Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When he was 18, Bill Toone found himself leading his fellow soldiers off the beaches of Normandy, France when his wounded sergeant told them to keep going. Now 86 and confined to a hospital bed, he wants to help his fellow veterans get a veterans clinic in southern West Virginia.
A couple of cats slept nearby while Toone recalled the path that took him to Europe during World War II. He was 17 and making helmets at a defense plant, but his older buddies were joining the Army and other services. He wanted to enlist, too, but he was underage and his parents wouldn’t sign the necessary papers. After talking over the problem with his friends, he found a solution.
“I got some drunk to sign my mother’s name to get in,” Toone recalled. “I gave her half a pint of whiskey. This woman, she was the town drunk. All of my friends were older than me and they were going into the service and hell, I wanted to go, too. My buddies told me to talk to her.”
The woman’s response to the offer was, “Oh, you’re a good boy,” Toone said. But he wouldn’t give up the bottle until she went into a recruiting office and signed his mother’s name – he made sure she could spell it correctly. She upheld her part of the bargain.
“Boy, she was reaching for that bottle,” Toone said. “I gave her that bottle and she must have drank half of it with one swig.”
Toone was soon a private first class in the 276 Infantry Division, a part of the Third Army commanded by General George Patton Jr. They arrived at Omaha Beach about 4:30 p.m. on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Toone said they were not part of the first wave of invaders to hit the beach, but they were far from safe. The new arrivals quickly saw evidence of the battle and its casualties.
“That first wave was bad,” Toone said. “That sand, you couldn’t tell it was sand. It was all bloody. Dead people were lying all around. Our packs weighed about 75 pounds. The captain of our boat said, ‘When you hit the beach, keep running. Don’t stop and look.’ I was glad I wasn’t in that first wave.”
However, Toone and his fellow soldiers were still under enemy fire. They had to get past a wall that was “slick as a peeled onion” and topped with barbed wire and a “pill box” or gun emplacement that was still operated by German troops. Toone’s sergeant was soon wounded.
“He was right in front of me. He said, “Bill, just keep going. Don’t worry about me.’ He was hit in the thigh. He said, ‘I’ll lay here and pretend I’m dead.’ We went up the hill and there were 12 men following me – I don’t know why they made me the leader. We got on top of that hill.”
They quickly spotted German tanks and troops. It was a daunting sight.
“I’m telling you, there were so many tanks out there, it looked like Ramey’s car lot. Honest to God,” Toone recalled.
Toone remembered how he and a fellow soldier stayed warm one frigid evening by burning explosive charges out of a German artillery shell. On another occasion, he made friends with German civilians by throwing hand grenades into the Rhine River. The explosions stunned the fish, and he gave the resulting catch to the Germans. He became friends with a German girl who wanted to bake him a birthday cake, so he managed to get some flour, eggs, and other ingredients from an Army cook. The girl’s mother told him that those were first eggs their family had eaten in six years.
Like many veterans of World War II and other wars, Toone eventually came home. Now bedridden with knee problems, he has to ride an ambulance every few weeks to the Veterans Administration hospital in Beckley for treatments. A trip takes 45 minutes to an hour one way, and he can spend much of the day away from home.
“Last time, I didn’t get home until five o’clock in the evening,” he recalled.
Toone said that he knew veterans in McDowell County who used to make the trip to Beckley, but eventually stopped going because the trip was too long. He urged veterans in Mercer and McDowell counties to “get in the system,” or make sure the VA had records about them and their medical needs, so the agency will know how many veterans would benefit from a local clinic.
“I want to do this not only to help me, but hundreds of others,” he said. “They got to go up there, get their name in the computer.”
Toone also had a tip for veterans who use the VA hospital in Beckley: It helps to arrive early for an appointment. Being at least 15 minutes early means you will be seen sooner by a physician.
“If you get there late, they will see another soldier and you will have to wait,” he said.
Air Force veteran and veterans advocate Al Hancock of Bluefield has been working with other local veterans to get a clinic established in Mercer County. He had just returned Thursday from the Beckley VA facility to see a dentist.
“My appointment was at eight o’clock. I guess I just told my wife that they worked on my tooth for an hour,” he said. “I have to go back there on the (Nov.) 14 to see my primary care doctor. That will take a while because I’ve got lab work at 10 o’clock. I’ll leave here a quarter to nine. That’s another 100 mile round trip. I tell you, that’s rough.”
Then Hancock will have to find a parking place, wait his turn, and make the trip back home. He pointed out that he could make the trip himself, but that’s not an option for many veterans who can no longer drive. The Veterans Administration provides a van service, but passengers have to sit upright. Having a clinic in Mercer County would give them another option.
“With a clinic nearby, friends or relatives or someone could take them to an appointment,” Hancock said.
Hancock added he sees veterans with Toone’s situation “quite a bit.” Just going to a doctor is a major effort for them.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ve been trying so hard to get a veterans clinic in this region,” he said. “It’s an effort for them.”