Harrowing WWII experience still vivid for 102-year-old veteran

4:15 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 Local
Casey Sykes
Private First Class Stephen Williams, 102, is shown during an interview at his home in Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)

At 102 years old, Stephen B. Williams doesn’t get around like he used to.

Ask him about World War II, though, and he can recall with great detail falling into a foxhole in North Africa during a surprise attack on his unit. Williams said he survived nine days off red clay and water from a rock. When he emerged from the hole, he discovered his entire unit was dead.

“God was with me every step of the way,” he said recently, legs crossed, sitting in the front room of his southeast Atlanta home. “God didn’t make no mistake. He left me here for a reason.”

Private 1st Class Williams served in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division 2nd Battalion for five and a half years and was assigned as a cook on a cargo ship, which headed to Africa’s northern coast with supplies, and 1765 men from his unit. The ship hit a snag and went down as it neared its destination, overwhelmed by too many supplies. Williams said many men drowned after abandoning the ship, with most forced to swim to shore.

“We hit the sand before we got to shore,” he said. “We lost a lot of men trying to get out the boat.”

He helped a man having trouble in the water, and both came ashore in Oran, in Algeria.

Williams is part of the 3 percent of American World War II veterans still living. According to Department of Veterans Affairs information, about 550,000 of the 16 million World War II veterans remain, with about 360 dying daily.

About 9,900 living World War II veterans are here in Georgia.

Williams sometimes can’t remember the exact year things happened that far back, said Beulah Williams, his wife of 27 years. But the memories are clear.

They have four children between them, all from different marriages. They married in 1990, when he was 75. She had recently retired after a 31-year teaching career.

Al Minor, who has known Beulah Williams since he was in high school and helps care for Stephen Williams, wrote down some of the war stories as they were told.

“To hear his stories from him was an escalation of what I somewhat went through,” said Minor, a Vietnam veteran. “But … it put me in kind of a position to think I really haven’t experienced anything compared to him.”

Stephen Williams, Minor said, told him he had a spoon in a bag that he was carrying, and used that spoon to carve stairs to eventually emerge from the hole he’d lived in for nine days. He was spotted by a rescue plane not long after emerging. There were so many bodies the U.S. Army brought in machines to handle grave-digging and, eventually, burial.

“He really hadn’t told me everything in details. Now, I’m really just getting a glimpse of the agony that he went through in that pit for nine days. That’s really something to think about. For nine days? In a hole? I’m trying to figure out could I have kept my sanity that long.”

Gerri Minor, Al Minor’s wife and longtime friend of the Williamses, said she didn’t know a lot about Stephen Williams’ military service until recently.

“He just started talking one day,” she said. “He told us about the ship sinking and all that. He also talked about serving a lot of celebrities when he was a chef in California. It was really fascinating. It was our intention to film it one time when he started talking.”

In recent years, Stephen Williams’ health has been in decline. He doesn’t get out too much lately, Gerri Minor said, mostly because he hasn’t been strong enough. Among his recent appearances was the DeKalb County School District’s Veteran’s Day celebration in November. He didn’t stay the whole time.

Beulah Williams said he still made all their meals until about six years ago, when he suffered a series of nasty falls in their yard. In the last few weeks, his speech has gotten lighter.

“I think he had a stroke recently,” she said. “In the last month or so. His voice went away before. I think it’ll come back.”

He was hospitalized this week with dehydration. They expect him to be released before the weekend, Al Minor said.

“Before, when he was about 100, he was walking very well,” Gerri Minor said. “Even without his cane.”

Ask him about his cooking career, and his eyes light up. Williams settled into life in California after leaving the military, working for years at the Cock’n Bull, a restaurant on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip frequented by celebrities until it closed in 1987.

The restaurant’s owner also owned the building where Marilyn Monroe lived, Williams said. He recalled seeing and cooking for her often, as well as a pre-presidential John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert.

The brothers frequented a club across the street from the restaurant.

JFK, Williams said, “would call for me to fix him dinner. They’d send me back good money. Prime rib, or roast beef. With a tossed salad. And ranch dressing.”

He was also in the Ambassador Hotel building the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

Williams couldn’t remember the year, but he also fixed a meal for 12 survivors of the Titanic visiting the restaurant.

Once, he was asked to be an extra in a Gary Cooper western. He has a belt buckle and pair of cowboy boots given to him by Cooper.

“I’ve been through a lot,” Williams said. “But God gave me the strength to be here.”