Guarding the Vicksburg bridge in 1941|’We weren’t scared. We were doing our job’

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 10, 2008

Walter Carpenter’s travels during his 30-year Army career included places etched in the annals of history during and after World War II.

His tours of duty included Munich, Vienna and Berlin — key points on Eastern Europe’s political tectonic plates as they shifted with the start of the Cold War.

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Military Park, free               admission all day Nov. 11

But memories of the war-torn continent and, later, work at the Pentagon are side-by-side in Carpenter’s mind with images of Vicksburg when he was a 22-year-old sergeant assigned to guard the U.S. 80 Bridge across the Mississippi River.

Called from Camp Shelby to Vicksburg immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Carpenter stood sentinel with about 20 others in his infantry division near approaches to the bridge as the military moved to protect the nation’s key physical assets. The bridge, now used only for rail traffic, had opened 11 years before Pearl Harbor as the final link in the nation’s first coast-to-coast all-weather paved highway.

“In those days, everybody was near-hysterical about the beginning of World War II with Japan,” Carpenter recalled recently in a letter and by phone from his home in Bend, Ore. 

“Everybody was scared the Japanese would blow up the bridge,” he said. “We weren’t scared. We were doing our jobs.”

Carpenter, now 89, and the men he led, drew the attention of locals — a photograph of Carpenter with rifle in hand and the bridge in the background was on the front page of the Dec. 10, 1941, edition of the Vicksburg Evening Post. 

Cold, winter gusts turned to snow as December wore on, Carpenters recalls, as units he led also guarded the railroad bridge across the Yazoo River at Redwood.

“Man, it was cold and snowy!” Carpenter said, relating one night when the enemy showed up not in battleships but in feathers.

“I heard one of my men fire a quick eight shots from his M-1 rifle, the clang of the clip being ejected,” Carpenter said. “I ran across the bridge as fast as I could and asked him what he was shooting at. He said he saw some bright eyes staring at him. I presume it was a reflection from an owl’s eyes when he shined his flashlight at a sound.”  

After the war, Carpenter returned to his native Indianapolis with his wife, Helen, and became a court reporter — something of a family tradition.

“My dad was a court reporter, my grandfather, too,” he said.

The start of the Korean War put Carpenter back on active duty, and he was assigned to CIA offices in Washington, D.C., when  “the agency” was in its infancy. His eventual rise to lieutenant colonel included a stint as commanding officer for the Joint Allied Refugee Operations Center in Allied-occupied West Berlin, divided for 40 years from Soviet-controlled East Berlin.

“The Russian fighter aircraft liked to dive on my building aiming really loud sonic booms at the place,” Carpenter said.

After working for the Army’s D.C.-based Military District of Washington at Fort McNair, Carpenter retired to civilian life in 1966.

His daily views of the Cascade Range skyline over central Oregon are spectacular, he said, with “three 10,000-foot mountains” beside him.

Though he didn’t return to Vicksburg, the grizzled veteran of two wars won’t soon forget the bone-chilling winter nights he spent atop the bridges of Mississippi as he and the men he led braced for the heat of world war.

“It was a heckuva river,” Carpenter said. “Although I’m 89 now, I clearly remember those anxious days.”


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at