by Sharon Rondeau

Ronald Reagan in “The Bad Man,” produced in 1941

(Dec. 24, 2015) — In part 1 of our interview with nonagenarian Dr. Tom E. Davis, he detailed how he began his military service in the Merchant Marine at the age of 17 following his high school graduation in Cut Bank, MT in 1942.

Dr. Davis’s book, “Peregrinations,” an autobiography, tells the story of the Davis family, whose history traces back to Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and ultimately, the British Isles.  The book describes growing up on a farm without electricity; the hardships of the Great Depression; childhood illnesses experienced which are now largely non-existent; Dr. Davis’s service in the U.S. Army overseas during World War II; and his enrollment and graduation from dental school far from his western roots.

Dr. Davis was originally told he did not qualify for military enlistment because of his relatively-poor eyesight, an obstacle he overcame with persistence.  His father, Earl, trained at the Naval Training School in Rhode Island and served during World War I.

“Peregrinations” is replete with photos of Dr. Davis’s ancestors, siblings, his many homes around the country, time spent in the China/Burma/India theater during World War II and later, in service in Japan.

Davis officially retired in 1985 and has devoted his time to writing.  He now resides in New Jersey.

DR. DAVIS:  I was born in Texas.  The reason we were there is that my grandfather was seriously ill with tuberculosis.  My grandmother asked my father – her son – and my mother to come down and help her out during her toil with Granddad.  My mother was pregnant with me.  They went down to Texas.  Granddad died in 1924; I was born in born in January 1925. My mother inherited from my grandfather – he had held all the property in his name – a newspaper and several pieces of property, one of which was a small, 80-acre farm southwest of Tulsa, OK, just south of the Arkansas River.

We took over that farm as sharecroppers.  We had no electricity.  My mother taught me how to read by the light of a coal-oil lantern when I was three years old.

I wanted to read – I tried to read and looked at the pictures and the cartoons – and my mother was a very well-read woman.  She was a teacher by trade.  She was one of the first female postmistresses in the country, working in Littleton, CO.  I have a lot of “firsts” in my family.  That grandmother of mine spoke five Indian languages:  Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Comanche.

THE POST & EMAIL:  Where did she learn those?

DR. DAVIS:  She learned right from the tribes, because they had moved to Oklahoma as immigrants in 1899.  My father was not quite a year old when they took off in a railroad boxcar.  That’s how they moved; they didn’t move by wagon.  They rented a boxcar and moved to Oklahoma.  My grandmother was always worried about what was happening to people; she was a very good Christian woman, so she learned the languages.  She was also a schoolteacher.  She got it through what they called “normal school” in those days.  My grandfather put up the money to build a school for Indian boys because the tribes would not let the girls go to school.  That’s one of the things she did.

As an aside, my aunt, Pearl Etha Williams, was one of the first female town marshals in the country. In Jackson Hole, WY, after the 19th Amendment passed, the women decided that they didn’t like the way the men were running the town, so they put up a ticket.  The men laughed and said, “You won’t win it,” but they did, in a landslide.  They needed a town marshal, which was not on the ticket, and Aunt Pearl was a student at the University of Wyoming.  She came home for the summer to Jackson Hole, and she could out-shoot and out-ride most of the men.  She was a crack shot, a left-handed shooter, with a pistol or rifle and could ride a horse like an Indian.  She won most of the races they ran with the men.  She was a good-looking woman, too.  So they said, “Pearl, will you take the job?” and she said, “I guess so, if that’s what you need.”  She told the guys, “Don’t give me any trouble,” and they didn’t.  They knew her reputation – that she could shoot.  She said, “I’ll have no trouble shooting your *** off.”  She was just being herself.  Even with the door broken on the jail, she said, “Stay put,” and they stayed put.

I was one of the last people to see her; she died when she was right-close to 100.  I got to see her, and they said, “She can’t hear anything at all,” and I said “Oh, yes, she can.”  I was holding her hand and whispered in her ear, “I love you, Aunt Pearl, this is Tommy.”  She squeezed my hand, so I knew that she knew.

Anyway, how did I get to be in the Army’s Navy?

It’s what they call the Armored Transportation Corps.  The Army had more tonnage (vessels) than the Navy. People didn’t know that.  After I got back from Alaska – and got paid $435, which was a lot – I took a short trip on the Great Northern Railroad back to Cut Bank. I spent a week there and got bored because they were talking about the war but talking nonsense.  I took off and headed for California.  I couldn’t get into the service because I was too nearsighted.  They told me, “You can’t see,” and I said, “That’s BS, because I can out-shoot any one of you,” which I could. So I got a job with the Air Force Materiel Command in Santa Monica.

I always ran when I ran the route carrying messages.  One day I ran through the door, slammed it, and knocked somebody down.  I looked at him, and it was Ronald Reagan.  I put my hand out and said, “Sorry, Lieutenant, I didn’t mean to knock you down.”  He got up, smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Take it easy, son; this war’s going to last a hell of a long time.”

THE POST & EMAIL:  What year would you say that was?

DR. DAVIS:  I can tell you exactly when it was:  November 18, 1942.

THE POST & EMAIL:  Did you know his name at that point?

DR. DAVIS:  I recognized him immediately; he was a movie star.  He was the epitome of a gentleman.


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