World War II veteran Robert Ernest May of Huntland has lived through many difficult and dangerous experiences throughout the course of his 96 years.
His eyes have seen both heartbreaking tragedy and the heroic selflessness of men and women who risked and often gave their lives for their country.
From growing up poor during the Great Depression to serving aboard a rescue ship in the US Navy during WWII, May has endured and overcome numerous challenging events that most of us could not imagine.
There was one thing that May says helped him through every hardship and life-threatening encounter- his faith and love for the Lord.
Born in the Gander Mountain/Sugar Cove area near Huntland in April 1923, May was one of eight brothers and sisters. His childhood was spent working alongside his siblings when hands were needed during the dark days of the Great Depression.
While some children from other families enjoyed going to school with friends, May recalls spending much of his childhood farming hybrid corn and cotton on the family’s plot of land on Hickory Road.
“The winters were hard, and if you had enough to eat you were doing good,” May said regarding his work on the family farm during his childhood.
When May was 14, his father became disabled, and he had to take over to feed his family. May continued to work to support his family and took a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps when he was old enough to join.
Known as the “CC Corps,” the Civilian Conservation Corps was a voluntary public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 for unemployed, unmarried men between the ages of 17-28. May was working with the CC Corps when he answered the call to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“I left here and never thought I’d come back home,” he said.
May was assigned to the U.S. Navy, and he left home with the understanding that his paychecks would go to support his family back home in Franklin County.
Satisfied that his family would be provided for, May went through basic training in Baltimore, Maryland.
He was then sent to Miami, Florida for more training, and he began his service as a seaman first class in the Navy.
May was soon promoted to the rank of ensign and was assigned to serve aboard a rescue patrol craft escort ship which bore the name “PCE(R) 852”. His ship held a compliment of 110 sailors and was 184.5 feet long and 33 feet wide.
Though May’s ship was bristling with guns both fore and aft, the vessel was designed primarily for rescue missions, and its armaments were primarily defensive. Rescue ships needed those armaments as they were often prime targets for Japanese forces.
The rescue ship went through the Panama Canal and made its way to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, before joining a battle group headed to war in the South Pacific.
In September of 1944, May’s ship left Pearl Harbor on its way to some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II.
When ships were damaged and lives were on the line, May and his crew members went toward the danger to rescue as many survivors as possible.
There was one incident, however, that stands out as a positive and lighthearted one for May.
The sailors serving aboard the PCE(R) 852 hadn’t enjoyed any ice cream since leaving the docks at Pearl Harbor.
Though it might seem silly to some, the simple comforts that reminded sailors and soldiers of home were often the most important. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and May and three of his fellow rescue personnel seized their chance when it came.
“A destroyer had been hit, and it was sinking,” he said.
After all of the survivors were rescued and safely recovered, a daring rescue mission of another sort was hatched.
“The four of us went before our captain and requested permission to board the sinking destroyer to rescue its ice cream freezer from the galley which was two decks below water as the destroyer was now on its side,” May said with a smile.
The captain gave permission, and May and his three friends braved a sinking and listing destroyer to rescue the ice cream freezer. The mission was an overwhelming success.
Though this incident was a happy one, the darkest times were yet to come.
May and his fellow shipmates took part in rescue operations at several major battles of the South Pacific during WWII.
Some of these include the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the Battle of Okinawa.
Like his fellow sailors, May was understandably nervous about heading into the heart of the fighting in the South Pacific.
May and his fellow crew members were apprehensive but gained resolve as they sailed into the heart of enemy territory.
May soon encountered scenes straight out of a nightmare, and these haunting vistas still burn brightly in his memories.
There were steel-hulled ships which had cracked in half and ships that were sinking or listing to one side.
May witnessed many burning ships, and often the sea itself burned with flames. Sailors choked on the thick black smoke which rose into skies filled with Japanese fighters.
“350 kamikaze fighters were on us at the Battle of Okinawa, and they were thick in the sky like bumblebees,” May said.
US Navy rescue vessels were often targeted by Japanese fighters.
May experienced something truly miraculous, however, just before going into the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
“My sister’s husband was deployed in Germany at the time, and I got a letter from her informing me that her husband had been captured by the Germans,” May said.
The news filled May with worry, but then something happened that he said changed his life forever.
“I heard a voice that told me that I didn’t have anything to worry about,” May said with tears in his eyes. “The voice told me not to worry about all those planes up there in the sky.
“I looked around, but nobody was in the room with me, but I heard that voice plain as day, and since then I never worry, and I thank the Lord for everything”
May and his fellow rescue crew members were responsible for saving the lives of more than 1,350 people during the fighting in the South Pacific. Through it all, May said his faith kept him from worry.
Following the war, May returned home to Franklin County and married his sweetheart, Nina Hinshaw, in 1947. The couple had 5 children, 14 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren.
After his first wife’s passing, he was encouraged by his children and grandchildren to consider remarrying.
In 1994, May listened to his family’s advice and married his second wife, Mary Cook. The couple still lives happily together.
May stays very active and enjoys helping people, attending church, deer hunting, gardening and woodworking.
His talent for making wooden dough rollers out of cedar wood inspired his family to purchase a professional lathe to make his dough roller woodworking hobby more enjoyable.
May’s dough rollers have become widely popular with those who enjoy making biscuits and cakes using handmade wooden tools, and the money earned from their sale goes to a very worthy charitable cause.
“My grandson, Kelly May, loves to help people like his father and grandfather before him,” May said.
Kelly May operates both The Rain Teen Center in Decherd and also Camp Rain, a summer camp for local youths.
The proceeds from the elder May’s handmade wooden dough rollers go toward improving the facilities at Camp Rain.