A man described as Wilkes County’s most decorated soldier in World War II tragically died from injuries he received in a wreck on July 4, 1946, one year after he was discharged from the Army.
McKinley Church grew up on a mountain farm near New Light Baptist Church in the Vannoy section of northern Wilkes. He was the son of Bud and Tealer Wyatt Church.
Church and Isaac Eller, 22, also a WWII veteran, were fatally injured when a 1937 Buick driven by Church went left of center and collided with a passenger bus in a curve on N.C. 16 North at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountain escarpment in northern Wilkes.
Church enlisted in the Army at age 19 in 1940, about a year before the U.S. entered WWII. After a couple of years in Hawaii, he was back in the continental U.S. and married the former Nancy Faye Eller in 1943.
Church, short in stature but evidently not lacking in spunk, went overseas as part of the 2nd Infantry Division in 1944. Called the Indian Head Division because of the war bonnet-clad Indian on its insignia, the 2nd Division landed on bloody Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day Invasion on June 7, 1944, and marched across Europe fighting the Germans.
Church’s experiences in WWII were told in articles in the Journal-Patriot in 1945, a period when news of military personnel from Wilkes and progress of Allied forces in the war accounted for 80-90% of every front page and much of the inside pages.
Church was awarded the Silver Star for keeping German soldiers at bay until help arrived when his platoon was cut off and behind enemy lines, with most of the platoon members wounded or dead. Church received an abdominal wound then and was awarded the Purple Heart.
He received the Bronze Star for singlehandedly routing Nazis from a machine gun nest and for charging across open ground to attack a block house full of Nazis by tossing hand grenades into the structure.
Church said he attacked the block house out of anger when one of his buddies was hit and was startled when 27 Germans marched out and surrendered. Church quickly called for help with the prisoners.
In another incident, Church and Sgt. Mitchell Clince of Detroit, Mich., encountered and killed about 70 German soldiers in a roadway.
He recounted these events in an interview with the Journal-Patriot for an article in the July 30, 1945, issue soon after he was discharged. The article said Church was county’s most decorated soldier in the war. In the article, Church admitted to being a problem child for commanding officers but said he was considering re-enlisting for the pay and new experiences.
Church arrived in Europe as a private and received a battlefield promotion to technical sergeant, denoted by a diamond in the middle of his sergeant’s stripes, said his son, Otis Church of North Wilkesboro.
Otis Church, only 6 months old when his father died, is a Vietnam War combat veteran. He and his wife, Jo Ann Church, own and operate A Baby Celebration, a children’s clothing store on Main Street, North Wilkesboro.
Church received a second Purple Heart for a facial wound from shrapnel, as well as the American Defense Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, EAMET Campaign Medal with three Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Medal and Distinguished Unit Citation.
He was discharged with 133 demobilization points under a system developed by the Army to equitably determine when soldiers in Europe could return home.