‘Beloved’ Cherokee storyteller shares WWII experiences
Jerry Wolfe is a storyteller. Whether he’s telling a story of his people at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian or retelling his years spent in the U.S. Navy, the 91-year-old remembers every detail.
Wolfe recalls the hardships growing up on the Qualla Boundary in the 1930s. He remembers the day he enlisted during World War II, the day he returned home to Cherokee, and everything in between. From traveling by sea to the beaches of Normandy in the Atlantic Ocean to Pearl Harbor in the Pacific Ocean, he saw quite a bit of action during his six years of service.
“I was going to make a career of it, but I messed around and got married and my wife said, ‘When your term runs out you get home,’” he laughed. “We saw some good times and we saw some bad times.”
WWII started Sept. 1, 1939, but the U.S. didn’t get involved until Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese Dec. 7, 1941. Wolfe turned 18 in 1943 and enlisted in the Navy just as many of his fellow tribal members did during that time.
In those days there weren’t many steady jobs on the boundary and families lived in primitive homes without running water or power. Wolfe said most families were still living off the land by growing corn and potatoes along the mountainside. Many families had at least one milking cow and maybe a few chickens.
“We did a lot of canning and picked all kinds of fruit — there was plenty of that back then,” Wolfe said. “We had to walk everywhere because there were no roads or vehicles.”
Timber was being cut in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Wolfe recalls his mother selling sweet milk to families in the lumber camps for 20 cents a gallon and selling eggs and butter she made. Serving in the military would at least mean he could send his $18 a month stipend back to his family.
Wolfe had his sights set on the West Coast, but after nine weeks of basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois, he was sent to Little Creek, Virginia, near Norfolk. His job was to transport soldiers on small boats from the base over to Virginia Beach every morning.
“We did that from September to January,” Wolfe said. “I wondered why we were doing it — no one ever explained anything to us — when I asked I never did get an answer.”
Departing for D-Day
Of course he knows now that everything he did in training during that time was all leading up to the big invasion. In January 1944, he was sent to Long Island, New York, where he was assigned to the Queen Mary — the second largest ship in the world at the time. Wolfe and a thousand other troops voyaged across the Atlantic with no knowledge of the next destination. They stopped in Scotland for a couple of weeks before Wolfe was sent to Falmouth Navy Base on the southern tip of England.
“My first night there, bombs started dropping all around the navy base leaving big potholes wherever the bombs went off,” he said. “The sky would be lit up just like it was daylight — German planes were coming over dropping bombs, but they never hit us.”
The bombing continued for many nights and caused panicked people in town to run in every direction. Wolfe said a seasoned sailor offered him advice — no sense in running, the bombs will hit wherever they’re going to hit so it’s best to just stay put until it’s over — and that’s what he did.
When bombs weren’t going off at night the streets were pitch black. He said no one was allowed to have lights on the streets or even spark up a cigarette in fear of alerting the enemy. The blackout made for a few interesting evenings of Wolfe getting lost in town trying to find his way back to the barracks without any light to guide his way.
Wolfe was assigned to another ship in April 1944 that was similar to the one he trained on in Virginia. He loaded up with a crew of 16 men, tanks and trucks in preparation of the big invasion of Normandy.
“Everything was stirring strong,” he recalled.
On June 2, 5,000 ships set off across the English Channel toward Normandy, but choppy waters caused them to have to turn around half way through their journey.
“Half way across, the waters were rolling like this,” he said moving his hands up and down like a wave. “It was too rough so we had to turn around.”
Wolfe’s ship went out again June 5 and reached Omaha Beach on the coast of France, discharging soldiers and tanks to the shores. June 6 — D-Day — was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. More than 156,000 Allied forces landed across a 50-mile stretch of beaches in Normandy that day with the goal of liberating Western Europe from the control of Nazi Germany.
Though he never left the ship, Wolfe witnessed much of the warfare from a close distance.
“We could see some of the tanks explode as soon as they hit the beach,” he said. “We lost a lot of men on D-Day.”
Beginning of the end
The ship stayed until the Battle of Normandy was over in August. Wolfe’s name came up to head back to a base in London, England, and in March 1945 he took a ship back to Boston so he could return home for a 30-day leave. When he reported back to Norfolk, Virginia, he was put in charge of 14 newly enlisted white sailors.
