Hardie Cornett

World War II veteran Hardie Cornett shares photos and stories of his time as a tail gunner in the South Pacific during a 98th birthday party for him Tuesday at the Cullman VFW.

CULLMAN, Ala. - At 98-years-old, Cullman native Hardie Cornett was a participant in one of the world’s most significant historical events, and throughout his life, he’s been part of history for many Cullman students.

On Memorial Day, Cornett, a World War II veteran, celebrated his 98th birthday. On Tuesday, he joined other veterans at the VFW to celebrate and reminisce.

The West Point High School graduate recalled signing up for the U.S. Army Air Corps where he was assigned to be a tail gunner. “They wouldn’t let me be a pilot because I was color blind, but they would let me be a gunner,” he said.

He was involved in several battles in the South Pacific and his squadron, the 42nd Bombardment Squadron, was credited with a direct hit on the Japanese battleship, the Yamato, contributing to the sinking of the ship.

Cornett said during the battle off Okinawa that day, April 7, 1945, there were hundreds of guns being fired at them. “We were lucky we didn’t get hit,” he said.

In all, he flew 11 missions and saw the loss of many crews. “There was one day where 11 planes went out and 10 of them didn’t come back,” he said.

He was a witness to the Japanese surrender on Okinawa, and visited the 100-foot “Suicide Cliff” where Japanese civilians and citizens, believing the Imperial Army’s propaganda of American brutality, jumped to their deaths.

When he came back to Cullman, he began teaching agriculture classes. It was through his teaching that he met his wife, Doris, who was a teacher at Fairview High School. “She made me what I am,” he said.

The two married in 1948 and had three children. He now has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

He went to Auburn and got his bachelors degree and later his master’s degree in agricultural business. For most of his career, he taught at Cullman Middle School; however, he did a six-year stint at Hanceville High School. In addition to teaching ag classes, Cornett taught math, science, drivers’ ed, small motor repair, plumbing and electronics.

“I taught them how to make electrical boards,” he said.

He and Doris went to many of the class reunions - the last one he attended was in 2019 - and he said his students would often ask him how he’s lived so long. “I’d tell them, ‘I want to be around when you die so I can go to your funeral,’” he joked.

Cornett is the last survivor of his crew, but he kept in touch with all of them throughout the years through letters, visits and phone calls, and can tell you the year that each one died.

The Cornett family came to Alabama from Georgia when his grandfather bought 80 acres of land in Cullman for a shotgun and $200. Cornett said he can remember living in a small, “dog trot” house as a child, and the first two dollars he ever made, two silver coins. At six-years-old, he collected eggs from his family’s hens and sold them to a traveling peddler. Ninety-two years later, he still has those silver dollars. “I’ve never been broke,” he said.

In the 50s, he had several thousand laying hens and just gave up cattle farming in the last decade, following the advice of a friend who told him, “Get off your John Deere tractor and you’ll live 10 more years.”

But he hasn’t given up on farming completely. His garden boasts corn, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables. Recently, he said, a man in his 40s saw him in the garden and stopped to tell him, “I’ve been watching you tend this garden my whole life.”

Harvesting his produce takes a little longer than it used to, and requires a little help, but he said the slower pace doesn’t bother him.

“All I’ve got is time,” he said.

Amy Henderson can be reached at 256-734-2131 Ext. 216.

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