Happy birthday: James Deal, WWII vet, turns 100

Published 12:05 am Sunday, November 20, 2022

FAITH — World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient James “Jim” Deal celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday, receiving all kinds of gifts and cards from family, friends and others who wanted to show appreciation for his military service.

A surprise party was hosted the previous week by Deal’s three daughters, Melissa, Reba, Paula and his granddaughter, Jordan, at the Shiloh Reformed Church, which Deal has attended since 1948 and is currently the oldest member. About 150 people showed and those in attendance were church friends, neighbors, veterans, railroad retirees and fellow Legionnaires. Deal has been a member of American Legion Post 327 for 75 years.

“It went really great, he was completely surprised and taken off-guard,” said Deal’s youngest daughter, Melissa Waller. “He thought that he was going to the church to get his picture taken with a group, that’s what I told him, so he was really bulled over.”

Waller asked him at the party if they pulled one over on him, to which Deal responded, “100 percent.” Commenting on Deal’s service during World War II, Waller said she was “extremely proud.”

Born in Woodleaf in 1922, Deal was the youngest of 12. He was raised on a farm and attended Woodleaf High School.

Deal was drafted into the army at 18 years old and traveled to Fort Lewis in Washington where he underwent a year of training, becoming a member of the 737th Tank Battalion. Deal served as the gunner inside a Sherman tank.

At Fort Lewis, Deal and the other recruits learned how to shoot, operate the tanks and went out to perform maneuvers in The Oregon Desert. 

After training, Deal was sent to England for 3 months, where he and his squad awaited the arrival of D-Day, which occurred on June 6, 1944. Six days later, Deal and his battalion crossed the English Channel, landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 12, 1944. Getting the tanks on the beach was tricky, as they had to wait until low tide. Once they rolled up on the beach, the tanks were met with multiple defenses such as hedgerows, spikes, trees and German sniper fire.

The battalion traveled through France, crossing the Seine River and into the Ardennes Forest, where they prepared for The Battle of the Bulge, serving under General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Deal and the 737th Tank Battalion were instrumental in providing support for ground troops.

“The last battle we fought over there we had to drive 110 miles through the snow and ice,” Deal said. “We got there to help finish The Battle of The Bulge, and after we won that it was one of my happiest days.”

While Deal was traveling through the Ardennes, he stepped on a land mine and shrapnel hit both of his thighs. Luckily, his squad was near a field medic. The medics packed his wound and sent him to the closest hospital. He was boarded on a C-47 airplane and flown back to a general hospital in England, where the doctors performed surgery on his legs. 

All in all, Deal and his Battalion saw 299 days of actual combat.

After recovering enough from his wounds, Deal boarded a ship, learning about the war’s end while he was traveling home. Once back in the States, he was sent to a hospital in Florida so his wounds could continue to heal.

After the hospital stay, Deal traveled to Camp Butner in North Carolina, where he was honorably discharged from the Army. He moved to Faith in 1949 and got a job with the Southern Railroad, working as a car inspector for 35 years.

“I got me a job with the Southern Railroad, worked 35 and then retired 40, that’s kind of a record isn’t it?” Deal joked.

He also married his wife, Polly, who passed away in 2015.

Nowadays, Deal said he likes to attend as many veterans meetings as he can. He has traveled twice on the “Queen City Flight of Honor,” a trip that takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit military monuments and memorials like the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.

Deal also attended a 737th Tank Battalion reunion every year, becoming close with his fellow veterans and their families. When the reunions were on the verge of coming to an end and the number of veterans started to dwindle because they passed away, Deal and his family brought the reunions to Salisbury, hosting them for eight years.

Only two of the members of the 737th Tank Battalion are still known to be alive: Deal and his friend, Manny Perez.

Deal has also traveled back to Normandy and has twice visited The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

“I’ll tell you, I’ve been enjoying my life,” Deal said. “The last three years especially, I really have enjoyed it.”