FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 7, 2013) -- John Pierce, a retired chief warrant officer from the Quartermaster Corps, and a Korea and Vietnam War veteran, wanted to do something special to observe his recently deceased wife’s birthday on Oct. 18. Little did he imagine that finding more than $500 at the Fort Lee Commissary and returning it to the wife of a retired sergeant first class was the plan that God had unveiled.
“The Lord’s hands have been on me every day of life,” said Pierce in recalling the events of that day and other milestones of his rewarding marriage and 30-years of Army service around the world.
He said his life has been driven by a spiritual resiliency and of the terrible economic times he endured as a young boy growing up in the Great Depression. The 84-year-old combat veteran, now lives in Petersburg just outside of the Mahone Gate.
Pierce said he intended to go to the commissary on Oct. 17, but he also wanted to go swimming at a local pool in Hopewell. He did neither since it was getting too late. The next day was his late wife Helga’s birthday who passed away on July 30, 2013. She would have been 78.
Pierce woke up early on Oct. 18 and said he couldn’t get back to sleep. “I generally sleep like a baby early in the morning, but there were a lot of things going on in my mind.”
After doing some odd and end chores around his house during the morning, he remembered he needed to fill up his gas tank and buy some items for the weekend. “I thought about getting gas before going inside the commissary – but I didn’t. That was the Lord moving me.”
About 3:30 p.m., the veteran entered the commissary and grabbed an electric cart, which was near the self-service check-out. As he drove forward, Pierce spotted an object on the floor and picked it up.
It was an ID card and what he thought were a bunch of papers underneath. “Then I saw two wads of cash,” he noted. “The top stack had several 10 dollars bills and then I looked at the second stack and saw a hundred dollar bill on the outside.”
He went immediately to find a manager knowing that someone was going to be extremely upset at the loss. Pierce saw James Midgett, an assistant supervisor, and exclaimed, “Someone has lost all this money and here’s their ID card. You need to get on the intercom before they have a heart attack or stroke.”
Midgett said he recognized the name on the ID and had seen the wife of the retired sergeant first class several minutes earlier.
While Midgett went to find the woman, Pierce counted more than $500.
She came in with Midgett a couple of minutes later and was reunited with her property. She had been at the self-service checkout and dropped the ID and cash minutes earlier.
“Ma’am,” said Pierce to the excited woman. “The Lord brought your money back to you.” They embraced and she thanked him immensely. “I could tell she was in shock. She was several months pregnant, and if anyone needed the $500 it was her.”
After shopping, Pierce saw Midgett again. “You know, I really feel good,” he told the commissary assistant supervisor. “This is my wife’s birthday and she would have enjoyed being here today. I dedicate what happened to her memory and to the Lord using me to help that lady.”
Pierce explained that his adult life also has been a reflection of his Army experience. “I know the bottom of the ladder and everything in between – the hardships. That being a military store for vets and active duty Soldiers, I know the people who dropped that money, even if I have never seen them. There was never a doubt that I’d turn the money in,” he said.
“The Lord orchestrated my day on the 18th,” he explained. “He timed it beautifully and made sure everything fell in place. He knew that this lady was going to lose her money and he arranged for me to help her.”
He related the experience how he struggled as a child.
A native of Gainesville, Fla., Pierce was born on Sept. 29, 1929 – one month before the start of the depression. He was the second youngest of seven children and his father died when he was three. This left his mother to raise the family.
“My mother worked in a mattress factory for $1 a day,” recalled Pierce. “The older kids took care of the younger ones. My sisters sent us off to school and made sure we changed our clothes after school. The girls did the cooking.”
The family also received help from a local church that set up accounts at a grocery store to authorize food purchases in allotments of $5 and $10.
He also remembered walking to pick up apples, corn beef, flour and corn meal from a train depot across town with his mother while pulling his little red wagon. “There were no cars,” said Pierce. “People walked everywhere in town – Gainesville was a village in those days.”
They stacked everything in his wagon. “Those were beautiful and sweet-smelling apples and were not available in Florida. They were delicious too,” said Pierce.”
The first 12 years of his boyhood were spent in the depression. “That ended in one day on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked,” said Pierce. “Everyone went back to work beginning that day. There was so much unemployment and no money in the depression. People by the tens of thousands volunteered.”
He decided to enter the Army in 1948 at age 18, before his last year of high school.
“What a surprise I got in basic training,” he said. Pierce received seven khaki and two wool uniforms, two khaki caps and one wool cap, a pair of shoes and seven sets of regular socks, two pair of boots and seven sets of wool-cushion socks.
“I never had so many clothes before,” noted Pierce who laughed.
He said he hit the Army running. “I saw no future in my hometown. There was plenty of future in the Army. I joined to finish the last year of my high school education and to travel the world.”
He said he had seen Movietone newsreels in theaters with all the fighting around the world in different countries. “You couldn’t prove it to me that they existed,” he said. “I wanted to see them.”
He finished his high school education in the Army and traveled around the world – spending 20 years overseas.
“Everything I ever wanted to do I did with the Army,” he said. “My promotions came very rapidly and I never had a demotion.”
He said his entire career was in supply and logistics. “Everywhere I went people liked to know me because I could get everything they needed.”
Pierce is particularly proud of serving in Japan prior to the Korea War and helping to establish an ordnance deport that would help supply the needed equipment and materials later during the conflict.
Pierce met his future wife while stationed in Germany in 1953 during occupation duty. They were married in 1955 and would have celebrated their 57th anniversary next month.
“Helga grew up under Hitler,” said Pierce, “and I lived during the depression. She was a military wife for 23 years and she served military families and wives volunteering with Army Community Service at Fort Lee in 1974, he said.
He served at Fort Lee first in 1969-1970 and they decided they wanted to return to the area after his retirement. He returned to the installation in 1974-78 as a chief warrant officer 4.
“ACS was in its infancy,” said Pierce. “Today it’s a giant and a great and very important part of Fort Lee.
He said she formed the financial planning part of ACS at Fort Lee. “She established a program to work with the service members and creditors, setting up a budget for the Soldiers and families to live on to reduce payments. She taught them how to handle money responsibly – something they could use the rest of their lives,” said Pierce.
His wife also helped establish a swimming program for handicapped children. “Helga loved them and got right in the water with them. Anything to help people, she loved doing.” She received many awards with many 100s and 100s of hour pins, he said.
His wife suffered a serious stroke in 1990 and had to curtail her volunteer efforts. She continued to drive with special automobile accessories and walked with the aid of canes.
“She was never a bad patient, and we still had a good life together in my retirement,” said Pierce. “Helga loved people and helping anyone, anytime. Everyone to her was more important than she was. She always had a bright big smile with her glowing personality. Even before I was born He had his plan for Helga and me.”