James Wideman was born in May of 1945 in St. Louis, MO. He was the fifth child of seven. There were six boys and one girl. Wideman enjoyed growing up in the city, spending his days with friends playing basketball, bottle caps, softball, and jumping garage roofs when they were close enough. “It was a great neighborhood, and we had a lot of good friends and people we hung out with,” remembered Wideman. He especially loved the summer when he could go with friends to “teen town.” He explained, “A lot of places had teen towns. It was an outdoor area like a park, school, or church, where we could go and listen to music like the Bob Cuban band and drink soda.”
Every Sunday, the Wideman family would get together with cousins in St. Libory, IL, for BBQs and picnics, even spending a couple of weeks staying with their cousins. Wideman was incredibly close with his two cousins, Jimmy and Mike. They were all a few months apart in age and inseparable. When they were around 10 years old, the adults would give the boys a tin bucket and a quarter to take down to the local tavern to purchase a bucket of beer for the parents to enjoy on a hot afternoon.
After high school, Wideman worked at a gas station and had a paper route before working at Cherokee Candy and Tobacco. After obtaining his chauffeur license, he started delivering to bars and confectionaries all over the city and county.
The family was as close as any family until his older brothers started going into the service and getting married. Of the six boys, only one wasn’t in the service. Wideman explained, “I told my mom if they want me, I will go. All of my brothers but Walter were in the military. Ron was in the Air Force, John was in the Army, Fred was in the Army, Elvin was in the Marines and then the Army, and Walter went for the physical, but they rejected him over a trick knee. We didn’t all serve at once, but we all served.” The second oldest, Elvin Wideman, enlisted in the Marine Corps for four years. After being honorably discharged, he decided to enlist in the Army. Wideman stated, “He was a lot older than me, but I think that was the lifestyle he knew and was comfortable with. That is what he knew, and I think he struggled settling into civilian life.”
Wideman received his draft letter in September of 1965 while working at Cherokee Candy. He stated’ “My friends and neighbors loved me because they chose me to represent them in the military. That’s what my letter said, and we used to all kid about that, but that’s what the letter said.” Wideman was then sent to Fort Leonard Wood, MO, for basic training. His older brother Elvin was a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood during his time there. Wideman would sign out for church on Sundays, and Elvin would pick him up for lunch and hang out at his house. “I was kinda spoiled by that and didn’t have to do what everybody else did on Sundays.”
After basic training and a fourteen-day leave to visit home, Wideman went back to Fort Leonard Wood for Supply School to be a Unit Supply Specialist and did Advanced Individual Training (AIT). A Unit Supply Specialist would supervise and maintain all Army supplies and equipment. They learned to receive, inspect, inventory, load and unload, store, issue, and deliver all supplies and equipment. While they would also safely secure and control weapons and ammunition in security areas. Wideman recalled how he was in the old hospital turned barracks, and the bunks were stacked three high. He said with a laugh, “I was number three, but in the winter, it was the warmest spot!”
Once AIT was complete, Wideman was loaded on a bus for Fort Lee, VA, for Advanced AIT. Due to a snowstorm shutting down the east coast, they spent the day at the airport in St. Louis before being told they would have to head back to Fort Leonard Wood. He said, “They dropped us off at a train station the next day somewhere in the middle of Missouri, and we spent two and a half days on a train looking out the window at the snow. “When we got there at that time, they were drafting so many people that we got to go to night school. Which was great because Fort Lee trained cooks, and after class, we would go into the mess hall, and they would have cake and coffee, and we could go in and snack before bed.” Wideman explained with a chuckle, “For my first 20 weeks of the military, I did nothing but go to classes.”
On November 19, 1966, his brother, Elvin J. Wideman, was killed in action in Vietnam. On January 25, 1967, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest military decoration for soldiers who display extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force. Wideman was able to return home for his brother’s funeral. His cousins Jimmy and Mike, who were both enlisted at the time, were also there. Cousin Jimmy was given leave from the United States Marine Corp, and Mike was granted leave from United States Air Force. Elvin Wideman was a highly decorated war hero who received a Purple Heart, among many other commendations. Wideman remarked, “Everything he did was from his Marine Corp training that carried over into the Army.”
Wideman was then sent to Fort Dix, NJ, known as a transfer point, to receive new orders. Most of the men received orders to be shipped over, but Wideman stated, “I ended up flying to Germany and didn’t go on the boat that everyone did at the time. I was originally assigned to the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, where my uncle Jack was, but I didn’t end up going there.” Instead, Wideman landed at the Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt. When he arrived, they were given a piece of paper and told to write a letter home informing family that they had arrived safely. The hospital was over-staffed, so after a week in transit waiting, he was loaded up on a truck to the Gelnhausen Germany Army Base, where he spent the next 13 months and seven days. He started in the supply room for a while, then became company clerk because he could type. Eventually, they wanted him to drive, so he had to get a German driver’s license, learning over 100 different German road signs. Wideman had to haul parts all over the German countryside to various depots. “I got to see a lot of Germany, a lot of it.” Wideman learned to drive everything and became a shotgun-free driver, which meant he didn’t have to take anyone with him. Wideman was part of a maintenance company that spent most of their time out in the field in Germany hauling parts and even trading American cigarettes and whiskey for parts to keep trucks running. He stated, “I remember trading cigarettes for a clutch to keep these trucks rolling. We kept everyone’s trucks rolling and had teams of mechanics that would come and pick up parts and work on their equipment like trucks and tanks. The largest tank training area was close by.” In Grafenwoehr, Germany, was The Grafenwoehr Training Area, the U.S. Army’s largest training area in Europe. It supports live-fire qualifications from small arms to tanks, artillery, aerial gunnery, and close air support with sophisticated maneuver ranges.
Wideman was never sent to the front lines and stated, “To this day, I do not know why I did not get picked to go. I was single and in my 20s, and that used to bother me that they would take married men with children and send them off to war. I didn’t understand it, and it bothered me for a long time.” Throughout history, there have been several policies, such as the Sole Survivor Policy and the Sullivan Brother policy, which were regulations set to protect surviving family members. Although it was never officially stated that Wideman was kept off the frontlines due to these regulations.
In September of 1967, Wideman was honorably discharged from the Army and returned home to St. Louis. He started dating Nancy, who had been his girlfriend off and on since he was 17, and she had been writing to him while he was overseas. They married in August of 1968 and had two sons, Jimmy and Jeffery. Wideman started working for Yellow Freight driving a truck and hauling parts just like he did in the Army. He retired from Yellow Freight after 31 years. He spent his days in retirement watching his two granddaughters, stating, “We had fun, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
In 2013 Wideman took a trip to Europe with his wife and visited the area where he was stationed. Although a lot had changed, he was able to locate a pond, and the barracks that were still there, but the fields were now filled with stores and buildings.
Their youngest son also went into the military. He spent 5 years enlisted in the Army and 20 years as an officer in the Marine Corps, retiring as a Major in 2015. Unfortunately, their oldest son Jimmy passed away from cancer a few years ago. Wideman stated, “I am so proud of my boys and all they accomplished in life.”
When asked what he learned from the military, Wideman stated, “Well, they teach you respect. It is something that is hard to explain how it sticks with you, but you learn discipline, and you carry that through life. You can walk down the street and pick somebody out by the way they carry themselves and know that they were in the military.” Wideman went on to say, “We were poor growing up, but I didn’t know it. From where I came from until now, we’ve had a great life. I have no regrets in life. We made it.”
Veterans Care Coordination is proud to recognize James Wideman for his service to our country. We are privileged to have the opportunity to share the stories of our nation’s heroes. Thank you for your service, James, and welcome home.