Joe Stockwell was laid to rest Monday in the courtyard cemetery at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.
During his 96 years, Stockwell could lay claim to many titles — Ph.D., distinguished professor, patron of the arts, The Starkville Library and the Boy Scouts, faithful communicant at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in West Point.
Yet there is another title that humility would never permit him to embrace, although he probably had as good a case as anyone to claim it:
Joe Stockwell, the original G.I. Joe.
“He was the epitome of what we now know as The Greatest Generation,” said Deboarah Collier, his sister-in-law. “His story was their story.”
Stockwell grew up in the tiny town of New Road, Louisiana. His father died when Joe was 4, and he lived with first one relative then another, a poor kid with seemingly no opportunities.
On July 10, 1943, Stockwell turned 18 and immediately went into active duty in the U.S. Army, having enlisted a few months earlier. He served as a mortarman in France from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945.
“To hear him tell it, he was just with a bunch of guys cutting their way through France, liberating villages and getting shot at,” said his son, Joe “Buddy” Stockwell Jr. “He was one of those generic citizen soldiers. No big deal. All they did was win the war.”
Those familiar with Brad Freeman’s story will see the parallels in the two men’s military service — a couple of small-town kids (Freeman is from Caledonia) thrust onto the stage of the most dramatic events of the 20th century as mortarmen, launching mortar shells at German positions in the climactic final years of World War II, fighting with valor and distinction then quietly returning home.
Decades later, fame hunted down Freeman, who was a member of the legendary 101st Airborne “Easy Company,” whose exploits were immortalized first in Stephen Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers” and later in an HBO series of the same name.
But fame never found Stockwell, which was fine by him.
“He never talked much about it and he wasn’t a part of any famous unit or anything like that, but it’s obvious from his record that he was in the middle of the action,” Buddy Stockwell said.
To understand something of Stockwell’s story, you have to read between the lines of his military record — Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster (for those wounded more than once in combat), and the EAME Ribbon with two battle stars (for those who fought in the European Theater). In two years, he went from private to staff-sergeant, promotions that were almost certain to have been battle-field promotions that spoke of his skill and valor.
Like Freeman, Stockwell was awarded the Legion of Honor (Knighted) by the government of France for his acts of heroism on the battlefield.
The G.I. Bill
Stockwell, who was wounded in battle in January 1945 and again two months later, returned home after the war and went to college on the G.I. Bill.
“The G.I. Bill changed his whole life and probably our lives, too,” Buddy Stockwell said. “There weren’t any opportunities for a poor kid in that little town. But he was able to go to college and build a great career as an educator. If that hadn’t happened, I wonder what opportunities me and my sister (Anne Stockwell) would have had. It would probably have been a lot different for us, too.”
Buddy Stockwell went to law school and began a prominent career first with his own practice in Baton Rouge and later as an attorney for the Louisiana Supreme Court and now as an attorney for the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Anne Stockwell earned a degree in Film from New York University and works in the movie industry in Los Angeles.
Joe Stockwell earned his degree at Tulane University and, after working in sales for a decade, returned to school at LSU where he earned his Masters and Ph.D. in English.
He moved to Starkville in 1968, where he was a distinguished professor of English at Mississippi State before his retirement in 1986.
“It would have been such a waste if Joe had never been able to go to college,” said his sister-in-law. “I have a Ph.D., and I’ve been around a lot of people in that circle — intelligent, educated people. What I will say is that Joe was the most intelligent, well-read, most erudite person I’ve ever met.”
An unwritten code
Growing up, Buddy and Anne only got rare glimpses into their father’s life as a soldier.
“Just bits and pieces over the years,” Buddy said. “One of those times was when I was 4 and Anne was 6 and dad and mom rented a Volkswagen bus and we went all over Europe, seeing all the famous sites. We were somewhere in France. Anne and I were playing in the back of the van and at that age we didn’t know what was going on. But my dad kept driving around in a loop in this little French village, kind of like he was trying to remember something. Suddenly, he stopped the van and saw an old blind man with those dark-colored glasses and a cane sitting outside a building. Dad said, “Well, I’ll be damned” and got out of the car and went up to the guy and started talking to him.
“A few minutes later, he came back and mom asked him what he was doing. My dad just shook his head and said, ‘That’s the same guy that was sitting in the same spot when us mortarmen came through here in 1945.’”
Over the years, Buddy and Anne got snippets of the story, often at long intervals.
Once, Joe was asked what he was thinking about when the fighting was at its fiercest. Was he thinking about home? Was he thinking about his family?
“No,” Joe said. “The only thing I was thinking about was saving my ass.”
Buddy said his dad attributed his survival to good fortune, good eyesight and good reflexes.
“If you can see the other guy before he sees you, that’s a pretty important advantage,” Joe said.
“The other thing is that when you’re a mortarman, the minute you fire your mortar, everybody knows where you are,” he said. “You had better be able to move in a hurry because everybody knows where you are and you are the target.”
Like most World War II combat veterans, Joe was reluctant to share too much, though.
“You almost get the sense that there was an unwritten code those guys lived by that said talking too much was sacrilegious or defamatory, that it was a dishonor to those who had fallen,” Buddy said. “What happened there was supposed to be respected. You shouldn’t tell stories or gossip about it. You just manned up and did what you were supposed to do and didn’t talk too much about it.”
The end of an era
Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during World War II, only about 240,000 are living today, according to the U.S. Veterans Affairs data. The youngest of those veterans are in the mid-90s. Each day, we lose an average of 240 of those veterans. In as few as 10 years, the last of those veterans will be gone and the last first-person accounts of that era will go with them.
Buddy Stockwell understands and respects his father’s reluctance to share his war-time experience in detail.
But he also realizes the loss that decision entails.
Few of those soldiers were better-equipped to tell that story than his father.
“He was quick witted with a keen mind,” Buddy said. “He had the ability to quickly analyze complex concepts. He was articulate. He could explain things to people regardless of their background or education. When he defended his Ph.D. at LSU, the committee said they had never heard a better presentation.”
Much of Joe Stockwell’s story went untold, but his memories stayed with him.
“At the (funeral) service, people came up to me and said they had no idea about dad’s military service,” Buddy said. “He just didn’t say much about it.”
At least, not out loud.
“The priest said that every week when my dad went to church, he said a prayer for the men who didn’t come home,” Buddy said. “He did that every Sunday for all these years, right up to the end of his life.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.