A Nonagenarian Remembers …

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by Mary Jo Shannon

In October I discovered that Raleigh Court Presbyterian church had over 30 members aged ninety or above. Our Writers Group decided to interview them and publish their stories in our church newsletter, The Herald, in a column called “Our Nonagenarians.” Beginning with those who were oldest – 99, 98, 97 – we soon completed our initial list and stayed alert for others as they reached this milestone.

Recently I interviewed Bill Nunn who turned 90 on December 15, 2011. His story was so interesting I decided to share it with the readers of my column in the Star-Sentinel.

Bill is a quiet, modest man, who stands at the entrance to the narthex at 11:00 AM every Sunday, welcoming worshippers with a smile and a handshake. He has been a member of RCPC for 47 years and has served faithfully as elder.

An only child, Bill grew up in Goshen, Virginia. His father left his job with the C&O Railroad and bought a general merchandize store when Bill was six years old so the family could stay in one place while Bill attended school.

After graduation from high school, Bill enrolled at nearby VMI in Lexington and majored in civil engineering. He and the late Bob Mountcastle, another RCPC member, were in the same class of 1939 — the last class to complete four years without interruption for military service during WWII. Former Raleigh Court Presbyterian pastor, the late Jim Allison, left mid-way through his college years and returned to VMI to complete his education after the war ended.

Bill and Bob were inducted in the army as corporals in October and were on extended furlough until graduation, when they were commissioned and sent to Mississippi as engineering officers. Bill became a combat engineer and Bob a general engineer, and thus were no longer together.

Bill was with the 135th Battalion, in the Third Army throughout the war in Europe. Combat engineers were responsible for making river crossings, demolition work and, when necessary, serving as infantry. They got to know people of the little towns which they liberated in northeastern France.

“There are lots of things I don’t like to remember,” he said. “Those young boys, right out of high school – not prepared for what they faced. One young fellow – I think he was important in high school – a football player. He made a mistake – moved a log that was booby trapped. The Germans liked to set booby traps. The explosion killed him.”

On November 5, 1944, Bill received the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery beyond the call of duty. His unit was under heavy machine gun fire as they attempted to liberate the town of Berg. Bill ran ahead, throwing grenades, which broke up the resistance and allowed them to liberate the town. Many years later, in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of their liberation, the second generation of the freed families showed their gratitude by inviting the American veterans to return for celebration. Bill’s son accompanied him again in 2010 when a second invitation was issued. Bill treasures memories of those visits.

He recalls worshipping with the French town people in a Catholic Church. After the service as they filed out of the church, the town people followed close behind, reaching out to touch them, tears streaming down their faces.

The walls of the den in Bill’s home are filled with memorabilia from these trips. On a special stand in the living room is a bottle of wine, the label of which is inscribed with these words:  “They gave their tomorrows so that we might have our todays.” He has maintained correspondence with some of those whom he met, and says it is gratifying to see their appreciation for the sacrifices of the Americans.

After the war ended, Bill married Polly Huffman, a girl he had known since high school days. Polly had enlisted as a nurse and served on a hospital ship during the war. VMI’s placement service found him a position in Front Royal with Riverton Lime & Stone Co. They spent twelve years there, and then moved to Massachusetts where he worked for a quarry. They stayed only two years – too much snow and no Presbyterian church.

Their next move brought them to Roanoke with General Stone and Supply Co.  When the company left Roanoke, Bill took a job with Adams Construction Co. so he would not have to leave the community he had grown to love. The Nunns raised their five children in a house in Roanoke in which Bill still lives.

After he retired from Adams Construction Co. in 1986, Bill and Polly enjoyed traveling to Europe, the Holy Land and China before the sad day on April 24, 2001 when Polly died. Since then Bill has stayed in his home and enjoyed his children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. He continues to worship at Raleigh Court PC, serving his God by greeting members on Sunday mornings. God bless you, Bill!