Ernest Hunter, 90, goes about his regular cardiac rehabilitation sessions with determination and good humor. He is unfailingly friendly and quickly struck up a conversation with this younger cardiac patient (perhaps it was a fading Davidson tee shirt that inspired him). I learned that Ernest was a fellow Davidson alumnus whose stay at Davidson (1942–49) was interrupted by World War II.
Many Davidson men served in the two world wars, and an astonishing number gave their lives. Those who survived are part of a quietly heroic generation whose numbers recede every day. Ernest thinks of his service as not such a big deal, but he is not reluctant to recount his experience.
A Charlotte native, Ernest graduated from Central High School and enrolled in ROTC courses at Davidson in 1942 under the tutelage of future Davidson President Sam Spencer, who was an army officer at the time. After finishing his first semester at Davidson it was apparent that events overseas were intractably clashing with his hopes to finish college. He elected not to enroll at Davidson for the ensuing spring semester, instead enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Ernest underwent the rigors of basic training and was selected for infantry training because of his ROTC background. As a member of the 78th Division, 310th Regiment of the U.S. Army, Ernest ultimately trained as a “scout,” to be sent into battle lines ahead of his unit. Transport by ship to Plymouth, England in the fall of 1944 ended the relative comforts of life as a soldier in the United States.
A few weeks after his arrival in England, Ernest was shipped to LeHavre, France. From there, he was trucked to Belgium for the commencement of his march to the border of Belgium and Germany—the Germans were attempting to cross Allied lines at the site of what later became known as the Battle of the Bulge. In December 1944, Ernest and his fellow soldiers were told to leave their overcoats behind; like many of his brethren, he noticed that his boots absorbed water and did not fit well.
The Battle of the Bulge saw Ernest and his company absorbing gunfire and shelling from German troops. Ernest and two fellow soldiers were separated from their unit at the end of a hedgerow, having lost contact with the lieutenant who was leading their squad. Wandering near enemy lines, they took refuge in the basement of an abandoned house just over the Belgian border in Kesternich, Germany.
The three Americans stayed in the basement of the house for six days, subsisting on canned string beans. They also shared a bottle of wine found in the basement, optimistic that they would be picked up by Allied forces.
Their immediate hopes were misplaced. After hiding out in a cupboard when enemy troops entered the house, they held out for a few more days. When one of the three and was seen by a German soldier, the Americans were captured and taken to a German headquarters.
Ernest was taken to a German “pillbox” secured by a dozen enemy soldiers. He was ordered to push stalled ambulances containing wounded troops through the cold mud—it was about this time that he noticed that his toes were swollen and turning blue.
Christmas of 1944 was celebrated in a small German prison, where he heard Christmas carols being sung in German at a neighboring church. He was soon transported to a larger prison camp, where he joined a detail to uncover remains of a German officer’s mother-in-law, whose once-intact body was scattered from its burial preparation site after a bombing by the Allies.
A punishing march commenced across the Rhine River, first to a boxcar for a few cramped nights, and then to a prison camp known as Stalag IV-B in Muhlberg, Germany. American and British troops on the march subsisted on a diet of turnips. The only respite was a memorial service upon the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in early April 1945.
The appearance of Ernest’s toes increasingly worsened. A British Medic soaked his feet in scalding water to determine the point at which there was total decay and loss of blood flow. The portions of the little toes deemed beyond healing were amputated.
Rumors of liberation spread through Stalag IV-B, and after more than three months in the prison, freedom appeared in the form of the Russian army. Ernest and some of his compatriots walked to meet American troops at Leipzig, Germany.
Back in the states, Ernest took a two month furlough before being reassigned as a military policeman. He returned to Davidson for the spring semester of 1946, free of military obligations, and graduated in May 1949, nearly seven years after arriving on campus.
After college, Ernest went to work at The Union National Bank of Charlotte, later First Union, staying there until 1976. He was Director of Sharon Towers, where he currently resides with his wife,. In his retirement he visited Kesternich, Germany, the site of his capture during the preliminary stages of the Battle of the Bulge, where Allied forces stymied an attempted German breakthrough and cemented the victories won after the D-Day invasion.
Ernest does not downplay the brutality and deprivations of war. He does not embrace his ordeal as a POW—or the frozen conditions that caused him to lose parts of his little toes and endure pain in his feet even today. He is rightfully proud, in his understated way, of having been at the front lines of a war that needed to be fought.
Ernest, like so many of his Davidson brethren, unflinchingly answered the call of duty. In so doing, he embodied the collective valor of his classmates and his generation.