By Richard Rourk
Unicoi County is rich in stories about veterans and the service they provided to their country. One local family even had three brothers who all decided to enlist with the U.S. Navy to fight for freedom during World War II.
“This is the story of three of my uncles who helped to save the world during World War II,” said Sherry Capps Windle, a niece of Erwin’s Calhoun brothers.
Windle explained that the three brothers grew up in Erwin. Sne noted that each of them volunteered for the U.S. Navy.
“My uncle, Jim Calhoun, just celebrated his 96th birthday in September of this year,” Windle said. “The other two brothers, Jack and Joe, passed away a few years ago.”
The niece said that her uncle Jack died at age 97 and that her uncle Joe died at age 93.
Surviving brother Jim Calhoun also spoke to The Erwin Record and recalled how he and his brothers came to join the Navy.
“We lived on Main Street in Erwin and it was just a good place and time to live in,” Jim Calhoun said.
“My oldest brother joined the Navy and was a lieutenant and my other brother was a chief petty officer,” he said. “I was third class petty officer. I joined to help them but never did see them while I was there.”
Windle said that Jack, the oldest brother, was already in the Navy prior to the outbreak of the war. He was stationed on the USS Dale on Dec. 7, 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor started.
“The Dale only suffered minor damage during the attack,” Capps said. “They got it out of the harbor before it was blockaded. Jack remained safe as did the other two brothers. Jim and Joe volunteered as soon as they were old enough. They had all hoped to meet up with each other somewhere in the Pacific.”
In a twist of fate, two of the brothers found themselves in the cities with the same name, but still many states apart.
“Jim and Joe had sent ship-to-ship messages to each other saying they were docked in Portland,” Windle said. “However, when they tried to find each other’s ships, they could not. They discovered that Jim was in Portland, Oregon, and Joe was in Portland, Maine.”
Jim’s ship, The USS Arneb, was a part of the biggest naval battle of the war, which is known as the Battle for Leyte Gulf. This engagement was fought from Oct. 24 to Oct. 26, 1944.
Jim said that he manned the guns to protect the Marines as they were ferried onto the beach.
Jim even wears a scar from his time manning the guns.
“I was in the boiler room when an aircraft dropped a bomb that barely missed us,” Jim Calhoun recalled. “I rushed up to the gun and hit my chin against it and that’s how I got this scar.”
Joe’s ship ferried the troops onto Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
An uncle of the Calhoun brothers was O’Barron “Cal” Calhoun, who fought in the Panama Canal during the war.
“O’Barron was instrumental in putting together the Roan Mountain Music Festival,” Capps said. “He passed away at the age of 107.”
In addition, the brother of Jack’s wife, M.R. Capps, was in at Pearl Harbor and survived the Japanese sneak attack.
Windle recalled how the brothers’ parents, Glenn and Pearl Calhoun, sat by the radio in Erwin listening for any news about the war and their three sons. A younger brother John and daughter Virginia remained at home in Erwin during the war.
Jim recalled how he heard the news that the war was over.
“We pulled up to the dock in Tokyo and they had signed the peace treaty, so we knew we were heading home,” he said.
Jim came home to marry and raise three children mostly on his own due to his wife’s death at an early age.
Although the brothers’ fight was over, the Calhouns and their relatives continue to serve with U.S. armed forces today
Jim’s oldest son Leland joined the Navy during the Vietnam war and served as a physician’s assistant. Leland’s younger son, Dennis, joined the U.S. Marines, serving in Japan.
Jim’s young daughter, Joy, remained at home.
“I had heard stories of their service all my life,” said Leland Calhoun. “They didn’t talk about it very much but when they would get around to saying things I listened. Dad joined at 17, so they were all young. They all wanted to help.”
Jack had three daughters and one son, Patrick, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1968 and served on the USS Constellation in Vietnam.
Joe had two sons and a daughter.
On July 4, 2019, Erwin held a parade honoring all Erwin veterans. Jim and his son, Leland, were honored to ride on a float in the parade.
Even though Jim contracted COVID-19 at the age of 95, he said he was treated quickly at the Mountain Home Veterans Administration and bounced back within three days.