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Saluting our heroes

August 17, 2011

For Catawba County native James P. Isenhower Sr., military service has become a family tradition.

From the time he and his brothers volunteered for the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II through the same volunteer spirit his grandsons exhibit in their own military careers, the family has produced three generations of soldiers.

And the 90-year-old resident of Conover can't help but be a little proud.

"I am proud of what I did," he said, adding he was even more proud of the service of two brothers, his sons and grandsons. "I respect them very much."

Isenhower, "Jim" to his friends, enlisted in the military in November 1942 and served until November 1945. At the time he enlisted, the U.S. military still employed a draft, but like his brothers Sam and Joe, Isenhower volunteered for military service. Still, he admits he felt a little bit of pressure to sign up for the war.

"My father died just before the war, and my mother was in charge of the whole family.

She did a good job," he said, adding when his father died at age 51, he returned home to help out in Conover. "I was deferred, so I could help run the family businesses.

"But my mother's friends kept asking, 'When will Jimmy go to war?' My mother couldn't stand the ladies talking," he said. "I went in during the fall of 1942; and a lot of the guys I went to Concordia (Lutheran Church) with, they went in in 1941."

With his entry into the military, the Isenhower family had three sons serving in World War II at the same time. Serving as part of Patton's U.S. Third Army, Isenhower's older brother Sam was a captain, while his younger brother Joe was an "enlisted" man.

"Joe had a rough time," he said. "He is a hero as far as we are concerned."

Isenhower's younger brother, Stine, entered the military late in the war and didn't see active duty, but at one point the family's four sons were all serving in the U.S. military.

"I went into the Navy. I was hoping to be a storekeeper," he said of the Naval role of supply clerk, "but they put me in the dental corps."

Isenhower completed basic training during November 1942 in Norfolk, Va., and spent the spring and summer of 1943 training at dental hospitals in Portsmouth,Va., Norfolk and Bainbridge, Md.

"While I was at the hospital at Portsmouth, I played baseball for four months," he proudly said of a "claim to fame."

"I played in two games against Phil Rizzuto and Ted Williams," he continued, adding he maintained contact with Rizzuto when he was a television announcer for the New York Yankees.

The military certainly wasn't all games with future baseball stars.

"Being a corpsman, I had to study a lot of medicine," he said, adding he was a pharmacy mate, third class.

After his training, Isenhower worked as an assistant for dental doctors, including an assignment in Parris Island, S.C.

"While I was at Parris Island, we pulled teeth for young boys coming in there, 17-18 years old," he said, adding many of the young men came from West Virginia coal mines and lacked proper dental health. "We took out every one of the teeth they had - their teeth were in such bad shape."

Later in the war, Isenhower was stationed on ships closer to combat, an assignment that, he said, took him through Pearl Harbor three or four times.

"I worked in three different hospital ships. I wasn't really a true sailor because I got seasick a lot, and I wanted to come home real bad, quite often," he said, adding that among those ships were the USS Mifflin and the USS Hornet, which later went down.

"Working on the hospital ships, we saw a lot of guys coming back that were hurt real bad. Most, I didn't see because I was with the dental part of it, and they went straight to the hospital part of it."

While stationed on ships, Isenhower said he was off the coast of Japan twice, and when the war ended he was in Okinawa.

"As we left Okinawa, we got into a terrible typhoon, but I wasn't sea sick at all because I was coming home," he said, adding the typhoon was the only excitement of the return trip. "I never shot a gun until we were coming back home on the USS Mifflin. The captain said, 'Let the corpsmen get rid of the ammunition.'"

"I grabbed one of those big guns, and one shot nearly shook me to death," he continued. "I came back to Portland, Oregon, where we nearly capsized when we were coming off the boat. Then I got aboard a troop train and came back to Norfolk."

'"I am definitely proud of what I did" he said. "I looked after those that got hurt, more than anything else."

Today, Isenhower is a member of Newton American Legion Post 16, and as a Legionnaire for 64 years, he is among the post's senior members.

A soldier's son

While Isenhower volunteered for World War II following a little bit of pressure, the story for his son, Jim Jr. was completely different. He attended the U.S. MIlitary Academy at West Point and graduated in 1969.

"He went on his own," he said. "Why? I have no idea."

Jim Jr.'s younger sister, Lynn Mullinax, said he was motivated by a love of flight.

"He was always wanting to fly," she said. "He got his pilot's license on the same day he got his driver's license. He was destined to fly."

Flying appealed to Isenhower's youngest son, Alan.He has been an airline pilot for 30 years.

