If you ask Carl Lewis Gibson (91) and his son-in-law Charles “Chuck” Davis what Veterans Day means to them, that’s the answer you’ll get. Without hesitation. Like all veterans, Carl and Charles know what that day represents; it’s about giving thanks to those who defended our country, giving us the freedoms we currently take for granted, and paying tribute to those who came back wounded, or didn’t make it home at all, leaving behind shattered families.
Carl was still a teenager when he decided to enlist. His two older brothers, Douglas and Jerry Ellis, were stationed in England and Japan at the time, fighting the Nazis.
“I really looked up to my brothers, I loved them deeply,” Carl said. “They absolutely influenced my decision to join the fight.”
Since Carl knew his was going to be drafted anyway, he wanted a say in where he was ultimately going to serve.
“I wanted to join the Air Force. Being up in the sky was something that I wanted to do, so I went for it.”
Things didn’t work out that way, Gibson remembered.
“Instead of being up in the sky, I went under water,” he chuckled. “I became a submariner on the USS Rancador, stationed at Mare Island in California.”
The year was 1946 and although World War II had ended, the crew of 60 on the USS Rancador, a Baloa-class submarine that ran on diesel fuel, had to be battle-ready. The war may have ended at the time, but that peace was in its very early stages when Gibson joined. No one knew what the future had in store. Being battle-ready became second nature.
“My commanding officer was a man called Caine,” Gibson said. “He went by the name Killer Caine, because during one battle with a Japanese sub, his submarine ran out of torpedo’s. He did the next best thing when that happened; he rammed the Japanese submarine.” Caine and one of his crew were the sole survivors of that battle.
Going under water on board of a submarine never really frightened Gibson, he said.
“The only thing I always asked myself when we were going under was; did they close the hatch?”
Gibson’s brothers both made it back from the war and Carl remembers vividly how relieved both his parents, and his two sisters, were when the family was reunited. After he was discharged, Carl Lewis Gibson would be in the navy Reserve for another 20 years.
A few decades later Gibson’s son-in-law, Charles Davis, was called to defend his country during the Vietnam War. He had married his high school sweetheart Linda, Carl’s daughter. They had just been blessed with their son, Charles Jr., when he received orders to serve his country in Thailand.
“When I was drafted it looked like I was going to join the Army,” Davis said. “But after I spoke with an Air Force recruiter, they took me right away.”
The order to ship out came on his birthday. He left behind his wife and infant son and headed for Thailand, where he was stationed at the Royal Thai Air Force Base in Udorn, Thailand.
“I was part of a team that was tasked to make sure our planes could fly their missions across the border in Vietnam,” he said. “We had to make sure all the supplies and airplane parts where there for any repairs that had to be made.”
Being in the jungle, with the enemy sometimes literally just a stone’s throw away, meant that everyone on the base had to be alert at all times. It was a stressful time, but in the process Davis made friends for life with the men he served with.
“Those friendships endure to this day,” he said. “I went to Thailand knowing no one. I came back with friends for life.”
Something that became a concern very early on was his exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical substance used by the U.S. military to remove dense tropical foliage that provided the enemy cover in the Vietnamese jungle.
“The planes we worked on would drop that chemical across the border, but the fuselage would be coated in that stuff,” Davis said. “It was dangerous.”
What perhaps made the most impact on a young Davis, was seeing his fallen brothers come through his base. Soldiers killed in action were brought to the Thai air base for their return home. Davis could take the tropical heat, the almost unbearable humidity and monsoon rains, that could last up to a month. But the sight of star spangled coffins getting ready to be flown home is something that tears him up to this day.
Davis would be in Thailand for a full year, but being away from his wife and son made their bond stronger, not weaker.
“We would write to each other every day,” his wife Linda said. “I wrote complete novels to him,” she remembered with a smile. “I just wanted him to know he was loved and we didn’t forget about him.”
Linda and Charles also sent each other audio tapes with messages of love and encouragement. They still have some of those recordings at their home in Dillwyn.
Both Carl and Charles are proud of their service to their country. Patriots through-and-through, Carl is a lifetime member of American Legion Post 74 and Charles was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal from the Air Force.
On Veterans Day they give thanks and pay tribute to those who deserve it most; veterans.
“To us, that means everything,” Carl Lewis Gibson said.