Siblings to visit memorial in honor of brother
SALISBURY — When brothers Paul and James Stirewalt accompany other World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, they will have time during the chartered flight to think of another Stirewalt.
Their oldest brother, Ernest.
Ernest Stirewalt is buried in a military cemetery in Italy, killed by an enemy mortar shell Oct. 10, 1944.
At the time, Paul was part of the Army’s 2nd Cavalry, the war machinery barreling toward Germany after landing on Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion that June.
James was back home in China Grove, finishing up his last year of high school but determined to enter the war as soon as he graduated.
They’ve never been to Ernest’s grave. Going to see the World War II Memorial in Washington as part of Saturday’s Flight of Honor for 120 veterans is the next best thing.
“We want to do it in honor and memory of Ernest,” James Stirewalt says.
Paul is 88. James will be 84 next week.
The Stirewalt family was no stranger to war. Their great-grandfather C.M. Stirewalt was killed in the Civil War and was one of hundreds of Confederate soldiers buried in a mass grave at Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Great-Grandfather Blackwelder (on their mother’s side) belonged to the Home Guard, and they’ve heard stories of how he successfully hid horses in rural western Rowan County as Union Gen. George Stoneman raided Salisbury.
Their father, Murrel Stirewalt, served as a private in World War I and was training in South Carolina when that war ended.
It was a Sunday afternoon when the bad news about Ernest reached the family in China Grove. James and his parents had gone to a neighbor’s house for Sunday dinner, but in the afternoon his mother, Ruby, was feeling ill and asked Murrel to take her to a doctor in Concord.
James returned home. Soon a taxi pulled up to the Stirewalt farmhouse, and a military officer emerged asking to speak with his mother — he had a telegram for her. James realized the telegram did not hold good news, and he rode with the officer to the Concord physician’s home, where his parents were just emerging.
“It was a sad occasion, I will tell you,” James recalls.
The telegram actually said that Ernest was missing in action. The family held off on letting Paul know. In January 1945, official news of Ernest’s death came while Ruby and James were working a shift in the weave room at Cannon Mills.
Murrel Stirewalt showed up at the plant and asked to speak with his wife and son, telling them privately that Ernest’s body had been found.
“We all agreed that Paul needed to know,” James Stirewalt says.
Paul Stirewalt received word of his brother’s death while on the front lines in Europe. When he received the telegram, he showed it to his lieutenant, who offered him sympathy.
“But that’s about all you can do,” Paul says, looking back.
Some of his buddies suggested avenging his brother’s death by taking out some Germans in the next fighting, but Paul knew enough not to lose his head, or life, with reckless, emotional actions.
All three Stirewalt boys were drafted — Ernest in 1942, Paul in 1943 and James in 1945.
The day he turned 18, James called the draft board and said, “I want you to call me in the next call-up. I want to get in this war. They killed my brother, and I don’t want to wait any more.”
Uncle Sam obliged James, and he spent most of his two years as part of the occupational forces in Germany.
Ernest took his training at Camp Adair in Oregon before being sent to campaigns in North Africa and Italy.
Paul made training stops in South Carolina and Tennessee, before shipping out for Europe from Camp Kilmer, N.J. He was part of the tanks and half-tracks — he drove a half-track (tires in front, tank treads in back) — landing at Utah Beach on D-Day.
The first thing he saw was a German ammunition carrier, whose driver, still holding the steering wheel, was burnt to the size of a 6-year-old.
From the D-Day landing, it was on to the well-defensed and scary Normandy hedgerows, where “there could be a sniper right behind you to pick you off,” Paul says.
He remembers having to roll over disabled equipment and bodies, “like they were hoppy-toads in the road.”
His half-track had a 50-caliber machine gun on top, and it pulled a trailer load of ammunition or 3-inch guns. Every time they fired the 3-inch gun, the men were told, it represented an $18.75 war bond.
Other war images have stayed with Paul, such as witnessing Gen. George Patton’s fearlessly leading his men into battle. He also remembers first a lieutenant, then a major, scolding his company about being undisciplined, only to see each of those officers seriously wounded a short time later.
Paul escaped the war without being wounded. He had a closer call before the war when daredevil Ernest flipped their car on the way to the movies in Kannapolis, throwing him out of the vehicle.
For Paul, the war ended with his unit in Prague, Czechoslovakia, before it moved across the border to occupy a small German town until he was sent home. He would work 44 years at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis as a towel inspector and in process sampling.
James Stirewalt went through his basic and infantry training at Fort Bragg and in Little Rock, Ark., before shipping out to France from Camp Kilmer. James received training in high-frequency communications systems, stations for which were set up every 40 miles and monitored 24 hours a day.
While he was in Germany, James attended some of the war trials of doctors and nurses who had conducted experiments with Jewish prisoners at the concentration camps — things as horrible, he says, as testing whether human skin could be used in making lamp shades.
Ruby Stirewalt informed her youngest son that the Red Cross could help with travel arrangements for him to visit Ernest’s grave in Italy. She was right, and James made plans to make the trip during a two-week furlough.
His itinerary called for him to fly out of Germany for Rome at 4:30 a.m., then proceed to Pisa. His brother is buried about 7 miles outside of Florence. But before James’ furlough took effect, Ruby Stirewalt heard on the news that a plane had crashed over the Swiss Alps, and all aboard had died.
She sent a telegram to James that said, “Don’t go to Italy. Stop.”
With the Red Cross’ assistance again, James worked out another plan in which he would travel to Italy by train. But his mother wired back that he should not go to Italy under any circumstances.
As it turned out, the flight James was supposed to take to Italy also crashed over the Swiss Alps, killing some of the passengers on board. He obeyed his mother and did not go to Italy.
A retired Lutheran minister, James Stirewalt and his wife, Martha, had three children: John, Emily and Lisa.
Paul and his wife, Sarah, had two children: Larry and Kathy.
Ruby Stirewalt lived to be 97 and was touched when her grandson, John Stirewalt, was able to visit Ernest’s grave and take photographs after singing with Lenoir-Rhyne College’s A Cappella Choir European tour in 1983.
This week, when Paul and James met at James’ house in Salisbury, they looked at the framed photograph from the Italian cemetery that John had presented to Ruby.
They also lingered over a photograph of Ernest, taken during the war.
It’s funny how 67 years ago can seem like yesterday.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.