Appalachia, North Korea and Alaska

Stories from my grandfather

I was born in Georgia, but have lived in Alaska for the majority of my life. From ‘91 to ‘94 I was in the southwest bush town of Bethel—the hub of the Kuskokwim River Delta. Then from ‘98 to present day I’ve lived in the Matanuska Valley. The years between were spent in a small town called Hiawassee, just off the Appalachian Trail, in the mountains of Georgia. My family’s roots go a long ways back in these mountains, dating to the 1800s.

But this isn’t my story. It’s about the man I was named after, Cecil Sanders, Jr., my grandfather. The following is a collection of stories he has told me over the years, including one of his fondest memories, a 15,000 mile trip starting from his home above Lake Chatuge all the way across the U.S. and Canada, with a delay in the Northwest Territories, to Alaska and back.

The night was dark, and the moon cast just enough light to see shadowy figures slowly advance. My grandfather laid on the ground, concealed at his post, ready to follow his orders. Very soon he would strike. He wasn’t alone, his brothers were lying in wait nearby. The moment came, the shadows were close, so the boys jumped to their feet and lobbed rocks at the figures and hit their targets. Thuds were followed by yelps. The intruders hastily retreated, dropping what they had come for. The year was 1939. The location, just outside of the town of Hiawassee. The Sanders boys succeeded in following the orders of their father, Cecil Sr., to protect the watermelon patch from a few bad local characters.

My grandfather was one of six boys and ten total children born to Cecil Sr. and Ada (Stroud) Sanders in Hiawassee, Georgia. The early years in Appalachia were lean. As he says, “We were raised on cornbread and milk, and milk and cornbread.” He thought you were only supposed to eat meat on Sunday, because that’s the only time they had it. A real treat was when his dad would bring home a tubular piece of bologna. Bologna, according to my grandfather, equated to a choice cut of steak for people these days. On a meager two dollars a week salary, bologna was even hard to come by for the Sanders family.

Cecil Sr., Ada and son Cecil Jr.

Cecil Sr., Ada and son Cecil Jr.

Joining the military was one of the best choices for skills training and earning a meager income for young men in the mountains. As WWII approached, my grandfather’s oldest brother, Sherlock, did just that. Later, his second oldest brother, Fraser, would follow. Being 13 at the time, joining the military wasn’t yet an option for Cecil Jr. A few days after the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Sherlock’s platoon was ambushed by Germans in the outskirts of Saint Lo, France, and all were killed. For about a year he was listed as MIA, but the dreaded letter eventually arrived to his parents and family back in Hiawassee confirming his death.

Several years after WWII, at age 17, while accompanying his father on a trip to Gainesville, Georgia, my grandfather walked into an Army recruiting center. An officer took a quick glance at the thin country boy and rebuffed his desire to join up. My grandfather continued down the street to a Marine Corps recruiting center and waited patiently. The recruiting officer looked his way and ignored him at first. A while later the officer looked back up and saw my grandfather still standing there. He said, “Son, what can I help you with?” My grandfather replied, “Sir, I want to join the Marines.” The officer exclaimed, “Well, you are just what we are looking for!”

Thus began a new chapter in my grandfather’s life. The Marine Corps sent him and his unit to the Mediterranean Sea on a peacekeeping mission. They traveled to places he’d never before heard of, witnessing a world dramatically different from his own.

They dropped off into Istanbul, Turkey, for a time with a warning to not cross into a certain sector of town because of the disappearance of U.S. servicemen. A local man he became acquainted with showed him historical sites, churches, and other places of interest, and one day offered to take him to see more of the city. The local and two other men stopped by and picked him up for a day of sightseeing. My grandfather had studied the map of Istanbul and knew the streets well and the direction they were heading. With the realization that he may be the next victim, he darted from the passenger side of the car when it stopped at a red light and ran for safety.

Cecil Sanders Jr.’s official Marine Corps photo

After nine months of sailing and experiencing Eastern Europe, the Second Marine Division returned to Camp Lejeune located along the coast near the small town of Jacksonville, North Carolina. In July of 1950, with the backing of China and the Soviet Union, North Korea invaded South Korea, pushing the Republic down to the Sea of Japan. With the First Marine Division stationed at Pendleton, California, at half strength, the Second Marine Division was called up to join. My grandfather, like his older brothers, would go to war.

With light resistance, the Marines landed south of Seoul, South Korea, at Inchon, and systematically began pushing back the brutal North Korean forces.

My grandfather and his comrades witnessed many acts of cruelty handed out by the north on the peaceful villagers of the south. As a way to spread fear amongst the civilian population, the communist north upon entering the South Korean villages would grab their town chief, known affectionately as Papasan, by the arms and legs and thrust him down upon large bamboo poles to slowly die. They forced the villagers to watch and prohibited any intervention. This effective method of cruelty and fear served as a way to get the civilian population to comply with intelligence gathering.

