Still Going After Three Wars, Two Services, Hometown Politics
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., April 16, 2003 Henry Q. Pike, 79, has lived a long, charmed life. The son of an Alabama coalminer, he fought in three wars and never got a scratch during a total of five years in combat.
Pike fought in World War II as a Marine and as a soldier in the Korean War and two times in Vietnam.
The retired Army first sergeant, who went on to become mayor of Carbon Hill, Ala., sold his home in July 1998. He moved here to the Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly known as the Naval Home. He arrived with everything he owned on the back seat and trunk of his car.
He has been happy ever since in his new Mississippi home. "The treatment you get here, and what it costs you, the way everyone treats us -- there's nothing out in civilian life that even comes close to it, money-wise or treatment-wise," Pike said.
"My daughter, who is a registered nurse, spent 11 years working in nursing homes and I've seen some of the things that goes on in civilian nursing homes. And I've seen how much they charge and what you get for your money.
"This is not elaborate, but it's livable and I watch TV here and work on a computer and I sleep," he said, referring to living space.
The last living Pike of his generation, he's outlived his parents, two sisters, brother, and his wife, who died in 1988. Pike even outlived his birthplace, the now-defunct central Alabama coalmining town of Howard, where he was born on March 29, 1924. He has a son, daughter, two grandchildren and one great- grandson.
In fact, he says his son, Tommy Pike, spent two years on active duty with the Army and about eight years in the Army Reserve. The elder Pike also said his grandson, Army Cpl. Joshua Nesmith, served six months in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Pike's own journey through military life began when he was a 17-year-old high schooler. The Army activated the 31st Infantry Division, the "Dixie Darling," and Pike said he was hankering to join with a bunch of his buddies.
He tried to follow in the footsteps of his buddies, whom he accused of enlisting in the military and leaving town without him. He said the Army and Navy stopped recruiting, so he ended up in the Marine Corps. Because Pike was underage, his father had to sign a release for him to enlist.
During boot camp in San Diego, he qualified on the 1903 Springfield rifle, the old bolt-action 45-caliber pistol and the 30-caliber light machine gun.
After boot camp, Pike was assigned to a 65-man Marine detachment aboard a transport ship, the USS Wharton in San Francisco.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he'd just come off watch. He was in the barracks changing into civilian clothes to enjoy a leisure Sunday morning when the bugler started playing "field music."
The young Marines gathered around and one of them asked, "What the hell is he blowing out there?" Another Marine said, "That's Call to Arms."
"We fell out in the quadrangle and the first sergeant said, 'Gentlemen, we're at war!'"
Pike said about 700 ship-recovery experts were recruited to go to Pearl Harbor "to get the Pacific Fleet out of the sand."
"When we unloaded the ship workers, we loaded the women and children who were survivors of the guys that had been killed during the Pearl Harbor attack," he noted. "So we came back to San Francisco with about a thousand women and kids aboard ship."
Pike is particularly proud of how quickly he adapted to military life, firing expert on all the weapons, which garnered him an early promotion to private first class. Not only that, he said, "Qualifying expert on the weapons paid a couple of extra dollars per month. When you make $21 per month, a couple of extra dollars is pretty good."
Assigned to the 22nd Marines, Pike's battalion went to British Samoa and on to Wallis Island to help fight the war in the Pacific. After about three weeks there, the Marines started forming the 3rd Ranger Battalion and Pike volunteered.
"The raiders, which was an elite reconnaissance outfit, was a slick group, and we weren't too well liked by the other Marines," Pike noted.
"We did about 20-something different engagements," said Pike, who saw action in the Solomon Islands with the 3rd Raider Battalion.
Pike stayed overseas through the Okinawa campaign - the last battle of World War II -- before being assigned to his base camp on Guam in July 1945. "We were making preparations for the invasion of mainland Japan and that's when President (Harry S.) Truman decided to drop the 'big boy' (bomb) on them, and the war was over," he noted.
After the war, he was assigned to Marine Base at Parris Island, S.C., as a drill instructor, which he didn't like at all. However, that's where he got promoted to sergeant, which he kept for three days before getting busted for fighting in Savannah, Ga.
After finishing his four-year enlistment in the Marines, he got out in 1945 and served two years in the Marine Reserve.
He settled back into civilian life, working "on a couple of jobs," before returning to college. That's where a couple of buddies talked him into joining the Army Reserve.
"I joined because there wasn't a Marine Corps unit around anywhere, and what happened? The Korean War broke out and my unit got activated," Pike said.
After 19 months in Korea, he returned home and decided to stay in the Army until retirement. "I had some good assignments stateside and two tours in Germany and then the Vietnam War started. I wound up spending two tours in Vietnam," said Pike, who started out in the Army as infantryman, then switched to being a radio operator, radio repairman, communications sergeant and an ordnance sergeant.
"I was an ammunition operation sergeant my first tour - 1966 to 1967 -- in Cam Ranh Bay, and I did a lot of running up and down the coast supplying ammunition to all the troops," he said. "I was first sergeant of an ammunition ordnance company on my second tour."
He still recalls his worst experience came after returning home from his first tour in Vietnam. "When we landed at Seattle-Tacoma (Wash.) Airport, there was a bunch of kids dragging around the airport calling us baby killers and spitting at us and calling us names and stuff," Pike said.
"You've just come back from combat -- fighting for your country -- to see this bunch of people out there hollering and calling you names and spitting at you," he said. "You feel like going out there and stick a bayonet in them. But I guess they had the right to do that, but I didn't understand really."
Upon retiring on Dec. 1, 1969, Pike returned to Carbon Hill, where he was a policeman for about three months before becoming an assistant city clerk, he said.
He spent more than 26 years before retiring for the second time. Not one to just sit around, Pike ran for city council and won. After two years, he ran for mayor in 1992 and won. In 1996, he decided not to run again, but was talked into taking over the utility board, which he chaired until shortly before moving to the Gulfport retirement home.
Although he retired from the Army, Pike treasures his time in the Marines the most. "I belong to the U.S. Marines Raiders Association and I go to the annual get together every year, but I've never been to an Army unit reunion," he said.
Now he treasures the freedom he has to roam around the area he lives in. "I'm still able to drive and I spent almost 18,000 miles on the road last year," Pike said. "I do things to stay active and I belong to some groups like the Masons, the Scottish Rite in Gulfport, and the Shriners in Biloxi.
"I guess my only hobby probably is working on the computer," Pike said. "Of course, I go to the hobby shop every once in a while. I made all that furniture there, the cabinets and everything," he noted, pointing out his handiwork.