Madison veterans takes every opportunity to share his story

Photos by Joshua Berry

For Madison resident Major Wooten, talking to others is the key to living a long life. He should know: He turned 103 years old Dec. 1, 2019. 

Born in Cullman County in 1916 to John and Sarah Wooten, Wooten has had more than a century to talk to people. He talked to people in California when he moved there in 1936 to make more money during the Depression. He talked to people when he fought in Europe during World War II. He talked to his co-workers at U.S. Steel for more than 42 years. Most recently, he talked to students in his great-granddaughter’s French class at Discovery Middle School. 

“I have learned more from other people. That’s where I’ve gained my knowledge,” Wooten said. “I wasn’t asked questions when I got home from the war. People started asking me questions, and I haven’t stopped talking since.”

Wooten’s first memory of life is from a one-room schoolhouse in Cullman. He said he does not remember the grade level, but he does remember having to stand at the blackboard with his nose in a circle. 

“The teacher’s name was Professor Moss. I did not do anything wrong. I just did not do what he wanted me to do,” Wooten said. “I did not rebel. That’s just how school was back then. You did what you were told.”

High school was not in the cards for Wooten. His father died in 1929, leaving behind a wife and 12 children. Wooten, the sixth child, stepped up to help with the crops and provide meals for his family. 

“Before he died, my Dad planted a crop of cotton,” Wooten said. “He died in June 1929 before the stock market crashed. When the cotton came in, it made 30 bales. Before the crash, it would have brought 21 cents a pound; when we harvested it, it brought 2-3 cents a pound. I was able to get one pair of shoes and have been buying my own shoes since.”

Wooten’s older brother went to California to seek work during the Depression, and Wooten decided to drive back west with him in 1936. In California, workers got paid once a week; in Alabama, working on farms, workers received pay once a month. While out west, Wooten worked in a vineyard, where he cut grapes and did irrigation. 

“I was paid 25 cents a week, and we were provided living space, like a bunkhouse,” he said. “We also worked with alfalfa for the dairies. I remember the Hispanic workers that worked with us as well.”

Wooten also discovered something else in California: Alabama football. “It was 1938, and Bama played USC. I think the score was 21-7 USC,” he said. “I was ragged so much. I’ve been a hardcore Bama fan since.”

When Wooten returned home a year later, he gave up farming for a job making heads for barrels. This led him to Winston County, where he met the love of his life, Jewell Pamela Cox. 

At the time, girls would make a box full of food and sell it for funds to help the school. He bought Jewell’s and his sister’s boxes. 

“I ate with her family for about a week, and then we started dating,” Wooten said. “We got married in 1940 and were married 75 years. I remember people asking me what her mother’s name was. I didn’t know. Her dad told me he couldn’t believe I didn’t know her name. I said, ‘Well, I’m not marrying her.’”

It was in their home Dec. 7, 1941, that the Wootens heard about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. They were the only family in the community with a radio. By this time, Wooten was employed at U.S. Steel in Birmingham. 

“I was working on freight cars at U.S. Steel when I was drafted,” he said. “We were expecting our first son, so I asked for a deferment. It was granted, and I didn’t report to active duty until after he was born. We named him Larry.”

After technical training in New Orleans, Wooten joined the 764th Railway Battalion in Europe. He landed on Utah Beach Aug. 20, 1944.  He said he remembers seeing remnants of German pillboxes left over from D-Day. From Utah Beach, his battalion traveled to Le Mans, France, where they worked to get railway cars repaired to keep supplies heading to the front lines. 

“Next to where we worked, there was an airfield. The P47 would take off at 5 a.m. I remember around noon one day, we looked up to see that one plane was not going to make it,” Wooten said. “He burst into flames. We knew there was nothing we could do to help him. It was sad. I still don’t know what happened to the plane.”

In 1945 he was sent to Paris to work in a service hospital. His older brother, who fought in five major battles across Europe, visited him for three days. Having fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Wooten said his brother conveyed horrific stories. 

“I’ll never forget the story he told me about having to climb a fence with a lady on his back,” Wooten said. “The Germans were firing at him, and she was hysterical.  He said they lost so many men sometimes that he was promoted to company commander.”

Wooten returned from Europe via Belgium in 1946 on a cargo ship carrying 500 troops. He returned to U.S. Steel to work until he retired in 1982. He also had a second son, Ronnie. 

Life has handed Wooten his fair share of loss. His oldest son passed away two months before Wooten lost his wife of 75 years. “She was living in the nursing home. She had dementia,” Wooten said. “Sometimes she would know me, and other times she would not.”

Today, Wooten lives with his daughter-in-law, Judy, the wife of his eldest son. He has five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He keeps active by watching Alabama football, mowing the lawn and sometimes cooking breakfast. “The people across the street had a good time seeing me get on my new lawn tractor for the first time,” he said, laughing. 

Besides his family, Wooten holds dear his involvement in the Forever Young Senior Veterans in Alabama. Through this organization, he was able to return to Normandy and Belgium in 2019 for the 75th anniversary of these two battles. He has also taken trips to Pearl Harbor and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. 

“I love this group,” Wooten said. “A lot of men did not make it home. When we went back, they played taps, and I cried. I also got to sit on the stage with President Trump at Normandy, and some important people came over and talked to me.”

Talking. That is what Wooten likes best. With a 103-year-old story to tell, just what did Wooten tell his great-granddaughter’s class at Discovery Middle?

“I always tell young people to work hard, do your assignments, and you will all be winners,” Wooten said. “I truly mean it when I tell them that they can be governors, senators and even the president.”