FRANKLIN, Tenn. (WKRN) — Jimmy Gentry tells people they’re looking at two eras when they see him – the Great Depression and World War II.
The veteran spent the last 66 years coaching high school football, but before he was influencing and teaching young kids, he helped liberate hundreds of people held captive in a concentration camp.
The accounts of his time in combat will give you chills.
Gentry was born and raised in Franklin, Tennessee, as one of nine children in the middle of the Great Depression.
He will always remember Sunday, December 7, 1941 as the day he knew his life would change.
Gentry and his buddies were wasting time before Church at Whites Drugstore in Franklin when they were told to be quiet and come listen to the radio on the store counter.
“I can still see the radio to this day. I can sketch it for you right now. We stood there and heard for the first time that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I remember this happening, and this is hard for a group of teenagers to do. We put our half-finished cokes down and walked out of the drug store without saying a word, because we knew what was gonna happen,” he said. “I witnessed the greatest display of patriotism this country’s ever seen because all of the young men that were 2 to 3 years older than myself couldn’t wait to get into service. My brother was one of those.”
Gentry’s brother David was killed in battle about a year and a half before Gentry enlisted as a foot soldier in the army.
His first taste of combat came in the Battle of the Bulge, at just 19. He remembers the moments just before battle.
“When we got into the back of that truck, it was so quiet; you could hear a pin drop. Nobody was talking then because we’re going into combat for the first time in our lives. On the way in, I remember just as well, I held on to the one thing I could do and that was go to God. I went to God and I prayed. I prayed that god would take care of me and I repeated over and over to myself, please take care of me.”
Gentry made it through that battle and his infantry marched on from France to the Czech border. It was their unit that first stumbled upon the concentration camp known as Dachau.
“We didn’t know what it was. We thought it was some sort of factory or something, but there was a terrible smell. I remember some of the guys would throw-up, just from the smell, not from seeing someone dead, but just from the smell,” he said. “On the other side of the barbed wire fence is what I describe as a sea of faces, that appeared to be dead, yet they were alive. They were nothing but skin and bones staring out at us, like who are you?”
Gentry helped to liberate those prisoners.
Decades later, his story came full circle when a mother and her 6-year-old son were visiting his family farm, Gentry’s Farm.
The little boy was looking at a DVD that was made of Gentry’s life and noticed postage stamp sized pictures on the back of the DVD. He asked about one of the pictures on the back taken of those held captive at Dachau.
“The mother stopped and she said, ‘What camp were you in?’ and I said ‘Dachau’, and she come back and pointed to the pic on the back of the DVD and said, ‘That’s my daddy!’”
Gentry also met one of the prisoners he helped to save a few months later.
“I don’t know if either one of us could say anything for a little while. We just hugged one another. Completing a circle in my life. It made me think well, it’s over with. This is now that was then. I’m so glad it’s all behind me. They have a good life, I have a good life. That’s behind me. Just God taking care of me.”
On every Veterans Day, Gentry remembers those that were not fortunate enough to make it back home.
“I think of those guys. A lot of them I knew and a lot of them didn’t come home. I think about those. They are the real true heroes that didn’t come home. And my brother was one of those,” he said.
Gentry has retired from coaching but still tells his story at schools across Middle Tennessee.