Birthday card campaign underway for WWII veteran turning 100 in South Carolina

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Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 5:46 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A woman from a state away near Atlanta came up with a creative way to wish her friend and World War II veteran happy birthday.

Thomas Fearrington, who lives in Columbia, turns 100 years old on April 18.

“I could do [something to] let him know that other people remembered his service and were thinking of him,” Rachael Bradbury said.

“So I reached out to some teacher friends and some scout troops, and also some civic organizations, and asked if they would be willing to write some birthday cards or some notes of encouragement ... and I got a very good response,” she said.

Fearrington was born on April 18, 1923, in Greenville, Miss. He later moved to Asheville, N.C.

He was called up to join the U.S. Army in 1943 when he was 19 years old after attending N.C. State University for two semesters.

The Army sent Fearrington for training in both Georgia and Florida. He narrowly missed D-Day, which happened on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France. There wasn’t a boat for him to ship out overseas on.

“I wanted to be in an invasion. I wanted to do everything,” Fearrington remembered. “But, after I was in it for a while, I changed my mind and I said, ‘Man, I was lucky I wasn’t on that ship.’”

Eventually, Fearrington ended up in England in the summer of 1944 where he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division after they landed in Normandy. He was a glider infantryman in the 327th Infantry Regiment as part of a mortar squad.

Glider infantrymen coasted into an area inside a flimsy aircraft big enough to hold 13 men, a jeep or a small cannon. The glider was pulled behind a C-47 airplane. When it was time for the glider to land, it would be unhooked from the C-47 and coast down to the ground.

Fearrington and his comrades were called to a mission at an airport. By the time they arrived, the mission was canceled. Although there wasn’t any fighting at the airport, Fearrington had the opportunity to see another type of action.

”First thing you go in and they put down a blanket and shoot craps. That was my first introduction to craps,” Fearrington said. “They’d always say, ‘I’m in, I’m out, I’m in.’ I didn’t know what it all meant, but I know there was a lot of people around the blanket there.”

Market Garden

Soon, his squad was called up again — this time to the Mission of Market Garden in the modern-day Netherlands on September 17, 1944. The gliders flew in the next day.

“The whole thing came from 25 airports in England and I can remember the gliders, as far as you can see was gliders,” he recounted. “A couple of them had to unhook over the North Sea and as soon as they hit the water there were little boats all the way from England to Holland ... I’m sure it was picked up real quick.”

Fearrington’s glider landed in a turnip patch.

According to the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum, the intent of the mission was to end the war early by opening up routes into the Ruhr Valley and liberate the Netherlands.

Fearrington said they were supposed to capture the bridge at Arnhem. However, the mission failed and the bridge at Arnhem became known as “a bridge too far.”

One night, Fearrington told WIS-TV the Germans heard them on the road and fired mortars — small explosives shot out through devices that look like tubes — at his squad in a ditch.

“Mortars go boomp ... boomp ... boomp. Then there’s a little silence and then they start hitting boom, boom, boom,” he recalled. “I had a chance to go from one side of the road to the other.”

Fearrington said a mortar went on top of where they were and wounded everyone in his squad but him. He walked away with a sliver of shrapnel in the end of his finger.

He credits the Lord for telling him where to move.

Another time, Fearrington and his squad encountered something he called “an experience.” They pulled off the road when they started to get shelled and went into a nearby house.

“There on the side were three big pigs ... and this big boar, I think, thought my hand grenades were full of food,” Ferrington said. “He comes over and wants to get in that [mortar] bag and I was afraid he was going to pull off one of these hand grenades and that would have been bad for both of us.”

After the town stopped being bombed, his squad went back out on the road again. The pig came back and followed them until some local men shooed him away.

“Everything in fighting is a lot of little sideshows,” Fearrington added.

Fearrington stayed at Market Garden for 75 days. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his time there.

Battle of the Bulge

In early December, somebody came through the barracks to gather up the troops for the next mission.

“Wake up and gather all of your gear! We’re moving out!” he remembered them calling out. “That’s when we moved to Bastogne.”

Fearrington and his battle buddies went on to the Battle of the Bulge, which started Dec. 16, 1944.

According to the U.S. Army, Adolf Hitler intended to turn the war in his favor by launching more than 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks in a counter-offensive.

The battle went on for six weeks. Arlington Cemetery calls it “the deadliest single World War II battle” for the U.S., with the Army losing over 19,000 American soldiers.

The hardest part of the battle wasn’t the fighting for Fearrington. It was the weather.

“I dug into my fox hole ... and it was so cold I thought I was going to freeze to death so I was afraid to go to sleep that night,” he said.

Fearrington doesn’t want people to forget the service members who fought in World War II.

“You’re blessed with freedom today because of all the lives and sacrifices that were made before you,” he told WIS-TV. “You’re here because you were protected by a large group of faithful soldiers that make your life possible now.”

Bradbury believes it’s important to preserve stories like Fearrington’s.

“The easiest thing somebody can do to help preserve these personal histories is to sit down with them and have a conversation,” she said. “Pull out your cell phone and just take a video while you’re doing it.”

So far, Bradbury received over 130 cards from an elementary school for Fearrington.

Birthday cards and letters can be sent to:

Tom Fearrington c/o Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church, 6952 St. Andrews Road, Columbia, SC 29212.

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