An Army of brothers: N.C. couple sent eight sons to service
ASHEBORO, N.C. — An Oscar-nominated movie from 1954 had a catchy title: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
A film based on the history of a family from southeastern Randolph County could carry a compelling title, too: “Eight Sons for Uncle Sam.”
George Kelly and Rachel Ellen Hayes Needham were married on March 8, 1914, just three months before the First World War commenced. They made their lives on a farm in the Antioch community. Besides raising tobacco, corn and wheat, George was also a carpenter and blacksmith.
The couple also raised a big family — eight sons and five daughters.
By the time World War II rolled round, four of those boys were old enough for military service, and every one of them was drafted into the U.S. Army. As the years passed, the other four boys came of age and each of them was drafted, too.
All of them served overseas: Brewster, Luther, Kelly and Edsel across Europe during World War II; Hansel in Korea; and Amos, Joe and Monroe in Germany.
Even three of the men who married Needham girls served overseas, two during World War II and one in Korea: Floyd Caviness, who married Mary; Clyde Asbill, who married Vera; and Edgar Owens, who married Rosie. The other two Needham girls were Moleta (Staley), the oldest child, and Emma (Ritter), the fourth oldest.
Three of the Needham brothers — Hansel, Amos and Joe — are still living.
They, in concert with their cousin, Boyd Hayes, said they’ve never heard of eight boys being drafted into military service from a single family.
Asked how their parents survived the Second World War with four sons in the fray thousands of miles away, Amos, who is 81 — the 10th-oldest Needham child and the sixth-oldest boy — offered a simple explanation: “They done a lot of praying.”
He added that his father frequently employed a pithy saying about his offspring and the Army: “My daddy always said, ‘If your name is Needham, they need ’em.’ ”
The Antioch community is in one of the most rural parts of a rural county today. In the 1940s and ’50s, it was even more isolated — and the Needhams lived off the “main” road, down an unpaved private track.
They picked up their mail at a country store a mile away. And they had to check for mail every day since there might be a letter from one of the boys off at war.
The military censors were scissors-happy when inspecting letters sent home. Soldiers were forbidden from writing about where they were or what they were doing. But sometimes they did anyway. Families would receive letters with words and sentences snipped out by the censors.
Bennie said his father, Brewster, sometimes tried to bypass the censors.
“I can’t tell you where we are, but I can tell you what we’re eating,” he would write. “Bologna for breakfast, bologna for dinner, bologna for supper.”
George, the patriarch of the clan, claimed that was code, Bennie said, that Brewster was telling his family that he was in Bologna, Italy.
Brewster would ask if anyone had seen Florence lately, though there was no Florence among family or friends. And that, George surmised, was a reference to Florence, Italy.
The other way to get news: The battery-powered radio in the den of the Needham household. George Needham was sure to be planted in front of that radio every evening when commentator Gabriel Heatter delivered the news.
Brewster, who died in 1990 at the age of 71, was the second-oldest Needham brother but the first one Uncle Sam put in a uniform. He was among the first group of men drafted from Randolph County, in 1940, before the United States joined the fighting, according to his son Bennie.
The oldest boy, Luther, who died in 1989, was turned down for service on his first inspection because he had flat feet. Later, the Army took him. In fact, Luther and Kelly, the third-oldest boy, joined the same day.
Amos said the need for soldiers trumped physicals: “If you could walk, talk, you was all right.”
Luther served as a forward observer with the signal corps; Kelly, who died in 1990, was in a field artillery unit — he hauled ammo; Edsel, who died in 2007, was a combat engineer.
Brewster was a combat engineer, too. He met a buddy, George Winzeler, in welding school with the Army. The men served together throughout the war, in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Tunisia and Austria, including 31 months under fire on the front lines, Bennie said.
“If a tank or a bulldozer broke down, they had to go fix it, no matter where it was,” Bennie said, adding that they had “papers” giving them permission to travel anywhere to secure parts they needed to make repairs.
“He said they could cut down the Eiffel Tower if they needed it,” Bennie said.
Once, Brewster was summoned to Italy to a rock-crushing machine that had broken down somewhere in the Alps. The machine was essential to Allies to make gravel to put on roads to make them passable.
His assessment was that the broken machine parts could not be welded because they were cast iron. But he said he could fix it and spent two days and nights welding bands around the broken pieces to get the crusher working again.
“He said he felt like he welded a band around the world twice while he was in the Army,” Bennie said.
Brewster earned both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his service.
When Edsel arrived overseas, Brewster finagled a transfer for his younger brother to his company. When Brewster got home after serving 47 months and 14 days in the Army, he did not recognize his two youngest brothers, Joe and Monroe. They had grown so much he mistook them for Hansel and Amos, who were next up on the Needham boys’ pecking order.
Hansel, who is 83, married after he was drafted but before he was sent overseas. He was trained as a medic before he went to Korea in 1951 and served on a train that took wounded American GIs to a hospital and then caring for North Koreans in a prisoner-of-war camp.
“That was quite a switch,” he said, “being on a hospital train carrying the wounded back and then having to go care for people that were your enemies.”
He said he simply did his job.
“Just human nature,” he said. “You’re going to do whatever you can for anybody that was hurt or sick.”
Amos went to Germany in 1954, Joe in 1956.
Before he served in Europe, Amos helped guard the gold vault at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was a military policeman in Mannheim, Germany, in the early years of what is known as the Cold War, when tensions were high between the West and the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union.
“My secondary duty,” Amos said, “if war broke out with Russia, was to escort civilians to France.”
Joe, who is 77, had the same mission. An infantryman, he lived in the woods near Neuulum, Germany, for much of his stint in the country. He was accustomed to living without electricity: The Needham home did not get power until 1951. But the cold was tough, sometimes dipping to 20 below zero.
“All my training was to fight Russia really,” he said.
Monroe served in an armored division with the Seventh Army in Germany. He was just 60 when he died in 1999.
George and Rachel Needham supplied more than their fair share of sons to the nation’s military — and those sons did their duty when called upon.
Still, according to Joe, Brewster may have summed up the situation best.
“He said he wouldn’t give a million dollars for all the experience he had in the service — and he wouldn’t give a nickel to do it all again.”