By Stephen D. Bowling
Through the years, Breathitt County men and some women have gained reputations as a rough and tumble lot. Hundreds of stories of violence and treachery have been printed in newspapers around the world detailing the horrible deeds that have been laid at their feet (many of which they actually did).
Recently, radio personality Matt Jones discussed, on his Kentucky Sports Radio program, where in the state the toughest and meanest people lived. He stated that men from Clay and Breathitt County had rough reputations. He talked about tough people from other places in the state he had visited but returned to his main point. Jones told his large audience that he would never fight someone from Breathitt because it was more than just a reputation.
Breathitt County soldiers helped build that tough reputation. Our brave men and women have repeatedly answered the call from our nation to defend freedom and have waded into the hardest of fighting in Europe, Africa, Asia, and on hundreds of fields around the world. Many came home different than when they left, but each brought home hearts of service.
In 1958, The Lexington Herald sent local reporter Nevyle Shackelford to the Jackson Armory near the Depot to investigate a story about the soft hearts of those tough Breathtit County soldiers. What he found was the story of “Operation Christmas.”
Over the years, the member of the local Kentucky National Guard unit, regardless of their distinction, annually organized a toy and clothing drive to benefit the underserved and then they orchestrated a visit from the man in red to hand them out.
In 1958, the Guardsmen of the 242nd Field Artillery Battalion were preparing to hand out gifts to more than 400 children from Breathitt County at a large party at the Robinson Experiment Station Auditorium at Quicksand. A meal of turkey and the traditional accessories was planned, and lots of fruit and candy were on hand for all to enjoy.
“Captain Bill Dalton told the reporter that he and the men wanted to ensure that no child had a “cheerless” Christmas. He thanked all of the “community people, churches, and business firms” who had worked together to make the celebration happen. He also noted that many of the gas stations in Jackson had each volunteered a single day’s sales to the efforts. The operation was also aided by members of the Lexington and Louisville Guard Units.
Captain Dalton noted that the names of needy children and families were gathered by local teachers and welfare workers. Toys and clothing were sorted and wrapped in preparation for the big celebration at Quicksand. Dalton said that each year the men said “we intend to have a bigger operation” and that the men were planning to provide for up to 1,000 community children.
The men of the Jackson Kentucky National Guard unit did this year after year- not because they had to or because it was part of their duty, but because they cared. These strong and brave warriors fought Nazis, tornados, Communists, floods, and hundreds of other challenges, but they never forgot those who were less fortunate.
Over the years, the men of the Jackson Guard Units conducted Operation Christmas, Operation Santa Claus, and several other efforts to serve their neighbors. The strong and courageous hearts of our servicemen and women proved that behind the strength of our bravest soldiers is a heart of compassion that is often moved by need.
Maybe you were one of the children who benefited from the efforts of the Guardsmen. Maybe Operation Christmas is a pleasant memory for you. Possibly you remember their kindness. Thank you to the men and women of our community who step up when Mom and Dad and Santa need a little help. True strength is found in the ability to care. Sadly, the needs the men found in 1958 have not gone away. There is more work that needs to be done in our community.
Merry Christmas to each of you!!!
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling