I love interviewing members of our military. Here is a story from the Opelika Observer I did a few weeks ago on a gentleman from my hometown. Turns out, we are related by marriage. Enjoy.
Frank Waldrop’s roots run deep in Opelika. He was born on South Eighth Street in 1921 to Thomas and Fannie May (Trotter) Waldrop. He also had a sister, Mable.
Thomas, a WWI veteran, was co-owner of Crossley and Waldrop Furniture. He was also a mortician.
He has pleasant memories of growing up in Opelika. Those memories include meeting his buddies for a game of baseball down by the Confederate monument behind First Baptist Church. “The road was paved there,” he says, “but was a dirt road just beyond there.”
Another of his favorite “gathering places” was the city pool behind Clift High School, adjacent to Moore Stadium.
Young Frank went to first grade at Palmer Hall, which was located where Opelika City Hall is now. The school became too crowded, so he attended second grade at Miss Nettie E. Webb’s house on South Railroad Avenue. Her classroom was filled with switches, and, according to Frank, she wasn’t afraid to use them.
He went to Southside School for the next four years. Southside would eventually become Miriam S. Brown Elementary School. Today, it’s known as the Cultural Center of Opelika.
From the 7th to 11th grade, he attended Clift High, where he played football under Coach Lindy Hatfield, a former running back at Auburn.
“FDR had Moore Stadium built by the Public Works Administration the year I got there. Before that, they played the games at the fairgrounds,” he recalls.
When not playing football, Frank worked with his father, who’d left the furniture and undertaking business in favor of the grocery business. Waldrop’s Grocery was located in downtown Opelika on Seventh Street.
When Frank was 15, his father went back to the furniture business but also started a mattress business. This was during the Depression, so people did whatever they could do to provide for their families. Wherever his father went, young Frank was right there along his side.
“In those days, we only went to school through the 11th grade. It wasn’t until the year after I graduated that they implemented the 12th grade,” said Waldrop, who graduated in 1937.
At 16, while still in high school, Waldrop joined the Alabama National Guard. He was a combat medic assigned to 167th Infantry Regiment of the 31st Division. His service included training soldiers in Jacksonville, Fla., and Alexandria, La.
In 1941 he left the Fort Dallas Smith Armory for Camp Blanding, Fla., for a yearlong assignment. He was there training soldiers when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The first units he helped train were sent to Europe and North Africa.
“We were not allowed to call them draftees,” he said. “We were instructed to refer to them as selectees.”
Over the next couple of years, his unit trained soldiers at different locations around the country to replicate the vast terrain differences that soldiers would experience in Europe, Northern Africa and the Pacific. They included Camp Bowie, Texas, and the mountains of West Virginia.
They were also assigned to Camp Pickett, Va., for amphibious training in Chesapeake Bay. This training would serve him invaluably.
Frank Waldrop’s unit was initially slated for Italy, but that changed. Instead, they were sent to General Douglas MacArthur. “They didn’t need us in Italy, so they sent us to MacArthur. We went to the South Pacific,” he said.
Their point of embarkation was the aforementioned Chesapeake Bay. Their mode of transportation was a Dutch freighter that was converted to a troop carrier. Because of the constant threat of attacks from German submarines, the carrier was escorted along the east coast all the way to the Panama Canal.
Once they cleared the Panama Canal, they were all alone in the South Pacific for four weeks before landing on the world’s second largest island, New Guinea. Frank and his unit had a month to get climatized before seeing any combat duty.
The natives in New Guinea’s coast weren’t civilized, and there was no infrastructure. A battalion of Navy Seabees attached to his unit built roads and airstrips once the area was secure. Within a matter of days, the airstrips were fully functional.
In spite of heavy combat, his unit eventually made it all the way up the New Guinea coast and built bases along the way. Although he was a medic, he was a target the entire way. The Japanese had no respect for the red cross on his shoulder. He mended and repaired broken bodies throughout the war, which was a foreshadowing of things to come.
After a stop in the Dutch East Indies, his battalion, First battalion, fought on the island of Morotai. Second Battalion remained in reserve for some much needed rest while First Battalion did all the fighting.
They were on Morotai preparing to invade the Philippines when the atomic bomb fell on Japan. “That was the best thing to ever happen to us. MacArthur was getting organized and ready to go back into the Philippines. Had that happened, there’s no telling how many more would have died.
“The Japanese soldiers we were fighting on Morotai had other ideas about surrendering. They took off into the jungle. For all I know, they may still be there,” he said with a chuckle.
First Battalion was given a break while Second Battalion was tasked to take a weather station three days away. Technician Third Grade Frank Waldrop was reassigned to Second Battalion. “I missed out on the rest,” he said. “It was the easiest assault job I ever got into. The amphibious assault vehicles drove all the way onto the beach. I didn’t even have to get my boots wet – ordinarily, we were all the way up to our neck in water. And there were just a handful of Japanese.”
By this time, he had enough points to be eligible for discharge as soon as the war ended.
“I left out of the Philippines on a real big, nice ship. It wasn’t a regular troop carrier. It was more like a hotel,” he fondly recalled. “It took us to San Francisco where we stayed for two weeks.”
After a week-long train ride, he arrived at Camp Shelby, Miss., where he spent a week in the hospital. Upon his release, he boarded a bus back to Opelika.
“I caught up on five years of fun in about two,” he said with a smile.
Upon his return, he had a couple of local jobs in the auto industry before landing a job in the body shop at Tatum Chevrolet, where he’d spend the next 40 years. “For the first 10 years, I was on the line repairing wrecked cars but spent the last 30 in management,” he said.
“He was the best body man in Lee County,” said one friend.
In 1948, he married the former Johnny Lou Knight and has been happily married for 65 years. They were blessed with two children, Thomas and Belva, and are proud of Chandler, their only grandchild, who is simply described as “the best.”
Since retiring at the age of 71, Frank has kept busy with work in and around the house and, along with his bride, has been an active member at First United Methodist Church.
When asked what the secret to their longevity was, Johnny Lou said, “Well, we never did fuss much. We just always got along. He didn’t drink and didn’t cuss much. Sometimes he might say “doggone!” but that’s about it.”
At 93 years old, he’s not as active as he once was. He spends a lot of time resting, but if anyone deserves the rest, it’s Frank Waldrop. After all, he’s still owed that doggone rest from the war.