By Cara Zarecor
Less than 500,000 WWII veterans remain alive today to tell their stories. Joe Ray Davis, 95, of Kenton, is one of them. He and his wife of 71 years, Carrie Newmon Davis, were honored guests at our home a few evenings ago. They came with a wealth of information and appetites for a long visit over hot, fresh coffee.
My husband Glenn was especially excited as the hour approached when the Davises would arrive. His father, Wade Zarecor Jr. and Davis were pals not only from childhood, but also cousins and war buddies. Glenn became acquainted with “Mr. Joe Ray and Mrs. Carrie,” as we call them, in the early 1980s when his father retired from D.C. and moved his family to his hometown of Kenton. Glenn pulled his father’s old photo album from the attic and had it all dusted off waiting on our dining room table for the Davises.
After catching up with our friends, it was time to get down to business. I asked Mr. Joe Ray to start at the beginning and tell me his life story. It went a little something like this:
On June 23, 1924, Kenton couple Grover C. and Vera Hayes Davis welcomed their fifth of what would be seven children, Joe Ray, into this world. Grover Davis was a traveling salesman who also owned 100 acres of farmland in the Macedonia community. Of those 100 acres, the care of two acres of strawberries was assigned to Davis and his siblings to tend each spring. Together, they’d tackle the daunting job of weeding around each and every runner with regular kitchen spoons. During the summers and into the fall, the siblings would work that same portion of land in cotton. Davis remembers that land once being worth $550. It is now worth $500,000.
Davis admitted that it was hard for him to talk about life during the Great Depression. Not many can fathom the hardships that every American endured back then. “Things were hard for everybody,” he recalled, as he hung his head for a quiet moment.
In 1942, Davis graduated from Kenton High School and his first job was at Bogle Drug Company, which is now Kenton Drug. His starting salary was $10 per week and each week, he was paid in cash. One night around Christmastime, the owner gave him $30 and Davis remembered thinking, “My goodness. I’ll never have to work again!”
He did, though, for many, many years to come.
In 1943, when Davis was only one year out of high school, he was drafted and whisked off to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia and given the choice to be in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Army. He chose the Navy because he had two brothers who were already serving in that branch at that time. After 12 weeks of basic training in Bainbridge, Md., Davis was allowed a short leave to come home. Once he returned, because he’d worked in a drug store previously, he was chosen to train as a medic, so off again he went to Boston’s Chelsea Naval Hospital, where he trained for three months.
After Davis’ medic training in Boston, he was approached by a superior and told that he was needed by the Marines. Because he was willing to serve, Davis was not upset at the change. He followed his orders and reported to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he then trained to be a Marine.
Davis left the harbor in Norfolk, Virg. and sailed through the Panama Canal to Honolulu. The voyage took 23 days. He waited there until he was placed with the Second Marine Division on the island of Hawaii in February of 1944. Once there, he trained even further before departing from Pearl Harbor on May 11, 1944.
“I could see the big battleships out in the ocean, and I knew we were into something huge,” Davis recalled.
Davis arrived on the South Pacific island of Saipan on June 15, 1944. He said it took two Marine divisions and two Army divisions 30 days to “clean them out.” He said no matter what, the Japanese refused to surrender. During his time there, he had a close call himself. “Carnage and artillery shells were everywhere,” he said
In July, Davis was shipped to Tinian, an island directly south of Japan. Whilst there, he fell ill with Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease. He slept under a tree for nearly a week while he recuperated.
In April of 1945, a reserve division was needed and Davis was sent to Okinawa. His division dodged kamikazes and conditions there were so dangerous, they were went back to Saipan. Later in July he returned to Naha, Okinawa’s capital city. That night, he walked 20 miles around the island through grassy fields carrying all his gear on his back. He was exhausted. No sooner had he taken his shoes off to rest, the bullets began to fly. He made himself a cup of coffee and put his shoes back on, only to find a bullet lodged in the sole of one of his shoes.
Davis saw tremendous amounts of blood and patched up many wounds as a medic before finally, later in 1945, he boarded an aircraft carrier. The 2,000-mile journey from Honolulu to San Diego took three days. From thence he was allowed to come home to Kenton for 30 days before returning to San Diego. Davis flew back and forth from San Diego to airports all over the country escorting returning servicemen back home. After awhile, he was able to return home himself.
A young Kenton lass by the name of Carrie Newmon had been writing letters to Davis while he was away at war. In 1948, the two were married. He was working toward his business degree at UT Martin and receiving a $20 per week military stipend and she was an employee of Mason Hall Bank in Kenton, which is now Simmons Bank. Davis and his brother-in-law, Ray Newmon, soon jointly took over Carrie’s father’s business, Newmon’s Supermarket.
A decade later, the Davises welcomed their first daughter, Mary Jo Parker, in 1959, followed by their second daughter, Carolyn Nipp, in 1962. Today Mary Jo is the assistant professor of music at Arkansas State University and Carolyn is a teacher at Union City High School. The Davises are also the proud grandparents of three grandchildren.
Davis and his wife retired in 1986 and 1991, respectively. Today he enjoys gardening, watching the Cardinals, Vols and the Grizzlies, and going to Sunday school at First Baptist Church in Kenton. Davis says his secret to longevity is keeping his mind busy by doing things.
At the end of our visit, I asked dear Mr. Joe Ray what important life lesson he’d like to share with people. “To listen more than you talk,” was his insightful answer. For those readers who know him, you are well aware that by his quiet, laid-back demeanor he has heeded his own advice!