By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneJuly 23, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (July 23, 2014) -- Jim Joyner still carries with him a sense of loss, even after 71 years.
Though his years have been filled with military service, family and the growth of his hometown of Madison, the now 84-year-old war veteran's life has been quietly overshadowed by the events of the summer of 1943. It was a time when the nation was joined together in one patriotic cause as its service members fought the Axis powers on two fronts in World War II. It was a time when his family was shattered with the heartbreak over the loss of two sons to that war.
Those days are long gone, but Joyner doesn't want his family's loss to be forgotten. An Alabama Gold Star car tag -- which designates Joyner as a family member of a fallen service member -- now dons the back of his mini-van as a symbol of that time back in July 1943 when his half-brothers made the ultimate sacrifice.
"I was 13 years old when they got killed and I remember like it was yesterday," Joyner said. "I wanted to honor my brothers."
Joyner's half-brothers -- Pfc. Rufus Joyner and Pfc. Wilbert Sheffield -- died the same week fighting in two different theaters of WWII.
"My parents had both been married before. My father's wife died and left my father with four children. My mother was divorced with one child. I was the child that belonged to both of them," Joyner said.
Joyner grew up poor on a farm in Butler County.
"I was too young to remember much of anything," he said. "Back on the farm, you don't know anything but the farm. My brothers didn't live with us when I was growing up because they had already pretty much grown up when I was born. But we were one big family. It was mine, yours and ours."
But he does remember July 9, 1943, when his half-brother Rufus Joyner, born in 1919, was killed in the Solomon Islands Campaign in the Pacific.
He also remembers July 11, 1943, when his half-brother Wilbert Sheffield, born in 1921, was killed during the invasion of Sicily.
"A telegram came to the Red Cross about my brother Rufus. The Red Cross delivered it to us," Joyner said. "Then the second telegram came to the Red Cross. The boy who delivered the first telegram also got the second telegram. He refused to bring it to us.
"I remember dad wouldn't accept the telegrams because the word to us was that nobody gets killed in war. I never was the same after that."
Wilbert Sheffield, who served with the 82nd Airborne, was killed when 23 U.S. aircraft were shot down over Sicily. In 1949, his remains along with the remains of 21 other members of the 82nd killed that day were buried in the National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
"We couldn't go to the funeral. Mother was in the hospital with an appendectomy. It was 1949 and there was very little transportation and there was no money. We were raised on a farm with no money," Joyner said.
Helen Joyner remembers the struggles the family faced in those years.
"He lost those two in 1943, then he lost a sister in 1944 in childbirth and a brother in 1950 in a plane crash. The family lost too many altogether. It was very devastating," she said.
In 1951, Joyner was drafted.
"We had filled out the paperwork and got it deferred because of my brothers," he said. "But that deferment expired and we didn't renew it and I got drafted.
"Regulation said that I should never go to combat. But things were different back then and we didn't really know. I was the only one in my family to finish high school. We didn't have a telephone. Our first electricity came in 1949. There were no TVs, no radios and we couldn't afford a newspaper. So, we couldn't get information."
Joyner married in 1951, right after he was drafted and right before he shipped out for basic training. He met his wife Helen while the two were living and working in Fayette, where Joyner was building bridges for the state highway department and Helen, who was raised there, was living on her own and working at a local cotton mill. They met at a local restaurant that was a popular hangout for young people.
"I knew of him. I had seen him before but I had not met him," Helen Joyner said. "We started talking and got acquainted. From that night on until we got married we saw each other every night."
Joyner's draft notice went to his home back in Butler County, and it took two weeks to get to him. That left him only nine days before he was to report for duty.
"So we just took off and got married," Joyner said. "Nobody knew it."
Joyner came home between the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and the couple told their families of their marriage.
Military service took Joyner to the war in Korea, where he served as an Army combat engineer for 18 months. He was in Germany in 1958 during the Berlin Wall Crisis, and then returned to Korea in 1962. He served a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969, receiving one air medal and three Bronze Stars for his service.
"I went to hell twice," Joyner said of his war service in Korea and Vietnam.
