Clayton Fowler down on the farm in Green Sea, with his trusty dog Bear.
RIGHT MAN, RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
WWII veteran served with, aided Gen. Patton
When World War II broke out, Horry Electric Cooperative member Clayton Fowler was 26, had been married for six years with three young girls and held a steady job as a welder and body man in Sumter repairing military training vehicles from bases around the region. Work was good, he’d had the job for a few years and, in short, had little reason to leave.
In fact, it was only when he was taken out of the shop and made to paint vehicles using the old lead-based paints of the era that he found the work was harmful to his health. He asked to go back to the body shop.
“The fellow said the only way I could go back to what I was doing was to join the Army,” says Fowler, now 95 and who recently celebrated his 75th wedding anniversary with his wife, Carrie, at Green Sea Baptist Church. “I said, well, if I’m gonna kill myself, I might as well kill [an enemy soldier] with a rifle rather than here with this paint.”
Skills in demand Fowler promptly enlisted in an outfit made up predominantly of men from North and South Carolina and immediately found that his welding skill was in high demand. He was offered a job as an instructor at the welding school he attended in Maryland. Duty called, however, and before long he was on a steamship with thousands of soldiers bound for England, where he stayed for nine months before following the infantry over to France.
“I was in the 7th Section, 222nd Ordnance Company, 31st Ordnance Battalion of the 1st Army, and we stayed just behind the front repairing tanks and trucks and anything else that was needed,” Fowler says. “It wasn’t too long that we’d been there and General [George] Patton came to my welding shop truck and said the vines in the hedgerows there were catching under the tracks of the tanks and throwing the tracks off.
“He said he wanted something to put on the tanks that could prevent those vines from getting tangled. He said he’d come back and check on me, and then he did I showed him what I’d made and asked him if that’s what he wanted,” Fowler says. “He said, ‘That’s exactly what I want!’ He put it on his tank and tested it, and it worked like a charm.”
Frozen mountain roads
From there, Fowler followed the 1st Army across France, Germany and Central Europe, the scariest moments of which came not while dodging enemy fire as much as negotiating frozen German mountain roads, pontoon bridges and narrow Baltic streets driving his trailer loaded with tons of armor plating, acetylene, oxygen, nitrogen and all the assorted equipment needed to repair any vehicle that moved.
After the war’s conclusion, Fowler came home to Sumter, where his family, including his daughters Carolyn, Clara and the youngest, Camellia, were waiting for him on the steps of his house.
“My littlest girl was only three months when I left, and she looked up and said, ‘Who’s that man kissing my momma?!’” Fowler says. “The other two remembered me, and after I hugged them and was walking in the house, she said, “Why aren’t you going to hug me?”
Shortly after the war the Fowlers would have a fourth child, who was born on Veterans Day—a son, Billy. That was appropriate because Billy would go on to serve in the Air Force, taking part in the USS Pueblo incident with North Korea. Fowler also boasts a great-grandson, J.R. Horne, who has served in Afghanistan and is still in the Army and another great-grandson, William Bell III, who recently joined the Army.