William “Sid” Crawley watched as the radio operator in front of him stepped onto a land mine that blew off his leg.
As a platoon sergeant in the Ninth Army’s 102nd Infantry Division, Crawley wasn’t shaken easily. But that day, he and his fellow World War II soldiers found themselves in the middle of a German mine field before they realized what they had gotten themselves into.
“You tried to step in the steps of the guy in front of you,” said Crawley from the den of his daughter’s Daybreak home in Bartlett. “If he didn’t get killed, maybe you wouldn’t, either.”
Crawley, 89, is a member of a dying breed. Of the 16 million vets who called the U.S. home after the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, only about 1.2 million are alive as Memorial Day 2013 fast approaches. The Veterans Administration reported in 2012 that a serving member of the Greatest Generation dies — and a memory of the war fades — every two minutes. That’s a rate of nearly 600 a day, according to its report.
As the last of his immediate family, Crawley is well aware of the statistics. Then again, the Baptist minister has never been caught up in grim trends.
“We lost a lot of fellows, a lot of my friends, young fellows,” Crawley said of his experience in the European Theater. “When we’d see a guy who was 35 years old, we’d say, ‘What is that old man doing here?’”
A Crenshaw, Miss., native, Crawley entered the war just a few days before his 19th birthday in March 1943. He moved across the states through training and finally made it to Fort Dix in New Jersey. That’s where he and his division got ready to go overseas. He’d spend the next 18 months making his way mostly on foot across a hostile European countryside.
“It wasn’t too bad when we landed (in France),” said Crawley. “Then it got pretty rough.”
The former soldier, who has some problems with arthritis but has an incredible memory for specific places, dates and events, said the 102nd crossed the Ruhr River on assault boats after winding its way through France and Belgium. Despite being on the front lines, Crawley said the 102nd remained out of serious trouble right up to the point when they started to engage gunfire.
“We was kind of hidden,” he said. “(The Germans) didn’t know we were up there until they were in battle.”
It was a major change for a man who just a year before had been making tires for Firestone in Memphis. First a staff sergeant, then a tech sergeant and finally the leader of his platoon, Crawley carried an M1 rifle over his shoulder as he hit the German enemy head-on.
Most of what he saw he said he’d never forget. Once, the division came across a group of slave laborers that the Germans had lined up, mowed down in gunfire and then set on fire.
“Our commander made the people in the towns build the cemetery,” said Crawley. “You could still smell it. You don’t ever forget it.”
Crawley himself escaped serious harm. He was hit by shrapnel a few times and once had frostbite bad enough to take him out of commission for a few days.
“It was the only time during my stay that I was on sick time,” said Crawley.
And on March 17, 1946, the 22-year-old received his discharge papers just two days over three years after he started his military career. He married his wife, Marie, on Memorial Day 1947, and returned to his job at Firestone. Crawley would stay there until 1970. That’s when he received his calling to go into the ministry and started preaching at Memphis-area churches. He earned his bachelor’s degree in theology from Southern Bible Seminary in 1978, then retired from preaching full-time in 1991.
The elder Crawleys moved in with their daughter, Debbie, in 2004. Marie died in May 2009, just shy of their 62nd wedding anniversary.
Crawley still preaches supply at Shelby County churches, but he spends much of his day in his den building puzzles that he gives as gifts. Despite the hardships he faced abroad, Crawley’s room has several memories of the war close at hand, including a book he pored over during much of his discussion about his service.
And not every memory was bad. Crawley recalled a time when the troops found a bunch of potatoes and a case of margarine in the cellar of a German home. They hadn’t had much in the way of luxuries, so they took advantage of the situation.
“We cut them all up, dropped them in the pan and made French fries,” said Crawley during one of the few times he smiled and laughed a bit as he recalled his story for what he said was one of the only times he’d ever talked about it.
And when asked if the trauma was the reason he’d remained mostly silent through the years, Crawley said the memories of war is something he must deal with but doesn’t like to relive.
“Part of it is the trauma, yes,” he said. “It’s just not a lot of fun bringing some of it back up.”