Walking into the pink house on Pine Avenue, the first thing Byrd Rawlings’ visitors see is a 90 mm artillery shell filled with colorful umbrellas. The 86-year-old retired Army captain sits in a comfortable chair, happy to reminisce about days gone by and quick to tell visitors his wife chose the house’s bright paint.
Rawlings is quick as a whip and quiet spoken. He is full of stories about his time spent in North Africa and Italy during World War II – from protecting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to receiving communion from Pope Pius XII. Rawlings remains modest about his adventures during the war, but speaks earnestly about his Army buddies.
“You won’t find any combat pictures of me,” Rawlings said, chuckling. “I was little bit embarrassed about that.”
In 1936, Rawlings attended Virginia Tech, where he studied industrial engineering and joined the Coast Artillery Battalion through the school’s Cadet Corps. Hoping to join the Army Air Corps unit from Langley Field, Rawlings failed the physical exam because he had some color blindness. Not to be deterred, however, Rawlings graduated from Tech in 1940 and signed up for two weeks of Army training and spent a tour of duty at Fort Totten, Camp Upton and Fort Tilden in New York.
Rawlings was discharged on Dec. 2, 1941, just five days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In February 1942, he was called back to serve and was assigned to Camp Stewart in Georgia for training as a second lieutenant.
Rawlings, along with his friend Robert Hayden, was then assigned to the 90th CA (AA) Coast Artillery, an anti-aircraft regiment. The regiment began with three officers but eventually grew to 100 officers and 2,000 enlisted men and carried four 90 mm gun batteries, four 40 mm gun batteries and two search light batteries.
“Eight men had to handle the shells, the rejects and the gun,” Rawlings said.
Fast forward to early spring in 1943 and Rawlings found himself on a battleship headed to the Mediterranean Sea. His regiment disembarked in Casablanca, Morocco on April 12 and continued to Oran, Algeria in Northern Africa to defend the city, its harbor and ships.
Following the Cairo, Egypt conference of 1943 with Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek of China and President Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill came down with a bout of pneumonia. The Prime Minister traveled to Marrakech, Morocco to recover and both American and British regiments were sent to protect him. Rawlings’ regiment was one of two 90 mm gun batteries chosen for the task, so they traveled night and day to reach the city, located over 600 miles from their position in Oran, Algeria.
“Our battery was sent down there to provide anti-aircraft protection,” Rawlings said. “We were there for awhile, while Sir Winston recovered.”
Rawlings, then a captain, received a commendation for his services of protection from his commanding officer, Colonel Paul H. French. In a letter dated Jan. 25, 1944, French wrote, “The fine record and appearance of our troops on this mission has resounded to the credit of the Regiment, and I wish to add an assurance of my own pride and gratitude to yourself and your unit for their contribution.”
In 1944, Rawlings was moved to Baia, a small town near Naples, Italy. Once there, they had no need for an anti-aircraft battalion, so Rawlings and his unit were trained for field artillery. Not long after, the entire unit was disbanded and Rawlings was assigned an office job in Leghorn, Italy, where he was named the Information and Education Officer.
“We visited the [Leaning Tower of] Pisa when I was in the military at Leghorn,” Rawlings said. “Because of my faith as a Catholic, I also had an interview with the pope at the time and received communion from him. It was an unexpected and uplifting experience.”
“I had no combat wound or anything like that,” he added. “I’d say I was really blessed.”
After the war ended in 1945, Rawlings returned home to the United States, where he found a job in North Carolina. Always keeping in touch with friends through letters, a friend told Rawlings about a job opportunity in the small town of Waynesboro.
“When I came home, a good buddy of mine had worked with DuPont, so I got a job with DuPont and moved from Wilmington at an atomic energy plant in North Carolina to Waynesboro, and retired here.”
Before moving, however, Rawlings asked the “girl of his dreams” to marry him and “Hannah from Savannah” said yes. The two had met in 1942 in Georgia, while Rawlings was in training and Hannah was working with Army engineers. They exchanged love letters and post cards while Rawlings was overseas and were finally married in 1946.
“When I was training in the military in Georgia, we were close to Savannah and I met a girl, Hannah Coyle,” Rawlings said, smiling. “I married her after the war. We had two children, a son and a daughter.”
In 1998, after 52 years of marriage, Hannah passed away and to this day, Rawlings said he still feels her loss. Rawlings also lost his son, Russell, but his daughter, Isabelle Sadler still lives in Glen Allen and visits her father just about every weekend.
During her childhood, Sadler did not hear a lot of her dad’s war stories. Instead, she learned about the people he met and the adventures they had together. While his friends from the war have all since passed away, Rawlings keeps their memories alive with stories and photographs.
“What I heard about were the close relationships he had,” Sadler said. “It’s the people and the relationships that I took away from my dad’s stories. The one thing about my dad is he’s a very loyal friend. He writes and stays in touch.”
“He remembers everything,” she added. “He’s always told us that he feels so guilty he didn’t have the route other soldiers did. They refused him for paratrooper training. He just feels so guilty that he didn’t see any warfare.”
Sadler said she is very proud of her father and of his jobs during World War II. She is quick to tell the story of her father protecting Winston Churchill with his unit and wants people to know what a good man he is.
“He’s very quiet about it. He’s definitely modest,” Sadler said. “He loves to discuss the history, but he’s incredibly modest. He was just always an incredible dad.”
These days, Rawlings leads a quiet life in the little pink house he shared with his wife for over half a century. With a quiet voice, he tells stories about past years, old friends and loved ones. As a younger man, Rawlings said he loved model trains and still has a train table in his basement.
“During my younger days, and even during the military, sometimes I was able to convince the engineer to let me ride in the engine,” Rawlings said, with a mischievous smile.
But most days he is content to spend time with his family, look at photographs of friends and loved ones and read piles of books.
“Most of the time I sit here and read a fair amount,” he said, simply.
Story originally published June 5th, 2015 in the News Virginian. Written by Lauren Berg.