By Paul Thompson
After 88 years on God’s green earth, United States World War II veteran Omer “Jeff” Embree will tell you that he’s a lucky man.
The day Jeff Embree turned 18, he registered for the United States Army. Four months later, Embree left his childhood farm in Knob Knoster, Missouri, to help his fellow Americans finish World War II. The year was 1943, and Embree had begun what would become a wild, crisscrossing journey across the globe. One of nine children and three Embrees who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, Jeff felt it was his duty to fight on behalf of America. Jeff’s older brother Harvey had enlisted in 1942, and his twin brother Homer enlisted right alongside him January of 1943.
Embree’s first stop was Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he reported for basic training.
“I walked guard when it was 35 below zero,” recalls the 88 year-old
Embree today, the memory cutting through the fog of decades.
Embree was also paid a visit in Cheyenne from older brother Harvey, who had found time on leave
to visit his young brother at Basic Training. Jeff still remembers getting sick before his brother arrived,
and hiding the illness in order to keep the visit on track. When Harvey arrived, Jeff begrudgingly showed his brother the rashes that traveled up and down his arms: a tell-tale sign of scarlet fever. Harvey told Jeff to check himself in for treatment immediately, but Embree was happy just to have seen his brother.
“I knew I was sick enough that they weren’t going to let me cut loose,” says Embree in explanation.
After surviving that scare, Embree was shipped off to Bloomington, Illinois, to be schooled as a mechanic at the Midwest Motor Trade. He was taught how to tear down a vehicle and change parts. After three months of training, he was dispatched to Camp Ellis, Illinois, where he was charged with teaching officers how to maintain their cars, changing oil and the works.
“All the officers there had to learn how to change oil, and I had to teach them,” says Embree, an
almost apologetic tone in his voice. “Could you imagine a corporal issuing orders to a colonel or a major?”
The job did not last long, however, as Embree was eventually loaded into a boxcar for New York City, where he would board a boat overseas towards the European theatre. There was only one problem: Embree broke his foot jumping out of the boxcar.
“They told me I couldn’t go o v e r s e a s , c o u l d n ’ t be shipped with a broken foot,” says Embree of his imjury. “But the colonel said ‘yes he can.’ He pushed me onto the boat on a wheelchair. Sixteen days later I landed in Marseilles, France.”
Embree found his first bit of luck when he was picked by his colonel (yes that colonel) to drive into town
to find a woman to do laundry for the men in his unit. Soon enough, Embree’s background with cars
elevated him to a new role: his colonel’s personal driver.
“The guy that was supposed to drive for the colonel was from St. Louis, but the colonel was scared
to drive with him,” says Embree. “So he picked me to drive for him. I drove all over Paris with him.”
Embree ran errands all through the night for the colonel, and his new position offered him one notable perk.
Because he had to be ready at a moment’s notice, Embree was assigned to sleep in the officer’s tent. As a result, he was afforded extra bedding during the coldest of nights. Embree’s role in France was simple. With most of the heavy fighting concluded, he was tasked with bringing supplies through battle zones
in Germany for Allied forces surrounding Berlin. Although hobbled at first with his foot in a cast, Embree was able to help his compatriots. He was part of a regiment in which engineers utilized inflatable
pontoon bridges to cross the Rhine River into Germany with pivotal supplies and rations. The pontoon bridges were necessary in order to circumvent vital bridges that had been destroyed. Those supplies helped replenish the Allied troops that eventually coaxed a surrender.
When the Axis powers conceded defeat, Embree was packed onto a boat for what he only assumed was a
return voyage. It wasn’t long, however, until he and the rest of the ship’s passengers realized that they weren’t headed home after all.
“We thought we were headed home, since the war was over,” remembers Embree. “By the second day,
we realized that we weren’t going the right way to get home.”
Instead, Embree was headed around the world to the Pacific Theatre.
“We traveled about thirty days on that boat,” says Embree. “We rode 14,000 miles, from Germany to Okinawa.”
On the way to the destination, the boat stopped through the Panama Canal. There, the crew bought
enough bananas to feed the crew for the rest of the voyage and then some.
“We bought them for 25 cents a bunch, and there were bananas lining the boat,” remembers Embree.
The day that Embree and company reached Okinawa was the same day that the Japanese surrendered. It was lucky timing for Embree, too, as he broke his foot once again while jumping off the boat. Although the fighting had concluded, he spent the next three months recuperating in Okinawa.
Once Embree finally touched back down on U.S. soil, he bee-lined back to his old home in Knob Knoster, Missouri. Although it was 4 a.m., he couldn’t resist the urge to wake up his twin brother upon arriving home.
"I hadn’t seen my twin brother in four years,” said Embree. “He was in bed. I went in there and brought
him out of it.”
Looking back through the years, Embree is thankful at how his family was able to make it back safely from the harrowing war.
“I was very lucky, and my twin brother was lucky,” says Embree. “My older brother got shot in the knee, and I never knew it until he died.”
After the war, Embree continued to find success in his endeavors. He worked for the Kansas City Highway Department, and at one point earned an unprecedented two raises in one month. He also threw his vast energy into his local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post. Embree organized musical acts and dances, served as post commander, and even met his second wife Jenny at the VFW (his first wife died of cancer in her 40’s).
“We were introduced at the VFW 1829, up here at 59th and Crystal,” says Embree of Jenny. “We’ve been together 43 years.”
For 30 years, Embree orchestrated two pig roasts a year for the VFW. He also secured a liquor license
for his post, and instituted a popular bingo night to help bring in funds. Embree continues to be proud to
serve his fellow veterans.
“You probably don’t know what the VFW does,” says Embree rhetorically. “We give money to people who are hungry. We give our money to GAP; we just gave $1,500 to them. We give our money to the Salvation Army.”
Although Jeff and Jenny still contribute to VFW dinners and events, their advancing age has caused
them to cut back on their activities. Embree has not contributed a pig roast for a few years. It simply became too much work. It’s a familiar theme at many VFW posts: many struggle financially as their members continue to age.
Embree is not the only veteran with a compelling story. He’s not the only lucky veteran who survived to serve their peers in the VFW. On Friday, the Grandview VFW Post 8100 will be servinga ham and bean dinner throughout the afternoon and evening in honor of Veterans Day at 3413 Main Street in Grandview.
Veterans eat for free, and the general public is welcome to join for $6. The company alone will be worth
the charge of admission.
Try to make it out to support our veterans, and spend a moment to remember how lucky we all are to live in the United States of America.