BY BRIAN BESCH
LIVINGSTON -- Walt Autry celebrated his birthday on Friday, as the rest of the world celebrated the New Year.
Of his 93 years, the veteran has been married since the age of 20 to his wife, Loraine. The couple moved to Livingston in 1969 after Walt served in two wars and sold a successful printing company he owned in Houston.
The Navy was a smooth transition for someone who spent much of his youth on the water.
"I served for almost exactly three years and 11 months," Autry said. "I was a diesel engineer during World War II. I repaired damage to ships. I started out as a kid and was more or less what you would call a river rat. I ran up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, and all of those rivers going up as far as Philadelphia up the Ohio River.
"I was madder than hell when I heard Pearl Harbor was bombed. I went and joined the Navy on Dec. 20, 1941. I was a young kid, and that's what they want. My mother had to sign up for me, because I was 18 at the time, and the law in Louisiana and the Navy was (a parent or guardian) had to sign for you if you weren't 21. Prior to that, I was in the Merchant Marines sailing on a banana boat between Houston, New York, Philadelphia and Galveston.
"I was raised in New Orleans, but born in Monette, Arkansas. From there, my father died when I was two-years-old, so I never knew my dad. To keep us fed back in those days, we never had any money, so my mother was moving around and doing work. We finally moved to New York where she was a short order cook and made pretty good money there."
At the age of nine in Memphis, Autry was placed in a sanitarium for tuberculosis for two years. He then moved to New Orleans to work in the shipyards as a rivet buckler until joining the Navy.
"After I got into the war, they sent me to Mobile, Alabama," Autry said. "I was a steam engineer, because I worked on those steamboats up and down the Mississippi River. After that, I was sent from Mobile to Houston and was going to diesel school since I was familiar with the engines. From there, I went back to Mobile and then various other places. I finally ended up in Maryland."
During this time, Loraine had his oldest child, but Autry wouldn't get to see his firstborn until she was 18 months of age. It was one of just two occasions he was apart from his wife in the past seven decades. The other was during the Korean War, when his son was born.
Autry traveled on a ship loaded with supplies down to Key West, through the Panama Canal and over to San Francisco. At that time, the Landing Craft Infantry (a seagoing assault ship) was believed not fit for the ocean.
"They changed their mind, so they had 20 of us grouped together for a trial run to Australia," Autry said. "We wound up in New Guinea. After we helped secure New Guinea, we ended up in the Leyte Gulf (Philippines), where we had a big battle with the Japanese.
"Some way, we were able to outsmart them and that is where they lost around three aircraft carriers. We lost one or two small ones too. I was in action all this time, but I was the chief engineer down in the engine room. I never knew what was happening upstairs on the deck. I could hear it, but my duty was to be down there operating those engines."
After battle in the gulf, Autry said his group traveled into Manila.
"It looked like a big pool of water with a whole bunch of toothpicks sticking out, where masts from ships were sunk in the harbor," he said.
"I was one of the lucky ones," Autry said of his time in battle. "I went in whole in mind and body, and came out whole in mind and body. I believe I am still whole in mind, but I don't think my body is whole anymore!"
After 18 months, Autry was finally able to return home and meet his oldest child.
"I came home and she didn't want anybody to touch her momma, especially a strange man! She would try to push us apart and was very determined that I was not going to put my arm around her momma."
Married at only 18, Loraine said her family wasn't very accepting of her decision at the time.
"My mother was very much against it," she said. "I was too young and she didn't have much use for sailors."
It seems Loraine made the correct decision, though not a popular one at the time. The two will have been united for 73 years in April.
"We had so much going at home during the war," Loraine continued. "There were things that we had to do like the knitting club. When I was young, I learned to knit, so I could make sweaters and beanies.
"My dad was a block warden. We would pretend that we had been wounded and they would put a patch on us to tell what was wrong. People came in and learned to take care of that particular wound."
When Autry returned home from battle, he decided to continue his education, which had halted in the seventh grade. He worked part time at a liquor store while attending high school. On his commute, there was a print shop he became fascinated with. It took about a year to get into the printing business.
But in 1951, the military requested Autry's service once more.
"They called me back and I asked them, 'What in the world are you calling me back for?' They told me, 'You're a diesel engineer.' They called all of the people that were diesel engineers and only five percent of all the other staff," Autry said. "They needed every diesel engineer for landing craft vehicle personnel."
He returned, this time in the Korean War, where Autry was a chief engineer stationed in the Philippines.
Arriving back in Texas, Autry would become an independent printer in Houston with Loraine working by his side. He sold the business in The Heights in 1969 to his father-in-law, who was a printer in Chicago.
The Autrys considered Galveston and the Brenham area before ultimately deciding on Livingston for retirement. Loraine had found an ad in the newspaper with acreage for sale.
"We called the realty company and they said, 'we can take you to it, but we can't tell you how to get there,'" Autry said. "We met them over on Highway 59 and came through what is now FM 1988. There is an area where there used to be a sugar-sand road down to the bridge and if you stopped there, you didn't get out. They brought us over and a lot of it was clay, there wasn't any rock on the roads. But there was 70 acres, so we decided to buy it. We would go out every weekend for 10 years from 1959 to 1969."
Autry said he built 90 percent of the house where the couple currently resides.
"The brickwork we did not do, but we did all the paneling and the painting."
They had friends install plumbing and electricity. Autry said all he had to do was provide beer and barbecue, and make sure he had supplies on hand.
In 1972, the couple built a second house next door for their children.
Through his association with the Lions Club, Autry begin to sell specialty-printing items. He began to get requests and would work on Wednesdays. Business boomed and the veteran found himself working full time selling products as far as Nacogdoches until the late 1990s.
These days, Walt and Loraine can be found three days of the week at the Escapees, where they eat three meals per day, meet with friends, and join in activities. Autry said he is one of the very few who has gone on hospice and has since been taken off.
The decision to relocate to Livingston is one Autry does not regret.
"It has been a very pleasant time up here and we wouldn't move for anything."