Trio of Peoria WWII veterans honored at the church where they forged a friendship nearly 70 years ago
A congregation of friends, family, and veterans celebrated three Peoria WWII servicemen. Over a hundred people came out on a sunny Saturday afternoon to honor Baxter Fite Jr.’s 100th birthday, officially April 12, at Bethany Baptist Church in Edwards.
While in Georgia eighty-plus years ago, Fite Jr. and two brothers from Peoria, Mansil and Norval Jett, registered to serve in World War II. It was after the war at Bethany Baptist in the early 1950s where all three would meet, cementing nearly 70 years of friendship.
A parade of first responders, veterans, and others in vehicles honoring the nearly century young gentlemen at Bethany Baptist would be considered incomprehensible to Fite Jr.’s parents; as his childhood relied on horses, not Model-Ts, when traveling to church.
“I lived in the country (rural Georgia) in the horse and buggy days before we had the Model Ts,” Fite Jr. said in an interview with WCBU a week prior. The parade was still a mystery then to all three men. “They weren’t very reliable, when rain and mud hit the streets in the country…it wasn’t blacktop. The horses were more useful than cars.”
Baxter Fite Jr. was born in Resaca, Ga., where his grandfather, Dr. Berry Wilson Fite, practiced medicine in two counties. Fite Jr. says his grandfather took an interest in him when Baxter was around eight years old. He would ride with him and his grandmother Hortense Thibadeau Fite, who was the county nurse, as they visited Georgians seeking medical care.
“They were workers, they never complained. It was a different lifestyle. I loved it, I was just a kid,” Fite Jr. says about his parents and grandparents. Their training helped when Baxter joined the U.S. military as a Medical Corpsman in the 7th Army 103d Infantry Division 411th Regiment, serving alongside 1,060 Americans in the 328th Medical Battalion. There were 265 Americans in his company, designated Company C.
“I was born on a farm, a small farm. I went to a consolidated grade school before the war, there were very few people. I haven’t been around that many people before in my life,” Fite Jr. says about going from his upbringing in Georgia to serving in a division, one of 91 total divisions totaling 15,000 men and women each. Overall, 16 million Americans served in WWII.
Baxter remembers a constant push into Europe after his battalion landed in southern France, near Marseilles. He and other medics would take turns on the front lines among the infantry while others stayed further from conflict to support the wounded.
During his time overseas, Baxter and other armed forces would witness ongoing crimes of humanity on the Jewish people and other prisoners of fascism.
“Some of them were in terrible shape, they couldn’t bury anyone. The Germans had left a [small] crew because they were retreating…left a crew to 'take care' of them. It wasn’t enough. When I went in they had people half-buried, feet out of the ground…they were just bones and skin,” Fite Jr. says remembering one of the many concentration camps where genocide was committed by the Nazis.
It’s been nearly eighty years since the end of World War II, though on a rainy day in Heartis Village Peoria Assisted Living, Fite Jr. made numerous connections to the atrocities occurring in Ukraine, the largest ground conflict in Europe since Baxter’s time serving in the 1940s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no sign of stopping his invasion of Ukraine 45 days in; which has been the latest part of an eight-year conflict since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Baxter calls Putin, accused of committing various war crimes, a bully that should not be appeased like then-German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
“Today, it reminded me of the days growing up, we had good presidents. He [FDR] stood up for our rights,” Fite Jr. said. “Most people watched after one another. My father used to tell stories every night, we kept a strong family…that is the thing that makes you who you are.”
Baxter Fite Jr. was one of many family members who served in WWII including cousins, future brother-in-law(s) and his older brother, Berry Wilson Fite III. During his time overseas he was able to reconnect with Berry in England. At the time of his departure, Baxter was stationed in Austria.
“I had to hitchhike the whole way. No civilian vehicles were on the streets, just military…British…French,” Fite Jr. said. “I’d just stop every night and eat with them. They told me to go to Paris on a certain date and I would be able to go across the channel. … I went to London and my brother met me there. I spent a week with him and then I came back; I hitchhiked all the way back from England to Innsbruck, Austria.”
