‘I figured I was going to die:’ Centenarian World War II veterans, honored by Cypress Creek, recall service
Published 6:10 pm Monday, November 13, 2023
World War II veteran Elmer Mack, at age 23, never expected he’d be living life at 100-plus.
When he and his company stormed a beachhead at Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, roughly two weeks after the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion that killed more than 9,000 Allied troops within 24 hours, Mack had “no thoughts of surviving.”
“It was still like D-Day; they were still trying to wipe us out, and they almost did,” Mack said in a Veterans Day video interview shown at a Nov. 11 banquet hosted by the Cypress Creek Homeowners Association. “We formed little pods of people. I was the only communicator. I had a weapons carrier and a signal guy with a code machine and a phone system. At Normandy, I lost so many upfront that when I went in, I figured I was going to die.”
Mack, now 102, is one of two centenarian Army veterans living in the 450-home Smithfield subdivision. The other, John Holland, is 105.
According to Homeowners Association President Jim Parks, who is himself a Navy veteran, the development is home to 188 veterans across all branches of the armed forces, accounting for 41% of the community’s populace.
Mack told the Times on Nov. 13 that, prior to his military service, he’d floated among a variety of jobs, including working on an assembly line building school buses and ambulances.
“He could work on any car; he got that from his father,” Mack’s daughter, Bonnie Huber, said.
He was drafted in 1943 and was assigned to the Army Signal Corps at Fort Crowder for his typing ability.
His combat helmet became dented when a sniper’s bullet grazed it. During another brush with death, a bullet once penetrated the back seat of a vehicle where Mack was to have been sitting.
When other Normandy veterans were released from their service at the war’s 1945 end, Mack, then a corporal, stayed behind in Paris for a year to handle communications between then-President Harry S. Truman and then-Secretary of State James Byrnes – a job that carried top-secret clearance. When Mack returned to the United States, he spent the next 8½ years at the Pentagon, followed by a career at Langley Air Force Base, where he once had a chance meeting with the late astronaut-turned-U.S. Sen. John Glenn.
When Mack’s wife, Betty, died in 2022, he moved to Smithfield to live with Huber.
Holland, who was born and raised in Hampton, was studying to be a veterinarian at Virginia State University when he was drafted into the Army, niece Mary Ridley told The Smithfield Times.
“He has a love for horses,” Ridley said, describing her uncle as “mild-mannered” and an “easy-going guy.”
Holland’s father George, who taught military science at what is now Hampton University, had always hoped his son would eventually join the military, Ridley said. George had been a highly decorated Army infantry captain during World War I in one of several segregated divisions known as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
The name, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture, was coined by Native Americans who fought against such units in the late 1800s, either for the soldiers’ dark curly hair that resembled a buffalo mane or the ferocity with which the soldiers fought. Black soldiers had embraced the moniker by the United States’ 1917 entry into the first world war.
George “believed a Black soldier could lead as well as a white officer,” Ridley recalls.
John, unlike Mack, never saw combat. Holland, due to his schooling, was able to enlist as a staff sergeant in the Army Air Corps when he reported in 1942 to Fort Meade. He was then assigned to a clerical role in the American Theater, referring to World War II soldiers whose postings were located within or just off the coast of the continental United States.
Holland never returned to college after the war. Instead, he settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, and took a job with the Burlington Railroad, eventually rising to the position of head steward. Without children of his own, Holland returned to the Hampton Roads area to live with Ridley in 2006, settling in Cypress Creek.
“Wherever we go we bring him with us,” said Ridley, who has continued the family’s tradition of service as a former officer-rated civilian employee of the Pentagon.
The Cypress Creek Homeowners Association hosted a dinner to honor its veterans the evening of Nov. 11, in stark contrast with the frosty welcome Parks received upon returning home from the Vietnam War. Parks recalls how travelers at the airport had “spit on us” when he and his company set foot on American soil after spending a year fighting what was by then a highly unpopular, decades-long conflict.
“Our uniforms may have been different colors, but we all served under the red, white and blue,” Parks said.