Very special veteran visits MCHS

Friday, November 7, 2014

By Karen Hall


Some Marshall County High School students had the privilege of meeting a World War II veteran this week.

Jimmy Gentry, 89, of Franklin was the veteran, and with him was Lorisa Wright, whose father was in Dachau Concentration Camp when Gentry's unit liberated it.

Gentry began by telling about his boyhood in Depression-era Middle Tennessee, and how, when war broke out, he wanted to join the Air Force. He was turned down because of a defect in his color vision, but the examiner told him, "The Army will take anybody," and so Gentry joined the infantry.

They got just 12 of their 16 weeks of training before being shipped to Europe. Everything was a shock for a Tennessee country boy: New York City, the troop ship with 10,000 men aboard, the Atlantic Ocean.

The ship docked at Liverpool, England, where the blackout was strictly enforced, and Gentry remembers walking to the train holding on to the belt of the man in front of him, while another man held on to him.

"I didn't see lights at night for five months," he said.

They went by train to Southampton, and then by LST (landing ship, tank) across the English Channel to France.

By this time, it was bitterly cold. Gentry didn't know it, but he was walking toward the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by U.S. forces during the war. They walked five yards apart, so if the enemy hit them with an artillery shell at least some would survive. The men walked all day and all night, fought all day, and fought all night.

Gentry, who went on to be a highly successful football coach, said, "You can't call time out in war!"

He even remembered falling asleep walking. Falling down woke him up, of course, so he got up and kept on walking.

The war was beginning to wind down and spring was coming when, on April 29, 1945, Gentry and the other men found themselves looking down on a huge camp. It was Dachau. The air was filled with a horrible smell, and they discovered it was coming from a train of boxcars, all filled with dead bodies.

"Charlie, who are these people?" Gentry remembered asking, and his comrade replied, "They're Jews."

The people alive inside the camp, however, were slave laborers.

"There was a sea of faces staring out at us," he said.

One of those was a 17-year-old Ukrainian named Oleksiy Rudenko, who was Wright's father.

"My father was liberated by Jimmy Gentry and his E Company," Wright said.

All the 17-21 year old boys had been taken from Rudenko's village by the Nazis to use as slave laborers. They worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, on nothing but 250 grams of bread. Rudenko weighed 97 pounds when he was liberated.

When the war ended, he got to the United States, got an education (he ended up with a Ph.D.), and taught at the military intelligence school at Fort Riley, Kansas. By then, the Cold War was at it height, and Rudenko was teaching American spies how to infiltrate the Soviet Union.

The two men met in Franklin in 2010, but Rudenko died last December.

"Thank you, Mr. Gentry, for liberating my sweet daddy," Wright said at the conclusion of their talk. "And thank you, Marshall County High School, for having us here."

In the questions which followed, Gentry was asked if he went to reunions with his fellow soldiers.

"I'm the only one left in my platoon," he said. "That's a sad part of it. I was one of the youngest soldiers."