Salute to veterans: Through the Depression and the war, Urbana man kept going

Salute to veterans: Through the Depression and the war, Urbana man kept going

Know a veteran with a story to tell? Email Paul Wood at pwood@news-gazette.com

URBANA — In months of slogging up the Italian peninsula during World War II, Don Hawkins never slept in a bed, instead carving a place to lie down in the snow, or, once, in the shadow of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Urbana man won three Bronze Stars for what was essentially an ironman performance before there was such a thing as the Ironman Triathlon.

His 10th Mountain Division was able to carry 50-pound packs on skis, and their training is credited with the making of the huge ski industry in Colorado. Hawkins was at the front of the front, spooling out communications lines.

"I slept while I walked, hanging onto the back of a truck," he says of the slow progress northward.

Hawkins' companions died under mortar and sniper fire, or crossing a lake in a "duck" that swamped.

But Hawkins is coming up on 91 and looks younger and fitter than the calendar suggests.

The Ivesdale native was an endurance athlete without a sport during the Depression, making his living by sledge-hammering rocks in the Civilian Conservation Corps before being assigned to one of the Army's elite corps.

After the war, he used his climbing and technical skills as a pole electrician for a rural power cooperative and later Illinois Power.

The Depression made him tough as nails. He had an abbreviated high school career — the school couldn't afford buses and he lived too far away — and went to work as a farmhand for 10 cents a day, when he could get it.

When he was about 15, he joined a CCC camp in Mount Horeb, Wis. He took classes in the off time, when young workers weren't building rock and willow dams, using dynamite to break up the rocks, then a sledgehammer. He was transferred to the storeroom.

The government program paid $24 a month, he says — $8 to keep, $8 to save and $8 to send home.

In 1942, he was drafted. He prepped to be in an Army Air Corps ground crew, then without warning was transferred to Colorado Springs to be a mule packer.

At the newly built Camp Hale, 14 miles from the future site of Vail, Colo., he then found himself in an elite unit.

"Some of the guys tried to transfer out; only one guy ever got out of it," he says.

Using techniques used by the Finns, the 10th Mountain Division emphasized skills like climbing and skiing for World War II's European Theater.

"It was the first time I ever skied. I was never very good," says Hawkins, who had to carry a pack weighing close to 50 pounds as he skied.

Skiing was never a big part of his job. He schlepped heavy rolls of wire into dangerous places.

From sleeping in the snow, he was transferred to Texas and 100-degree heat, then to Norfolk, Va., to get on a ship.

"We didn't know where we were going," he says.

They spent 13 dyspeptic days on the ship.

After landing at Naples, his unit moved up to Pisa.

In mid-February 1945, the division started its big push to force out the Germans and their artillery from the high ground.

At one point, Hawkins says, they had to cross a land-mined field — "nothing went off because the ground was frozen."

In the Mound Belvedere area, the 10th took on the Riva Ridge in four days of brutal warfare.

There were no sleeping bags and not much point in complaining about it, he says.

At Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake, the 10th lost two gun crews to the cold deep after the enemy blew up a tunnel the Army had hoped to use.

"There were 25 in the (amphibious truck) ducks, all drowned," Hawkins says. The Germans shelled the soldiers with their 88s (88-millimeter guns).

His unit passed through the town where Benito Mussolini was hanged in the square in April. A few days later, the war was over in Italy.

Hawkins earned three Bronze stars. Returning to the States, he was briefly assigned to a military police unit, and then out.

Don and Floella married in 1948. She died this year, on Good Friday. He has a son and two grandkids.

In a way, he says, "the war was a great experience. You don't really know how you'll do until the shells fall and cover you with dirt."

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