World War II paratrooper remembers war, finally shares stories
James Starner, 92, of Marietta, was one of those 33 who survived the month-long German offensive which caught the Allies by surprise in a brutal Belgian winter.
He received his draft notice for the second world war just after his 18th birthday, Oct. 25, 1943. And he volunteered to jump out of planes the following June, despite his first sergeant calling him crazy.
“Men from the World War II era just blow me away,” said Robert “Fitz” Fitzgerald, executive director of the Washington County Veteran Service Commission, who was introduced to Starner late last month and immediately felt a connection. “I’m a former paratrooper too so it was cool to talk with him. There’s almost exactly a 40-year gap between when we went to paratrooper school… As soon as I looked at his record and saw that he was airborne I wanted to meet him.”
Starner was a late addition to the Veteran Service Commission’s newly formed Washington County Hall of Fame, which will induct its first class on Nov. 1 in Marietta.
His wife Betty saw the initial stories The Marietta Times has run profiling the recipients and hoped that her husband would also be considered.
The committee heading the recognition effort then voted to accept Starner Friday as the 11th and final member of the 2018 class.
“Dad’s in poor health,” said Jill Harry, of Marietta. “But he’s always been so positive, and he’s worked hard not only with the war but after in providing for his family, building a company and he was big in Rotary and was the Marietta (Area) Chamber of Commerce Business Man of the Year in 2002.”
Though details like specific dates and movements of troops have started to fade from his mind, a few things still jog Starner’s memory of his time in the Ardennes forest, capturing Nazis and occupying Berlin.
“He has presidential commendations,” explained Betty. “Remember that, Jim?”
“Well I sort of do, yeah,” he replied. “In the war I joined the paratroopers, that was World War II.”
Starner explained his first taste of battle was in one of the most brutal winters Europe had seen.
“It was the Bulge, I remember the cold,” he said, looking up. “I cut holes in my sleeping bag to put my arms through and sleep in my jacket..”
“And Dad, tell her about your socks,” added Harry. “Dad told us he kept two pairs of socks, one he kept in his shirt on his chest and the other on his feet and it didn’t matter where they were marching, he’d stop each hour and switch them.”
“That’s from growing up in the country,” Starner continued, noting he was originally from outside of Lancaster.
Then he sat quietly listening to the details his wife and daughter outlined in the family living room on Bellevue Street, looking out the window to notice the occasional car passing.
“He was very active his whole life, the Airborne had reunions every year and they always went,” said Starner’s daughter. “He never missed one… my daughters and I went with him once or twice and I can remember it was like a living history lesson, they were kids then.”
She described walking through one of the reunion’s “War Rooms” where memorabilia was displayed from battles her father and his peers were in–that’s when Betty began pulling out some belonging to her husband.
First out of the hat box was a black and white armband, with the initials “MP” in large block letters.
Then she pulled two bright red artifacts featuring black Nazi swastikas in the center of both.
“He brought these back from Germany too,” she noted.
As Starner held the flag he took from Berlin, and the armband he took off of a prisoner of war he remained quiet.
“I took this, he didn’t give it to me,” is all he said, or could remember of the armband, as his eyes stayed fixed on his thumb moving over the symbol of tyranny and genocide.
“Dad didn’t really talk about this at all until one day around 2000 to 2003, he just let it all out,” explained Harry. “It was like it was time we knew and he had such a sharp memory for those dates and what happened his whole time in the service.”
Fitzgerald said he was particularly impressed with another story of Starner, who after surviving the Battle of the Bulge, landed behind enemy lines in Operation Varsity.
“He then had to fight his way back to his men after he landed a few miles too far,” said Fitzgerald. “That same energy, he then poured into building a business here in Marietta. This guy is just made of stronger stuff.”
When Starner returned from the war, he went back to The Ohio State University.
“Then from Ohio State, I went to work for a trucking company and I started driving a truck,” said Starner. “Then I made that company.”
He founded Merchants 5 Star in Marietta and is now a grandfather and great-grandfather with four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“And he qualifies for a Bronze Star, so we’re in the process of getting the paperwork in for that to get him recognized as well,” added Fitzgerald.
Starner turns 93 on Oct. 25.
2018 Washington County Veterans Hall of Fame Inductees:
• 1st Lt. Robert L. Pioli, U.S. Army Air Corps 1942-1945; Military Service.
• Pvt. James “Jimmy” Starner, U.S. Army 1944-46; Military Service.
• Sgt. David Smith, U.S. Marine Corps 1953-1956; Veterans Advocate, Professional Achievement, Civic and Community Service.
• Cpl. Joe Matthews, U.S. Marine Corps 1956-1958; Veterans Advocate, Professional Achievement, Civic and Community Service.
• Builder Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald W. Davis, U.S. Navy 1966-1971; Veteran Advocate and Community Service.
• Spc. Kelly E. Burchett, U.S. Army 1967-68; Military Service, posthumous award.
• Sgt. Gary A. Rhoades, U.S. Army 1967-1969; Military Service.
• Cpl. Charles “Jean” Yost, U.S. Marine Corps 1967-1969; Civic and Community Service.
• Sgt. Meredith L. Barnett, U.S. Marine Corps 1969-1970; Military Service, posthumous award.
• Sgt. Steven J. Hall, U.S. Army 1969-1971; Military Service.
• Cpl. Kyle A. Hockenberry, U.S. Army 2010-2013; Military Service.
Source: Washington County Veterans Service Commission.
Note: The Marietta Times will continue the series recognizing the 11 veterans to be inducted in the inaugural Washington County Veterans Hall of Fame leading up to the induction ceremony scheduled for Nov. 1.