By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
James Carson said the processing sergeant looked him up and down when he showed up at Camp Shelby for training.
“I’m only 5 foot 2, and I weighed 110 pounds at the time,” Carson said.
The sergeant noticed and said there was no way he’d be sending the young man to the front lines.
“He told me he was going to send me to radio school, and I told him I didn’t know anything about Morse code or anything like that,” Carson said.
But the sergeant told him he’d learn, and eight weeks later, the Blount County boy came out of training as a high-speed radio operator headed for World War II with the Army’s 69th Infantry Division. His ship made it to England just a few days before the Battle of the Bulge broke out, and his job was to get the equipment ready and stick close to the colonel.
“They sent us to the combat zone, and I stayed there until the end of the war,” said Carson, noting he served under General George S. Patton until he was killed in 1945. “When the war ended in 1946, I was assigned occupation duty.”
And when he came back home to Alabama, he never forgot where he’d been, or who he’d become — a man ready to fight for what he loves.
At 97, he still does his military calisthenics every day, and he often still walks around the fence of his land, which backs up to Warrior Creek Baptist Church, Holly Pond. He was the first one to get to the church when he peered through the trees and spotted it burning in August 2018, and he tried his best to put out the fire himself with a fire extinguisher.
His pastor, Darryl Ross, called him a “firecracker.” He said they call Carson “Little Jim,” but they know his influence is anything but little.
“He has a huge heart for the church,” Ross said. “For him it’s all about the church, it’s all about helping, and it’s all about love.”
It wasn’t always that way though, Carson said. Before the war, he grew up with his mother taking him and his brothers to Warrior Creek Baptist, and though the church was special to him, its faith wasn’t his own yet. When he shipped out for war, a Sunday School teacher at Warrior Creek gave him a metal-plated New Testament meant to shield his heart if he kept it in his pocket.
He’d find it would save him after all one day, but not in the way she thought.
“I went my own way for a while, but I found my way back when I met my wife, Dot,” Carson said. “She was a Christian, and I became one too. It’s been a great journey.”
And now it seems nothing will steal Carson’s joy, Ross said.
“I’ve never seen the man down. He always cheers me up. You can’t be in a bad mood around Little Jim,” he said. “Even when the church burned, he was in tears, smiling at me with a thumbs up saying, ‘We’re going to be OK.’”
Carson said the fire was tough on the church, but their faith has made them stronger, and they’re growing bigger all the time.
They’ve also been able to build back without going into extra debt — largely because of the way God prompted Carson to urge the church to invest in a larger insurance plan more than 20 years ago. They had tornadoes in mind when they did it, but God knew what was coming, he said.
Ross said he’s seen that sort of thing happen over and over — God using Carson as a tool to take care of His church. Through the years, he has served as a deacon and treasurer and in countless other roles. He makes a point to encourage the young men in the church, and some sit with him every Sunday in the service.
“That’s just Little Jim,” Ross said. “There’s nobody else in the world like him. He’s one of a kind.”
Every year, Carson signs up to help with Vacation Bible School, and not with snacks or crafts — with recreation, Ross said. “They play Wiffle ball and kickball, and he’s out there chasing balls and throwing them back.”
Stopping just doesn’t seem to be an option for Carson. When he returned from the war, he went to college, then taught agriculture and worked at Redstone Arsenal and with another company until he retired. But then his son, Michael, tempted him into another job — at 81 years old.
“Michael was working in the Alabama State Defense Force, and the sergeant major retired and left an opening in the personnel office at the airport. So Mike asked me about taking over the duties of the sergeant major,” Carson said. “I told him I was 81, and he said, ‘But you’re in good health, and it’s not a bad job.’”
That was enough for Carson. He performed that job for more than seven years, then retired again in 2010 at almost 90.
But even then, he couldn’t stop. That year, he and other veterans got together and opened the Cost of Freedom Veterans Museum in Arab. It’s open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We have a lot of stuff, some of it donated, some of it on loan,” Carson said. “We have things from the Revolutionary War through all the wars up to the present.”
That includes some of his own gear, and it also includes some from his family.
His grandfather fought in the Civil War, and he also has the telegram sent to his grandmother when one of his uncles was killed in World War I.
Carson will be glad to give anyone or any school group a tour, and Ross said Carson’s uniform still fits him perfectly.
“It’s still ironed just right,” he said.
He said Carson continues to march in full cadence when he takes up the offering at church, and much like 70 years ago, he still knows how to support the people around him.
“He sits on the first row to my right every Sunday, and when we have the fellowship time, he’s the first one up to shake my hand and thank me,” Ross said. “And I always think, ‘No, Little Jim, thank you. You fought for our country, and you fight for our church.’”