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Thomas Rollins puts on his Army uniform in the bedroom of his home on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Altamont, Tenn. Rollins gave away his original Eisenhower jacket to a man in need during cold weather in Chicago, but a stranger he met during a Labor Day re-enactment in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., sent him a replacement. Rollins is a veteran of the United States Army who served with the 28th Infantry Division in the European theater during World War II. He was drafted in 1944 and served until 1946 before enlisting an additional 3 years in the Army Reserves.

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The last of his kind: Altamont WWII veteran reflects on life in the military

Bio:

Name: Thomas Rollins

Age: 91

Home: Altamont, Tenn.

Military branch and rank: U.S. Army, corporal

ALTAMONT, Tenn. — Despite his 91 years, Grundy County, Tenn., World War II veteran Thomas Rollins sees himself as a youngster compared with the men he served with in Germany.

Rollins was an 18-year-old in the tiny town of Altamont, taking any work he could get — mostly at the local saw mill or nearby farms — when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944.

The draft letter was no surprise when he picked it up from the town's post office. Many of his friends already had been called to duty. Some had returned. Others had not.

"It said, 'Greetings from the President of the United States. You have been selected,'" Rollins recalled with a smile.

"That's the only letter I ever got from the president," he laughed, sitting in the living room of his cozy mountaintop home less than a mile from the county courthouse. The veteran U.S. Army corporal described himself as a "bashful" teen.

Veterans at home briefed Rollins on the military's general orders so he'd have them memorized by the time he got to basic training in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Early memorization "came in handy" when he impressed his superiors at Camp Shelby in Mississippi with his accurate quotation of the orders so they rewarded him with a three-day pass to go home. But it was day's travel from Mississippi back to Altamont and too far to risk getting in trouble if he was waylaid, he said, so he ended up "hiding out" on base while he was relieved of his daily duties.

At Fort Bragg, Rollins was trained on the M-1 carbine, as a .50-caliber machine gunner, and as a cannoneer on a British 4.5-inch, 6-ton gun.

But it was the veterans who had already endured the strains of combat who made the difference in his confidence, he said. Rollins said as Altamont's last surviving World War II veteran he wanted to represent those veterans, not himself.

"I wish there'd have been some of the old-timers around to be interviewed," Rollins said of his elder fellow veterans who lived in Altamont. Some of those "old-timers" were in their 30s or 40s, he said.

"I feel like a spring chicken to those old-timers," he laughed. But his smiling demeanor flags when he thinks of the men who meant so much to him when he was a teen soldier.

"They just made you one of the boys. They took more interest in us than we deserved," he said. "I feel more like a Boy Scout when I think of them."

Now, that doesn't mean Rollins never faced danger.

Fresh out of training, he was headed for the European theater as a replacement troop on a transport ship that was attacked by German U-boats. The experience of hearing and feeling the depth charges remains with him to this day. Once ashore, he would serve in the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry and the 28th Infantry Division, but his first tense times came while en route.

"I was on the Queen Elizabeth and we got attacked by German submarines," he said.

"They locked us in water-tight compartments in the bottom of the ship," Rollins recalled. "When they were letting off the depth charges I could feel the steel crunching and I thought we was hit.

"They'd already told us that if our compartment got water they wouldn't let us out," he said.

"That was a scary time. That was a bad night for me. I'd never been confined like that," he said of the hallway-like space below decks. "It was small and there was 16 of us in it. I didn't sleep none that night."

In war-torn Europe, Rollins manned artillery as he with his division pressed the Germans, and he often guarded German prisoners at American compounds behind the lines.

One morning after he'd gotten off of guard duty and was walking along an airstrip when he was fired on.

"I was walking out through a stretch of grass on the airstrip and all of a sudden I saw mud flying up in front of me," he said. "In a second or two I heard, 'Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat.'"

Again, the guidance from the "old-timers" and instructors saved him.

"I got back under cover like they'd told me to do," he said.

Moving into later action, Rollins served with forces that moved frequently and as the war wound down moved back into France.

When word came that the war had ended on May 8, 1945, Rollins got the news from a man in a jeep, and the 2nd Infantry Division began readying to head to the other side of the war. He wasn't eligible yet to get out so the Army offered him a 60-day furlough if he'd re-enlist for a year. He did and spent another stretch with the 2nd Infantry after the war was over.

About the same time, the war in the Pacific theater ended and Rollins' division was spared a trip to fight on the other side of the world and he spent his remaining 10 months or so in the army on the U.S. west coast.

Now, Rollins feels the weight of being Altamont's last veteran of World War II, he said recalling years of meeting with his veteran friends in nearby Beersheba Springs.

"I came out of the post office one day and it dawned on me," the former corporal reflected. "We're all gone. It's a sad feeling, you know."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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