Horton Poe: From Hamlet to behind enemy lines

By: Douglas Smith - Contributing columnist

A cache of German wartime documents. A set of combat fatigues. A knife sheath. Assignment to G2 section (intelligence) of an Airborne outfit. While visiting an out-of-town cousin recently, I became intrigued upon glimpsing a few remains of my late uncle’s World War II gear.

Horton Poe was a Durham native who grew up in Hamlet, a nephew of Hill Atkinson of local pool hall fame, almost a century ago. A Hamlet High grad, Uncle Horton was drafted into the Army about six months prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941. A 1942 letter from Hamlet Mayor B. W. Williamson provided a fine character reference as Horton sought assignment to army aviation. Eventually, he was assigned to the 88th Glider regiment of the now-defunct 13th Airborne division. Horton finished WWII as a master sergeant; and photos reveal the serious mien of a young paratrooper ready to confront a dangerous world.

Typically of former combat soldiers, Uncle Horton did not readily speak of those experiences. In later years, he described leading a night mission — while with the 88th’s intelligence section — that took his squad behind enemy lines. En route to destroying an ammo depot, Horton sought cover in a stream, remaining very quiet while an enemy sentry stopped to relieve himself a few feet away.

Much is left to the imagination, though. Were those combat fatigues remnants of the mission? The sheath was believed to have carried a fighting knife complete with brass-knuckled handle. Did it help capture the German documents? Some of the documents refer to air operations and artillery, but was it vital intelligence or merely routine?

Near the war’s end, a mischievous G.I. created an “official” document of 21 points purported to prepare soldiers for return to civilian life. Point No. 3 stresses good table manners when back home, cautioning the former “dogfaces” to say, for instance, “Please pass the butter,” rather than, “Throw me the d—n grease, Bub!” Uncle Horton must have gotten a laugh from it; I sure did.

As true of many WWII comrades, Horton eagerly traded skills of war for peaceable ones, as his half-century career practicing law in Durham attests. He could seem gruff, at times, to young nieces and nephews, but always welcoming to family visiting his home. Robin and I once spent a night with Horton and Aunt Tess prior to a very early plane flight. I was unsure as he promised to wake us in time. Sure enough, at 3:30 am, I heard his 83-year old voice outside our door, “Doug, time to get up!”

Mission accomplished … still the old soldier.

Douglas Smith lives in Rockingham and frequently writes letters to the editor.

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Douglas Smith

Contributing columnist