By Leonard E. Colvin
Journal and Guide
Since the end of the Civil War, the nation has observed the sacrifices of the service members on the fields of battle or on the world’s oceans.
But for the shrinking number of veterans who fought in WWII, still alive, it is even more special, especially if their birthdays land near the Memorial or Veterans Day observances.
Since last December, William Capehart has been focused on one goal: to live until May 26 to celebrate his centennial – 100th birthday.
“That was all he was talking about,” said Juwanda Scott, one of his nursing caregivers at the Old Dominion Rehabilitation Center, the rest home where he now lives in Newport News.
Last Thursday, Capehart achieved his goal. He was treated to some of his favorite foods, visited by his offspring who could, and fielded phone calls from those who could not.
He was also serenaded by a local gospel quartet.
“Papa” Capehart’s official birthday bash, organized by Scott, was attended by a huge crowd, including active and veteran servicemen, Newport News police, family, and friends.
Apart from living a century, Capehart is one of the remaining 180,000 or so War II veterans still living today.
There is an even smaller number of surviving African-American WWII veterans.
During the American involvement in the war, some 16.1 million U. S. service members served on land, sea, and air to defeat the Axis Powers.
Capehart was one of 125,000 African-American men and women who served to defend this country during WWII in racially segregated combat and support units in Europe and the Pacific theaters.
Capehart was born in Colerain, North Carolina, a small town in Bertie County. He said he lived on a small farm with his mother and father and drove a truck, as well.
At 18, Capehart said he was drafted into the U.S. Army when the United States was drawn into an already raging war, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
After boot camp and training in driving and maintaining Army supply trucks, he was shipped off to the Pacific Theater.
“I served in Army truck units, behind the lines,” he recently recalled. “I am glad because I was not killed and I came home with all of my limbs.”
Shortly before the war ended, Capehart said instead of driving trucks, he was driving a staff car transporting military personnel from one place to another.
The U.S. Army, Marines, and Navy used the strategy of conquering and hopping from one island to another, toward the goal of reaching the Japanese mainland.
“I remember we were packing up and getting ready to move closer to Japan,” he said. “Then the President (Harry S. Truman) gave the order to drop the atomic bomb. So, we were headed back home. The war was over.”
Capehart said he does not recall any racial tension with white soldiers commonly reported by Black servicemen serving in Europe and the Pacific war zones.
He does recall the tensions among Black servicemen which erupted into fights over various issues. Most of the white soldiers were on the front line, on isolated islands, away from the all-Black service support units.
Back home in North Carolina, Capehart married Ruth Shaw. The couple had four children.
In 1953, Capehart moved his family to Newport News, Virginia, where he landed a job that lasted for three years at the Naval Shipyard.
He acquired employment at the Langley Air Force Base in the commissary warehouse where he worked as a stocker.
During his 32-year tenure working in that warehouse, he logged 15,000 volunteer service hours on the base and thousands of other volunteer hours out in the community.
He said he “helped build” his family home, one of the first along 41st Street in Newport News.
He also assisted in constructing his home church, Antioch Baptist Church, where he worshiped for many years.
He has 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, “but I don’t know all of their names” he laughed.
His wife passed in 1998 and he lost one son, Terry, who was 35.
According to Nurse Scott, Capehart’s eyesight is impaired, but he still listens to audiobooks of the Bible.
He also spends a lot of time listening to his Gospel favorite.
“I eat anything I want,” he said during an interview with the GUIDE. “I also like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and my favorite pancakes at breakfast.”
Capehart said he attributes his longevity to “staying busy.”
His guiding words of wisdom come from Psalm 37:25:
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread.”