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Faith helped Rockdale sheriff through WWII

J.T. Wallace served as Rockdale County sheriff from 1960 until 1980. Few law-abiding citizens knew their deeply religious sheriff was a decorated combat veteran of World War II who was wounded three times.

J.T. Wallace served as Rockdale County sheriff from 1960 until 1980. Few law-abiding citizens knew their deeply religious sheriff was a decorated combat veteran of World War II who was wounded three times.

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An undated photo of J.T. Wallace while serving with distinction in the U.S. Army during World War II.

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J.T. Wallace in a 1980 photo where he shows off a plaque honoring his 20 years of service as Rockdale County Sheriff.

CONYERS -- Upon their release from the old Rockdale County Jail, troubled young men were advised by Sheriff J.T. Wallace, "Boy, you have two choices. You can join the military or you can start going to church."

Wallace served as Rockdale County sheriff from 1960 until 1980. Few law-abiding citizens knew their deeply religious sheriff was a decorated combat veteran of World War II who was wounded three times.

"When Pearl Harbor was bombed, I was working at Callaway Mills in Milstead," Wallace said. "I was married and could have been deferred, but by 1944 all my friends had gone to war so I joined the Army."

After boot camp, Wallace traveled to Boston to board a troop ship for Europe.

"It took us 12 days to reach Le Havre, France," he said. "Some boys got so seasick they asked me to throw them overboard."

In Le Havre, Wallace boarded a troop train and was sent for his baptism under fire in the mined and booby-trapped, 10-mile-deep chamber of horrors called Hurtgen Forest.

"It snowed the first night. I slept under an army trailer with one blanket for cover."

Entering intense combat the next day, Wallace remembered, "You'd make a friend, then he was killed or wounded the same day."

When American forces broke into the open on the far side of Hurtgen Forest on Dec. 13, 1944, they had suffered over 24,000 casualties.

In the process of taking the German town of Cologne, Wallace hitched a ride atop an American tank with six or seven other soldiers.

"I got on the left side of the tank," he said. "But a voice kept telling me to move to the right side. I did. As the tank neared the edge of Cologne, it took a direct hit on the left side from German artillery. The tank was destroyed and most of the boys on the left side didn't make it. If I hadn't changed sides, I wouldn't be here today."

Wallace filled slots with the 82nd Airborne, served under Gen. George Patton, and sort of tolerated serving under the British Second Army. By now a squad leader, Wallace was wounded in one village by a German 88 artillery shell that hit a chimney.

"Those bricks just tumbled down on me," he said.

But the real problem was the piece of shrapnel in his back.

"If it had moved one way, I would have been paralyzed from the waist up. If it had moved the other way, I would have been paralyzed from the waist down."

As bad as the wound could have been, after a brief stint of recovery Wallace was back in action.

During another assault, Wallace's 50-man platoon was cut to pieces. Regrouping, they assaulted the town again with 75 men. Twenty-five men returned. The others had been cut down by point-blank fire from German artillery.

"We had to hit the ground," he said. "One boy in front of me took a direct hit from a German 88. There wasn't anything left."

Wallace carried a small New Testament Bible in his combat jacket pocket and his billfold in the shirt pocket over his heart.

"One day a piece of shrapnel went through my billfold and caught the wire on a tiny picture album inside. The wire penetrated all that material and lodged between my body and arm. I didn't get one scratch. The other end of the wire was still in my billfold."

After the Germans surrendered, Wallace finally got a bath.

"I hadn't showered in six months," he said.

Eventually sent home, Wallace spent time with family and friends before reporting for his next assignment: The Allied invasion of Japan. Two atom bombs canceled his orders. The war was over.

After his discharge at Ft. McPherson, Wallace returned to his job at the Callaway Mills before entering law enforcement. His young deputies -- Wallace called them "his boys" -- remember their boss well.

Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington: "I was his first motorcycle cop. We all respected J.T., a powerful leader and innovator. He respected others, but we did what we were told or faced the consequences."

Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas: "When I worked for Sheriff Wallace he was a real lawman, old school, tough but fair. He helped people, good or bad. He has a heart of gold."

Former Police Chief Roland Vaughn: "J.T. helped shape my life. I knew him as a big, strong, powerful man that treated people in a calm deliberate manner. I consider him my mentor. He 'walks tall' in my book; a real sheriff's sheriff."

Retired Sheriff's Deputy Capt. Bobby Davis: "I remember my friend J.T. as a strong leader with a calm demeanor, and very religious. He went through hell during the war."

On Dec. 7, 2000, by the request of then-Sen. Max Cleland, the flag of the United States of America flew over our nation's capitol in honor of Sgt. John Tom Wallace of Conyers.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.