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Lucky one

100-year-old Hoke Culbertson shares close calls from his Navy experience


Hoke Culbertson, right, turned 100 years old on March 30. His friend, Charley Ray, contacted The Cooperator and suggested that Hoke’s stories about his Navy service might be of interest to Cooperator readers. The two have been friends for more than 40 years and are members of the same Masonic Lodge.
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Hoke Culbertson enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1941 before Pearl Harbor and America’s abrupt entry into World War II. All these years later, he occasionally wonders how many like him — those serving their country before the war — remain. 

“I would think there are very few of us left,” he says. “I know a lot of guys enlisted in 1942 right after Pearl Harbor.”

It’s a rare, introspective thought for the World War II vet, a Kingston resident, who turned 100 years old on March 30. 

Out of 16 million veterans who served in World War II, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that only around 300,000 are still alive in 2020. The numbers don’t include how many of those who were in service before the war began, but that’s likely a small number and an exclusive group of which to be a member.

Though Hoke had a number of close calls during his historic service, he doesn’t spend much time wondering why he’s made it to such a notable age. He dismisses such talk as pointless, though the sharp-witted senior, who still fits in his original Navy uniform, is quick to share details of his service. Even at his age, he continues to ponder the war which ended 75 years ago and did much to shape the rest of his life, as he put skills he honed during the war to work in the private sector. 

A book on the war’s Solomon Island campaigns (in which he took part) rests on the end table beside his recliner. The way he rattles off the names of islands, battles, and Navy ships makes one wonder if those details are from the book or are simply among his memories of real life experiences. They’re actually probably a little of both. 

Hoke’s life now is quite peaceful. His tidy ranch-style house with its neat landscaping overlooks the tranquil waters of the Clinch River just above Kingston. His first wife, Mary, passed away in 1987. He married Bea in 1997, and they lived 22 happy years together until her death in April 2019. After her passing, Hoke briefly moved into an assisted living facility, says close friend, Charlie Ray. But he left after a few weeks. 

“He said he didn’t like the food,” Charley explains.

It was Charley who alerted The Cooperator that Hoke might have a few tales to share about his wartime experiences. A quick call to Ag Central’s Harriman store confirmed that Hoke was indeed still a Co-op customer. Wayne Nelson, who works on the front counter, knew him immediately.

“He was in here just the other day,” said Wayne, when asked about the vet. 

Hoke is still driving his 15-year old pickup nearly every day, frequently running errands like stopping at the Co-op and attending church. Even during the common routines of everyday life three-quarters of a century later, the war is never far from his thoughts, Hoke admits.

It was the summer of 1941 when Hoke left the family farm in Surgoinsville to join the Navy. He was the eighth of nine kids raised on what he describes as “a beautiful mountain farm” where his family grew typical crops like tobacco, corn, and hay.

Hoke says he doesn’t really recall why he volunteered for service. 

“I probably realized I would be drafted any way, sooner or later,” he says. “I had a desire to get in the Navy as far back as I can remember. I wanted to go to the

Asiatic Pacific theater, down to Singapore, but I’m glad I didn’t get there. It was a rough deal.”

Instead, Hoke ended up taking his

training in St. Louis, Missouri, where he learned to be an electrician, his chosen trade for the rest of his working life. After graduating with high marks, the young Tennessean got his choice of assignments. His first pick was the East Coast with a series of ships to choose from, while his second choice was the USS Juneau. 

“That was the ship that the Sullivan boys were on when they were killed,” explains Hoke.

The Sullivans were five siblings who

famously enlisted in the Navy with the request that they be allowed to serve together in spite of official policy forbidding the practice. They enlisted in early 1942, and all were tragically killed in November of that year when the USS Juneau was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. 

“I was fortunate to not get my second choice,” Hoke points out. 

The good fortune to miss that tragedy was only the first of several instances during the war where the East Tennessee farm boy

narrowly avoided harm.

His first assignment was aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS Gridley (DD-380), where he honed his skills as an electrician under the stress of battle conditions. The crew of the Gridley fought their way through the Pacific, participating in the Solomon Islands campaign at Gaudalcanal, New Georgia, the Russell Islands, and Rendova Island.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it took about as long to win the Solomon Islands as it did to win the war in Europe after Normandy,” says Hoke.

After the campaign, Hoke transferred to the commissioning crew of another destroyer, the USS O’Brien (DD-725). It was Mother’s Day, 1944, when the ship joined a convoy of Navy vessels headed for Europe and the Normandy D-Day assault. While the historic battle raged on Omaha beach, Hoke was on the O’Brien just offshore.

“Those were some long hours,” he says, recalling one 48-hour stretch the crew spent at battle stations in support of the invasion force. 

Then on June 25, his vessel traveled down the coast toward Cherbourg, France, where a German shore battery opened fire on the convoy, which also included the USS Texas battleship. 

“They were throwing those big shells at the Texas, so we [maneuvered] to lay a smoke screen and protect it,” he says. “We took one of those shells in the bridge. I was in the engineering department, but it was close, as the ship wasn’t that big.” 

Some 13 crew members were killed and numerous others injured. Hoke emerged without a scratch.

After Normandy, the O’Brien returned to Boston for repairs before setting sail to take part in action in the Pacific theater. Once again, Hoke’s path took him dangerously close to harm’s way. 

On Dec. 7, 1944, the O’Brien was alongside when the USS Ward was struck and mortally wounded by a kamikaze (a Japanese suicide bomber) at Ormoc Bay in the Philippines. A few weeks later, the O’Brien was also hit by a kamikaze pilot. Fortunately for the crew, the enemy plane struck the ship in the living compartment while all hands were at their battle stations, and no one was injured. 

”We would be 40 to 50 miles out to sea with four or five ships scattered about,” explains Hoke. “We would encounter the first planes that came in, and there was nobody between you and the plane. It was a pretty serious situation.”

Sometime after the incident, Hoke was once again transferred and sent back to the states. Shortly thereafter, the O’Brien suffered another kamikaze attack that killed 50 and injured 76 of the crew.

Hoke served the remainder of the war on an AKA, an attack cargo ship, and was discharged in the fall of 1945 at Memphis. He came home to East Tennessee and went to work for Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport for four or five years, still serving in the reserves, before he was once again called to active duty for the Korean Conflict. He served 14 months working in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia helping to put mothballed ships back into service for the war. He was discharged in 1952 and went to work at Union Carbide at the Oak Ridge national security sites where he worked until his retirement in 1985.

It’s been a lifetime since the war. He’s had a successful career doing meaningful work. He’s enjoyed life with both of his wives, and he says he has enjoyed traveling and staying in touch with family and friends. However, as talk once again returns to his longevity, Hoke is indifferent. 

“There have been some long days, but it has passed by pretty fast,” he says, noting that he doesn’t give his age much thought. “I try to make it a practice to never ask why. As far as I’m concerned there is no answer to why. I just try to be thankful.”

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