Post 70 salutes county’s oldest vet

Published 10:40 pm Tuesday, July 24, 2012

At age 101, a veteran should be an honored guest of the local American Legion post and he was.

Jerold Brantley was the invited guest of Col. (Ret.) Billy Jackson at the American Legion Post 70 breakfast on Saturday. He was given the respect due all veterans and especially one that has “cracked” the century mark.

Brantley quipped that he might be the oldest veteran around but he still knows a good biscuit when he gets one. He gave Post 70 cook Ben Andress two thumbs up for the biscuits that he had baked for the breakfast.

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Known for his good humor and quick wit, Brantley kept a running conversation going and punctuated his lines with a glint in his eye but without cracking a smile.

“I’m not one that can turn smiles off and on like a water faucet,” he said, without the slightest upturn of his mouth. “Sometimes I’ll get to laughing but I can’t turn on a grin.”

Brantley, a veteran of World War II, said he was anxious to get across the “big pond” and “get after the Germans.”

Uncle Sam wanted Brantley and he was more than willing to answer the call.

“I told everybody that would listen that I was going over there and kill me six of those son-of-a-guns,” Brantley said, shaking his head. “That’s how much I knew what I was talking about.”

Brantley was an Army combat engineer and went “right along” with the infantrymen.

“We had the same basic training as the foot soldiers and had to learn everything we needed to know to blow up bridges and everything we needed to know to put them back together. We had to remove obstacles that the enemy had put in our way. The meanest things were the minefields. Those fields could chew you up and spit you out. That was a job you didn’t want to mess up on. “

As his company made its way to the Rhine River, Brantley said there was heavy belly-to-belly fighting.

“That’s where you’re fighting with the bayonet on the end of your rifle,” he said.

You’re right up on the enemy and he’s right up on you. You don’t want to do that kind of fighting. You don’t want to see the enemy’s face.”

It was at the Rhine River that Brantley’s courage and resolve were tested. He passed with a Silver Star.

“We were trying to get our men across the river and it was some of the nastiest weather you could imagine,” Brantley said. “It was sleeting and snowing. The wind was whipping out of the north and it was so cold you couldn’t breathe. The Germans were dug in on the other side. They had been there a while and they had these elaborate foxholes. Deep foxholes. If they beat us back, we could lose the war. We knew that.”

American soldiers had to be ferried across the river on boats with plywood bottoms.

“We were running the boats across and all we could carry with us for protection was a bayonet,” Brantley said. “We’d unload on a little sandbar on the other side and then we’d have to wait seven minutes before going back for another load of soldiers. That way the boats wouldn’t get tangled up trying to cross the river.”

On one of the runs, two of the boats stalled in the river and were sitting ducks for the Germans.

Brantley and his crew made a daring rescue of the boats and, for his quick thinking and life-saving efforts, he was awarded the Silver Star. But he kind of bushes that aside.

“I just did what any soldier would have done,” he said.

Brantley saw many faces of war during his tour of duty. He saw death and destruction on all sides but it’s that day on the Rhine River that stands clear in his mind. On that day, the war was all about saving lives, not taking them.

Brantley once said that if he lived to be a hundred he wouldn’t forget that day. And, at 101, he hasn’t.