An "overachiever," Jim Jr. was an Eagle Scout, played football at Newton-Conover High School, and Lynn said, he was always "very oriented toward the military.

After West Point, Jim Jr. was commissioned into the infantry. He attended and graduated the Army Airborne School, the Infantry Officer Basic Course, the Army Aviation School, the Armor Officer Advanced Course and the Armed Forces Staff College.

"He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam," Isenhower said of Jim Jr.'s military career that included assignments of mechanized infantry platoon leader, brigade headquarters company commander in the 3rd Infantry Division; rotary wing section leader and chief of plans for the directorate of training management at the Army Aviation Center.

Jim Jr. also served in various other career military roles, including commander of an aviation company in the 17th Aviation Group, and was secretary to the general staff and Brigade S3 in the 1st Infantry Division.

"He served in Vietnam the last two years," Isenhower said. "He talked very little about Vietnam, but said he helped bring out a lot of the citizens of Vietnam, the last year especially. He helped transport many of the Vietnamese and their belongings."

Later military assignments after Vietnam took Jim Jr. throughout Asia, including Laos and Korea, as well as Germany and to bases around the United States.

"He was getting ready to go back to Germany when he discovered a lump on his neck," Isenhower said, adding he always suspected his son had been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

That lump proved to be cancer, but even while he was sick, Mullinax said "he refused to leave" his military career.

"They were ready to discharge him, but he stayed three years beyond the initial diagnosis," she said.

Jim Jr. died in Ocotber 1985, at age 39, ending a military career in which he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. Awards and decorations he earned were the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medals (three Oak Leaf clusters) four Air Medals, Army Commendation Medal and Vietnam Service Medal among others.

He was also honored posthumously when Fort Stewart, Ga., named a 244-unit housing complex in his honor — Isenhower Terrace.

"Jim Isenhower was a fighter all the way," Maj. Gen. Andrew L. Cooley said during the dedication ceremony. "He faced death like he faced life — with courage, dignity and valor."

A third generation of service

After Jim Jr. continued the Isenhower tradition of military service, his son and nephew, too, followed those same footsteps Isenhowers grandsons, like their uncles and grandfather, have established themselves as distinguished members of the military.

Like his dad, Jim III attended West Point.

"I don't know that he ever felt any pressure with his Dad going to West Point," Mullinax said. "He felt it was a natural transition."

Jim III completed West Point in 1992, where he majored in International and Strategic History. While there, he was also the 1990 and 1991 NCAA Junior Men's National Orienteering Champion.

Meanwhile, another grandson of Isenhower, Matthew — Alan's son — attended the U.S. Naval Academy.

"He graduated from the Naval Academy in 2004 as a full lieutenant," Isenhower said, adding that since then he has graduated from Harvard and is working in the corporate offices of Burger King.

Conversely, when Jim III finished at West Point he began a long military career that, like his father, has included active duty.

"He has spent 30 months of the past five years in Iraq," Isenhower said. "He just came out in mid-June and now he is in Hawaii with his family."

Jim III completed basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 2nd Batallion, 502nd Infantry Regiment and later the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). At Fort Campbell, Ky., he served as rifle platoon leader, anti-tank platoon leader and rifle company executive officer, among other posts. While stationed in Kentuck, he deployed to Panama in support of Operations Safe Haven and Safe Passage.

He was later assigned to Fort Knox, Ky. and Fort Hood, Texas, where he deployed with the 2-8 Cavalry to Bosnia-Herzogovina in support of Operation Joint Forge.

He continued his education at Duke University, where he earned a master's and doctoral degree and also served as instructor and assistant professor.

Following completion of Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Ky., he was deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he was assigned to the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25h Infantry Division in Mosul as the brigade's Iraqi Security Forces Coordinator. He later redeployed to Baghdad.

Now lieutenant colonel, Jim III has been deployed into an operational environment four times, including two tours of combat in Iraq. He has made 21 moves. He is currently the executive officer to the commanding general of the U.S. Army Forces in the Pacific as the commander of the 2nd Squadron, 14th U.S. Cavalry, a Stryker Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks Hawaii. He will hand off that position on Aug. 23.

"After he gets through with this in Hawaii, he goes to his fourth or fifth war college in Washington, D.C. for two years.," Isenhower said. "He said, 'I need to be with my family,' and I think he is going to be another Ike. They will take him to the rank of general.

Now, on Soldiers Reunion Day as Catawba County salutes the Isenhowers - all three generations, the senior family member salutes his scions as well.

"I am proud, just proud," Isenhower continued. "I am proud of all of them."

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