Some might call Worth Haynes a lucky man due to his ability to survive close calls in combat during the Second World War.
Or they could say he simply was in the right place at the right time when narrowly escaping a sniper, miraculously dodging friendly fire from a fighter plane or avoiding German artillery when cut off from his company.
But Haynes, an 89-year-old Mount Airy resident, credits a higher power for getting him through those and other scrapes as an infantryman in Italy from 1943-45.
“I’d just thank the Lord,” was his thought after each of the brushes with death. “I didn’t count it as luck.”
Being a “Polar Bear” — a tenacious animal that thrives in a hostile environment — probably didn’t hurt, either.
Haynes was a member of Company G of the Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Polar Bears. The “Polar Bear” nickname dates to 1918-19, when earlier members of the unit served in northern Russia during the civil war in that country and fought the Red Army in conjunction with an allied intervention.
Part of the 85th Infantry Division of the Fifth Army, the company served in Italy in the thick of the Second World War. The Italian Campaign lasted from October of 1943 to March 1945 and involved U.S. troops marching the length of Italy to cut through German lines of defense.
“We went from Naples to the Austrian border,” Haynes said of the military operation characterized by fierce fighting all along the way.
The territory gained during the march came with a high price, with American casualties far exceeding those of the enemy. Estimates are that between September 1943 and April 1945, about 60,000 Allied soldiers died in Italy.
Haynes had been born in the Zephyr community of Surry County and his family moved to Mount Airy when he was about 5 years old. After World War II broke out, he found himself working at Martin Aircraft in Baltimore. He hoped to transition into the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner to the Air Force, in an aircraft maintenance or similar capacity.
“But it didn’t work out that way,” Haynes recalled during an interview last week, explaining that this avenue was cut off by a change in military policy. “I was drafted.”
That was in 1943 and the young Mount Airy man wound up in basic training at Camp Wheeler, Ga. After training, he and others there were issued tropical gear. “And my heart just fell,” Haynes said of the prospects of being stationed in the Pacific Theater, which some soldiers sought to avoid.
“But a few days later, they came and took it back,” Haynes said. “I felt like a burden had been lifted.”
Haynes was shipped to Italy for a mission that would become characterized by slow and steady fighting as troops made their way across Italian rivers and mountains amid fierce German resistance. This was in sharp contrast with today’s push-button conflicts, as gritty soldiers dug in to positions only to regroup and advance further at what could be described as a snail’s pace.
While Haynes admits that conditions were “easy-going” at times, he found them extremely rough during others.
His weapons were those of the classic G.I. Joe. “At one time or another, I carried the M1 rifle,” said Haynes. The list also included a radio and carbine along with a bazooka and BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), a formidable but heavy piece of firepower.
As for the bazooka, Haynes said, “We didn’t have to shoot it much — just one or two times — just having it with us was the main thing.”
The men were supplied by Jeeps and trailers, but at times they were entrenched so far into the Italian countryside that pack mules had to be relied on for food, water and ammunition.
“But I always thought that wherever I went, the Lord would look out for me,” Haynes said.
The local man was in three major battles during the Italian Campaign, but got through despite some harrowing experiences.
“After the first skirmish, I was cut off from my company for about three days,” Haynes said. “We was holed up in a foxhole which we had dug,” he added of himself and the three other soldiers who were pinned down by the enemy.
While digging in, some dirt clods flew into the air around them, attracting German artillery fire their way. “So we didn’t dig no more in the daytime,” Haynes said.
The men eventually eked their way back to their unit.
Seeing one’s buddies struck down and the horror of death were common occurrences for Haynes and others experiencing the blood-and-guts life of an infantryman. However, on one occasion, it came too close for comfort.
“The squad leader was right next to me — we was behind a rock,” the Mount Airy veteran remembered. “And a sniper found him and picked him off — I just wondered if they seen me, too.”
Another time while negotiating rocky terrain, Haynes and fellow soldiers got caught behind some boulders and called for air support to help ward off the enemy who had them pinned down. “A lot of times, they would end up attacking us by mistake,” he said of U.S. pilots.
The coordinates were off on this particular occasion, and a “friendly” bomb was dropped where Haynes and the others were. The deadly device ricocheted off some rocks and came to rest. “It never did explode,” Haynes said.
Despite his knack for getting out of tough situations, the Mount Airy man did not emerge from the war unscathed.
At one point, he was wounded in the back by fragments, which earned him a Purple Heart. Haynes, who had the rank of private first class, also received a battle ribbon with three stars, as well as other medals including a combat infantry badge and a presidential citation.
Haynes was not the only one in his family to serve in the war. His brother Conrad also was in the Army and took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
Freedoms Are Key
After returning to Mount Airy, Worth Haynes, who was employed in furniture factories as well as construction, eventually would work in the insurance field before retiring in the 1980s. He has two children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Over the years, Haynes served with the Franklin Volunteer Fire Department and with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, with which he remains active as a member of its Honor Guard. That group, which Haynes has been part of for about 20 years, attends funerals of those who have served in the military.
This included about 70 funerals last year alone, mostly of World War II vets whose ranks are dwindling at the rate of 680 per day, according to Veterans Administration statistics. Of the 16 million who served in that war, only 1.5 million remain.
Honor Guards are known for gun salutes and the playing of “Taps” at military funerals, although Haynes’ unit has had to rely on recorded versions of the latter from time to time.
After one funeral during which a tape of “Taps” was played, “I had a fellow come to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘that’s the best I’ve ever heard,’” he recalled with a grin.
Haynes has stayed in touch with former Polar Bears and attended reunions of the group over the years, including one held in Mount Airy in 2009. He also returned to Italy in 1994 on a 10-day trip with fellow veterans.
He said being in combat taught him many things. But the first Haynes listed was the need to be resourceful and deal with whatever situation arises. “To more or less be dependent on what you got and to make the best of it,” he said.
Veterans Day is understandably a special time for Worth Haynes and others who have served their country over the years.
And along with appreciating veterans, he believes people should devote equal time to thinking about what that service represents.
“I hope they remember the veterans and the freedoms that they have,” said Haynes, “to be thankful for the freedom as well as their boys.”
Too many take this for granted today, he believes.
“Since 1776, many have given their lives for freedoms, but they seldom appreciate what veterans have won for us.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.