BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — At nearly 93 years old, Claude Walker Jr.’s handshake is still full and firm.
The longtime postmaster at the Fairdale Post Office isn’t slowed by his age — he still drives himself around and even mows his own lawn.
On the wall of his longtime home, the memories of more than seven decades hang in the form of medals and photographs.
The neat row of polished metal is highlighted by a World War II Victory Medal, the Philippine Liberation Medal, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
The decorated West Virginia veteran will lead this year’s Veterans Day parade in downtown Beckley.
“I’d say (it’s) an honor, but you also got plenty more that got honor, too,” Walker said.
Although Walker may have served his country in two wars, they were not his first experiences in service.
In the summer before his senior year of high school, Walker asked his parents if he could join the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“They were hard to convince, but they finally come around,” Walker said with a smile.
The young West Virginian spent that summer in Washington state working for the federal program.
Before the summer was over, the CCC would be disbanded and Walker was given two options, the military or go back home and finish school.
Walker decided he would return home, but the call to service had not been yet quenched.
Along with a group of boys, Walker made a plea to his school’s principal to graduate early in December.
When the principal asked why, the young men responded that they wanted to enter the military.
The principal agreed on the condition that they double up on their work, and on Jan. 3, 1943, the boys traveled to Huntington for their military examination.
A few weeks later, Walker was sent to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, where he was issued his uniform before moving on to infantry training.
After infantry training, the young West Virginian was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, for mounted cavalry school before being sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, to serve as a border guard attached to the 5th Cavalry Regiment.
After only five days in Texas, Walker and the rest of his regiment were told that they would be going overseas.
On July 3, 1943, the 5th Cavalry embarked on a ship destined for Australia and the Pacific Theater.
After training in Australia, the 5th Cavalry moved to New Guinea, where they would begin the fight in earnest.
“From there the fun started,” Walker said with a soldier’s humor.
From February 1944 until June 1945, Walker would take part in one of the greatest military pushes of all time to liberate the Philippines under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“We invaded four islands and MacArthur named us his first team,” Walker said. “Every job that he had to do, he thought we knew how to do it.”
Walker laughed at the memory of seeing MacArthur come ashore 30 minutes from when they had landed on Leyte Island.
“He got off in water about up to his knees, but he told all the newspapers that he got off on dry land,” Walker said before he laughed.
The old soldier said that MacArthur’s landing was nothing to be ashamed of and that he was regularly up to his neck during beach landings.
The four beach landings that Walker took part in came at a heavy price.
“From the time we started until the time we got to Japan, we had 20 people out of our company (up to 150 soldiers) that was with them in the beginning,” Walker said, adding that the loss of men counted both the numbers of the dead and the wounded.
Walker was in the Philippines when the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan; when the Japanese surrendered, the 5th Cavalry moved to Japan to be part of the occupation force.
When Walker made his way back to the States, he had no way of notifying his family and upon arrival in Beckley late one evening, he had to hitchhike to Fairdale.
His parents had moved during his time overseas and he was unsure where they were living, so when he arrived in Fairdale he lay down on the front porch of the local grocery store and went to sleep.
The next morning when the store’s owner arrived, he was able to point Walker in the right direction and Walker said he gave his mother a big scare when he came walking through the door early in the morning.
Less than five years after returning from World War II, Walker would again be called into service during the Korean conflict.
After three months, an order was issued to draw back any wounded World War II veterans from the front lines and Walker was moved to the rear, where he guarded the processing centers.
Upon his return from his second war, Walker would work in the mines for 10 years before going to work for the post office.
When asked how long he was a postmaster, Walker’s answer was quick.
“Thirty-four years, nine months and five days,” he said.
Looking back, Walker is proud of his service and of his country.
“I’d say this, even though some people give the military a bad name, I always got exactly what they promised,” the veteran said before smiling and using the soldier’s humor again. “They promised it was going to be a rough life over there. It played out that way too.”