Army Technician Fifth Grade, Don Hughes, 90, was among those responsible for running the 15th Medical General Laboratory, which included a blood bank, in Italy during WWII. Hughes looks out a window of his Lawrenceville home during a portrait on Monday. Top, Hughes, 90, holds a collection of service medals and uniform pins in his hands. Above right, Hughes, right, stands for a photograph with his cousin Courville Tarpley while in Italy during sometime in the 1940s. (Staff Photos: Brendan Sullivan)
WWII Veteran shares experiences
Army Technician Fifth Grade, Don Hughes, 90, shares his experiences about working in 15th Medical General Laboratory, which included a blood bank, in Italy during WWII. Hughes also taught at Dacula High School and Central Gwinnett High School after serving the county.
When Don Hughes was a teenager, he knew it was coming.
War was on in Europe, and after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a future on a battlefield seemed imminent for every senior at Hughes’ Tennessee high school.
“The whole society was transformed because of Pearl Harbor,” Hughes said. “We were mentally getting prepared for (that life). … It was in the air. You could almost cut it, it was so thick.”
Soon, he knew, life would change, in ways he never imagined.
But this Veterans Day, as he does every year, the Lawrenceville man will think back on the time in his life that has shaped him from a boy into a man. He remembers the men who never made it home, but he also recounts happy times and good friendships.
For this veteran, like many, war did not just mark three years of his life but the next 70.
“There were some tremendous changes in my life,” Hughes said. “But I always considered it a privilege and a duty to serve my country.”
Even with his friends heading to war, Hughes wanted to go to college.
With a desire to become a doctor, he enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta, but he was drafted before the first semester ended.
“They said, ‘They need you more there than in a classroom,’” Hughes said, adding the Army placed him in the medical corps and sent him off, first to basic training, then to a special laboratory training.
After months of studying and preparing, Hughes and his unit began the journey to Europe to set up the 15th Medical General Laboratory.
A stop along the way in northern Africa, where battles were still being waged, gave him the first taste of life in a war zone, and he experienced the first of many air raids.
Arriving in Italy, Hughes had to hit the dirt and seek shelter almost as soon as the ship landed.
“They bombed all around that first year,” he said, “Every night you would hear it.”
In the ruins of a bombed out building constructed for the World’s Fair just a few years earlier, Hughes and his unit worked to set up the laboratory, one of the most technologically savvy of its day and one of only two to serve all of Europe.
Not only did the Army technician do research on bacteria, viruses, parasites and other problems that ailed soldiers living in a foreign land, at times with little hygiene and clean water, but he also helped manage a blood bank, with daily plane trips to the front lines so that those soldiers could have the best chances of survival.
“(The enemy) didn’t care if it had a cross on it or not; they were going to get it,” Hughes said of the perilous flights. “We flew on the seat of our pants. … It was quite an experience, but they had to have that blood.”
Between the daily chores of research and other duties, Hughes was able to see much of Italy, from the Roman Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel to the Catacombs and even a sighting of the Pope. Mount Vesuvius’s ashes rained down on him, when it erupted, and he visited Pompeii. There, the scientist began a love of history that led to his eventual career.
Hughes remembers the last time he got to see his cousin, a chance meeting at the blood bank before the man went on to perish in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as the exuberant cries of an Italian when victory was declared.
By the time the laboratory was closed and Hughes and his unit were loaded on a ship to make the return trip home — three years after they last saw home — the technician had caught one of the diseases he was tasked with researching. He had to lean on the shoulders of a friend to make his way up the gangplank.
Docked in Virginia, Hughes didn’t have the strength to digest a welcome home meal of steak and potatoes, green beans and coconut pie.
But he still remembers running to the phone to call his mother and tell her he was coming home.
Hughes’ ailments were never diagnosed, but to this day he never regained the weight he lost. It took him a year to recover enough to return to school, but the Army gave him an honorable discharge instead of a medical one, and benefits were hard to come by.
Eventually, Hughes went back to Emory, but he had had enough of laboratories.
Instead, he completed his bachelor’s degree closer to home at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and began a career in the ministry.
In that role, he met his bride, Mickey, who was serving at his home church, where an aunt insisted they be introduced. The couple had two children and now have two grandchildren.
During a sabbatical from the ministry, Hughes decided to try the classroom, and he never left, teaching both history and American government at Dacula and Central Gwinnett high schools over the next two decades.
Hughes didn’t talk much about the time he spent in a war zone, but the experience helped him drive home some of the history — both ancient and modern — in the classroom.
“I made it real,” Hughes said. “I tried to get across to the students that it is a privilege as well as a duty to serve our country.”
Charlotte Nash, now the county commission chairwoman, remembers Hughes as her Georgia history professor in eighth grade.
“I remember Mr. Hughes as a quiet, steady man who was kind to students even when they probably did not deserve it. He could be firm, though, but still maintained an underlying kindness,” Nash said. “I doubt that I recognized the underlying strength of character that supported this approach in the classroom at the time, but I certainly understand it now. True strength does not require loudness or aggressiveness.”
The teacher, she said, didn’t talk about himself much, instead focusing the attention on his students and the subject.
“He helped set me on a path of loving history and having an understanding that what happened in the past is never really dead because it affects the present,” Nash said.
Always wanting to remain active, Hughes spent a decade of his retirement working at a retail store, and he continues to lead a discussion group at the First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville, even after celebrating his 90th birthday last month.
Hughes lost most of the mementos from his life in the Army. If it wasn’t for his mother, they would probably all be gone, because he doesn’t like to think about it.
But every Veterans Day, the memories flood back, both the good and the bad.
“What a great sacrifice so many people have made for us to be able to live like this. There was (so much) blood spilt,” he said.
“Why I survived I’ll never know,” Hughes added, saying that whenever he reflects on his service, he thinks about how to use the time that he was granted that other men, like his cousin, were not. “How in the world was I spared, and how did I use those years I was spared? You appreciate the opportunity to celebrate you are still there.”