Billy Hoke worked at Warlong Glove in April 1943.
In the two years that followed, the teenage Hoke left his hometown of Conover to visit several U.S. states and walk all over Europe.
Along the way he dodged German torpedoes, avoided enemy gunfire and lost part of his left leg after stepping on a snow-covered ground explosive. He did it all as a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard during World War II.
“I was in the 109th infantry, 28th division,” Hoke said this week during an interview with The O-N-E about his military service. “I walked everywhere I went.
I got tired of walking behind everybody, and I wanted to go first."
So Hoke trained to be a scout, a serviceman who checked for enemy occupation before leading a group of troops through an area. He also completed amphibious and hand-to-hand combat training.
During the 1944 American invasion at Omaha Beach in France, his company crossed the English Channel on a ship. He remembers airplanes filled the sky above.
“One airplane dropped a note, ‘Invasion in France,’ which I knew,” he said. “I never seen so many airplanes in my life in the sky. They were just uniform, going and coming.”
Hoke’s company landed at Omaha Beach after the invasion ended.
“They had the bodies stacked up, the dead like cord wood,” he said. “I recognized one, a redhead boy who I was sure was Floyd Sigmon. I went to school with him.”
From the beach, Hoke traveled through French towns that were “bombed clean” of buildings. He walked through France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
In August 1944, he marched into Paris with a group of American troops who liberated the city from German control. He remembers being offered something to drink upon arrival.
“Anything you wanted,” he said. “I took the hot stuff because I hadn’t had any in so long. When we went to houses, they had 50-gallon drums of what they called cider. It was like beer. It was all empty when we left there.”
Cold weather made travel hard on American troops in Europe, Hoke said.
The military only issued thin high-top shoes, and snow covered the ground in many areas. Enemies often used the snow to hide explosives.
One day, he walked over an explosive.
“It blew my left leg off to my ankle,” Hoke said. “I lost a lot of blood.”
Two fellow soldiers helped carry him what he believes was at least three miles to an aid station. He said he wanted aid station workers to cut his leg off with a trench knife, and he eventually lost a part of that leg below his knee. Doctors gave him a prosthetic replacement at a hospital in Texas, where he received his discharge on Aug. 2, 1945.
Hoke returned to Conover, and he went back to work at Warlong Glove. A manufacturing career followed until he retired in 1989.
In 2001 — 56 years after completing his military service — a nephew in Greenville, S.C., called a TV news reporter after seeing an advertisement seeking veteran stories. That reporter made a connection between Hoke and Sgt. Christmas, a veteran who lived in upstate South Carolina.
Christmas was one of the two men who carried Hoke to the aid station in Europe after the explosive incident that cost Hoke part of his leg.
“They brought Sgt. Christmas up here; they brought his whole family up here,” Hoke said. “They interviewed us both. It made you feel so good because he saved my life.”
Hoke and Christmas stayed in touch until Christmas died a couple years back. Hoke, now 87, attended his funeral.
This summer, he attended a service to honor veterans at Omaha Beach. He said he didn’t recognize much of the area because it was rebuilt following the destruction of World War II.
Hoke stays active, bowling each week, calling homebound senior adults and exercising. He said he believes his faith as a young man allowed him to live through the war to enjoy those activities.
“I carried a New Testament (Bible) with me every step of the way,” he said. “I read at least a chapter a day. That was what got me through, I’m sure. Went through a lot of miracles."