In his book from a few years back, Tom Brokaw of NBC News called the men and women who fought for America during World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Brokaw wrote, “They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled...They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world...(They) immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted...(And) they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest.”
Dona Alsept is one of them.
His family and friends call him, “Doanie.”
In early 1942, a few months after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air, Doanie and his brother were discussing the Second World War at their home in the Grapevine community of Perry County.
“I told my brother Jack, 'I'll go down there with you and fight those guys.' And I did,” said Doanie, who now lives at the Nim Henson Geriatric Center in Jackson. With Sarah Strong and Sandra Gross of the nursing home next to him, the two helped guide Doanie through an hour-long interview with the Times-Voice last Thursday. “So I lied about my age, and got in.”
He was sent to a camp in North Carolina and served as a paratrooper in the Army Air Corps (now U. S. Air Force) in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. But while Doanie volunteered for military service, he had to wait a few months to begin training. Because he got somebody to sign his induction papers to get in, the Army put him out.
“For about five months, I didn't go overseas,” he recalled. “Then I told them, 'Either you send me overseas to fight, or send me back home.' I got to serve, and fight, but I had to wait until I turned 17.”
Doanie got to go to war, in which he served as a PFC (Private First Class). And somewhere during the war, during glider training, he got to witness an officer from Oklahoma that just so happened to have a little bit of star quality on him. “We were getting ready to go on a mission, and they sent this guy over here as a pilot. They said he was a flight officer. And some said he was in the movies and on the radio.”
It was Gene Autry.
Yep, that Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy”. And for a brief while, Doanie and his fellow soldiers were “Back in the Saddle Again” - not on horseback, but on a military plane.
“They sent Gene out there to help train us, but I didn't know that until we got up in the air, and someone told me that our pilot was Gene Autry. We didn't know too much about him or each other, because were were fighting a war. But I saw some of his movies in Hazard. They had silent movies in Hazard for a long time back then. And to us in the Army, Gene appeared to be and acted just like another guy. He wasn't like Frank Sinatra, who we saw at a USO show. I didn't care for him, and none of those Army guys liked him, either. He was cocky.”
Both brothers Doanie and Jack were in the service, but they were shipped out to two different areas to fight. That's because in 1942, the five “Fighting Sullivan” brothers from Iowa were killed when their Navy cruiser was sunk in the Pacific Ocean during the Battle of Guadalcanal. “After the Sullivan brothers died, the War Department adopted a policy where all brothers were separated, so Jack was in the Pacific, and I served in Europe.”
Jack was in the Philippines, and fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a decisive Allied victory. Meanwhile, Doanie ended up in Portugal, but how he ended up there had some anxious moments for his family.
“The War Department said Doanie was lost at sea in a shipwreck. He was going to the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean, which belong to Portugal, before shipping out to Portugal,” said his sister, Elenore Asher. In a telephone interview from their Perry County home last Friday, Asher and her sister Pearlie “Lee” Gadberry recalled the tense time for the Alsept family. “They got bombed at sea, and they lost a lot of men. The boat was torpedoed. There were 2,000 men on the ship, and they lost a thousand of them. We waited to hear from Doanie for weeks, then months. And we finally got a letter, which was dated two or three months after the boat was sunk. We sent that letter to the Red Cross, and they contacted him. They said Doanie had ended up with a Portuguese family, and that he had fallen in love with their daughter, a pretty girl named Maria. She fell in love with him.”
In training, Doanie wanted to be a pilot, but despite having sharp vision - “an Eagle Eye” - he was made a paratrooper because he was colorblind. Now in Portugal, the military let him stay there, where his sight and sharpshooting could be used for important purposes,” Asher noted. “He sat on a bridge there and watched for German submarines. He had a little radio with him, and when Doanie spotted one, he could contact the Allied command. As for he and Maria, there was some hints they would marry, but it never happened.”
While in Europe, Doanie would work in the motor pool and got to be recognized as a fine driver and mechanic.
“As a result, he got to drive General George Patton around once in awhile,” said Doanie's other sister, “Lee” Gadberry. “He got to know a few Major League baseball players while in the Army. And when Germany surrendered in 1945, Doanie came home to America. He was stationed in Bangor, Maine, and when Chiang Kai-shek, who was then China's leader, came to the base, Doanie drove him around the area. When he came back after the war, Doanie wasn't 21 years of age yet.”
Doanie and Jack weren't the only Alsept brothers who served their country. Later their younger brother Richard served in the Korean War, and fought in the Battle of “Pork Chop Hill.” And baby brother Herbert would also have a career in the military, enlisting in the Army and now living in California.
When World War II ended, and Doanie was honorably discharged, he moved back to Perry County, got married to Gladys Taulbee, and together they raised three sons and two daughters.
“What was my life like after the war? Farming. Up there in Grapevine, we didn't have any electricity, so we used kerosene lamps,” he recalled. Doanie then worked for Blue Diamond Coal Company in Perry County, adding, “I was a 'brakeman.' It was a dangerous job. I had to learn where those low spots were in the mine. If you didn't, you got your cap knocked off.”
After coal mining, he later moved north to Michigan, where Doanie worked for the Dana Corporation - a supplier of axles, drive shafts, and service parts - until he retired. When that happened, Doanie came to the Rousseau community, lived up Hunting Creek, and stayed in Breathitt County.
“He's worked hard his entire life, and he's an easy-going, sweet man. Everybody loves him. The nursing home staff thinks he's the greatest. I've always loved him,” said his niece, Kay Alsept Barnett of Jackson. “Anybody who'd lie about their age, and to fight for their country's got my vote.”
In a phone interview last Friday she recalled that whenever Doanie would come in from Michigan to visit Kay's father, Richard, “he was always a serious person.” But he also had a fondness for one game in particular. “He used to come in and play cards with my dad in Magoffin County (where Doanie was born). He and my dad went up there one time to a place that was a little rough, played a game of cards for a long time, and Doanie cleaned them out. He even won one of the player's shoes – He won a man's shoes right off his feet. Before they left for home, Doanie returned the guy's shoes back to him.”
Throughout his lifetime, Doanie never talked much about his service during the war, which was typical of those of that generation who fought World War II. For many of them, it was job they had to do, with no heroics. And they did it well. “Fighting a war's a bad game. Sometimes you're just lucky if you go through it. I wouldn't go back through it again. A lot of that stuff you forget about after all these years,” he said last Thursday. “I was proud to serve my country. Still am.”
One by one, the members of “The Greatest Generation” are leaving us. Many of them have passed on. Doanie's brothers – Jack and Richard – are no longer with us. Like those who served, Doanie was an everyday person, who answered the call to keep our nation and the world safe from tyranny. They were citizen heroes, and a common purpose and a sense of duty, courage, honor, love of their country and family and being responsible united them all.
Dona Alsept is one of them.