After achieving the original plan to clear the communists out of South Korea and reestablish the prewar 38th parallel border, the desire to completely defeat the communist regime in North Korea spurred General Douglas MacArthur to set an unsuccessful trap north of Seoul. This miscalculation played right into the hands of the retreating North Korean forces who sought to lure the UN forces even farther north into the mountains.

North Korea was in the middle of their coldest winter in 45 years. Temperatures dipped as the UN forces led by the United States pursued the North Koreans up to the Chosin Reservoir (later immortalized amongst Marines as the “Frozen Chosin”) under the watchful eye of Chinese dictator Mao Tse Tung (Zedong).

China began massing troops at its border. MacArthur felt assured China would not enter the war and that UN forces could chase the North Koreans all the way across the Yalu River and into Manchuria.

My grandfather has told a number of stories about what transpired over the following weeks of fighting in -30°F weather, being surrounded and outnumbered 20 to 1 and the horrors of manning a machine gun on outposts a half-mile past the front line. Quietly, Chinese and North Korean troops would slip into their perimeter in the dark nights and, using the long bayonet at the end of their rifles, they would quietly thrust their knives and dispatch his comrades. As an outpost would fall, wave upon wave of Chinese troops poured into the UN lines. The first wave would be armed with rifles and grenades, the unarmed second wave would pick up the weapons from their dead comrades, and the hardened third wave would be armed with burp guns to fire upon any of the first two waves who chose to retreat.

chosin reservoir north korea

Chosin Reservoir, North Korea

Running low on manpower, food, and ammunition the Marines and UN forces were forced to conduct a fighting retreat from Yudam-ni, to Hagaru-ri, and on to Koto-ri. Being surrounded by 150,000 Chinese, they faced ambushes constantly and were assaulted from every direction. Wounded men would fall into the deep snow and freeze to death. Many men never returned.

After the war my grandfather met a beautiful young red-headed lady from North Georgia and they became engaged. At the time he had a job on the Great Lakes serving as a cook with the Merchant Marines. The job required that he be away from home for months at a time, but his fiancée objected to this, so he put in his notice and headed back south for good. They soon married and had three children. His new job as a truck driver would move the family around a bit from Hiawassee, to Jacksonville, Florida, to Columbia, South Carolina, and back to Hiawassee.

The Sanders family

His time in the Marine Corps instilled a desire in my grandfather to travel and experience more of the world. Many times he and his brothers, friends and other family members would take trips out to Gunnison, Colorado, Encampment, Wyoming, and other places to hunt, fish, camp and tell stories.

One story he divulged to me on many occasions was his favorite trip of all, the 15,000 mile round-trip journey to Alaska, to visit my dad, mom, sister and me, in 1993.

cecil sanders and junior nichols

My grandfather and his lifelong friend, Junior Nichols, set out from Hiawassee in his Dodge Ram and drove across the U.S., through Canada to the Northwest Territories.

They pulled into Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in search of a place to eat. In a world so far away from North Georgia, they were shocked to see that the first restaurant they came upon was Kentucky Fried Chicken.

They continued north to the Mackenzie River. A ferry was needed to cross the river, but the ice was still breaking up, making it unpassable, so they had to wait several days.

Coming upon a small village my grandfather and Junior made the acquaintance of a few local natives. Seeing their dress and head garments, he was reminded of some colorful fabric from my grandmother’s fabric store that was stowed in the back of the slide-in camper. He retrieved it and gave the fabric to an older native lady and watched with great enthusiasm as she and the other women of the village gathered around with excitement for their new gift.

The two continued on and eventually met my parents, sister, and me, along with my grandfather’s sister and a friend, in Anchorage. We all set out for a grand tour of Alaska. Together we experienced the towns of Homer, Palmer, Valdez, and more for the first time.

We caught king salmon in Anchor Point, camped along the Denali Highway, walked the beach in Seward, and enjoyed our time together. It was a trip my grandfather had always wanted to make. Traveling the 15,000 miles in six weeks was a great adventure for he and Junior, and one that created many cherished memories.

Twenty years later, my grandfather and grandmother, Estelle, made a return trip to the Last Frontier. We again toured the Kenai Peninsula. In their home, my grandmother proudly displays a photo of the large silver salmon she caught in Homer.

Since that first trip to Alaska, my grandfather has hiked many miles on trails in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and done a good amount of camping with his four grandsons in the Chattahoochee National Forest. We grandsons learned many life lessons, went on many long walks, and ate well on those camping trips.

Sitting on the south side of his house looking out over the community of Macedonia, up to Brasstown Bald and the area in between, he is reading this article. He knows that I am proud of him, love him, am inspired by him, and appreciate all that he has taught me and imparted into my life. With pride I carry his name.

by Cecil Sanders



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