By Patricia Beech
Family and friends gathered at the Adams County Manor last week to celebrate the birthday of Adams County’s oldest living World War II veteran, Joseph Workman of Peebles, who turned 100 years old on Saturday, June 30.
Born in the hills of West Virginia just four months before World War I ended, Workman grew up in an era when most people still traveled by horse and buggy and lived without conveniences like electricity, running water, and telephones, but during his lifetime he witnessed scientific and technological breakthroughs that put a man on the moon and inaugurated the computer age.
He often told his family the secret to long life is to “sweat every day, eat plenty of beans and cornbread, and stay away from doctors”.
“Uncle Joe always said if you go to a doctor long enough, they’ll give you enough medicine to kill you,” his nephew Gary Workman said.
While he was still a boy, Joseph’s family moved to Ohio where he and his seven brothers began working for local farmers.
When Joseph was 11 years old the stock market crash of 1929 hit his already struggling family hard. Workman himself nearly died from malnutrition and was bedfast for several months, even losing the ability to walk for a time.
Following his sixth grade year, Joseph had to quit school to help support his family.
As a teenager he lived in the Cedar Fork and Pine Gap areas near Peebles. He and his family worked as migrant farmers.
“They just kind of moved around because they didn’t have anything.” says Gary. “They worked for farmers and when the work was finished they’d be thrown out of where they were living.”
To help make ends meet, Joe and two of his brothers began cutting and selling firewood.
“They cut three cords of wood a day with a cut cross saw and sold it for 50 cents a cord,” says Gary, “Can you even imagine that? They were just a different breed of people, strong and tough as nails. They worked hard. Uncle Joseph and his brothers used to walk from Peebles to Wilmington to shuck corn up there all week for 50 cents a day, from daylight to dark. They’d sleep in the fodder shocks and didn’t come back home until they got the entire field shucked.”
Joseph, who had a desire to play music, saved his earnings to purchase a guitar which he taught himself to play. Later in life he also took up the harmonica and became both and accomplished guitarists and an adept harmonica player.
Joseph was 24 years old and working full time on a farm in Ross County for $1 a day when he got called up for the draft during WWII. He was initially rejected because he had an enlarged heart, but as the war wore on the military changed their physical requirements and he was able to join the fight.
“He said it was like ‘dying and going to heaven’ because he was used to working so hard on the farm from daylight to dark – being in the army was easy for him,” says Gary. “He had three square meals a day, a uniform, a place to sleep, and he didn’t have to work really hard compared to what he was used to doing. He was content.”
According to Gary, boot camp was a breeze for Joseph, even when his platoon was required to complete a 20-mile hike while carrying full field packs weighing up to 100 pounds.
“Guys were dropping like flies,” says Gary. “Uncle Joe was 5 foot six, strong as an ox, and very competitive. He focused on this great big old boy in front of him who was about six foot six with real long legs and he decided he was going to keep up with him and he did. Out of several hundred guys, only 25 finished the hike and they were all shipped overseas after that.”
Joseph and fellow servicemen traveled by ship across the Atlantic Ocean – an entirely new experience for him.
“He was just a hillbilly, and he was scared to death,” says Gary. “While they were crossing a fire alarm accidentally went off, and Joe was so quick and so strong he was up on deck before anyone knew what had happened. They told him, ‘Workman you won’t ever have to worry about going down with the ship, you’re too quick’.”
Gary pulls out a faded black and white photograph of his uncle in his WWII uniform holding a rifle and bayonet.
“Uncle Joe shipped out in May 1942,” he says. “When they arrived in Africa, the brass told them, “sharpen your bayonets boys, the Germans have refused to surrender”.
Serving in General George S. Patton’s army, Joseph fought in several major battles across the Mediterranean including: Casablanca, Tunisia, Sicily, Rome and Anzio Beach.
During the three years he served in the Army Air Force, Joseph earned $50 a month, and sent $47 of it home to his mother.
“He was always all about family and taking care of his family,” says Gary. “The money he sent home at that time really helped his family.”
Always resourceful and ready to work, Joseph started his own laundry business while stationed at Anzio Beach in Italy.
“He had to have boiling water for the equipment he was testing and it occurred to him to wash his uniform,” says Gary. “Those guys had no way of cleaning up or cleaning anything, so when the other guys learned how he got his uniform clean they started paying him to wash theirs.”
Joseph served in the Army Air Force until October of 1945. He managed to save most of the money he earned throughout the war years, and when he returned to the states he went to work in South Dakota at the Black Hills Ordinance Depot as a civilian.
Eventually, he saved enough to buy a farm and decided it was time to go home to Adams County, where he purchased his first farm in the Cedar Fork community and later, a second farm near Pine Gap.
“He paid cash for his farms, and he never owned a tractor – he farmed 160 acres with a horse and by hand,” says Gary. “Uncle Joe always had a bunch of fruit trees and he had four big gardens so he could raise enough food for everybody.”
Joe’s goodwill also extended to his neighbors who often struggled to feed their families.
“He would fix them meals and feed all the kids. He always looked out for people that didn’t have because he knew what it was like to starve.” says Gary. “Years later those kids all came back to visit him, they didn’t forget what he’d done for them. Most of them are gone now, but those who are still here, they come to the Manor to see him.”
Gary says his uncle loved kids and always went out of his way to help them.
“One day we were parked outside of Blake’s Pharmacy in West Union and a couple of boys came walking out, one with a big ice cream cone, the other empty-handed and looking kind of sad,” he said. “My uncle jumped out of the car and walked up to the little boy and asked ‘why don’t you have an ice cream’ and the boy said, ‘I have no money’ and my uncle took him right back into the store and bought him an ice cream.”
Gary says his Uncle Joseph was also an advocate for education.
“He would make me sit down and do my homework and he’d work with me,” says Gary. “Uncle Joe would always say “you’ve got to get an education so you don’t have to grow up the way we did” – it made me work harder because I had so much respect for him.”
As an adult, Gary has been able to show his uncle just how much he appreciates everything he’s done for their family.
“Uncle Joe always loved the 1930 Model A Ford so when he turned 95, I bought him one,” he says. “He was so surprised. He entered it in the Old Timer’s Day Car Show in Peebles, and he won, he was really happy about that.”
Joe remained active well into his 90’s until a massive stroke left his left side paralyzed and robbed him of his ability to speak.
Doctors were not hopeful he would recover.
“He was in such good shape before the stroke, he was so full of life, an iron man, it was unbelievable just how strong he was,” says Gary. “The doctors said he wouldn’t last long, but Uncle Joe had other ideas.”
Even though the stroke has limited Joseph’s ability to function, Gary says the journey of his life continues to enrich their family.
“I had first hand knowledge about his life since I was the generation behind him,” he says. “I can pass on a certain amount of his story to my kids, and they can pass it on to their kids. He was a remarkable who lived a remarkable life – that’s something we want never to forget.”