Gene Hicks shares a lifetime of military memoriesBy Paula Walter
It doesn’t take long once you sit down and begin to speak with Gene Hicks that you realize he is a thorough and meticulous man. Armed with notes full of dates and information, Hicks sat down and recently shared some of his memories of his career in the United States military.
Originally from Welch, West Virginia, Hicks spent much of his youth in Johnson County before he enlisted in the United States Army. He had moved to Laurel Bloomery when he was in the third grade. His grandparents moved from West Virginia to Tennessee and Hicks and his parents followed suit. He attended high school during his freshman and sophomore years before making the decision to join the Army when he was 16 years old.
In August of 1952, he went to basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. From there he was sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey to radio repair school. He eventually worked for the Army Security Agency.
He was then stationed in Fort Devins, Massachusetts working in the shipment holding area before being sent overseas during the Korean War. “I was probably one of the youngest sergeants in Korea,” he recalled.
According to Hicks, he and his new bride had 12 days together before he was shipped out. “Shortly after I got married, I packed my bags and was on my way to Korea.” He grinned as he recalled meeting his wife picking beans in a field. Hicks decided he was interested in Norma Kate Curd and managed to get her attention by throwing beans at her. She quickly turned around and chased Hicks. They have been married 61 years and had three children.
Hicks left his new bride and boarded a ship that left the west coast. Following a long 27-day trip from California to Japan and to his final destination of Korea, Hicks specialized in radio repair as a crypto technician and worked in the intelligence area his entire career. He initially began working on the maintenance end of the field and soon began operating the equipment.
Hicks and wife and growing family were sent to Hawaii in January 1957. He recalled being caught in the middle of a typhoon as they traveled to the islands with a two-year old in tow. “We kept hearing this noise during the night,” Hicks remembered. When they turned on the lights, they discovered their son’s crib had been walking and rocking across the ship as it heaved from side to side. “We had to tie diapers to the foot of the bed to secure the crib,” he added. To this day, he remembers the excitement of the Hawaiian people, as Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.
He was stationed at Arlington Hall just a few miles from Washington, DC for a short time before moving to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he interviewed recruits for the Army Security Agency. He vividly remembers being in Milwaukee when President John Kennedy was assassinated. After being promoted to warrant officer, he was stationed in Arizona, a short distance from the Mexican border. He found himself back in Korea again from February 1967 to March of 1968 working in the realm of critical intelligence communications.
On January 23, 1968, a North Korean vessel fired on the United States intelligence gathering ship, “The Pueblo.” Hicks, with a memory as clear as a bell, recalled that the North Koreans circled the ship, boarded it and escorted it into a harbor. Working in intelligence, he was keenly aware of the events surrounding the capture of 83 Americans. “It was an intelligence ship, “ Hicks recalled. “They knew their purpose was to intercept information from North Korea. As best as I can remember, only one person was wounded.”
In March of 1968, the Hicks family was on their way to Frankfurt, Germany. It was during this time that he served on the Inspector General’s team. Their job was to inspect other relay stations to make sure they were in compliance and following security procedures. “We traveled all over Europe,” Hicks said. On one trip to Berlin, he remembered guards traveling on the train as they crossed from East to West Germany. “All the shades had to be drawn,” Hicks remembered.
In July of 1971, he was sent to Vietnam until June 1972. He was sent to the country several months at a time on temporary duty. “They had a critical shortage of crypto technicians,” Hicks said.
After leaving Vietnam, Hicks was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky where he made the decision to retire after serving his country for 20 years, despite the attempts of his superiors to get him to stay. He retired September 1, 1972.
Hicks and his family moved back to Johnson County and he began building the home he currently lives in. He worked as both the city recorder and city judge for Mountain City, serving twice. He also worked for Klopman Industries, and the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency covering Carter, Unicoi, Washington and Johnson Counties. He also served on the first beer board in 1990 and was the chairman of the planning committee for the Town of Mountain City. In 1984, Hicks suffered his first heart attack but went back to work as the Mountain City recorder. It was after his fourth heart attack in 1986 that he made the decision to retire.
Gene Hicks received many medals during his military career, including the Vietnam Service medal, two Bronze Stars, the United Nations Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign medal, the Korean Presidential Citation, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with the Palm Unit Citation and the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. He also was honored with the Air Metal V for Victory, the Meritorious Service Medal, along with multiple good conduct medals.
While serving his country, Hicks visited 18 different countries and traveled to 41 of the 50 states. He believes he was the third person in Johnson County to be appointed as a warrant officer. To this day, he has vivid memories of his years and experiences serving his country that he has carried with him a lifetime.