Salute to veterans: Hurting for war's victims
SEYMOUR — Despite being wounded by a German land mine months earlier, James C. Karr befriended some of the prisoners he guarded in 1945.
"They were people, just like we were," says the 92-year-old retired farmer. "They didn't like Hitler any more than we did."
Karr came out of the war feeling "hurt" for the losses of civilians.
"So many families died. I try to imagine what their lives were like, what their stories were," he says. "I'm just an emotional guy. I don't apologize for crying sometimes."
And then he hurts for the men who died in the war, and the women, especially the nurses, WRENs and WASPs. The Women Airforce Service Pilots flew dangerous missions as far away as China to deliver planes, and the WRENs were their British counterparts.
"A lot of them didn't make it back," he says.
A varied war
Karr doesn't think he's a hero because he "didn't pay the ultimate sacrifice."
His World War II experiences were varied, since after he was drafted, he was trained for an elite Ranger unit that was disbanded before he went overseas; the desert training he received for North Africa became irrelevant when the Allies triumphed there; and his time as an artillery spotter was interrupted by a long hospital stay.
Karr earned a Purple Heart for his injuries. He lost hearing in his right ear and nearly lost his sight when he and other two other soldiers ran over a land mine in Normandy, France, about a month after the D-Day invasion.
Karr was in the jump seat, and the mine went off as the rear right tire passed over it, so he was the worst hit of the three in the Jeep. He spent three months wondering whether his sight would come back; when he noticed there was actually only one light in his hospital room instead of two (a result of double vision up till that point), a nurse screamed that his eyes had been saved.
"There was nothing to be done for the ear," said Karr, who has worn a hearing aid ever since but has excellent vision for his age.
Karr grew up on a farm south of Seymour, and continued to farm as long as he could. The hearing loss meant that he couldn't hear a combine's RPMs.
In his youth, there was a Seymour High School, but only for three years of schooling; his senior year was spent at the old Champaign Central because he and his buddies could get a ride into town with a banker.
"Because he worked bankers' hours, we were always late for school," he said.
When he was 15, he met a girl the same age named Louise, who turned out to be the love of his life. She was a University High School student.
After graduation, he worked in construction in Rockford until he was sent "the little brown letter that invites you to join us."
He and his girlfriend were close friends with another young couple. They all agreed that it would be best to put off marriage until after the war.
His friend died on the beaches at Normandy.
"Mary was left holding the bag," he says.
The old Interurban track ran parallel to the road where his house is now. He took it all the way to Belleville to begin many months of training, some of it for naught.
There were six weeks of intensive basic training, followed by Ranger training and specialized desert training near Yuma, Ariz. After several postings, he was sent on a convoy to Belfast, Northern Ireland, traveling west of German U-boats.
He joined in training for the Normandy invasion, in which he would serve in communications relaying enemy positions.
Karr was at the Battle of St. Lo on July 5, 1944. The town was largely destroyed.
"We sure liberated the hell out of this place," a soldier famously said in the aftermath.
On July 9 — "when things seemed to be quieting down" — his Jeep hit the mine.
A nurse gave him an IV and bandages,with special attention to his eyes.
"My eyes were full of grit, and my ears rang like church bells," he remembers.
"'Soldier, you're going to be OK,'" he remembers the nurse saying. His two companions spent only a few days in hospital, but it was three months for Karr.
At a military hospital in England, a doctor finally told him, "we think we can save your eyes."
After rehab in Southhampton, Thanksgiving 1944 in Paris brought new danger into his life.
"They gave us turkey, and somehow, I didn't think it was all right," he says. "I didn't eat it, but most of the others did and got ptomaine poisoning."
He moved into Germany, again with a field artillery unit, but progress was stopped dead by the Battle of the Bulge German offensive that began in December.
Germany was a horror for him as he saw the devastation of families in the war's waning months. When the war ended, he was assigned to handle German prisoners for the next few months. He wonders if all the U.S. soldiers stayed on just because there wasn't room enough on ships to bring them back home.
A happy life
After the war, he married Louise, and they had four children. He led a happy life as a farmer, an occupation that he now thinks the cost of equipment has made nearly impossible for young people to enter.
Since his wife died, he has done volunteer work for the Appalachia Service Project in Tennessee.
He's still sharp, and he recently worked on an 8-foot ladder at a rental house, his son Chris Karr says.
"I mowed the yard yesterday," the elder Karr said, the day before the area flooded. "The arthritis slows me down some days."