Armed Forces Reception a huge success

Published 2:03 am Sunday, November 8, 2009

In 1950, Clarence “Junior” Penton was working with his father at the Crosby mill in Picayune, and one day he told his dad he wanted to go join the Navy. Penton now lives in Sones Chapel community. He is a retired Picayune police officer.

“Let’s go,” said his father.

Before they made it to the Navy recruiter, they stopped by a local pool hall to shoot some pool, and bumped into an Army recruiter, who talked Penton into joining the Army instead.

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Little did Penton know that the beginning of a perilous adventure awaited him in just a few short months.

Penton went to basic training and then was posted to a base in California. “The duty was boring,” he said, “so I got a change of duty to the Far East.” He wound up in Japan.

Then on June 25, 1950, North Korea, prodded, historians would later learn, by Russia’s Stalin, invaded South Korea.

Penton then made the fateful decision to volunteer to go to Korea. He wasn’t there but a few weeks when his unit, attached to the 24th Division, clashed with North Korean troops in the Puson perimeter, the last holdout for retreating U.S. troops.

The battle was a slaughter on both sides, and Penton’s unit withdrew from contact with the North Koreans. However, Penton had to return to his unit’s forward position to retrieve some classified radio equipment.

Returning to his line, he walked around a big boulder and came face-to-face with a North Korean, who pointed a “burp” gun in his face. Penton had no weapon, having lost his when a mortar round fell close to him, knocking him into the air.

Soon other North Korean troops gathered around him, and they placed him in a small shed and later threw another American prisoner in the shed with him.

Later that night, the North Korean troops pulled them out of the shed and lined them up against a wall, and walked out about 20 yards and began talking, “like they were arguing,” said Penton.

“I thought this was it, the end. I said my prayers, asked God to accept me into his Kingdom and waited for the inevitable end,” he said.

Then, for some unexplained reason, they walked back to the wall and threw Penton and his friend back into the shed.

The next day they joined other prisoners and began their walk up the Korean peninsula to a prisoner of war camp on the Yalu River on the North Korean border with China. There he remained for the rest of the war. Penton tried twice to escape on the trudge north but both times was recaptured.

In late 1953, Penton arrived back in Picayune on a train, stepped off and hugged all his relatives who had come to welcome him back. He had been gone 37 months from that fateful day he and his father had walked into that pool hall. Thirty-four of those months were spent as a prisoner of war with the North Koreans and Chinese.

The firing had stopped on July 27, 1953, in a cease-fire agreement, but an official peace treaty has never been signed.

That was just one of the stories that area veterans shared with Picayune high school students, other veterans and residents who attended the third annual Armed Services Reception at the Kelly Wise Gymnasium at Picayune Memorial High School on Friday.

More than 100 veterans attended the festivities and hundreds of students and residents packed the gym, talking and visiting with area veterans in small group sessions.

The event started just three years ago after the April 12, 2007, funeral of Picayune fallen soldier Staff Sgt. Jerry C. Burge, Jr., who was killed in action in Iraq.

History teacher Allison Wheat also announced after the Presentation of the Colors by the Navy Jr. ROTC that from now on the event officially will be called the “Jerry C. Burge Memorial Armed Forces Reception.”

Also on hand was Andy Seal, one of the students who helped found the reception. Seal was one of the students who wanted to do something to show appreciation to veterans after attending the funeral procession of Staff Sgt. Burge, which rolled down Goodyear Boulevard, passing the school, in April 2007.

Seal and other students asked school officials if they could go see the procession. They got an okay, and after the procession, they approached a group of veterans, shook hands with them and thanked them for their service to the country. One veteran broke down and cried.

On their way back to class Seal and the other students told Wheat they wanted to do something to honor the veterans, and the reception was born.

“Andy was one of the original students who came up with the idea; he helped me put it on the first year; and the second year, he did it himself as a class project,” said Wheat.

Seal is now a student at PRCC.

“I just felt like we needed to do something to honor not only the ones now but the ones that have served in the past and made so many sacrifices for our freedom. I just knew after Sgt. Burge’s funeral that we had to do something,” said Seal. “They don’t always get the honor and respect that they should.”

In addition to the students and veterans, active duty troops from Camp Shelby showed up, too, and Camp Shelby officials brought displays from thatfacility’s armed services museum. Veterans brought pictures and medals and some families also brought memorabilia to honor their soldiers who were deceased.

Civil War re-enactors set up a Civil War battlefield camp just outside the gym, and a group of women dressed in Civil War-era dresses, adding flavor to the festivities. Re-enactors from the Confederate 1st Regular Battery, Light Artillery, which was formed in July 1862 in New Orleans, put on a show with an 1861 10-pound Parrot canon, firing it off intermittently throughout the festivities. The “10-pound” designation refers to the weight of the shell the cannon fires.

The 1st Battery fought at Baton Rouge, Port Gibson and later in the Western Theater under the Army of the Trans-Mississippi.

Also on hand was Reinhard Dearing of Slidell, La., the great-great-great grandson of Brig. Gen. James Dearing, the last general to die directly from his wounds received in the Civil War. Gen. Dearing died of wounds received in an engagement only three days prior to the end of the war at Appomattix Courthouse.

Dearing displayed his grandfather’s pistol, pocket pistol, sword and other battlefield accouterments that are still prized possessions of the Dearing family.

The event is expected to grow even larger in the years to come. In just three years, it has grown from 11 veterans to more than 100 and the crowds now are spilling out of the gym at PMHS.

Å large display honoring Sgt. Burge was on view, also, and family members had a special table set up by his display to talk about him with visitors.

Bobbie Kennedy, Burge’s aunt, who helped raise Burge, said that he was “just full of life and loved his job with the armed forces.”

“He had a wonderful personality and would do anything for you if you needed help,” said Kennedy. “We really miss him. You know, someone you love can never be replaced. He would be really amazed if he knew this kind of celebration came out of his death. But somehow, I think he does know.”