Herbert Jeffers was born in Georgia, but says he has always thought of Fort Jackson as his home.
Two years ago, the 86-year-old veteran decided it was time to return to Fort Jackson, which served as home for three tours during his 26-year Army career. He and his wife, Vonceil, moved into post housing as a means of simplifying their lives, though it’s a much different place than it was when last they lived here.
Jeffers joined the Army during the close of World War II, a distinguished moment in his life that saw him assigned as a driver for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s wife, Jean, in Japan. Despite the hardships endured by everyone involved on both sides of the war, he said it was an otherwise pleasant experience. The city where Jeffers was stationed had avoided much of the destruction visible elsewhere in the country, and he said he remembers liking Jean MacArthur and the Japanese people.
His military service in World War II was less a career decision than a moral obligation, he said. It wasn’t until he re-enlisted a few years later that he considers his military career to have truly begun.
Never miss a local story.
The decision to re-enlist also brought him to Fort Jackson for the first time. He was assigned for a brief time to Tank Hill in 1948, but a change in national priorities forced a change in his circumstance.
“They started closing Fort Jackson down,” he said. “By the end of 1949, it was closed down and I was shipped to Fort McPherson, (Georgia). Then, in 1950 the Korean War broke out, so I was shipped back to Fort Jackson to process the new draftees that were coming in.”
Jeffers would see two more wars before returning to Fort Jackson. He left the post in 1954 for a tour in Korea, and was sent to Vietnam a decade later. In 1966, he returned to Fort Jackson, where he was assigned to the administrative school where he taught new Soldiers to be clerks.
“I made all of my promotions at Fort Jackson,” he said. “I consider it my home. My wife and I both love this area, so we just stayed here.”
Naturally, life at Fort Jackson during his early tours was much different than it is today.
“I tell people we used to live in the Walmart parking lot,” he said. “That area was all part of Fort Jackson before they built the interstate. They cut it off and sold the property, and contractors built it into what you see nowadays.”
His home was heated with a coal-burning furnace. There was a method of “banking” the coals so they burned slowly throughout the night. Many Soldiers and their families woke in the morning to find the remains of the coals still glowing hot. Jeffers said he was rarely so lucky.
“You were supposed to be able to keep it lit so the home stayed warm throughout the night,” he said. “I never did master that.”
Air conditioning was easier to manage, mostly because there wasn’t any.
“The only thing we had for cooling was a big window fan upstairs,” he said. This became a serious problem in 1952, he said, when a major heat wave hit South Carolina. That year, counties across the state reached temperatures that remain among the hottest recorded by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Temperatures inched close to 110 degrees in some counties.
“Imagine us in a wooden building with just a window fan, trying to stay cool,” Jeffers said.
Some of the younger soldiers had it even rougher, he said. During one of his tours on post, there were two Infantry divisions assigned to Fort Jackson.
“You can picture how crowded that was,” he said. “They put one division in tents. They laid down concrete floors over by post headquarters where they’ve got those brand new barracks where trainees live.”
Jeffers retired from the Army as a sergeant major in 1973. A desire to return to Columbia was behind the decision.
“I was going to stay active duty for 30 years,” he said. “I was stationed in Hawaii and wanted to come back to Fort Jackson, but they sent me to Fort Bragg, (North Carolina). I said, ‘I’m not moving my family anymore.’ It turned out to be a good move for me.”
Two years ago, Jeffers and his wife decided to sell their home and move back to Fort Jackson housing as a way to reduce day-to-day responsibilities.
“We decided we wanted to downsize, sell our house and move to post,” he said. “I like the convenience. We don’t have to worry about maintenance and repairs, and everyone’s nice. We’re close to the facilities on post and use all of them. We just love it. I tell people, ‘I’m making one more move, and that’s it.’”