“Take it Easy”: Staff Sgt. James Killion, Jr.

S/Sgt. James Killion, Jr. served for six years in the US Army. In the rain and mud of France, he dreamed of reuniting with his wife and meeting his infant son.

James Killion Jr. never met a stranger. Throughout his life, he was known by all in his community and was often described as a bridge builder, someone who pushed through barriers– racial, religious, economic– to find common understanding and work for a greater good. Killion’s wartime letters are so vibrant, so present, that one can almost hear his voice telling his mother or his brother to “take it easy.”

Killion’s relationship with his parents, in particular his mother, was one of care and respect. While he was off in service, Killion wrote his mother often asking her opinion on things and asking for her prayers. 

Letter from James Killion, Jr. to his mother Lottie. Gift of the Killion Family.

His concern over their wellbeing is ever present with reminders to not “overwork yourself.” Also of primary concern was his wife Hazel, who he married in September 1941. He wanted to make his parents proud and to prove his love to his wife, to be the man she deserved.

Jimmy and Hazel Killion. Gift of the Killion Family

Killion soldiered six years in the Army, first prior to Pearl Harbor from 1936-39 and then again from 1942-1945. He initially joined the Army hoping for opportunity after dropping out of high school in his hometown of Alton, Illinois, seeing little opportunity as an African American student to be allowed to participate and to thrive. In the military, he found the same prejudice and disenfranchisement. But nonetheless, he contributed, finding ways to work within a system, becoming the leader that he would remain in civilian life.

From June 1944-December 1945, Killion served in Europe– in England and in France, mainly with the 3101st Quartermaster Service Company. Killion’s path is not an easy one to track; he was moved around as the company was split up and then rejoined. Much of Sgt. Killion’s time in late 1944 and in 1945 was spent in charge of a POW stockade in France with nearly 2000 German POWs. It was a rainy, muddy time. 

“There is mud and more mud with the water laying dead on top and not a day passes that it doesn’t rain.”

The rain contributed to his isolation and loneliness. He had a feeling of being lost in all of the mud. He wrote to his brother Harold in June 1945, “I believe we’re going to be getting on one more rainy season and that is really a lonesome time.” What he desired was simply for the war to be over and to return home, “to eat out of a plate, flush a toilet, sit or jump to music of a radio.” He wanted to lead a normal life with his family. “I want to hit the States and to stay,” he stated in a letter to his Mom in May 1945. Finally, in January 1946, he was able to reunite with his family, with wife Hazel and son “Jimmy Boy,” born while he was overseas. 

Photograph of baby James Killion, III with paintings made of him by German POWs in Killion’s stockade. Courtesy of the Killion Family

James Killion went on to do the ordinary things he desired to do and also the extraordinary. He was a soldier, a son, a brother, a husband (married 56 years), a father of four (son James Killion, III and daughters Cheryl, Carol, and Michelle), a grandfather, an active church member and choir director, a board member, a steel worker, a union representative, a civic leader, and a mentor. He died February 11, 1997. The legacy he built through his family and the many he mentored will live on. His words also live on in his wartime letters, in the collection of The National WWII Museum. Organized, preserved and published into a book by his son, Killion’s letters were presented by his family to the Museum in a special event, A Black Soldier’s Letters Home on June 24, 2022. 

S/Sgt. James Killion, Jr. is one of the many heroes you will come to know through his own words in Expressions of America.

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