains as rather slim, he decided to cast his lot with Uncle Sam and the U.S. Army. At first he went to the recruiting station at Bristol, Va., but made the mistake of telling the recruiter he was only 17. The recruiter promptly told him to come back when he was a year older.

So, a few months later, he did just that. He presented himself for his “prephysical” physical examination late in the day on Sept. 28, 1939 where he weighed in at 119 pounds. The “pre-physical” physical was actually standard practice at that time for young men coming from eastern Kentucky to join the Army as the minimal weight requirement to actually join was 120 pounds and many of those seeking to join didn’t quite reach that standard. And so Wesley was told to eat a bunch of bananas before coming for his official physical examination the following morning. He duly ate the required bananas the next morning and weighed in at an official 12l pounds. Before he knew it, he was on a train to Richmond, Va., to formally join the U.S. Army.

When it came time to choose what part of the Army in which he wanted to spend the next several years, he initially told the assigning officer, “Infantry, I guess”. But either because the officer didn’t need any more infantry enrollees or because he did need enlistees in the recently expanding heavy artillery or because he was just giving good old honest advice, he promptly informed Wesley that he didn’t want the infantry, because they would march you to death. Instead, he advised the artillery would be a much better choice. So Wesley said “Okay, the artillery.” Then the officer asked if he would like to join the heavy or light artillery?” to which Wesley replied “ Light.” Well, this must not have been the right answer either, so the offi- cer further advised Wesley that he didn’t want the light artillery because he really wanted to be as far away from the fighting as possible. And so, the heavy artillery it was.

At that time, he was assigned to the 36th Field Artillery Battalion, stationed in Ft. Bragg, N.C., where he began his formal training as a cannoneer to man and fire the 155 mm guns which eventually came to be known as the “Long Toms”. But in between the actual training and drilling, there was always enough time to get into and out of this, that, or the other kind of trouble, and that was as much a part of the whole experience as the learning to fire the guns.

Even though it was almost 75 years since the Civil War, because there were so many folks in the battalion from the North or South, there was ample time to revisit these matters, usually in a non-violent manner, but sometimes not. And as Wesley was still a bit on the slight-of-frame side, he just tried to stay on the sidelines as much as possible. Fortunately for him, soon after arriving at Ft. Bragg he became acquainted with three other fellows from Letcher County, Koss Whitaker, Edward “Speedball” Spencer, and David Brinkley. They had served together in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression years, and decided to join the Army together, and they referred to themselves as the Three Musketeers. Recognized as another Letcher Countian, Wesley was promptly welcomed into the group and their new name became “The Clan”.

It seems Kloss was rather big physically and never shy about defending himself, so he was a good person with which to be friends. Speedball was always good at stirring the honey pot, with Kloss usually the one to settle the matter if needed. David and Wesley were basically along for the ride. So, “The Clan” continued to hang out, watch out for each other, and get into and out of some not-too-serious trouble. Then abruptly, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, and everything changed.

Wesley Yonts lives in Hazard, and is an ordained Old Regular Baptist minister who still preaches.

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