At about two o’clock on a cold, rainy spring day, a group of elderly men sits in what looks like a sports bar at the American Legion headquarters in McMinnville, Ore. You might not know it from a casual glance, but these men – including 93-year-old Homer Farley – are American heroes.
Farley, born in 1920 in Ohio, became an orphan when he was 11 years old. In 1935 at age 15, Farley lied about his age to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that helped unmarried and unemployed men ages 18-25 find employment. But Farley knew what he was going to do from the second he joined.
“I knew I’d go to the Army,” Farley said. “The Army was about the only thing I could get into back in those days because things were tough.”
Despite knowing what he would do, Farley had to jump through some major hoops to get into the CCC before he could join the Army.
“In order to get in, you had to have a good background, and you had to be at least 18,” he recalled. “Well, I wasn’t either one, but I took my brother’s birth certificate, wrote my name on it and got into the CCC. Then when I was of age, I went into the Army in 1939.”
After basic training, while training in maneuvers in Knoxville, Tenn., Farley and 12 of his fellow privates were sent to Iceland to join the 2nd Marine Division that was garrisoned in Reykjavik. After about a year and a half, Farley finally got his first taste of live combat.
“From Iceland, I went with General Patton and the 1st Infantry Division to North Africa, and we made the invasion at Casablanca,” Farley said.
Farley said things did not go well for American forces in their first encounters with Axis troops.
“We had quite a few little spells going into North Africa. I was at the hill where General Patton lost 100 tanks in one day [at the Battle of Sidi Bou Zid],” Farley said.
After North Africa, Farley then took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943 that led to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fall from power. But Farley’s biggest experience was still yet to come.
“From Sicily, I went back to England and started preparing for D-Day. We [the Americans] had four infantry divisions, which consists of about 60,000 men, and lost our share of them. We had – I'm not sure of this – but we had a little over 7,000 casualties the first day,” he said.
Farley told his story of storming the beach during the D-Day invasion. “We hit the beach. They were sinking our craft. They were sinking them about as fast as we could shove them in. The one I was on got pretty well wrecked and it was sinking. When it went over, it went over in about 10 feet of water,” he said.
“I was carrying a Browning automatic rifle, which is about 16 pounds, and about 20 bandoliers of ammo. When I went into the water, I would never have survived had I not gotten rid of it, so I did. When I hit the beach, I didn’t even have a weapon. We didn’t get out of the water until the tide started coming in. When it came in, it went up to their [the German forces’] first barrier.
“You’ve probably seen pictures where they stretch the beaches with Xs and wire. Well, the wire was barbed wire, and the Xs were metal. I found myself lying against one of those, and my buddy was hollering at me. We’d been together for two to three years.
“He quit hollering, and I had a wave that came up over me, and something hard hit me. I looked around, and it was him. He wasn’t going to talk anymore. They’d got him.
“That was the hardest thing I had ever had to take. Had I had a gun, I wouldn’t have been here today, because I went stark raving mad and I would’ve stormed. But it’s a good thing I didn’t,” Farley said.
After the invasion of Normandy came a European tour for which Farley led a company as a private. They made 16 river crossings, and he served in the Battle of the Bulge. Farley then returned to the U.S.
Soon after, he shipped off to Korea as part of a “sound and flash” unit in the artillery, stationed with South Korean forces on the east coast of the country. After his tour in Korea, Farley once again returned home and joined the Air Force, where he was in a gunship unit in Vietnam until his tour ended in 1965.
During his 26-year military career, Farley was wounded three times, received three Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts and “about every other medal they had,” and also achieved the rank of sergeant major, the highest rank an enlisted solider can achieve in the Army.
Of all these, Farley said the highest honor was receiving the Silver Star. “Back in those days, in order to get anything higher, like a [Congressional] Medal of Honor, you got that after you died. I’ve been in for the Medal of Honor for years. I don’t expect to get it, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled then,” he explained.
Farley said veterans of different wars were treated differently when they returned from war.
“The guys from Korea were treated like dirt,” Farley said. “We came back and they spit on us, they cussed at us, they did a little bit of everything. Right now, they're [Iraq/Afghanistan veterans] being treated quite well. That’s thanks to you younger people, your mothers and fathers … You have more respect for the military than civilians did in my time.”
The way war is waged has changed too, of course. Farley said that other than the technological differences, the tour system was different for the “greatest generation.”
“When we went to war, we stayed until it was over,” Farley said. “There was no coming home to see your people or anything. A good example of that, when I left the United States the first time, I was 15 years old. As far as the Army was concerned, I was 17. That was 1939. The next time I saw home was in 1945. I went from a kid to a man.”
Farley’s desire to serve others continues even in his retirement.
“If there’s any time I can help these kids, I will,” Farley said. “That’s what I'm here for today.” Pointing to his Korean War veteran hat on his head, Farley smiled. “Just like the cap says, we’re a band of brothers.”
Writing: Kohl Calhoun
Photograph: Joel W. Ray