Billie Hopkins, who winters at Little Charlie Creek mobile home park in Wauchula, was only 5-feet, 3-inches tall and weighed 112 pounds. His size made him a perfect candidate to be a ball turret gunner on a B-17 or B-24 bomber in World War II. But the Air Corps didn’t want him because he was color bind.
The diminutive man was disappointed and returned to his father’s Mississippi farm. A few months later he was drafted by the Army, joined the 79th Infantry Division and landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day plus 6.
Hopkins, 86, would receive three Purple Hearts fighting his way across France, Belgium and Germany before Hitler’s war machine surrendered unconditionally to Allied forces. He was a radio man who served in H-Company, 315 Regiment, 79th Division.
“I got my first Purple Heart the first day after we hit the beach and moved up. We were walking beside a hedgerow when a German artillery shell hit right in front of us,” Hopkins said. “A piece of shrapnel hit me in the right foot and back. A medic got hold of the piece of steel and pulled it out with his hands. He wrapped up my wound, I put my boot back on and walked on.
“The medic told me he would dress my wound the next morning. He never got to do it because he was killed that night by another enemy artillery round.”
The 79th Division broke out of the hedgerows along the coast and headed for the Cherbourg Peninsula. After taking Cherbourg away from the Germans following several tough days of combat the outfit went south toward Paris.
“On July 4, 1944, a group of seven of us were sitting around a foxhole planning the next day’s combat when an enemy shell hit right behind us. It killed five of the solders around the foxhole and wounded me and the 1st sergeant,” Hopkins recalled.
“It blew my left eardrum completely out. I was also hit in my left shoulder by shrapnel,” he said. “Somebody took me to the hospital because I was unconscious for five hours. I spent a week or 10 days trying to get my senses back. When I got out they sent me back to the front lines.”
That was Purple Heart number two.
“We were in some little French town, I don’t remember where, fighting the Germans door-to-door. It was Nov. 12, 1944 when a German shell struck the street in front of me. It blew me into a nearby field and paralyzed me on my right side. I spent the next 12 days in a French hospital,” Hopkins said.
On Thanksgiving Day they operated on his leg. He got out of the hospital Christmas Day with a third Purple Heart and a one way ticket to the front once again.
Hopkins had missed the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest fight on the Western Front during the Second World War. However, he was out of the hospital in time to cross the Rhine in little boats with the 79th Division on March 24, 1945.
A month before VE-Day the division attacked Gelsenkirchen on April 7, 1945. Two days later it reached the Ruhr River and established a bridgehead at Kettwig on April 11. Hopkins and his division remained in Germany until war’s end without incident.
A couple of months afterwards he remembers sailing from France to the USA aboard a packed troop transport.
“When we reached New York Harbor and sailed passed the Statue of Liberty we were feeling good. Everyone was celebrating our victory. It was the greatest thing in the world,” the old soldier recalled 65 years later.
Hopkins returned to his family’s farm in Mississippi after the war, but only stayed down on the farm for a year before he struck out on his own. Among other thing he went into the restaurant business and remained in the business for almost 20 years.
He and his wife, Betty, have been married for 62 years. They have one daughter, Emily. The couple have wintered in Florida for two decades. This is the fourth year they spent in the Wauchula area.
Name: Billie Hopkins
D.O.B: 3 Dec. 1924
Current: Little Charlie Creek Mobile Home Park, Wauchula, Fla.
Entered Service: 1943
Discharged: December 1945
Rank: Private First Class
Unit: H Company, 315th Regiment, 79th Infantry Division
Commendations: Three Purple Hearts, World War II Victory Medal, European Theatre Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal
Battles/Campaigns: European Theatre
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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