There was an old saddle that once hung in the barn at Bill Love’s grandparents’ farm in Kilmichael. He hadn’t thought about it in years, until his cousin brought him the metal stirrups that had long since been separated from it.
“My cousins lived in that area, and they all learned to ride on that saddle,” the Fulton resident recalled about his family’s frequent visits to Montgomery County. “The metal stirrups were too narrow, so they replaced them with wooden ones so they could ride.”
The exchange between the two stirred many childhood remembrances. For Love, it also stirred his curiosity.
Whatever happened to that old saddle, and what was the story behind it?
Love recalled hearing through the years that his father had brought it home from World War II, but he knew little of how he acquired it and little about his father’s years of service.
His father rarely spoke of it.
“He never talked much about himself or the things he had done,” Love said. “He was just a really private kind of person when it came to that.”
So, Love began a journey to piece together his father’s years in the military and hoped against the odds that he would find the old saddle.
Love’s parents, John William “Jay” Love and Rubye Prestage, married in 1958. They made their home in Fulton and raised three children.
After his grandparents passed away, Bill Love’s father brought the saddle from Kilmichael back to his home. That was the last the family knew of the saddle.
Jay Love worked for 32 years as a motor vehicle controller for the State of Mississippi. After retiring, he worked another 20 years as bailiff for Judge Thomas Gardner III.
Through the years, there were few conversations of the time his father spent overseas.
When Love was in high school, he stumbled upon his father’s Bronze Star amid other medals, tucked away in his sock drawer. He never asked his father about them.
Love recalled the time the two were watching the movie “Patton,” and he commented to his father that he couldn’t believe the General was “that mean.”
His father simply replied, “The movie made him look nice.”
Jay Love died on May 20, 2012. He was 94 years old. He left behind only bits of scattered evidence about his time overseas, a period of his life he’d apparently chosen to bury along with himself.
Now 99 years old, Bill Love’s mother, Rubye Love, shared with her son as much as she could remember about her husband’s military service. She recalled for many years her husband received a Christmas card from one of the soldiers in his tank crew. The two were the only survivors when the tank was hit.
“We knew, at one point, my father was a tank commander,” Love said. “There was also one battle, we believe, that my father was the only survivor.”
Then there was the saddle.
From time to time, Love and his mother would discuss the saddle, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that she remembered who possibly had it.
“I believe he may have given the saddle to Judge Gardner,” she told her son.
Love had never met the judge, but told his mother, if he ever ran into him, he was going to ask him about it. As if divine providence pointed the way, he and Gardner both attended the same event just days after his mother remembered his name.
He introduced himself to Gardner as Jay Love’s son, and to his surprise, his mother was right. The judge had the saddle.
“Jay brought me the saddle and told me a few details about when he took it,” Gardner said. “When the German soldier, who was on horseback went down, presumably Jay meant killed in the battle, he took his gun and his saddle.”
Jay Love knew Gardner was an avid horseman and ardent historian when it came to WWII. So, some 30 odd years ago, the longtime bailiff, passed the saddle along to the judge.
Believed to have been taken during The Battle of Bulge, Love brought the saddle back to the U.S. in a toe sack when the war was over. On the cantle, etched into the the dark leather, is a Nazi swastika.
“When Bill told me if I ever wanted to get rid of it to let him know. I knew at that exact moment what I was going to do with it,” Gardner said.
He returned the saddle to Jay Love’s family. Love’s legacy left untold was now being pieced together.
Bill Love found an old box of photos in his mother’s home. Inside, there were pictures of his father posing in his tank for a moment, no doubt in the midst of a break in bloody battles. His is a young, innocent face that war would forever change.
Along with the saddle, the medals Love once ran across, tucked away in his father’s dresser drawer, yielded battle stories of their own. With the help of his friend Brent Coleman, he identified every medal his father had received during WWII. Among them were the American Defense Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the WWII Victory Medal, the Army of Occupation Medal, the Medal for Humane Action, the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), and the Bronze Star.
Jay Love was also awarded the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal that recognizes the service of U.S. Armed Forces personnel who performed military duty in the European Theater. For service members who participated in one or more designated military campaigns, campaign stars are authorized to be worn on the medal. Jay Love had five campaign stars.
Of the two Purple Hearts Jay earned, Bill will never know which one left the shrapnel in his father’s back. When the two traveled together, it set off airport metal detectors.
“My father wasn’t drafted into the war, he signed up after Pearl Harbor,” Love said. “Although he didn’t speak much of it, his service speaks for itself.”
Of the few words that Jay Love spoke of his time in battle, none were likely as heartfelt as those he told his children.
“I hope you never have to live through something like that,” he told them, and little else.