Charlie Hinds is a fixture in local civic and military circles. He once manned a .50 caliber machine gun with bullets the size of thick cigars. He’s an author of several books, belongs to Rotary and has played lots of tennis.
His life has what’s probably better described as milestones, rather than anniversaries, because he’s 87 years old. There’s the 65 years of marriage to his high school sweetheart, Doris. And it has been 67 years since Normandy, the world’s largest-ever amphibious invasion.
Charlie was there with his .50 caliber. It’s hard to picture the quiet, diminutive man who became a librarian blasting away at Germans with a machine gun.
He was a cavalry scout in Gen. George Patton’s 2nd Armored Division and says he is the only original soldier from his company to emerge from the war without being seriously wounded or killed.
Calling himself the “Patton Trooper,” Charlie wrote a book with that title about his wartime experiences in 1998.
Born in 1923, Charlie grew up in Henderson where his father was a Baptist minister. With his brother, he helped harvest tobacco on the family farm.
“I worked from sun up to sun down beginning when I was 16,” Charlie said. “I decided I didn’t want to do that all my life.”
The family moved to Louisville where Charlie attended Valley High School and met Doris, his future wife. They went to the same church, and Doris said she was eager to meet the new preacher’s sons.
“We were interested in what these two sons looked like,” Doris says.
But when they met, she was disappointed – Charlie was short and not the most handsome boy. Although Charlie was a year ahead of her in school, they saw each other at church often and played ping-pong together.
“We didn’t do a lot of dating like they do today,” Charlie said.
In November 1941, Charlie joined the Army because he wanted to get away from home. His family couldn’t pay for college, and Charlie didn’t want to work on the farm or be a minister.
Charlie was trained to become a radio operator because he had a good education.
“I was one of the few with a high school diploma,” Charlie said. “That’s the way it was prior to World War II.”
He arrived at Fort. Knox a few days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The base commander doubled the guard but only gave them blank ammunition. Officers said they were afraid the new recruits would hurt themselves with live rounds, Charlie says.
The guards were also told to stop every car approaching the gate, and Charlie dutifully asked a car full of commissioned officers to halt. Charlie quickly found himself on kitchen duty for a week.
He underwent additional training as a motorcycle scout but was eventually made a gunner and radio operator for a reconnaissance company in the 2nd Armored Division.
In November 1942, Charlie landed in North Africa as part of Operation Torch. From the start, the mission went poorly with troops landing in the wrong spot.
“It was badly managed and badly run,” Charlie said. “There was a lot of fighting, but we had never been in combat before so we had to learn.”
The Americans had better tanks and support from big Navy ships off the coast that shelled the enemy.
Charlie manned a .50 caliber machine gun in an armored half-track. His unit was in front of the advancing combat soldiers and told to find the enemy. They were not fed well and often had to buy beans and potatoes from Arab farmers.
During his four years in combat, Charlie thinks he shot and killed about 25 or 30 enemy soldiers.
“I was the best .50 caliber operator they had,” Charlie said. “We were too busy to be afraid. They were shooting at me. We did what they told us to do.”
American and British troops pushed into Tunisia and Algeria where the survivors of the daunting German “Afrika Korps” surrendered.
Although the half-tracks were thinly armored, Charlie says it was so fast it could fire and move to another spot before enemy tanks or soldiers could shoot back.
“By the time they cracked down on us we had already moved,” he said. “We came out of Africa all right.”
However, that would later change as new German Mark V “Panther” and Mark VI “Tiger” tanks arrived on the battlefield.
The next mission took Charlie and his comrades to Sicily in July 1943. Once again, the Navy bombarded enemy lines while the troops landed on the beach.
“If we hadn’t had them, I wouldn’t be here today,” Charlie said. “They were firing over our heads.”
Allied forces landed in southern Sicily with Patton in command of American troops on the left flank and Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery commanding the British troops on the right flank.
The British made slow progress in eastern Sicily, but the Americans swept through the western and northern part of the country. Patton and the American troops captured the vital port of Messina but not before more than 100,000 German and Italian troops escaped.
“Patton asked ‘let us go farther to the left,’ and we came in on the other side and beat the British to the city,” Charlie said. “The British were very slow.”
After almost a year in combat Charlie and the other members of his unit were sent to England to prepare for the invasion of France. Charlie was promoted to sergeant, and the cavalry scouts swapped their half-tracks for M8 Greyhound armored cars.
The armored cars had a 37mm cannon and two machine guns – Charlie had to supervise the three-man crew.
He even got a one-week furlough and visited northern England where he hung out in bars and socialized.
“There were three million of us packed into England, so it was pretty hard on the English,” he said.
After a year of training the 2nd Armored landed in France on June 9, 1944 – three days after the initial invasion. Through espionage, Allied commanders had deceived the Germans into believing the invasion would land elsewhere.