"My family never went out of state. All four trips they ever made were hardship trips. I'm glad I had to go and they didn't because it was tough."
During his 21-year military career, Helen Joyner and their two children lived primarily in Kentucky near Fort Campbell. When Joyner returned from Vietnam, he was assigned to Redstone Arsenal as its first sergeant whose second military occupational specialty was personnel and public information. His family moved to Madison.
"It was 1970 and the Space & Rocket Center had just opened and Research Park was really small," Helen Joyner said.
"When we moved here we were out in the county. There were only 3,000 people here. Now, the city has surrounded us (at their home on Old Madison Pike in Madison)."
Joyner appreciates the challenges his military service presented to his family.
"The problem with the military is that the family is the one with combat time because they have to take care of everything on their own while their Soldier is away," he said. "Helen was always responsible for everything -- the house, the auto, the children -- everything."
After his retirement in 1972, the family remained in Madison. Joyner went on to work and then retire from the local Pepsi Cola bottling company. He then worked at the Huntsville Depot and then at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, where he was the bus tour guide for two years.
Their children have both enjoyed careers at Redstone Arsenal, with their daughter, Barbara Jenkins of Madison, retired from a Small Business Administration job at Marshall Space Flight Center; and their son, Michael Joyner of Limestone County, working as a contractor in security at the Arsenal. They have five grandchildren, one an F-22 mechanic in the Air Force stationed in Alaska.
The Joyner couple spend their days tending their garden, swimming in their indoor pool and square dancing with a club in Decatur.
"We are the oldest square dancers in North Alabama still dancing," Joyner said.
"We're the oldest that we know of, at least," Helen Joyner added. "Everyone else older than us is either sick or they passed away. All the people we started dancing with are not dancing anymore. We dance with the young people now."
Their secret to a happy 63-year marriage? "Know where each other is going and always be truthful, and I think both of you should do an equal amount of work," Joyner said.
The couple have also enjoyed the amount of recognition World War II and its service members have received in recent years. On May 31, 2004, Butler County honored Joyner's brothers during a World War II memorial dedication in Greenville. The couple attended the ceremony.
"We are the first and only two-star family in Butler County," Joyner said.
The Joyners were on post one day when they picked up a Redstone Rocket that included a story on the state's Gold Star license tag program, which, since 2010, has allowed families of fallen service members to obtain a Gold Star insignia tag for their vehicles.
Except, obtaining the tag wasn't that easy for Joyner.
The state requires documentation -- a DD Form 2064, Overseas Death Certificate or prior era Department of Defense Death Certificate; or a D Form 1300, Report of Casualty -- to obtain the Gold Star license tag. In the event that the registrant is not identified as the next of kin on one of the aforementioned documents, the registrant must submit a notarized affidavit from the Alabama Gold Star Family organization certifying the registant's relationship to the deceased service member. The applicant may email email@example.com to request an affidavit.
"The papers and records required to get the tag were not available. There were no records from 1943. There were no records of their births. And Rufus had a different mother from me and Wilbert had a different father from me and a different last name. But we were able to find a record that showed we did share a parent," Joyner said.
Joyner reached out to Army Community Service's Survivor Outreach Services for assistance in obtaining the federal documents needed to apply for the Gold Star tag. Kerrie Branson of SOS filled out the paperwork required by the Army's Human Resources Command to obtain a Report of Casualty. She also contacted the state of Alabama Gold Star Family organization to verify Joyner's relationship with his two half-brothers so that an affidavit could be completed.
The Joyners are now members of Redstone Arsenal's SOS Gold Star family database, which includes them as invitees to all Gold Star-related activities and allows them access to support services provided through SOS. They attended this year's wreath laying ceremony at Maple Hill Cemetery on Memorial Day for the first time as Gold Star family members sitting in the Gold Star section with other family members of fallen service members.
With the assistance of the Arsenal's SOS office, Joyner has now purchased the Gold Star car tag in honor of his half-brothers. It is that car tag -- and an old newspaper clipping with the headline "War Claims Two Members of Same Family" -- that serve to bring back memories of two brothers killed at war in the same week those 71 years ago.