WWII veteran who runs deli plans to visit D.C. aboard Honor Flight

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 30, 2011

MOORESVILLE — Every day, as he cooks over the grill at Side Door Deli, Bill Koury wears a white sailor’s cap.
His customers probably wouldn’t recognize him without it.
Through the years, they’ve heard some of Koury’s World War II stories about his time as a gunner’s mate on the USS Dextrous, a mine sweeper in both the European and Pacific theaters.
In this comfortable restaurant, heavy with the trappings of NASCAR and college football, it’s hard to picture the 86-year-old Koury once manning a 20-mm gun and shooting sharks, so they wouldn’t reach sailors in the water from a sinking sister ship.
“I was a better shooter than I was a swimmer,” Koury says.
And it’s surreal to hear Koury talk about the Dextrous, hovering off the coast of Japan when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
On a moonlit night, as the mine sweeper was trying to be as quiet as possible, the fallout “ash” or debris from the bomb covered the Dextrous and its crew.
“We thought a volcano had erupted,” Koury says of the men’s reaction, not knowing about the secret weapon until the ship’s radio man told them what really had happened.
Koury says the “soot” from the bomb plugged up the ship’s guns, meaning he and others had to take the guns apart in the dark, clean and reassemble them. At the time, Koury says, he could do it blindfolded.
The ash from the bomb remained on the crew for two days before they were allowed to take baths in shifts and scrub it off. Koury judges today that the Dextrous was about 50 miles away from Hiroshima at the time.
Koury will be taking those stories with him on the Sept. 17 Flight of Honor, which again will be flying local World War II veterans from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial dedicated to their greatest generation.
His trip is being paid for by students of West Rowan Middle School, thanks to its student council and teacher advisors Holly Brumley and Ashley Dunn. Brumley has been a faithful Side Door Deli customer and friend of Bill and Libby Koury’s for many years.
Sponsoring Koury fits in well with the school’s “Bulldog Pride” emphasis this year on patriotic activities.
The Flight of Honor costs at least $500 per veteran.
“I wanted the kids to have a relationship with whomever went,” Brumley says. “He’s awesome, he really is. Bill just has some fantastic stories.”
When Koury returns from the flight, he will probably visit the school and share his experience through the school’s television station, WDOG.
“He was speechless,” Brumley says of Koury’s reaction.
Koury dropped out of high school in Mooresville and joined the Navy in 1942 when he was 17 — an age that required his mother to sign for him.
His Navy buddies on the Dextrous called him “Blackie” during the war, in recognition of his jet black hair and dark complexion.
The Dextrous was one of seven ships in a squadron that left Norfolk, Va., in November 1943. Only two of the seven would ever return. The Dextrous actually towed the other back into port.
Koury remembers the Dextrous’ being the lead ship in a daylong patrol until it was finally allowed to drop to the rear, so the men could eat dinner. In the ship’s mess, the Dextrous crew heard a huge explosion. The ship taking its place in the lead had been blown up, leading to Koury’s trying to protect survivors in the water by shooting the sharks.
Koury describes how his mine sweeper was a flat-bottomed boat, whose design came in handy when enemy torpedoes would miss by going under the ship.
“We would just roll,” he says. Using a scrap piece of paper at one of the deli tables, Koury diagrams the formations minesweepers would use on their missions.
The Dextrous’ European duties took the mine sweeper to Tunisia, Naples and the Gulf of Salerno and then to the Anzio-Nettuno beachhead, where the ship swept mines prior to the next day’s surprise assault.
The Dextrous patrolled and provided anti-aircraft fire during the fighting on shore. Koury usually manned a 40mm gun.
Except for two trips to Tunisia to resupply, the Dextrous stayed off the coast of Anzio until mid August 1944, when it sailed from Naples to conduct pre-invasion mine-sweeping off the southern coast of France.
By October, the Dextrous was escorting a convoy of landing ship tanks (LSTs) back to Norfolk. Koury and the Dextrous later sailed from Norfolk Feb. 15, 1945, for the Pacific, through the Panama Canal. Stops and missions in the Pacific theater included Pearl Harbor, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and mine-sweeping operations connected to the final raids on Japan.
Libby Koury says her husband keeps the citations and medals he earned during the war at home. He came through the fighting without an injury, though he contracted malaria in the Pacific. His three days in the brig for bucking a young lieutenant were cut short by two days because of the Anzio invasion.
When the war was over, Koury returned to finish high school and graduate from Belmont Abbey College. He also attended Notre Dame for more than a semester before his funding from the GI Bill ran out and he had to return to North Carolina.
“I enjoyed it, except for the cold,” Koury says of his brief time in South Bend, Ind.
Everyone who knows Koury knows how big a Notre Dame football fan he is to this day. All the Notre Dame memorabilia on the deli’s walls give him away, too.
Bill and Libby met on a blind date, when she was attending Catawba College in Salisbury and Bill was a traveling salesman, calling on merchants in North and South Carolina for his mother’s clothing store in Mooresville.
Bill double-dated with a buddy who was going to see his girlfriend at the college, where Libby was the Indian mascot.
“I went wild over her,” Bill says.
They have been married 58 years. Libby tells people they really have been wed 116 years because they’ve lived and worked together the whole time.
“Isn’t that double?” she asks.
Steve “Monk” Brannon, one of their regulars at the Side Door Deli, kids Libby that she got drunk one time in her life — and that was the day she married Bill.
After his mother’s clothing store went out of business, Bill and Libby opened their first Side Door Deli in downtown Mooresville in 1968. They were in that location for 10 years, a spot on North Main Street for another 10 years and then built their low-slung brick building at 548 N. Main St. near the old flour mill in 1988.
“It’s just weird that all three of the buildings have had to have a side-door entrance,” Libby says. “It just happened.”
Always wearing his sailor’s cap — he has an ample supply to call on — Bill is chief cook and bottle-washer.
“I do the rest,” Libby says. It really is a two-person operation, though both Bill and Libby are now in their 80s.
The deli dishes out sandwiches and specials to mostly regular customers, who are friends, too. Their sons, Chuck and Michael, are in and out of the restaurant frequently for meals, conversation or just to check on their parents.
“Nobody’s better in the world, that’s a fact,” Brannon says of Bill and Libby. “I’m a Richard Petty man, and I put them up there with him.”
Libby says Bill’s being at the deli all day is as much his hobby as it is his vocation. He has no plans to retire.
“He loves coming here, pure and simple,” Libby says. “He enjoys the people and loves coming to work.”
How much is Koury looking forward to the Flight of Honor?
“He’s more than excited,” Libby says.
Koury had another once-in-a-lifetime trip a couple of years ago when his nephew, David Roueche, took him to a Notre Dame football game — the first one Bill ever attended. They even visited his old dormitory from 1950.
In the game, Navy beat Notre Dame.
The old gunner’s mate figures it was one of the those contests he was going to win no matter what.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.