The oldest living Fordyce Redbug football player, Harold Dee "Dusty" Lansdale, celebrated his 99th birthday on Tuesday.
He is a retired master electrician who also served aboard the battleship USS Maryland in the South Pacific through some of the worst fighting of World War II.
He and his wife, Sybil, reside today on a 200-acre farm south of Fordyce where, with the help of neighbors, they still plant and tend a large purple-hull pea patch every spring. Their cottage home was filled to overflowing Tuesday with well-wishers.
"I've got a lot of greeters here today," Lansdale said of the occasion.
Speaking of his life, he said, "My Grandpa built the first house on Lansdale Hill south of Fordyce. Daddy was the fourth child and he was born there in 1900. Grandpa's house was up on the road. Uncle Bill and Uncle Lonnie built homes down the hill from Grandpa and Daddy built a three-room house back in the field. We were actually just across the Calhoun County Line but Daddy would never admit we lived in Hog Skin County. He and Momma raised three kids, my two [sisters] and me.
"By the time I started school we'd moved to town. Daddy didn't stay put too well so some days I'd go to school in the morning and when I come home in the evening they'd up and moved somewhere else. I'd sit down on the doorstep and directly here'd come Daddy to fetch me."
He explained how he got the name "Dusty."
"I worked summers and weekends as a downstairs ticket taker at the Dallas Theatre and my [African American] friend 'Dusty' Aron Perry took upstairs tickets for the [segregated] balcony. On Saturday mornings we'd change out the marquee together.
"In the fall I quit taking up tickets and went out for football. Perry would come watch us and we'd walk toward home together after practice."
"Soul," he said in his familiar way of addressing an acquaintance, "Fred Harris gave me the nickname 'Dusty' because he said 'Dusty' Perry and I hung out so much together we were starting to look alike."
Lansdale went on to tell of his military days.
"I was drafted into the Navy at age 18 on Feb. 19, 1943. I didn't pick them, they picked me."
Asked how he dealt with the rigors of basic training, he said, "One day at a time."
Following graduation from boot camp in San Diego, he received a brief furlough to Fordyce, arriving home on Mother's Day.
"When I got back to San Diego in late May, we sailed on a troopship bound for New Caledonia in the South Pacific. It was a long hot trip and I was sea sick a lot of the time. From there we went to Espiritu Santos where we boarded the USS Maryland."
The Maryland was berthed in Pearl Harbor during the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese aerial assault on the Pacific Fleet. Despite severe battle damage resulting in shipboard fires, it was salvaged, refurbished and put back into action for the Navy's war across the Pacific.
Due to his time aboard the Maryland, Lansdale won't allow a can of Spam in his house to this day.
"We had 2,000 sailors aboard a ship designed to bunk 1,100 in peacetime. We needed the extra men to handle all the munitions we were firing. We'd be gone from port six to eight weeks on each engagement. We'd have enough fresh meat for about 10 days because that's all the freezers could hold. After that it was Spam or wienies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"My duty was powder handler on one of the eight, 16-inch guns."
As a loader, Lansdale helped lob shells weighing from 1,900 to 2,600 pounds each at the enemy.
"Besides a ship full of sailors, we had 110 Marines on board as well. They guarded the high-ranking officers 24 hours a day against the possibility of a mutiny at sea. But when we were in a sea battle, they operated guns just like the rest of us."
During his stint aboard the Maryland, Lansdale was involved in eight engagements, including assaults against the islands of Tarawa and Abemama in the Gilberts and Roi Islands in the Marshalls.
They were also involved with pre-invasion shelling of Saipan.
"We took a torpedo hit to our bow there so we didn't go to the next major gathering of the fleet at Iwo Jima. I thought when we got back to Pearl Harbor we'd get a long leave while they repaired all the damage."
What he didn't know was they already had a replacement bow assembled and waiting upon their arrival.
"The shipyard cut off one bow in dry dock and welded the new one back on. We were back underway before we knew it.
"Our next big fight was Peleliu Island shelling the beach preparing for our troops to land. After that we went to Leyte in the Philippines. After we bombarded the beach all day at Leyte, there were about 90 Japanese suicide planes filling the sky so we moved our ship closer to the troop transports to provide them with air cover. I was on anchor detail when a Japanese plane dove on our ship. I ran for cover under the turret overhang. It got pretty crowded with sailors under there for a while. One suicide plane hit our ship causing us to return to Hawaii for more repairs.
"After that we were in Leyte Gulf for the largest ship to ship gun battle ever waged. The 7th Fleet with newer ships was anchored near Australia during Leyte Gulf so the old ships had to fight the whole Japanese fleet by ourselves. We completely destroyed it. At the next big engagement on Okinawa they had no fleet to defend against us.
"There were mountains on either side of the strait entering Leyte Gulf. The [Japanese] had two battleships anchored on either side of the pass to keep us out. Our officers told us it would take 30 minutes to send one of those big ships to the bottom but after we steamed past throwing everything we had at them they went off the radar screen in just five minutes.
"In Okinawa we took another kamikaze hit to the gun turret next to the one where I loaded."
Fifteen of his fellow loaders were killed.
"We shot our big guns so much it burned the rifling out of the barrels. The only port with a crane large enough to lift off 16-inch turrets was in Washington state. After docking on the West Coast, we got a 30-day furlough so they didn't have to feed us that whole time during repairs. I was just 19 when I went home from boot camp on Mother's Day 1943. I was barely 21 when I saw my family again Mother's Day 1945."
The Maryland was in port the day the war ended. Lansdale was on watch duty that night when the crew returned to ship.
"Some sailors were so drunk from celebrating we had to rig a gurney to roll them on to be hoisted aboard.
"In all, our unit suffered 121 casualties. I was lucky I didn't get a scratch but there were times I was plenty scared. After the war I used the GI Bill to train for my career as an electrician. My time in the Navy gave me a deeper love of country, respect for discipline and a special bond with other veterans."
Besides his service with the Pacific Fleet, Lansdale also spent 20 years after the war as a staff sergeant in the Arkansas Army National Guard. His reputation among fellow guardsmen as the "go-to guy" is legendary.