RANDOLPH — In honor of his late brother Earl who served by his side during World War II, 99-year old Randolph resident Merle McKimm recalled his experiences serving with his twin.
The brothers didn’t die in battle defending their country, but they gave full support to the troops they served with overseas.
The McKimm twins enlisted in the United States Army and served from Dec. 4, 1942, to April 9, 1946. They became members of the 870th light artillery battalion in the Service Battery of the 66th Infantry Division that was activated on April 15, 1943, at Camp Blanding, Fla. They were principally stationed in Reims, France, but spent part of their time in western Germany.
The brothers entered the United States Army nearly a year after the country entered WWII following the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.
“We decided to enlist in the Army because we wanted some excitement, and we sure found it,” McKimm said. “Earl and I were together in the Army for three years, four months and six days.”
McKimm said they were battalion mechanics and went to boot camp at Camp Blanding. After boot camp, they were sent to Fort Sill, Okla., where they got their mechanics training.
After training, they boarded the USS Madawaska and left out of New York for England. McKimm said they sailed for 13 days down the coastline, made a big “U” and came up by Spain. He said there were 66 ships and big storms came up.
“Our ship would go down in the water and the waves would crash over the top of it. She rocked around so much that Earl and I both were pretty sick guys coming across the Atlantic,” he said.
The brothers witnessed the sinking of the SS Leopoldville as they were crossing the English Channel on Christmas Eve 1944, on their way to the Battle of the Bulge. McKimm said they were crossing from Southampton, England to Cherbourg, France, when a German submarine torpedoed the Leopoldville.
“It went down in 10 minutes, and we thought we were next. We got through it alright, but 765 guys were lost that night,” he said. “I think that was the worst thing I saw in the war. Just like us, they were on their way to the Battle of the Bulge, which was the heaviest fighting we saw on land during our time there.”
The troops went on to Reims, France, where the McKimm brothers were based most of the time. They worked in the motor pool, but they were also in the artillery. McKimm said they repaired trucks used to haul guns and equipment for the guns, but did not transport the guns often.
“We didn’t fire the guns ourselves, but we drove the trucks up and watched our men fire the artillery. We were right there with them — 105 mm howitzers, they were,” he said.
Although they were required to carry guns and saw plenty of combat, McKimm said they never had to use them. He said they knew how to use a gun and had to have one with them at all times.
“We [Americans] played for keeps, shoot or be killed. That’s the way they trained us,” he said.
Whenever they had to go after a truck on the frontline, McKimm said only one of them was sent and the other was kept back. As the brothers were driving their vehicles up to the frontline and back to be repaired, they heard stories from other mechanics and soldiers.
According to McKimm, some of the French people would “squeal” and give their positions away to the Germans, so sometimes they’d worry about shells coming in when they were eating. He said it was noon most of the time because the Germans figured they’d be eating lunch.
“When the Germans fired two minutes apart, they stayed at two minutes apart. We’d split the minutes by changing our time. The next day, we’d eat earlier or later so they wouldn’t know for sure when we’d be eating,” he said.
McKimm said the opposing Frenchmen also used to steal the Americans’ gasoline that was kept in 5-gallon cans. One day, they put water in some and marked those cans with a little red “x” so they knew which ones had water in them.
“The Frenchmen didn’t know they were taking bad gas to the Germans. After a while, we’d find their car broken down on the road,” he said.
Even with danger around them, the twins found some humor in their day-to-day activities. McKimm recalled one time when Major General Herman Kramer’s car was in the motor pool for repairs.
“It had leather in the front to cover up the two stars. We decided to have a little fun, so we took the leather off to make them visible. I drove the car with Earl sitting in the back seat. Everybody thought he was the general, so they were saluting him as we drove along,” he said with a laugh.
McKimm remembers an especially funny moment involving beans. He was hungry, so he put a can of beans on the manifold of the truck to heat them up.
“I put the truck in low and really poured on the gas going up a hill,” he said. “Those beans were red hot and blew wide open. There were beans everywhere under that hood.”
The brothers witnessed the German surrender at Reims in 1945. McKimm said they were right there watching when the Germans walked through to sign the surrender.
He doesn’t remember how they learned the war was over and when they celebrated Victory in Europe Day. He just remembers everything quieted down and they wanted to come home, but they had to stay on for a while.
After discharge from the Army, the McKimm twins took jobs in Randolph at Borden’s Inc. and, later, the furniture factory until it closed. They retired from Randolph Central School in 1982, where they served as custodians in the Gail N. Chapman Elementary School for over 30 years.
The brothers married in their 40s. Earl and Gretta bought a house on School Street, a few doors down from where he grew up. Merle and Ernestine lived in the same house on School Street where he and Earl were raised. He lived there for 90 years before moving to the Randolph Manor, just prior to his 98th birthday. Earl passed away in 2015 at age 95.
McKimm will turn 100 on Feb. 18, 2020, and a big celebration is being planned for him. He has covered a lot of ground and seen things most people will never experience. Area residents salute the McKimm brothers to thank them for their service.
(Contact press reporter Deb Everts at email@example.com)