Jack Gatlin lived a normal life in rural Marshall County in the 1940s. A farmer, a business owner, and a father of 10 children, Gatlin lived a quintessential American life almost perfect for a Norman Rockwell painting.
As the owner of the Oak Level store, Gatlin had gained the admiration and respect of his neighbors when he kept his community going during the Great Depression. "Mr. Jack wouldn't turn anyone away during the Depression." But life took a dramatic change in December 1941, when news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor reached his quaint Oak Level farm. With sons at draft age, worrisome thoughts quickly set in for Jack, as he knew inevitably his sons along with hundreds of other Marshall County boys would be sent off to war.
"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory," declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his declaration of war speech to Congress. "Hitler and Hirohito must be stopped!" declared the Paducah Sun-Democrat. America, the sleeping giant, had been awakened and had joined the Allied forces in a world war against the spread of fascism.
Back in Marshall County, young men rushed to join the service while others would soon receive their draft notice. An active and respected member of the community, Jack Gatlin would soon be called on to serve on the Marshall County Draft Board and three of his sons would be sent off to active duty. John would serve in the south Pacific as a corporal in the Army where he saw action in the Philippines and New Guinea. Frank also in the Army served as a ground trooper in Europe, mostly in France and Germany, and was involved with the crossing of the Rhine River. Jack W. Gatlin was a pilot in the Army Air Corps and flew several missions over Europe. A fourth son, Robert, would later join to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but the war ended before he saw action.
"I joined to be a pilot but the war ended before I earned my wings!" Robert would often quip.
With his draft board duties, Jack Gatlin was responsible for who was called up for active duty and often time the harsh realities of war came back to Jack's doorstep. When a neighbor's son was killed in action, Gatlin undoubtedly felt the guilt for the young boy's fate and naturally worried about his own sons and the other Marshall County boys who were overseas.
The war touched every home and affected almost every aspect of life. Farm production increased as citizens were encouraged to plant victory gardens. Goods were rationed and women went to work in factories to keep the war machine in operation. Scrap collections were conducted where everyday commodities such as rubber, tin, and lumber were recycled for the war effort. Even the old Civil War cannon on the Marshall County Courthouse lawn was sacrificed for the war effort.
By 1945, after nearly four years of hellish fighting, Allied forces defeated Nazi Germany in April 1945. A few months later in August, the Japanese surrendered after the dropping of the atomic bomb. The war was finally over and 405,399 American service members laid down their lives in defense of freedom. Forty-three men from Marshall answered the call of duty but never came home.
At the end of the war, soldiers began to return home, including three of Gatlin's sons. Robert, however, had joined at the tail end of the war and was still on active duty in Germany. As home life began to return to a state of normalcy, Jack Gatlin learned he had bone cancer. Prognosis was dim and he went to Memphis for surgery, where he learned the cancer had spread to his spine, which eventually left him paralyzed. His family soon rushed to be with him and his son Robert was granted a leave just in time to see his father one last time. Jack Gatlin passed away on July 17, 1946. Following his death, several members of the Oak Level community who had a line of credit visited his wife and made good on their debts out of respect to Mr. Gatlin.
The sacrifices made by not only the soldiers overseas, but by the families at home is what made these the Greatest Generation in our nation's history.