When Charles Goodgame returned to Chattanooga from serving overseas in November 1945, he hadn't seen his friend Wesley Epperson -- or many of the other 280 men from the First Army's 752nd Engineer Parts Company -- since their boots hit sand on Omaha Beach days after the invasion of Normandy.
The men of the 752nd reunited decades later, but since then, time has taken its toll. Only a handful are still alive.
Memories of 1945 were renewed when Goodgame, now 90, received the Legion of Honor last month from the Consul General of France in Atlanta for helping to liberate France. It's that country's highest honor.
"I told them, I accept this medal on behalf of the 752nd Engineering Company Detachment A. Because I don't deserve this any more than any of those men," Goodgame said last week in an interview.
Goodgame's sight and hearing aren't what they once were, but the memories are still sharp. Sitting in his den, he and Epperson recounted the war years and the time since.
As soon as they arrived in Europe, their company was separated into detachments and scattered across the region. Goodgame was placed in Detachment A, which distributed spare engineering parts to the front. Epperson, a lifelong mechanic from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., was placed in the motor section. He eventually volunteered to join the infantry.
Each man had his own experience of World War II and returned home when the fighting was done.
For Epperson, that was 31 months later.
He remembers passing the Statue of Liberty in the ship that brought him back to American soil.
"As we came into the Hudson Bay, we saw some kids playing ball. That's when the tears started coming. We hadn't seen that in nearly three years. At that time, it was all right for a grown man to shed tears," Epperson said.
Goodgame came home months after and set about raising a family. For years, the war -- and their friendships -- were behind them.
But three decades later, the 752nd's members first reunited in Dyersburg, Tenn.
"It had been more than 30 years. Oh, there was a feeling you just can't describe. Seeing all those guys again. ... The next year was 1975 and we had 175 there. That's men and their wives," Goodgame said Thursday. "We have a very close outfit."
Epperson said the first reunion was a great surprise for everyone.
"They weren't expecting such a crowd. People came from all over, as far as California and other places. That was a great feeling seeing those guys again," Epperson said.
Since that first reunion, Goodgame and Epperson have stayed friends.
"We met for years for Bible study at Wally's restaurant in East Ridge, then [Goodgame's] vision started to go, so it got harder to drive," Epperson said.
Reunions continued for years, but attendance slowly shrank. The last one was in 2011. Now, almost 68 years after their homecoming, they know of only eight surviving members of the company -- some of them unable to travel. The closest thing the two men have to a reunion is meeting in Goodgame's den to chat.
"We enjoyed those reunions. We took a lot of pictures and those are real treasures. ... There are not many of us left," Goodgame said.
Despite being from the same area, the two men did not meet until they entered the service together in February 1943. That was true for many in the 752nd, Goodgame said.
The engineering unit was "kind of the Tennessee outfit," Goodgame said. There were members from Memphis, Johnson City, Kingsport, Chattanooga and other areas.
They went on to basic training at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, then to special training in Columbus, Ohio.
By July, the company was in England. They prepared for 11 months to head to Omaha Beach at Normandy, France. In that time, they had to learn everything they could about all the spare engineering parts the Army needed.
Their job wasn't the most dangerous, but it was important, Goodgame said.
"Some of the fellas up in the front lines being shot at were [privates first class], and I was a sergeant and [Epperson] was a corporal," he said. "But that's how important getting spare engineering parts to units was."
Jim Wade, director of the Medal of Honor museum in Chattanooga, said people from the same area often enlist in the armed forces together, but they are not always assigned to the same units.
"You try to sign up together and get assigned to the same unit. It doesn't always work out that way," Wade said. "In World War II, they tried to do that, [but] it wasn't always possible. In Vietnam, they tried to do that, it wasn't always."
Goodgame said he's just thankful to have made it back.
"There were times where I was a little bit afraid," he said, "but I'd just say 'Lord, I'm in your control.'"
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6481.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...