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Seven Devils resident Charles Davis, a Korean War veteran, accepts an honorary diploma from board of education clerk Jennifer Combs on Monday.


Originally published: 2013-12-12 18:09:23
Last modified: 2013-12-12 18:55:07

Korean vet receives honorary diploma

Korean War veteran Charles Davis never completed high school. In fact, he didn't even finish first grade.

But Davis, a Seven Devils resident, was honored Monday by the Watauga County Board of Education with a special diploma issued as part of Operation Recognition.

The statewide program administered by the Division of Veterans' Affairs and the N.C. Board of Education recognizes veterans who served the nation honorably, but did not complete school.

The program started in 2001 to recognize WWII veterans, but later expanded to include veterans of the Korean and Vietnam eras. More than 400 service members have since received special honorary diplomas.

Davis, 81, said in an interview Thursday that he had faced numerous challenges during his long life, not the least of which was serving the United States in wartime.

"I'd do it again if I had to," he said of his answer to the draft call in 1953.

Born on the Cherokee reservation on Bald Mountain, Davis said his father died two months after he was born in 1932.

His mother later moved to the Fayetteville area, where Davis said he spent most of his life, amid stints elsewhere.

"I started in the first grade, and that's as far as I got," Davis said. "I didn't even finish the first grade."

He said he remembers roller-skating to school and drawing Native American villages in his classroom with colored chalk.

He said he left home early -- he can't remember exactly what age -- but he slept in boxes and ate out of garbage cans and stole to feed himself.

"You'd be surprised how you can cover up with newspaper and stay warm," he said.

Davis said he never considered returning to school, as he got too busy working an array of jobs. Those jobs included farming and raising tobacco, mowing and odd jobs, along with working in a sawmill, concrete plant and electric company.

He worked climbing electric poles to maintain power lines, surviving getting zapped twice with 7,200 volts.

When it came to supporting himself, Davis said he did "a little bit of this and a little bit of that."

He married his first wife, Winnie Ruth Russ, and was conscripted for the U.S. Army shortly thereafter, in 1953.

Davis went to South Carolina, then to Fort Riley, Kan., where he completed 16 weeks of basic training before shipping overseas to Tokyo, Japan. Another ship carried him to Busan, Korea, and he was assigned to the Army's Third Division, 15th Regiment.

He learned about the birth of his first child, Brenda Ruth, by telegram while in a rice paddy in Korea. The family later added three sons: Charles Jr., Daniel and Timmy.

"I got two pieces of shrapnel while I was over there in the left side of my face," Davis said. "I reckon they got it out -- I don't know. I still have problems with my left ear."

Later in life, Davis lost both his wife and his son, Daniel.

He met his wife of the last 31 years, Barbara, at a Quick Stop near Pope Field in eastern North Carolina. He got to know her as he stopped by daily for coffee.

Barbara, who now works in the cafeteria at Watauga High School, accompanied him to the diploma presentation Monday.

"I just thought it was really awesome," she said.

Board clerk and administrative assistant Jennifer Combs said she began helping with the diploma-seeking process in July and believed it was the first such presentation to occur in Watauga County Schools. She said the application required many forms, documentation and approvals.

"It's a long process but certainly worthwhile," Combs said.

It's especially worthwhile for the recipient himself -- a self-described "simple person" who learned to read from comic books and entered the Army not knowing how to tell time -- who now proudly holds a high school diploma.

"I was tickled to death," Davis said.