When Pete Tjovaras, Kasper Fulghum and Raymond McKenney shipped out of Augusta in the fall of 1940, they said they thought it would be for one year of active-duty military service. They did not expect that almost 70 years later they would still be meeting to talk about it.
A Thursday lunch at Sixth and Watkins Restaurant was the latest get-together for the old soldiers of Battery A, 214th Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Of the 210 men who left Augusta that day in 1940, only 10 are alive, according to Mr. Fulghum. Of those surviving veterans, four live in the Augusta area. One, George Spires, of North Augusta, was unable to make Thursday's reunion.
Mr. Tjovaras, now 90, said that he treasures each chance to see his fellow veterans again, because they might not have many meetings left.
On Nov. 25, 1940, the men were in one of the first National Guard units to be inducted into the U.S. Army for a year of active duty. They were sent to Camp Stewart for training and became part of a searchlight battalion. They were also one of the first units in the Army to receive training in a highly secretive new technology called radar.
One year after they had joined up, the men were back at Camp Stewart anticipating their discharge from active duty.
"In those days we expected to do one year of service. Then the war happened, and we remained on active duty," Mr. Tjovaras said.
After Pearl Harbor, the men were deployed to California, where they were to help defend the West Coast against Japanese submarines.
"I think we tracked a sub, but we couldn't prove anything at that time. Now they are saying they found some one- to two-man subs. I was on the radar when I reported it, and it was a slow moving target under water," Mr. Tjovaras recalled.
The men remained on the California coast until January 1943, when they were sent to North Africa.
They spent three years overseas, and were engaged in six major battles in the North African and Italian campaigns of World War II. Their unit was later awarded six Bronze Battle Stars for its service.
During the course of those campaigns, the men received engineering training and were designated as an engineer combat battalion. They were responsible for clearing mine fields, repairing roads and building bridges.
Mr. Tjovaras remembered one occasion when his unit was building a bridge over a river in Italy under the cover of smoke. He said that the smoke was necessary to protect the men from snipers. Mr. Tjovaras said a sniper firing a shot from a building on the other side of the river hit a man in his heart.
The 69th anniversary of the 214th's deployment from Augusta will be in November. Last year there were 13 surviving veterans of the 214th Regiment.
"We lost one on Christmas Day, one two months ago and one about three weeks ago," Mr. Fulghum said.
"You know it's coming. You don't know when, but it's coming, and you don't have that much time left. You never thought about this when you were 35 or 40 years old, but when you get to be my age and you start thinking about it ... There's nothing you can do about it," he said.
Reach Jonathan Overstreet at (706) 823-3708 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WORLD WAR II BY THE NUMBERS
Total U.S. service members worldwide
Other deaths in service
Estimated number of living veterans as of November 2008, based on population projections; 5.7 million were counted in the 2000 Census
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Census Bureau