Mansil, who will turn 100 this October, and his younger brother Norval, 97, were inseparable from mutual friend Robert “Bob” Randolph before the war. Once his older brother and friend were sent notices of service; Norval, at 16, started working his way into the ranks of the Air Force.
“I remember sitting at a desk with a guy across the way and he was looking at the reports and evaluations,” Norval Jett said. “He calls the sergeant over and says ‘What are we gonna do with this guy? and the sergeant looked and said ‘Student.’”
Norval would train and serve as a Clerk in the 302nd Depot Repair Squadron within the Air Force back in the states, helping the nation maintain a steady flow of supplies. He would subsequently be sent over and trained for infantry later in the war. That training experience would eventually lead him to Austria, living in a hotel turned command center helping transfer orders to the front.
“I can remember the training exercise. Supposedly there was a German unit up on the hill,” Norval said. “Anyway afterwards when it was all over the sergeant looked at me and said ‘You’re a disappointment.’ I don’t know what he expected out of me, but I didn’t desert, I was there with the rest of them.”
His older brother Mansil was trying to join the United States Coast Guard prior to joining his brother and the ‘rest of them’ in the fight against fascism in Europe.
“I think [Mansil] went to Decatur, Ill., and I don’t think [Coast Guard] wanted him because probably the first question asked of him was ‘Could you swim?’ and he couldn’t swim. He still can’t,” Norval Jett said. Mansil would eventually cross the Atlantic to serve in Europe as a Stock-Control Clerk in the 64th Chemical Depot Company.
“Glad to be here, they (Norval and Baxter) reminded me about a lot of things,” Mansil Jett said. “My memory has been shot all to pieces…but I didn’t get shot.” Norval was able to help Mansil recollect their first time seeing each other while overseas.
“We wrote letters and we knew where each other was, so we arranged to leave the same day and we went to Paris together,” Norval said about his short leave with Mansil. “We went around Paris and I saw something about (laughs) the romantic spots and Paris [being] one of them.’
‘I’ve been to Rome. I’ve been to Naples, and probably several other places that are listed as romantic places. They’re not romantic if you got another guy with you (laughs).”
Mansil Jett also turned into a seasoned globetrotter during his service.
“I was glad to be there. I have had everyone give an opinion about the war and I can’t disagree with it; but I was looking forward to seeing France, Germany and all the world I can see,” Mansil Jett said.
One of Mansil’s daughters, Carol Clark, gave a description of why her father stayed humble after all these years.
“He is very compassionate to others. [T]hey did have tough times and he remembers that. When he was able to give his own money, he gave to every cause… a part of it is his God and the way he was brought up,” Clark said. “He was poor and now he wants to share with others.”
Norval and Mansil remember their parents as engaged community members.
“When I look at my mother and dad I think of their social life,” Norval said about his parents' dedication to prayer reading and choir practice on Wednesday. They attended every Sunday service. “Most of their life was being social in church. I still miss church because it is social. Even at our age, we need a social life…this (interview) is social too.”
A week later Mansil and Norval Jett would join their friend Baxter Fite Jr. in the ceremony honoring their life and service within their church. The veterans were flocked to by family, friends and grateful Americans greeting some of the remaining veterans left from the “Greatest Generation.”
“There is a lot of stuff that went on in front of us, in our time frame, that we don’t understand,” Norval Jett said. “I remember my father, I don’t think there was a more honest man. If he said something it was honest. He's going to live with it. I think we find that our childhood pretty much dominates the rest of your life.”
Baxter looked up to his parents. His father being the eldest of his grandparents’ total 14 children looked after his siblings when his parents left for work.
“My mom and dad would go to their house every morning and take care of the kids. They stayed with them and helped raise them,” Fite Jr. said. “It was a tough go from 1920 to 1940.”
Baxter would keep family close to him, especially when he traveled over to Europe again with his own family and fellow veterans after the war. During this past weekend, many of them surrounded Baxter and his good friends outside below a vast American flag blowing in the wind.
During the interview, Norval remembered the dozens of times he walked along the Salzach River in Austria. Nearly a century later he could imagine the river’s flow and the terrain it divided in two, but remarked - “I’m sure all of these things change with time.”