Ballard WWII Vet given first ever Mustang Award
Paducah - Looking for a unique way to finish a lesson centered around a novel recounting a WWII veteran’s tale of survival, McCracken County High School English teacher Ellen Powless didn’t have to go far to find the perfect person to bring the story home.
Powless had recently come across a stack on newspapers that contained an article about W.T. Carneal, the WWII veteran whose remains had been found in Saipan, Japan by the non-profit group Kuentai.
Upon reading the article, Powless contacted Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum curator Sandy Hart, whose name and phone number were in the article. Powless invited Hart to come out to the high School to talk to the students.
Powless’ students had just finished reading Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It is a story about Louis Zamperini, who was Olympic runner who had become an airman when WWII broke out. The author tells the tale of Zamperini’s journey as his Air Force bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean on May afternoon in 1943, and he struggled on a lifecraft.
Who Sandy brought along, ended up being a man with a story of his own that would have the students listening attentively as the WWII Veteran talked about the story behind Taps and then played Taps for them.
The students didn’t seem to know how to react to Ballard County WWII Navy Veteran Earl Gidcumb when he began by saying that 1,200 or 1,300 WWII Veterans die a day, adding, “So I guess I should hurry.” The students didn’t react right away at his joke, so he proceeded to give them permission to laugh.
Gidcumb was able to give the students a first-hand account of what it was like to serve in WWII. While he didn’t have to fight to survive in shark-infested waters like Zamperini, Gidcumb served alongside several men who did. He had served on the USS Indianapolis and was transferred off the ship shortly before it was blasted by the Japanese and sank.
Three hundred soldiers had been killed instantly while the rest jumped in the water only to be eaten by sharks and dying of dehydration. Only 317 out of almost 1,200 soldiers survived.
Gidcumb says circumstances, timing, and the grace of God had him transferred before the disaster happened.
Although others would definitely beg to differ, Gidcumb says he is not a hero. “I always felt that at every island we invaded, I always felt that the soldier and a marine that were in the barges going into the beach meeting the Japanese face to face, those guys were taking the ultimate in risking their lives for the country,” Gidcumb said. “These are the guys that compared to what I did are the heroes.”
Gidcumb feels the word “hero” has different connotations. “I risked my life I suppose. I guess I risked my life with kamikazes. They tried to sink us and bomb us, but when you talk about a hero to me, they are out there being shot at face to face.”
Gidcumb added, “From my experience and the time I spent out on the ship during the island invasion. That’s where I saw the heroes.”
Sandy Hart certainly believes Gidcumb is a hero. “I believe a hero is an ordinary man who when called upon to do extraordinary actions in extraordinary times, does it,” she said. “They do not see themselves as heroes, and that’s why I admire them so much. Yes, I believe Earl Gidcumb is one of those men.”
Gidcumb said the reception he received at McCracken County High School was unbelievable. He was impressed with the sincerity and attentiveness of the kids. “This made me feel good because we tend to condemn the young kids, but they were wonderful. I would love to go back again.”
The students presented Gidcumb with a copy of the book they had read, a Mustang t-shirt, and a plaque naming him as an honorary Mustang. “I went with Sandy with sole purpose of telling the story of taps---totally taken back when I received the items,” he said.