When Jimmy King arrived aboard a troop train at Camp Wheeler outside of Macon, Georgia, it was hot, real hot! Jimmy had grown up in the snowy lands of Minnesota and had never been in the deep South for that long in his life. Jimmy was in the Army then. Before the sun came up, he was up. After the sun went down, it was time to get some rest for the next arduous day of training. Only the few trips into town or over to nearby Lakeside Park for a refreshing swim broke the monotony and adversity of basic training.
When he was still a growing young boy, Jimmy found it difficult to sit inside a classroom all day. Finding school too confining, Jimmy wanted nothing more than to walk home through the great outdoors after school. It was his father who taught Jimmy how to shoot, hunt, and fish. It was his mother who instilled in Jimmy and his brother Pete the love of reading. Jimmy became fascinated by stories of sailing. His mother often took Jimmy and his brother on long hikes around the lakes near his home, wanting her sons to become more involved in social activities. Jimmy once said, "All I wanted to do was to escape society and stay in the woods." One thing Jimmy loved to do was to sit inside his grandmother's home for hours and listen to opera records by Enrico Caruso and other singers..
Jimmy's father rented a cabin on Ox Island for ten years. Up until the time Jimmy starting working in the summers, he spent weeks every summer on Ox Island, hunting, camping, and fishing. During the winters, Jimmy loved to skate and to ski. He and his father built an ice boat. When the wind was right, Jimmy's boat would top nearly 40 miles per hour on the frozen lakes.
A poor student in school, Jimmy joined the junior high glee club. At least Jimmy loved to sing. He tried his hand at football, but hated the discipline it required. Jimmy just wanted to be free. Jimmy's parents found out that he was often skipping school, so they transferred him to a new high school. Although he continued to miss classes, Jimmy continued to excel at singing. He even joined the prestigious Hennepin Ave. Methodist Church choir.
It was about that time when the allure of the freight train almost seduced Jimmy away from his love of singing. Jimmy and friends often hopped on a freight train to ride to nearby towns and then to far away cities. But, Jimmy always made sure he was back home just in time for two choir performances every Sunday.
In the summer of his junior year in high school, Jimmy worked for the first half of his vacation, and then, upon the promise of his father who matched his wages, Jimmy set off on a journey working on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. When he returned for his senior year, Jimmy continued to struggle but eventually graduated in the summer of 1942. Then it was off to a logging camp in Idaho, where the young man earned $90.00 a week.
The country was at war. Jimmy wanted to be a naval pilot, but he exceeded the height limit. His eyes were bad too. Bowing to pressure from his mother, Jimmy entered Beloit College. But, when Jimmy loved to party more than he needed to study, he left college dreaming of going into the Merchant Marines or even better, the Ski troops, who were being trained for mountain warfare in Europe. When he thought he was going just to do that, the troop train detoured to Macon, Georgia.
Jimmy enjoyed boot camp at Camp Wheeler. The 20-mile hikes were nothing to Jimmy, not even in the hot Georgia sun. "I hardly broke a sweat," he recalled. He met new buddies, coal miners from Pennsylvania, mountain men from the hills and accountants from large cities. Jimmy, for a change, was a part of a group and loved the regimentation and drills of the Army.
Jimmy's ship arrived in Casablanca, North Africa. Jimmy had seen the movie Casablanca back at Camp Wheeler. He kept looking around for Bogart-like characters, but never saw one. In the days after Christmas 1943, Jimmy and his buddies were waiting for an amphibious landing in Italy. Then the day came. "We heard our craft's engines revving up, then we moved out toward our assigned beaches. As we waited for incoming fire, I tried to concentrate on images of home. So much that was unknown and frightening lay ahead, while behind me lay everything I knew and everyone I loved. I kept the pictures in my mind for as long as I could," Jimmy later recalled. Because of his enormous height, Jimmy was the first off the landing craft to test the depth of the water.
After a relatively easy landing, the American forces were outnumbered four to one. One evening Jimmy and his unit were creeping through a vineyard. Jimmy found himself right in front of a German machine gun nest. All of sudden. there was fire whizzing by and then an explosion. Jimmy's lower right leg was shattered. He leaped over the grape vines and laid on the ground for hours, nearly going into shock. After being field treated by a medic, Jimmy was sent to a hospital to recuperate. A while later, Jimmy, with a purple heart pinned to his uniform, was reunited with his brother Pete, who was a crewman on a B-25. Jimmy never quite recovered from his wounds. Later in life he would do all of his long walking early in the morning before his leg became too sore. Jimmy received a disability pension of $56.00 a month. The pension, which rose to $500.00, lasted for more than 55 years.
After the war, Jimmy's mother again began to push him to return to college. Jimmy relented and began to take courses in radio announcing. He tried it for a while and was later convinced to join a movie production company. There he met Marion. Jim and Marion became best friends. Marion hired Jim to work under him on various projects.
Another company began to pester Jimmy about leaving Marion's company for a new job. They promised him a bigger salary and more opportunities. Jimmy had misgivings about leaving his friend, but took the job. When he informed Marion of his decision, his former boss strongly suggested that he take the job. He pointed out that he too had worked on small jobs, which led to bigger and better jobs.
In fact, Marion went before the cameras to tell America about a new tv show. When he first heard of the show, he knew that only Jimmy would be right for the role. Marion went on to say, "He's a young fella. I'll predict that he'll be a big star, so you might as well get used to him as you got used to me." Marion knew a little bit about acting.
By now, you may know Marion Morrison by his stage name, John Wayne. Wayne ended his introduction of his good friend, Jimmy King, by saying, "And now I'm proud to present my friend, Jim Arness, in Gunsmoke."
You know the story of James King Arness, the tall, shy Minnesotan, who hated school, but loved the outdoors, singing, skiing, and sailing, and who nearly gave his life for his country in World War II. You know the stories of the strong silent hero who gave us 20 years of thrills in his role as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. And, now you know the rest of the story of a giant gentle man who began his military career right here in Central Georgia, sixty eight years ago this summer.
In memory of James Arness and Paul Harvey, two of my favorite all time heroes. And, to my mother, Jane Scott Thompson, who lived and worked at Lakeside Park that summer renting bathing suits to the Camp Wheeler soldiers and keeping the change they left in their pockets.
The material for this article came from the Autobiogrpahy of James Arness.
All photos @ James Arness