Although there weren’t many German tanks and troops defending the area, the hedgerows of Normandy made it difficult for Allied troops to attack. Special shovels were attached to tanks so they could plow through the hedgerows.
The Germans also had new tanks that had thick armor and bigger guns. A Mark V “Panther” tank fired at Charlie, but the shell hit a nearby tent. Two of his friends in it were badly hurt, he recalled.
Charlie had two more close calls in France and two in Germany.
His unit was attacking German troop on a hill in France, and they got about halfway up before a shell scored a direct hit on his armored car. The driver and radio operator were injured, and Charlie helped the wounded men get out.
Charlie was also wounded when a German plane dropped small anti-personnel bombs on his unit. Shrapnel injured his hands and arms, and although it wasn’t serious he was covered in blood.
Casualties continued to grow, and soon only a few veterans survived – most of the troops were new recruits.
But Charlie and the 2nd Armored Division continued to fight through the Battle of the Bulge and attack the Siegfried defensive line in western Germany.
“It was rough, we were outnumbered and they had a lot of heavy stuff,” Charlie said of the Seigfried line. “They put their worst troops forward and then sent their best troops at us later. It was difficult to get through. We had to send artillery to stop them.”
In Germany, a shell landed near his armored car, knocking it on its side. No one was injured but the crew had to hide in a nearby building until friendly tanks rescued them.
Charlie was wounded again in Germany, but he didn’t even know it at first. He had been sent to repair a communications wire and the Germans started shelling the area. He ran back to the trenches and didn’t know he’d been hit. Only after his back started to hurt did he reach back and feel blood.
Although injured, Charlie never received the Purple Heart.
“That was the way World War II was,” he said. “We didn’t ask for anything from anybody, and we didn’t get anything.”
Eventually, Allied troops broke through and captured 300,000.
By now, only three or four original soldiers were left in the unit – all the others were killed or wounded. Charlie was given a three-day pass to Paris but when he returned, he found all the other veterans had been killed.
“I was just lucky,” he said.
A few weeks later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and German commanders surrendered in May 1945.
“We didn’t think we were going to make it,” Charlie said. “We took it from day-to-day.”
After the surrender, the 2nd Armored Division was the first American unit to enter Berlin, which had been captured by the Soviets. Charlie was selected to be an honor guard at the Potsdam Conference where British, American and Russian leaders discussed how to rebuild after the war.
Patton, Charlie’s beloved general, died in a car accident in December 1945.
“Patton was a character but a good general,” Charlie said.
Charlie was eventually sent home and used the GI Bill to attend the University of Kentucky. He said he wanted to study history and learn why he had been sent to fight in Europe.
“Nobody ever told me why I was there or what we were doing,” Charlie said.
Throughout the war, Charlie wrote letters to Doris.
“It was the patriotic thing to do,” Doris said about their correspondence.
They dated for a while and were married on June 8, 1946. Doris attended the University of Louisville and had to take her final exams during the honeymoon.
After she passed her classes, the newly wed couple went to Harrington Lake. The first thing they bought was a ping-pong table, but that didn’t last long.
“I beat her, so she quit,” Charlie joked.
For years, Charlie and Doris played tennis together, but a torn rotator cuff forced Doris to stop.
Friends threw a party for their 50th anniversary but they had no special plans for the 65th anniversary. Doris said there’s no big secret to their long marriage.
“I guess we were raised that way,” she said. “Our parents were never divorced and we always had close family relationships.”
Their son was born a year after they got married – he’s now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. They have a grandson who was a Secret Service agent but now stays at home with Charlie’s great-granddaughter.
Charlie also received a master’s in library science from UK and started but did not finish his doctoral studies. Afterwards, he worked as an accountant and later joined state government. He was a historian and archivist under six governors.
After retirement, he went back to work as a librarian at Murray State University.
He retired again and wrote five books, including “Patton Trooper,” an account of his experiences during World War II. He also wrote four books about the history of local churches and two historical plays.
Plaques honoring his community service and academic accomplishments line his basement office. Charlie has been a leader in the Rotary club and has served on the honor guard of local VFW post for 15 years.
As part of the guard he provides military honors at about 100 funerals per year.
Several times a week he dresses up in his uniform and fires three shots from an M-1 rifle, the same he used during the war.
“I enjoy doing that, our unit is one of the only ones that goes out in the field,” Charlie said.
Usually, five or six members participate in each ceremony, but the ideal number is seven so they can fire 21 shots, Charlie said. Sometimes the family asks if they can keep the brass cartridges, which are ejected from the rifles after being fired, he said.
Charlie’s one of the most frequent participants because he has time to attend. They are all very familiar with the correct drill positions and don’t need to rehearse, he said.
“We’ve done it so much that we’re all veterans,” Charlie said.
Although he’s almost 88 years old, Charlie said he hopes he can continue to participate in the honor guard for at least a few more months.
“We just do our duty, that’s the way we look at it,” he said.