He was tasked with transporting them up to the Newport Navy Base in Rhode Island to report for duty. Wolfe and his 14 sailors were riding the rail through New York City when the train stopped abruptly.
“The train stopped and all the guys looked out the windows,” Wolfe recalled. “The air was full of paper clippings (confetti) — it was everywhere.”
Wolfe and his fellow soldiers just happened to be in the big city when the announcement was made that the Germans had given up — V-E Day (Victory in Europe). Not knowing when the train would get rolling again to get them to Newport, Wolfe told his men to stay on board as the excitement and celebration continued on the streets. After waiting for a couple of hours, he allowed the sailors to hop off the train to grab a quick drink at a pub just across the street.
“I told them to go and come back quickly so the train wouldn’t leave us. Well they all came back with fifths of whiskey,” he laughed. “Every serviceman that walked into that pub got a fifth of whiskey, so it wasn’t too long before everyone on the train was high.”
Wolfe got the drunken sailors to Newport and dropped off their records at the naval base. He said the lieutenant he reported to made a big deal out of commending him for delivering the sailors through all the uproar in New York City. While other officers kept coming in to thank him for his success, Wolfe said he was just trying to make a quick escape.
“I wanted to get out of there because I had had a few drinks on the train too,” he said.
After some more training in New Orleans, Wolfe was on another ship heading toward Pearl Harbor when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Even though the first bomb killed 800,000 of people, the Japanese didn’t surrender until the second A-bomb was dropped Aug. 9 on Nagasaki, killing 40,000. He continued on to Pearl Harbor for another historic moment — the official declaration of peace signing on the U.S.S. Missouri by the Japanese — better known as V-J Day (Victory over Japan).
“Very few of the servicemen served in both theaters — I got bars for being in the Atlantic war zone and ribbons for being in Pacific,” Wolfe said. “It just happened that way and that’s when the war was over.”
After the war, Wolfe was stationed in Key West, Florida, for shore duty. He was stationed in a top-secret laboratory where he worked on testing torpedoes in the ocean.
When his enlistment ended in 1949, Wolfe decided not to re-up and returned home to Cherokee.
“It was good to be home,” he said.
Wolfe went home and started a family. He and his wife had seven children, many of which still live in Cherokee. He said he had the opportunity to learn a trade when he returned home thanks to the GI Bill. He did masonry for two years and carpentry for another two years. Though he said he enjoyed the carpentry work more, he said he ended up making a living in masonry.
“I didn’t care for brick laying but it paid me $1.50 an hour — that was some good money back then,” he said.
Wolfe would go on to complete many rock-laying projects in the national park and helped build many churches throughout Western North Carolina, including a Catholic church in Sylva and a Presbyterian church in Bryson City.
Wolfe is an active and respected elder in the community. The Eastern Band of Cherokee named Wolfe a “beloved” man in 2013 — it was the first time a Cherokee man had been given the title since the early 1800s.
“A beloved man is a man who looks after the community — wherever he’s needed, he should be there,” Wolfe said.
He takes that job seriously. He can be found at many of the major events in Cherokee saying an opening prayer in his native Cherokee language. For the last 18 years, he’s worked part time at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian telling stories and recounting history for visitors.
Wolf was chosen this year to be the speaker at a Veteran’s Day Ceremony at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. He wants to highlight several important people in history who have sacrificed for the sake of others. His message will be one of unity among all people no matter their race.
“I want to talk about all the people who have given their lives for all of us and not just one certain people,” he said.
He said Jesus gave his life for all people and left a message of peace through the Ten Commandments. President Abraham Lincoln gave his life for the cause of united all people in the union. Then there is the legend of Tsali, a Cherokee man who resisted leaving his land and was shot to death by soldiers.
“Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for all people and he said, ‘I want to see my children play with your children,’” Wolfe said. “He meant for all children to get together and live together in harmony.”
Wolfe grew up in a time of unrest and racism, but he says everyone was put on this Earth to get along and work together in harmony. He took a moment to reflect on all that has been taken from the Cherokee people throughout history.
“A lot was taken from our people. The federal government drove us out because we didn’t have weapons to fight like they did so they could easily take it,” he said.
Despite a long history of oppression in the U.S., Wolfe and other Cherokee people stepped up to fight when it came time to go to war.
“We just did what needed to be done,” Wolfe said.