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Lithonians look back on life during WWII

Ralph Way served as a mechanic who kept the planes flying over 'The Hump'   The Himalayan Mountain Range   into China. - Special photo

Ralph Way served as a mechanic who kept the planes flying over 'The Hump' The Himalayan Mountain Range into China. - Special photo

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Alice Stallings remembers her husband coming home from WWII a day early and catching her in curlers. - Special photo

The Yellow Brick Assisted Living Home in Lithonia is now the home of Ralph Way and Alice Stallings. We met recently in the front room parlor and listening to these two amazing people of the Greatest Generation reminded me of a George Burns and Gracie Allen routine -- amusing, yet filled with wisdom and cleverness borne from the hard knocks and pleasurable moments in life.

Way, a St. George, South Carolinian, born in 1922, said of Georgia and North Carolina, "Shoot, as far as we were concerned they were foreign countries."

Stallings, born in 1919, said of her hometown Carlton, Ga., "It wasn't much more than a little wide place in the road."

As survivors of the Great Depression, they recognized the significance of a good job and hard work; as witnesses to WWII, they understood the magnitude of a great country and the true cost of freedom.

Way joined the Army Air Corps in June of 1941. Stationed at Maxwell Field in Alabama, he was sitting on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery on Dec. 7, 1941.

"A police car drove by announcing over a loudspeaker that Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor," he recalled. "I ran back to base, knowing my life had changed forever."

"We were coming out of church when the service station boy came running up to us saying Pearl Harbor had been bombed," Stallings said. "My husband had graduated from the Gupton Jones School of Mortuary, so I knew he'd be going in."

Asked if her husband had joined or been drafted, Stallings replied, "He was drafted. If he had joined, I would have killed him."

Way had training as an airplane mechanic and flight engineer. "I knew my next port-of-call would be a combat zone, so I volunteered for overseas duty." He was turned down three times.

"I kept working on C-46s and C-47s, but after the third refusal for combat I just gave up." Within weeks he was informed, "Bad news, Ralph, we're sending you into combat." Way said, "I just smiled. That's the Army for you."

He was sent with nine other men to Miami, Fla.; bedecked in dress wool uniforms.

"Lord, it was hot," he said. "I was placed in quarantine because I needed another shot, so after two weeks I got on a cargo plane as its only passenger heading for Karachi, India, although the darn plane wouldn't start." The plane finally "fired-up" at 2 a.m. the next morning. "I wasn't too confident that plane could make Karachi, but we finally landed there four days later," Way recalled.

Way claimed his war was not of glory and glamour but of hard work and endless apprehension that the cargo planes he maintained would make it over "The Hump" The Himalayan Mountain Range into China.

"We lost hundreds of planes flying over The Hump," he said. "That's a little known sacrifice our brave flyers made that history seems to have forgotten."

Way said he finally received a so-called vacation, a one-week visit to a rest camp in the mountains of Afghanistan. "That's where I found Myrtle," he said with a smile. Asked about the lady, Way replied, "Myrtle was no lady. She was an orphaned monkey."

Myrtle slept and ate with Way and his roommate. "She liked my roommate's cigarettes, ate them like candy." Asked what happened to Myrtle, Way said, "We had to give her to another soldier when we left. Who knows, maybe they got married."

Way's pay was $21 per month. A graduate of Clemson University after the war, Way had a long successful career in Insurance.

While stationed in Alabama, Way met and then corresponded with his future wife, Angelina, during the war.

"She graduated from Montevallo College in Alabama then earned a master's in library science from Emory. I couldn't wait to get home and break her ribs with a hug."

The reunion was a bit awkward, both not knowing where they stood with each other. "We, uh, sort of shook hands," he stated, but apparently handshakes work Way and Angelina were married for 62 years until her passing.

Alice Cooper and James Stallings exchanged vows on June 22, 1941, in the old Baptist Church in Lithonia.

"My husband's family and Sen. Max Cleland's family were neighbors," she recalled. "You should have seen the turnout for our wedding. We were poor as a church mouse, but the Presbyterian and Methodist preachers knew us and let their congregations out early to attend our wedding. What a party."

The newlyweds had 14 months together before James was drafted and spent the next three years in the Army Medical Corps treating the wounded and dying.

"James never talked about the war," she said. "He'd mention humorous episodes, but never the horrible injuries he saw and treated."

What Alice did know of her husband's tour included mobile medical assignments in the thick of epic battles for North Africa, France, and Germany.

"He stated his duties required him to do what doctors do today," she said.

Corresponding via V-mails, the heavily censored letters kept the couple in touch.

"We numbered the letters so we knew which ones to open first," Stallings recalled. Injured soldiers sent to Atlanta medical facilities to recover from their wounds would call her with news of James and she'd go visit the boys. "That's the least I could do for them," she said.

Stallings worked the home front while James treated casualties across The Pond.

"I bought a business called Nifty Beauty Shop across the street from Gailey's Shoes in Olde Town Conyers. During the war the textile mill in Milstead operated 24 hours a day so the women working the early shift would call to make 6 a.m. appointments. That was OK with me; I didn't have anything else to do."

The price for a half-perm: $3 for a full perm: $5. No tips that was unheard of.

"I knew everything going on in this county. Wet a woman's hair and she'll tell you anything," Stallings said,She ran the beauty shop for several years; the tenant across the upstairs landing was attorney and future judge, Clarence Vaughn.

"Clarence and I would always have our heads stuck out the door every time we heard the mailman," she recalled.

After the German surrender, her husband was sent to Marseilles, France to await transportation to the Pacific Theater of war in preparation for the invasion of Japan.

"He didn't want to go," she recalled. "James had seen enough by then, three solid years of death, the dying, the horribly injured. I remember him saying, 'We didn't know what kind of bombs Truman dropped on Japan, but we were sure glad he did.' I was, too."

The Second World War was over. Stallings bought a new dress to greet her returning hero. "I wanted to look pretty for my soldier boy," she said.

James, however, showed up one day early. "He was coming up the stairs, and there I was with my hair in rollers, wearing a white chenille bathrobe with flowery embroidery, and red fuzzy-wuzzy slippers. I didn't care; we met each other halfway down the stairs. You know what; James didn't care how I looked, either," she said.

James retired as the postmaster of Lithonia, and the couple remained together two months short of their 70th anniversary at the time of his passing.

As the interview drew to a close, we discussed the passing of The Greatest Generation of warriors at one every 90 seconds. Way produced a smile and said, "Shoot, I guess I'd better get back on my vitamins."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Email Mecca at aveteransstory@gmail.com.