Published 12:00 am Monday, August 12, 2013

Today, James Morehead’s life is a quiet one.

He’s 92 years old, and lives in the home his family built off Flat Rock Road, just outside the town limit of Landis.

What you cannot see by looking at him, or shaking his hand, are the places he’s been, the jobs he’s held, the things he’s experienced.

Seventy years ago, Morehead was fighting in World War II, in the Pacific.

He served with the 93rd Infantry Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment, one of the African American units of what was then a predominantly segregated U.S. Army.

He had been drafted before the U.S. entered World War II, and said he recalls taking his initial training at Ft. Bragg before heading for duty overseas.

“Sleeping on the ground, drinking water out of mud holes, all that stuff,” Morehead said, as he sat in the quiet living room of his home, with his wife of 61 years, Virgie, sitting nearby.

Seven decades later, Morehead doesn’t have much memorabilia from his Army days.

For one thing, he said, a suitcase containing a lot of items went missing from their former home in Kannapolis during a move, years ago.

The few pictures that remain are scattered among family members, they said.

But despite his age, he still has memories and stories to tell.

Those memories and stories inspired the staff at Chris Gardner Insurance Agency, in Kannapolis, to honor Morehead with a brick paver in the courtyard of Veterans Park.

The engraved brick, soon to be installed, will bear his name and the name of the 369th Infantry, the unit he served with in the South Pacific.

It’s an honor that Morehead, whom Gardner described in an e-mail as “a very humble and awesome man,” said he was surprised and pleased to receive.

Long before he was a soldier, and long before he met Virgie, James Morehead worked in Midway, at Grant Motor Company.

“Delivering cars, washing cars, greasing cars and all,” Morehead said, “pickup and delivery.”

Morehead’s parents had passed away when he was 13 years old, and he had gone to stay with family members.

But, as Morehead’s son, Marquette Morehead, recalls, he never stopped loving his folks.

“Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, for as long as he was able, he would go to their graves,” Marquette said in a phone interview. “He did that as long as I can remember.”

That was one way that the elder Morehead taught his kids to honor their parents, Marquette said.

When James Morehead was drafted, the U.S. had not yet entered World War II.

In the months following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Morehead said he found himself in the Pacific theater.

“I was overseas when they run MacArthur off,” he said, referring to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s fallback from the Philippines in March 1942.

During his time in the Army, Morehead said, he was a rifleman.

“I was an expert with a shoulder weapon, and a marksman with a .45,” Morehead said.

“If I put that weapon up to my shoulder,” he said, raising his hands to mimic aiming a rifle, “I could burn you down!”

A far cry from the young man who delivered cars in Kannapolis, perhaps.

But Morehead spoke simply of his time as a soldier. He recounted digging foxholes, hiding out from enemy soldiers.

And, he said, of seeing the remains of soldiers with whom he had served.

On one occasion, Morehead said, he and his fellow soldiers were almost taken by surprise.

He told of seeing a Japanese soldier tied to a tree, looking as though dead.

“My lieutenant stopped me and said, ‘Shoot that so-and-so!’” Morehead said.

When he fired, Morehead said, the soldier jumped, showing that he wasn’t really dead.

Morehead said that was a tactic that Japanese soldiers used to ambush passing Allied troops. Once the soldiers were close by, he said, the Japanese would throw a hand grenade, or begin firing.

“It makes me nervous now,” Morehead said. “I said, ‘Lord have mercy, if we’d have gone in there, he’d have dropped that on us.’”

Another time, Morehead said, he saw a man drowned after disobeying an order about not swimming alone.

“Those are the kind of days you don’t like to think about,” Morehead said.

There were some funny stories, too.

Morehead said that he was stationed on the island of Okinawa, where food was very scarce.

One day, when he’d managed to get away for a while, “we were round this little eating place,” Morehead said.

“Around the girls!” his wife, Virgie, chimed in.

“And I said to them, ‘What about another piece of that chicken, or wild turkey, whatever it is?’”

It wasn’t chicken, Morehead said, or turkey.

“She said, ‘He threw down coconuts for you! I cooked him real good for you!” Morehead said. “I said, ‘Lord God almighty, I ate a monkey!’”

Indeed, there are published reports that suggest some Japanese ate monkey meat during wartime scarcity.

No matter whether it was widespread or not, Morehead said he didn’t stick around to see what else was cooking.

Another time on Okinawa, Morehead said, he was scolded for giving food rations to children who were begging for food.

Later, he said, some people tried to raid the Allied camp for food, and were killed.

Once the war ended, Morehead was discharged relatively quickly.

And, he said, he went back to his quiet life, working once more at Grant Motor Co. before taking a series of other blue-collar jobs.

“Driving a wrecker, picking up wrecked cars … I don’t know how many years,” Morehead said.

In 1952, he married Virgie, whom he had met at Mt. Calvary Fire Baptized Holiness Church in Kannapolis.

Virgie, 12 years younger than James, said she was mature for her age and that the two of them got along well.

“He used to talk about (the war) a lot, and before we moved, we still had beads from overseas,” Virgie said.

They went on to have three children, two daughters and a son.

Marquette said he used to watch the TV show “Combat” with his father, which would prompt James to tell stories of his time in service.

“He’s always been an inspiration to me,” Marquette said. “I wouldn’t be who I am, or where I am today, without his guidance.”

The elder Morehead was a member of one of the segregated African American units in World War II.

Decades later, after an initial stint as an enlisted man in the 1970’s, Marquette attended Winston Salem State University, graduated from the ROTC program and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army.

He retired as a lieutenant colonel, with a total of 37 years of active and reserve service.

Today, Marquette works for the government of Fulton County, Georgia.

He said his father, and other African American servicemen, were “pioneers” who helped overcome segregation and adversity.

“I try to carry that banner proudly,” Marquette said. All Americans, he said, should love their country, and be proud of all who served.

Back in Rowan County, James Morehead’s family room has photos of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends.

Looking back over his time in the U.S. Army, serving in the South Pacific in a war that changed history, Morehead speaks simply of the lessons he said he learned.

“Be good to yourself, you know, and be honest,” Morehead said. “You don’t know what you might have to go through.”

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.