By Willie M. Calhoun, MSG, ret USAR
In writing this story, I sadly admit to not having met Mr. James L. Womack. Therefore my original intentions were to visit those of the Sikes community who personally knew him. After the COVID-19 pandemic, I reverted to other means of communication to develop this story. We were able to retell a story that many in this area have already heard. At its core, James L. Womack’s story is of a man whom the late radio talk show host Paul Harvey would refer to as “a man who fell down and got up again.” This story would not have been possible without help from Mrs. Rita James (niece of Mr. Womack, Mr. Noah Peppers, a friend of Mr. Womack, Mrs. Ethel Howell, Mr. Womack’s church member, and Mr. James Calhoun, a lawyer friend of Mr. Womack.) Of course, I also credit my mother, Mrs. Vadie Lou Riser Calhoun, who I suspect tried to scare me with this story. On this Memorial Day 2020, as we celebrate, memorialize, and honor the service-persons who died in all wars, I ask that we also remember a group of service-persons like Mr. James L. Womack. The Veterans Affairs Administration classifies this group as combat-related disabled. These veterans are often confused with non-combat related disabled veterans.
I first heard the James L. Womack story from my dear mother (Madea) at about the age of 15. She and James were born and raised in or around the northeastern Winn Parish village of Skies, which accounted for her being familiar with his story. As the mother of a soon-to-be military draft-eligible son, her motives for telling this story appeared ulterior. Of the several times, she told the story, often she didn’t mention James was a lawyer, but always seem to remember to describe his multiple combat sustained wounds, injuries, and disabilities. Even though I believe this story was used as one of her many ill-fated attempts to dissuade me from volunteering for the Marines, she unwittingly sparked my interest in a military career that lasted for over 22 years. I now consider the James L. Womack story one of the most extraordinary, inspirational, and motivational of any combat-related disabled veteran of this state and far beyond. After returning from World war II, he indeed adapted to his current situation. He overcame many obstacles to accomplish his goals and objectives during his life. By daily upholding the “adapt to and overcome” warrior creed, he became a great credit to his family, church, community, civic and professional organizations, and his state.
James L. Womack was born on November 18, 1925. He attended Sikes High School and later Louisiana Tech. As with all World War II veterans, It’s likely he probably would have lived out his entire life without any significant event occurring. However, there were a series of events that changed the lives of James and all other able-bodied young men of that era. With almost the entire World (except America) engaged in hostilities, the Imperial Japanese Navy staged an unprovoked attack on a U. S. Naval fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. The attack resulted in 2,403 American service members killed and 1,178 wounded, and some equipment was lost. The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared 7 November 1941 as “a day of infirmary,” and shortly after, Congress declared war on the Axis powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy). This declaration of war was followed by the largest mobilization of the U. S. military as of this date. All men from their 18th birthday until their 45th birthday were subject to military service, and all men from their 18th birthday until the day before their 65th birthday were required to register for the draft. James L. Womack fit into the World War II stats in the following way; he was one of the 39% that volunteered and one of the 17.7(out of 1,000) that received non-fatal combat wounds.
Mr. Womack’s experiences while in WW II were relayed to his family on many occasions. Following is a story from Mrs. Rita(Mr. Womack’s niece). As a volunteer, her uncle and all other troops were packed on a train going across France. This was after D-Day. “Her uncle was by the door because he wanted to look out at the countryside. The train ride was rough, and you had to hold on. One soldier was drinking and fell into her uncle, and he fell off the train. Of course, the engineer was unaware of this and kept going. The soldier wandered around the countryside. A French family picked him up, and he stayed with them. He fought with the French Resistance Army for at least a month and finally was transported to his outfit.” She continued, “A German sniper had several soldiers penned down. Her uncle saw where he was hiding and shot through the tree and killed the German sniper. He was very fortunate that our soldiers had armor-piercing bullets that would go through anything from trees to a tank.”
The following story, also written by Mrs. Rita, was probably first told to her Grandparents by what is called a Casualty Assistance Officer team, most likely accompanied by some member of the Sikes community who was held in high esteem (mostly a clergyman). Mrs. Rita continued, “In a small town, the Germans were advancing so fast that her uncle’s unit pulled back. In an effort to slow the Germans down, three Volunteers of the Army stayed and were setting up a land mine. Her uncle was one of the three volunteers. As one soldier was kneeled down sitting up the mine, her uncle was looking over him as the mine exploded, killing the kneeling soldier and severely wounding her uncle. The other soldier picked up her uncle and loaded him onto a transport vehicle. Mrs. Rita continued, “He was in a hospital there and eventually transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. He lay there for two weeks before he realized he didn’t have any arms. Gangrene set up in one leg, and he fought them about cutting off his leg. At one low point in his stay at Walter Reed, he managed to work his way up the stairs to the top floor and climb onto the balcony ledge- ready to jump. He said a prayer- “Lord, if I can’t help anybody, I don’t want to live.” He said as he was staring there, he knew he couldn’t jump. Also, while in Walter Reed Hospital, President Harry Truman came to visit her uncle. He wanted to make a real “hero” of her uncle, but her uncle didn’t want that. “Even though he was a real hero, he didn’t like that being made of him.”
According to Mr. Noah Peppers of Sikes, Mr. Womack returned to his home village and his fiancee, Mrs. Geraldine Abrams, who promised to marry him once the war was over and kept her promise. They were married, and he attempted to become a lawyer. There were obstacles to getting into law school as Mrs. Rita states, “It took three years to get into law school at LSU as they didn’t think he could possibly do the work since he could not see, but finally they accepted him- and the students that were not doing well in the class were made to read to her uncle. As they helped her uncle they also helped themselves because there were deep discussions in their reading sessions.” Mr. Peppers also states that Mrs. Geraldine also assisted her husband in reading as he could not see. Mr. Womack’s obit said he graduated 4th in his class and was honored with membership in the Order of the Coif.
As one might imagine, Mr. Womack’s work earned him many awards and recognition in his life. Mrs. Rita states that “In 1976, her uncle was awarded the most accomplished Disabled Veteran Award. Throughout his career, he was on the board to start the Boy Scouts of America in Winn Parish. He was a big supporter and member of the Kiwanis in Winnfield. He also implemented the Winn Sheltered workshop for the disabled persons and started the Sikes Wolf Creek Guild in 1979, which still continues today. The James L. Womack story could not be completely told without exposing his appeal to celebrities and politicians. Mrs. Rita states that “When the movie “Blaze” was filmed in Winnfield, the actor Paul Newman wandered into her uncle’s office and struck up a conversation with him. They enjoyed a beer together, and several times when they couldn’t find Paul Newman to do his part in the film, they knew to look around her uncle’s office. Paul Newman was so impressed with her uncle being an attorney with no arms and blind. Also, Mr. John McCarty of Quitman, once told me that Governor Earl K. Long would always look up Mr. Womack when he passed through Sikes. The radio talk show host Paul Harvey, according to Mrs. Rita, made a comment that deserves repeating of Mr. Womack-“James Womack, a man who fell down and got up again.”