“Every day, memories of World War II – its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs – disappear. Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now in their late 80s and 90s. According to US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2018.” – National WWII Museum, New Orleans
Six of Jacksonville’s World War II-era veterans share their stories with readers as part of a special project between the City of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Progress. These men served in the thick of battle, as well as behind the lines and after the war. We thank them and salute them for their service to the country.
Retired pastor and plumber J.C. Balch of Jacksonville said that when he entered the U.S. Army at age 20 during the thick of World War II, he and fellow soldiers “really didn't know what we would get into,” but were proud to support their country.
In 1942, Balch was attached to the communications outfit of the 336th Signal Company Troop Carrier Wing and eventually made his way to Europe, where he served primarily in England and France.
He never drew close to the lines of battle, but said because of where his unit was stationed in southern England, they were located across the English Channel from where part of that historic battle was fought in France.
Balch's strongest memories, however, are of two very distinct instances: The first was just prior to the D-Day invasion on June, 6 1944.
Leaving work for his barracks one afternoon, “I'd overtaken soldiers coming out of the timber on the right-hand side, two abreast, turning to the right and walking down the side of the narrow road,” he recalled. “I slowed down, looked at them but they would not look at me. But they were all heavily dressed for battle: Sidearms, hand grenades, belts, masks.”
Walking ahead, Balch said he figured he'd check on them when they arrived at the base, “but I never saw them again.
“When I woke up the next morning, I could hear the battleships already engaged. We were that close across the channel, and we could hear all that (as well as the airplanes involved in the battle).”
The men he'd seen the evening before had been countless in number, and Balch said he later, “thought to myself, a lot of those young men took on the next day's onslaught – from what I understand from history, there were thousands killed, American soldiers who perished during the invasion.”
Soon after, his team was sent back to the interior of England, where they dealt with various pieces of equipment of their trade: Radios, teletype and telephones.
By that period, Balch had attained the rank of sergeant, was married to his sweetheart Thelma and the couple were parents of a young daughter. After nearly four years of military life, though, he was ready to return to Texas, but waited on orders from above.
He recalls traveling to Luxembourg, believing that his next assignment would be in Tokyo, Japan.
“The third day we went out, I could see a ship; we were up high and could see the ship, but couldn't see any water at all,” he said, explaining they troops later discovered their ship “sitting in a channel of water over there.”
Settling aboard the ship, “sometime during the night, they told us we were at open sea, that we were going to Tokyo, and that's where my mind was set,” he said.
The journey took 14 days, with stormy weather throughout the trip, but near the end of his travels, Balch “went upstairs, opened the hatch and looked out, and the first thing I saw was the Statue of Liberty, and I recognized it.
“I turned around and told them, 'Boys, we're home!' ” he said, laughing as he recalled his other memorable military moment.
While others saw action during the war, “I tell you, I had so little to do, you'd be surprised at how many trips I made to places that weren’t fighting” while on a three-day pass – “I saw a lot of the world over there at the time (but no real fighting),” he said.
After his stint with the Army, Balch became a plumber by trade, working 40 years mostly as a single business-owner in the Nacogdoches area, and began focusing more on church ministry, eventually becoming a Church of Christ pastor whose main congregation was in San Augustine.
“I've lived a good life,” said Balch, who turned 97 on June 24. “I hope I have been good to people.”