97-year-old was oldest veteran at reunion

Last updated: May 19. 2014 10:22AM - 801 Views
By Kevin Boozer kboozer@civitasmedia.com

Pomaria native Hayne Koon holds a newspaper photograph of the mule pack unit he began his 25-year Army career with.
Pomaria native Hayne Koon holds a newspaper photograph of the mule pack unit he began his 25-year Army career with.
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POMARIA — On Armed Forces Day, the Old Pomaria School Reunion honored veterans in its parade including several Pomaria High School graduates.

For 97-year-old Hayne Koon, the sudden trip from his High Point, N.C., home to Pomaria with his daughter came at the request of reunion committee member Helen Koon.

It was not the talk of a parade that swayed him but rather the chance to help benefit renovation efforts at his old high school.

As Koon took part in the day, he recalled playing basketball and baseball for Pomaria High School. He also spoke fondly of former teachers Mrs. Bedenbaugh, Mrs. Coleman and Mr. Matthews.

Back then his coach, who played for the Boston Braves, said Koon — who hit an inside the park home run to defeat Newberry High — had big league talent.

But a bout with the mumps weakened Koon and the third and first baseman realized after a few games with a local Sally League team in Peak that he was not recovering well enough to try professional sports.

Instead, he enlisted in the Army to fulfill his other lifelong dream of being in the service.

He and some of the other enlisted men expected to leave farming and mules behind them but ironically, the 1936 graduate of Pomaria High School was placed in an Army pack unit of 175 mules. Among its duties was providing seven-mule field artillery units.

“We went out on patrol and carried everything on our mules,” Koon said. “And a well trained unit could set up a cannon (wheels, tube, cradle, barrel and all) and fire it within a minute and a half.”

He served at Ft. Bragg with the 26th Infantry for five years, receiving 60 new men to train every eight weeks. As a sergeant, Koon turned down two chances to attend OCS including the chance to become a second lieutenant at a time Rommel and Patton were batting for Northern Africa.

The average lifespan of a second lieutenant with that assignment, he later learned, was two and a half minutes.

“Some of those brave men called in field artillery within 50 feet of themselves,” he said.

Koon instead believed his niche was with enlisted men in the artillery unit, so he turned down a first sergeant position with the 82nd Airborne.

Eventually, he said the 26th trained enough men for the field that the training center was broken up and he was sent overseas as part of an 18-ship group that resupplied troops at Omaha Beach, where part of Patton’s army was located.

As his 10th Army Division unit stormed up Omaha Beach to reinforce Patton’s forces who were dashing into France, Koon drove any available truck the Army could commandeer to deliver gasoline to Patton’s tanks.

“If the Germans had known how low the tanks were on fuel, they could have destroyed a lot of Patton’s Army,” he said.

Koon said he later was close enough to see the infantry going through the snow fields and forest areas of the Battle of the Bulge.

“Our unit had a lot of close calls because we were in the thick of heavy fighting but I never was really afraid,” he said.

The fighting took him to Dachau where he and his comrades saw survivors of the concentration camps. Troops were throwing them bars of candy until they learned their system could not process the heavy food, so soup stations were set up instead.

Koon remained in the Army after the war ended. In 1951 he was in Korea for one year before that transfer.

From bullets to lights

Instead of firing shells, he and his unit fired beams of light into the sky to disrupt Chinese flare signals. The million candle power lighting disrupted flare signals and protected the Marines fighting in Korea.

“I was chosen for that device and unit (because of my artillery and mule experience),” he said.

He said they never lost a light because if enemy fire got too close to that position, they turned off one light and replaced it with another at a more remote mountain region in Korea.

From 1953-56 he and his wife were stationed at Dachau with the Army of occupation in Germany and lived in housing that was first built for the Gestapo.

“When we arrived and I saw the bus and gates (at Dachau), it all flashed back,” he said.

Though he enjoyed the time in Europe, he turned down a promotion to become a warrant officer because by then he wanted to return to the United States. Instead Koon volunteered for the Third Army recruiting service and was stationed to High Point, N.C.

“People believed in you when you talked about the Army and I told them the truth (and was an effective recruiter), the top recruiter at one point of 16 straight months,” he said.

Koon took advantage of educational opportunities while in the service, taking a six-month course in the food service and attending wiring school as well as school for writing and speaking. That school for communications is what he said helped him most with recruiting as he went around to drum up support for the Army.

When his Army career ended, he found work repairing air guns, working his way up from someone on third shift doing repairs to shipping and sales and eventually to being plant manager for American Fasteners Air Guns and Nails.

For years Koon never spoke of his time overseas until one day at church a fellow veteran struck up a conversation. After that, Koon became less reticent about his experiences and instead shared them with others.

He retired as a sergeant first class and lived with his wife of 72 years until she passed away one and a half years ago.

Despite all the things he saw and did, despite the sacrifices he made, Koon said he would do it all again for his country if he could, a sentiment shared by many of his fellow veterans at the Pomaria parade Saturday.

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