CCC vets witnessed history
The Great Depression hit the United States in 1929 and everything President Herbert Hoover did to try to fix it only made it worse. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, 25 percent of Americans were unemployed and a severe drought and short-sighted farming practices had wiped out agriculture in the Midwest.
The U.S. endured the drought and overcame the Depression, only to be forced to fight for survival against two powerful foes - the Nazis and Imperial Japanese - both on a mission to subjugate America and the rest of the world.
Two men who lived through those momentous years visited Watoga State Park last Saturday for a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reunion. CCC and Army veterans Gail French, of French Creek, and Albert Simmons, of Elkins, were guests of honor at the reunion.
Several family members, friends, staff members of the State CCC Museum and people interested in American history attended the event. Park superintendent Mark Wylie and park naturalist Julie McNabb welcomed the distinguished visitors to Watoga State Park.
Ed Hager, director of the West Virginia State CCC Museum Association, delivered an invocation and the group enjoyed lunch in the recreation hall next to Watoga's CCC Museum. During lunch, the VIPs regaled the group with stories of the CCC camps, the Depression and WWII. Both French and Simmons are Army combat vets of WWII.
After lunch, the group toured the park's CCC Museum, which includes a wide assortment of memorabilia and photographs of the era at Watoga State Park, which was built by CCC workers.
After Roosevelt took office in March 1933, he established the CCC to put unemployed men to work in useful, needed conservation projects around the country. The plan was swiftly put into motion. Within three months, more than 275,000 workers and supervisors were signed up and began work on those critical conservation projects.
More than three million men were employed at more than 1,600 CCC camps across the country between 1933 and 1942. CCC projects included fire-fighting, tree-planting, road-building, park development, farm erosion control and other conservation projects.
In West Virginia, CCC workers planted millions of trees and built more than 30 state and national parks. CCC men worked on 918 West Virginia farms and implemented erosion control measures on more than 48,000 acres. The workers built hundreds of lakes, ponds and swimming pools in The Mountain State.
The late Senator Jennings Randolph, a tireless supporter of the CCC, said in 1983: "That program helped lift America out of the darkness of Depression and into the sunshine of better times."
Simmons was born in Cass in 1923 and grew up in Durbin. A young boy when the Depression hit, Simmons said his family didn't suffer as badly as others.
"I heard a lot about people starving but it was never that way with my family," he said. "My father was a mechanic and then, when my mother and father separated, she got with a man who rolled leather at the tannery. We had a job so there was enough income to keep the family going."
Simmons remembers seeing hungry people in Durbin.
"Especially when the train would come in," he said. "Men would get off looking for something to eat and would be willing to do an odd job. But they were hungry. They were looking for something to eat. I have no idea where they were from or where they were going."
Americans were ready for change when FDR was elected, Simmons recalled.
"I remember the adults were bad-mouthing Hoover, but they had a lot of praise for Roosevelt," he said. "They seemed to think that he was a godsend for the country, which proved to be true. At times, a lot of people didn't think what he was trying to do was the right thing to do."
After his junior year in high school, Simmons' mother convinced him to join the CCC. His mother and stepfather drove him to Watoga, where he enlisted in the CCC, with the understanding that he would work for the summer and return after his senior year.
The CCC was was called "FDR's tree army" and organized in military fashion. Army officers ran the camps.
The young man from Durbin went out with a work crew on his first morning in camp, but his commander saw him and sent him back to headquarters. Because he had learned typing in high school, Simmons was assigned to an office job, where he helped organize and plan recreational activities for the work crews.
"We lived in barracks - long wooden buildings," he said. "It was almost like the Army. We had to have the bunk made up at a certain time and it had to be made a certain way. Everything in the footlocker had to be in a certain spot. It had to be clean, no dust and no wrinkles."
"The crack of dawn we had to roll out," he continued. "We'd go outside and get lined up and have roll call to see who's missing."
Simmons said the officers in charge of the Watoga camp were nice to him.
"They were lieutenants and captains," he said. "They were real nice guys."
Simmons didn't recall any discipline problems at the camp.
"It seemed like everybody just cooperated and things went along pretty smooth," he said. "Whatever they wanted done, we tried to do it."
Simmons graduated from Green Bank High School in 1942, but didn't have to return to the CCC. WWII and the need for military enlistees forced an end to the conservation program.
"In December of 1941, history changed the world, the CCC camp was dissolved and turned over to the Army," Simmons said. "It was on a weekend when that happened and I was at home. The word started going from people to people and a lot of them were saying, 'where in the world is Pearl Harbor?'"
After graduating in June 1942, Simmons and his stepfather traveled to Baltimore to find work. Simmons found a job as a typist at the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, D.C., but his stepfather had no luck and returned to Durbin.
"He applied for work as a carpenter and I applied for work as an apprentice machinist," said Simmons. "A typing job came up first and I got a job in the Navy Yard as a typist."
In February 1943, Simmons was ordered to report for military service. His Navy officer supervisor told him to sign up for the Navy.
"The captain came to me and told me, 'when you go down there to be inducted, get in the Navy line. They'll put a uniform on you and put you right back at this desk,' he said. "I knew there were a lot of sailors working at the Navy Yard. But the day I went, there was only one line and it was for the Army."
Simmons was drafted into the Army and given a week to report for duty.
"My stepfather came to Washington," he said. "The Navy had notified him that they had an opening. He came to Washington and I went with him that morning to the personnel office on Eleventh Street. I told him, 'I've got to go.' We shook hands through a metal screen and he said, 'good luck, son,' and that's the last I saw the man."
Simmons' stepfather died before he returned from the war.
Simmons was assigned as an artilleryman and attended basic training at Fort Lee, Virginia and artillery training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The young soldier traveled cross-country on a train to San Francisco, where he was re-assigned as a military policeman with the 40th Infantry Division.
For the next two years, the 40th Division fought the Japanese in the South Pacific at Guadalcanal, New Britain and the Philippines. Simmons performed his duties with distinction and experienced many close calls by artillery and mortar fire. He was on a ship to Korea - still held by the Japanese - when the war ended.
Simmons was infected with malaria as he fought with his division in the swampy South Pacific islands. After returning to West Virginia, he was treated for the disease at Davis Memorial Hospital. During a visit at the hospital, he caught the eye of a young nurse, Margaret.
The couple were married a few months later and were inseparable for 63 years, until Margaret's death in 2008. The couple had two sons, Alan and Thomas.
The Pocahontas Times plans to conduct Veterans History Project interviews with both Simmons and French, which will contain more details of the mens' military exploits in WWII.
For information on the State CCC Museum, see wva-ccc-legacy.org on the Internet.