Memories of war bind brothers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 4, 2011

CHINA GROVE — It was a long day for James Wellmon. The Navy higher-ups at Floyd Bennett Field in New York decided they should document the historic visit June 19, 1945, of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, coming home after the surrender of Germany in World War II.
They drafted Wellmon, a 19-year-old aerial photographer, for the job. Wellmon took photographs of Eisenhower getting off the plane at Bennett Field.
He rode six cars behind the general during his 37-mile journey through the streets of New York and the ticker-tape ride down Fifth Avenue.
Four million New Yorkers turned out for Eisenhower — still the largest parade in the city’s history.
Wellmon also clicked pictures of Eisenhower and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on the steps of City Hall, where Eisenhower received the city’s official greeting.
Not bad for a mill worker’s son from Kannapolis who had been drafted just 16 months earlier.
“I shook hands with him twice,” Wellmon says.
Wellmon personally greeted Eisenhower at Floyd Bennett Field. Later, at a spot where Eisenhower was paying tribute to the Statue of Liberty, Wellmon happened to be in his path again.
“You’re the fellow I shook hands with at the field,” Eisenhower said, squeezing Wellmon’s hand a second time.
A New York newspaper ran a photograph the next day with the caption: “Unknown GI shakes hands with Gen. Eisenhower.”
The unknown GI was Wellmon.
Eisenhower’s long journey through New York lasted from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The young and spry Wellmon, who stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall, climbed up on the edge of a press box where Eisenhower was making a speech so he could snap a photograph.
A Navy commodore, he recalls, did not take kindly to that move.
Wellmon also was jostled by an aggressive newspaper photographer as he was trying to get a picture of Eisenhower emerging from City Hall with La Guardia, and it ruined the exposure.
A few days after Eisenhower’s triumphant return to New York, Wellmon came home on leave and had a stationery box full of photographs, including about a dozen of Eisenhower, who would later become a two-term president.
Only a few of those photographs remain, including one of Eisenhower getting off the plane at the New York airfield and another of Eisenhower and La Guardia at City Hall. Both are a bit blurry.
James’ brother Joe Wellmon remembers a close-up photograph of Eisenhower that he is sure remains somewhere in the family archives, though he can’t lay his hands on it these days. Other Eisenhower and war-era photographs fell victim over the years to children with ballpoint pens, Joe says, until he gathered what remained for safekeeping.
A Marine toward the end of World War II and into the post-war period, Joe still has numerous photographs of the brothers’ days in the military, including a hilarious one showing James’ small stature next to one of the biggest men in the Navy.
“He wanted a picture to send to his wife,” James recalls of the big fellow.
James essentially knew nothing about cameras before he left for the war, and he received his training in aerial photography at stops such as Chincoteague, Va., Boca Chico, Fla., and New York.
After the war, he dropped any interest he might have had in photography and spent his working years at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis. Now 86, he lives with his daughter Jeanne in China Grove.
Some blocks away, 84-year-old brother Clarence “Joe” Wellmon lives as the unofficial keeper of the family’s history. Their great-grandfather, Sampson C. Wellmon, fought at Petersburg in the Civil War. The family settled in Kannapolis in 1916 with their grandfather Joe’s arrival.
There were five Wellmon boys and two girls in the family.
Twins Will and Bill and another brother, Al, gained some notoriety as Golden Glove boxers in the flyweight division. Will won, in fact, the 1947 Southeast championship in his weight class before serving in Korea and building a solid career in the Air Force.
Bill lost an eye when he was 11 and didn’t serve in the military. Al was part of the occupational army in Germany during the same period when singer Elvis Presley was there serving his hitch.
Al and the twins, now deceased, all ended up working for the Guilford County tax collector, while James and Joe built their long careers at Cannon Mills, just like the boys’ father, Grady M. Wellmon.
As a boy in Kannapolis, James Wellmon delivered newspapers, worked as a ticket-taker, usher and projectionist at the Swanee Theatre and held down a job in the bleachery department at the mill before he was drafted in February 1944.
Both James and Joe attended Cannon High School. The Wellmon family lived on South Rose Avenue, not far from today’s A.L. Brown High.
Joe Wellmon worked at the Colonial Theatre before he enlisted as a 17-year-old in the Marines. Enlisting that young required the signature OK from his parents.
It was the spring of 1945, and Joe says within two weeks he was begging to leave the tough basic training at Parris Island.
“I sure wanted out of there,” he says, remembering how radio personality Walter Winchell always closed his wartime program by encouraging Americans to write to the boys overseas and pray for the boys at Parris Island.
Joe would spend four years in the Marines, serving at various times with the 1st, 2nd and 6th divisions. His stint included 28 months in northern China as part of the forces accepting the Japanese surrender — and blocking the Russians from moving into China.
After returning home, Joe Wellmon would work in the Plant 1 Supply Department before becoming overseer (a title that later changed to manager) of the supply rooms or departments at Plant 8 in China Grove, Plant 16 (Swink Plant) on U.S. 29, Plant 1 in Kannapolis and Plant 6 in Concord.
He retired as a supervisor after 35 years with Cannon Mills, then worked a similar job for almost five years with Isenhour Brick and Tile in Salisbury. He left Isenhour just weeks before his 62nd birthday, then began transporting cars as needed for Salisbury car dealerships — a job he still does on occasion.
Meanwhile, James seemingly worked every job Cannon Mills had for 50 years.
“The best place in the world,” brother Joe confirms of the textile mill. “I was a linthead and proud of it.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or