SYRACUSE — Charles Garner was a familiar face to students at several area schools from 1947 to 1985. Those students knew him as a science and math teacher at both Syracuse High School and Edgewood Middle School, as a principal at Leesburg High School and as an assistant principal at Warsaw Community High School.
They probably knew — or presumed — that he was also a son, a brother, a husband and a father.
What they may not have known is that Garner is also a veteran — and that he was at Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy.
Garner, now a Syracuse resident, was born in Fulton County and lived on a farm with his parents, Virgil and Edith; and two brothers and two sisters. He attended high school in West Township, near Plymouth, and graduated in 1941.
“I was at Indiana Central College and I knew in 1942 that it wasn’t going to be long until the draft board would probably be calling, so I went in and signed up with the reserves,” Garner said.
While still in college, Garner and his high school sweetheart, Maybelle, were married on Jan. 1, 1943.
“April 13, 1943, the Army wanted 10 of us from college and we all went in the same day,” Garner said.
The following day, the entire group of 10 got together for a photo, Garner said. George Crow, who later became a professional baseball player and basketball player and was the first Indiana “Mr. Basketball,” was one of the 10.
Garner was first sent to Fort Harrison, then on to Camp Sibert in Alabama. In 1944 he was sent to Liverpool, England.
“I got on a bus that took me to Salisbury, England, as a replacement,” Garner said. “We were all replacements. The idea was that on D-Day, whenever that was gonna happen, they were gonna need replacements.”
“D-Day came and we heard noises in the night, saw the planes going over…we could count as many as 500 at one time going over,” said Garner. “We knew something big was going on. We knew when we saw all those airplanes that D-Day was here.”
“On the 16th of June, we came in. It was difficult getting off of the ship into landing crafts. We got in a little later than we should have and the tide was coming in,” Garner said. “The beach was clear, but after we got up the hill, you knew you were in a war zone.”
Garner carried a leather photo frame that held two pictures of Maybelle in the left breast pocket of his uniform during his time in the service and a Bible in the right breast pocket.
“That’s what got me through — that and my dad’s prayers,” Garner said. “I wasn’t scared – for some reason. I don’t know why.”
The first night, Garner said, a German plane flew over to take pictures.
“Then it was like all hell broke loose — anti-aircraft, machine guns going off, it sounded like fireworks on the 4th of July,” Garner said.
“We stayed in a little field surrounded by hedgerows, field 304 as I recall,” he said.
“We had a radio hooked up to a jeep battery, and Berlin Sally (an American broadcaster employed by Nazi Germany to circulate propaganda during World War II) said ‘All those of you in 304, Hitler has a present for you — it’ll be here any minute’ — in other words, they were going to use artillery to find us, but for one reason or another they didn’t show up.”
Garner said the men took turns standing guard during the night in different areas. He shared a comical incident that occurred during one of those nights:
“I’d just gotten to sleep one night and the others woke me up. They had seen a light and thought Germans were coming, The light was moving back and forth — but it turned out to be a lightning bug. I reached out and grabbed the bug and said ‘Don’t bother me with stuff like this.'”
Garner said they then went toward Luxembourg “and that’s when the Battle of the Bulge came along.”
Garner recalls digging five foxholes on Dec. 16. The following morning, Garner’s captain told the group they were surrounded.
“We made it to a little town and stayed there for three days,” Garner said. “We headed down to the basement of the house we were in, 10 or 12 of us, trying to figure out what we were going to do.”
In total, Garner spent 314 days in combat zone areas. He was discharged on Oct. 5, 1945.
He and Maybelle had three sons together: Charles Jr., John and Jim. The two were married for more than 53 years, until Maybelle’s passing in 1996.
At the age of 74, Garner went on a date with Priscilla, a lady he knew from church. They later married and were together for over 21 years, until Priscilla’s passing in December 2019.
“I only dated two women in my life and I married both of them,” Garner said. “And that’s the truth.”
Garner has 12 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.
All three of Garner’s sons followed in their father’s footsteps, working in education.
“Between the four of us, we have over 150 years of teaching,” Garner said. “Add on to that three granddaughters who are teaching, it comes pretty close to 200 years of teaching in the family.”
Garner was honored as Veteran of the Month at a Kosciusko County Commissioners meeting in 2012 and received a quilt at a Threads of Valor ceremony through Kosciusko Community Senior Services and the Liberty Sewing Circle in May 2019.
“I’ve been so blessed,” Garner said. “It’s beyond my dreams.”
Former students who would like to send a card or note to Garner may do so via mail to:
C/O David Neff
800 N. Park Ave.
Warsaw, IN 46580