GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – Dozens of veterans were recognized by students at Agricola Elementary School in George County Friday morning.
Veterans from five different wars were represented at the program organized by Mrs. Regina Everett and the 6th Grade History Club.
The guests were treated to breakfast while students sang, read poetry and played videos to honor their service.
“At no point in our country’s history has it been more important to show a sense of patriotism and respect for the struggles of our forefathers and our military,” said club president Justus Cecchi. “Our history club is instilling in each of our members a greater sense of pride in America. And we want to thank all of you for making that possible for us.”
The eldest veteran present was William Jarrell, a World War II Navy sailor.
He enlisted in Hattiesburg at 18-years-old in 1942. After basic training in San Diego, he was assigned as a firefighter on the brand-new USS Independence, a light aircraft carrier that would shoot down Japanese aircrafts in the Pacific Ocean.
The ship was struck by a torpedo during a counterattack on November 20, 1943, killing 17 on board.
“All at once the ship went boom, and I looked up over the flight deck and there was a gun bucket laying on the flight deck. I jumped up there and done all I could to help people. I grabbed one big man by both legs and off and carried him to the ship deck. I don’t know how I got him up and carried him, but I done it,” Jarrel said.
The crew managed to keep the ship afloat for three days before it could get to the island of Tuvalu for emergency repairs. It docked in San Francisco for permanent repairs in January 1944. On a two week break, Jarell went back to Mississippi and married. By July, he was back at sea.
In the second launch, Jarrel rarely saw daylight as the crew began performing night carrier operations. Independence’s attacks on the Philippines with the Pacific fleet would help dismantle the Japanese Navy.
“I got scared, but you never talk about it. You never talk about dying, at least we didn’t. I’ve been through some tough times but I’m lucky,” Jarrell said.
He returned home, couldn’t find a job, and reenlisted. In all, he spent five and a half years in the military.
He has since planted roots in George County with his family where he has been a farmer and woodworker. Jerell stays active gardening and built 100 benches, chairs and swings last year. At 98-years-old, he’s outlived all three of his younger sisters.
In 2013, Jerell was on Mississippi’s last Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. to see the war memorials and monuments on the national mall. The morning the group arrived, the U.S. government shutdown during a Congressional gridlock.
The group made headlines after someone moved metal barriers to let them inside the World War II memorial- lending to lessons of resolve learned 70 years earlier.
“I enjoyed it though there was war going on. I met new people, made new friends…I done what I was supposed to do and we done a good job of it I guess. There ain’t been a world war since,” Jarrell said.
At the end of the Veterans Day program, the group was led through the halls of the school where the 600 students, including two of Jarrell’s great grandchildren, greeted them with applause, signs and high-fives.