By Tamara Stevens, Special to Emmet County
Carl Lewis, Sr., wears his World War II commemorative jacket with pride. On the right side of the jacket’s front is an embroidered rendering of the Purple Heart, a medal given to soldiers who are wounded in battle. There’s a story that goes along with his earning the revered medal, as well as his four years of service to his country; however, at 93 years of age, Lewis has difficulty recalling dates and specific events, or the names of cities. With the help of his son, Ken, we are able to piece together Lewis’ story of sacrifice and honorable service.
Born in 1922, Lewis grew up in East Jordan, Michigan, where his parents were farmers. In eighth grade, Lewis stopped going to school to help out his father, M.J. Samuel Lewis, on the 190-acre farm. They grew corn, beans and “taters,” Lewis said. He drove a two-horse team and then once his father purchased it, he drove a tractor. The farm kept four cows for their own use, he recalls.
Lewis joined the United States Army on Dec. 8, 1942. Basic training took place at Camp Custer, in Kalamazoo County. After three months of basic training, Lewis underwent 15 months of mortar gunner training in San Antonio, Texas. He was attached to the First Armored Division. His discharge papers list Private Lewis as a “Light Mortar Crewman” who served in the European Theatre (ETO) during the Italian Campaigns. “Light” refers to “mobile,” and Lewis certainly was mobile. He served in battle in Germany, Africa, and Italy with a mortar gunner group.
As a mortar gunner, Lewis was responsible for aiming a 75-pound mortar plate. He assisted in setting up and aiming the mortar on the selected targets. He made adjustments in the angle of elevation and in the deflection to get the “projectile to hit the intended target,” according to his discharge papers.
His unit was charged with guarding half-tracks, a type of WWII vehicle that had tires on the front and tracks similar to a tank on the back. Without the armor or heavy artillery of a tank, the half-track was used to move soldiers, usually carrying 10-12 men.
Just before Christmas, Lewis’s unit was situated close to the front lines in Italy, in front of the half-tracks and division of tanks, when a powerful mortar hit. Lewis was struck in both legs.
“My legs went out from under me,” Lewis said. That’s about all he can remember until he returned home to Northern Michigan. His son, Ken, knows that his father spent quite a bit of time in an Army hospital in Italy, most likely Naples.
“The whole division was wiped out,” Lewis said, of the mortar attack.
A Division is a large military unit or formation, usually made up of 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers. In most armies, a Division is composed of several regiments or brigades. The experience was traumatic for Lewis and affected him for the rest of his life. His son said that his father won’t watch any movies about WWII or the Japanese.
“I was right in it (battles),” Lewis said of his time in Europe. “We were fighting Germans in Italy and Italians. Many people didn’t know that at first we fought the Italians, too. We would clean up (shoot their mortars) and then move out.”
Lewis was in Europe for three years, two of those years in Italy. After his injury, the last third of his time in the ETO was spent recovering and getting back home, his son said. Lewis’ injuries were severe, and he carries the scars below both knees all these years later. He was presented with the Purple Heart when he returned state’s side. He was honorably discharged from service on April 12, 1946, at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
Ken, his son, said when he was growing up, his father talked about seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa and other sites in Italy.
Back home, Lewis married Mary Lou Hannon, whose family lived in the small village of Clarion. The Lewis’ lived on Pickerel Lake for a time, then in Wolverine, before moving permanently to Petoskey. They raised four boys and one girl.
Lewis went to work at Michigan Maple Block in Petoskey where he was a boiler room “drag man,” feeding the fires that ran the huge kilns to dry the wood, and a night watchman, making rounds around the plant for many years. In 1985, after 27 years of working at the butcher block plant, Lewis retired. For several years, Lewis ran a resort in East Jordan.
Now living with his son, Ken, and grandson, Kyle, Lewis has enjoyed being celebrated in his hometown. Over the years he has rode in Petoskey’s Fourth of July parade on the Purple Heart Float. In 2014, he traveled to Lansing to the WWII ceremony at the Capitol building. He shook hands with Gov. Rick Snyder. And in 2015, Lewis went to Washington, D.C., on the Honor Flight to see the WWII Memorial.
On a regular basis, Emmet County shares the story of a local veteran to honor their service to the United States. If you know of a veteran of any age who would make an interesting feature, please contact Beth Anne Eckerle, Communications Director, at (231) 348-1704 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Italian Campaign: In the final push to defeat the Axis powers of Italy and Germany during World War II (1939-45), the U.S. and Great Britain, the leading Allied powers, planned to invade Italy. Beyond their goal of crushing Italian forces, the Allies wanted to draw German troops away from the main Allied advance through Nazi-occupied northern Europe to Berlin, Germany. The “Italian Campaign,” from July 10, 1943, to May 2, 1945, was a series of Allied beach landings and land battles from Sicily and southern Italy up the Italian mainland toward Nazi Germany. The campaign seared into history the names of places such as Anzio, Salerno and Monte Cassino, as Allied armies severed the German-Italian Axis in fierce fighting and threatened the southern flank of Germany. The Allied advance through Italy produced some of the most bitter, costly fighting of the war, much of it in treacherous mountain terrain.
The Allied campaign in Italy, launched after the Allied victory in North Africa in 1943, turned into a brutal, protracted, and costly slog. American casualties at Anzio alone were 59,000. The difficult combat in places like Monte Cassino pushed many soldiers to their breaking point. After the Italian fascist regime fell from power and replaced by a new government friendly to the Allies, the battle for Italy became an extended bloodletting between tenacious Allied troops and steadfast German forces. It ended only when the war in Europe ended. By then, more than 300,000 U.S. and British troops who fought in Italy had been killed or wounded or went missing. German casualties totaled around 434,000.
Carl Lewis, Sr., in his Army uniform in 1942.