(WHNT) — Huntsville’s Earl Cammack Ricks isn’t just one of the last World War II veterans in Alabama, he may be one of the few veterans to share a birthday with one of the war’s most significant events: the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Ricks grew up in Tuscumbia and fondly remembers the day that brought the United States into the Second World War.
“When I was 17, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On my birthday, I was at a movie when I heard about it,” he said. “Then one year later I was invited to join the armed forces.”
Ricks served in the Navy for almost four years as a machine gunner, but his journey to service in places like Hawaii and Guam involved quite a bit of moving around.
“They put me on a bus and sent me to Birmingham and swore me in down there, then they put me on a train north to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and that was a new experience for me. After I finished my boot camp, I went up to the Navy Pier in Chicago,” Ricks recalled. “Then from there, we went down to training in Memphis, Tennessee and after I finished that, I think was radar school, then went on down to gunner school in Yellow Water, Florida. When I finished there they sent me to Seattle, Washington to join a squadron of torpedo bombers, so I was assigned as aircrew on a torpedo bomber.”
Ricks applied for flight school and passed while in Seattle. He was then sent to Astoria, Oregon for more training but a fire destroyed a hanger of new airplanes and he was sent to Sacramento, California for a time before ending up assigned to work at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.
His older brother, Dick, also served and was stationed in Honolulu, even carrying a young Ricks’ gear for him on one occasion.
“My older brother, Dick, came over and he asked somebody where I was. They said, ‘Well that’s him standing over there’, I weighed 142 pounds and was six feet one inch tall and my brother said ‘That can’t be him’,” Ricks remembered with a laugh. “But he came over and found out it was.”
Ricks said they only got to visit with each other that first day for about 15 minutes before Ricks was told to grab his gear because he would be going out to the Naval Air Station.
“My brother couldn’t go, but I had my seabag which weighed about 90 pounds I guess, maybe more. It had everything I owned in it. I got ready to go, we had to pick those things up, throw them on our shoulders, walk over to the end of the pier and go drop them off. Dick said, ‘Let me help you with that’ and he was big he was six foot six and weighed about 280 pounds. He just picked that thing up with one hand, put it up over his shoulder. All the other fella’s eyes bugged out,” another laugh from Ricks.
During his service, Ricks also had his share of mess-ups, including one time when he almost accidentally caught the TBD Avenger he was flying in on fire.
“We were on a training mission, for some reason our tunnel gunner wasn’t able to be there, we were flying there was a tow sleeve being towed behind us and another plane. I was down here in the tunnel gun with a 30 caliber machine gun. As it came by the sight was a ring sight and it was loose. It started vibrating and rotating around,” Ricks remembered.
“I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t use the sight. I had tracers in it and I saw the tow sleeve come by and so I fired a few shots to see if the tracers were going. When I did I cut loose, in a burst you could fire 40 or 60 [bullets] in a burst and so that’s what I did. I fired about three or four bursts, emptied the magazine, and the barrel got so hot the canvas around it caught fire. Started burning, smoking, and the pilot got all upset,” Ricks remembered.
Once the war ended and he was released from his military service, Ricks first went to Natchitoches, Louisiana before studying engineering at both Florence State College and the University of Tennessee.
Following his studies, Ricks settled in Huntsville and began working at Redstone Arsenal.
During his time at the Arsenal, Ricks drive the Redstone Rocket trailer around North Alabama from Tuscumbia to Huntsville and eventually, all the way to Washington, D.C. He also helped design the Saturn 1 booster, a transporter designed to move the booster from by barge from Redstone to Cape Canaveral.
Ricks laughed when he described the road test he took with a Redstone Rocket. “My family thought I ran the Arsenal. So, I thought I would take it by there and show them what I was doing. So, off we went through Decatur, Wheeler, Leighton, and my brother worked at the Firestone store so I pulled in down there with that long trailer and missile. They swarmed just immediately. I drove by my house so my mother could see it, cause she couldn’t get out.”
You can listen to our full conversation with Ricks in the video below:
Ricks told News 19 that he plans to celebrate his 97th birthday surrounded by his family, including his three sons, with lots of cake, ice cream, and hot dogs.
News 19 thanks Earl Cammack Ricks for his service, and wishes him a very happy birthday.