VAN STOCKUM: His career is a walk from war to horse

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Sam Gibbons, father of a Shelbyville horse breeder, had an heroic career in the Army and then with Tennessee Walking Horses.

By Ron Van Stockum

Several weeks ago I had a call from Howard Gibbons of Wind Hill Farm, a Thoroughbred-breeding farm in Shelby County. Having read several of my military columns, he inquired if I had ever served with his uncle, a Navy vice admiral. I had not.


However, while the Navy, especially in wartime, includes several hundred admirals on its rolls, his inquiry was not unreasonable.

Similarly, last year a reader asked if I had ever served with Vice Admiral B. J. Semmes. Indeed I had.  A promising young Navy lieutenant, he had been a shipmate of mine on board the aircraft carrier USS Wasp during World War II. The reader had served with him 25-five years later, when he had reached flag rank and was in command of the Navy’s Second Fleet.

However, it turned out that it was Howard ­­­Gibbon’s father, Sam Gibbons  (1914-2010), an Army veteran of World War II, with whom I had much in common.

Upon his graduation from Auburn University in 1937, with a degree in landscape architecture, he had been commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve. He had taken the full 4-year Army ROTC program.

I had graduated from the University of Washington the same year and had also taken the full Army ROTC program. I, too, would have been commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army were it not for the offer of a Regular Commission in the U. S. Marine Corps.

I remember an Army instructor cautioning me to carry myself properly for “you are going to be a Marine.”

The classmate of Gibbons at Auburn who received that university’s allotted Marine Corps commission was Joe Stewart, quarterback and captain of the football team, a highly regarded contemporary of mine, who later became a brigadier general.


World War II roles

World War II erupted with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  After a quiet period, called at the time, “The Phony War,” the Nazi’s in May 1940 launched an irresistible “blitzkrieg,” occupying an undefended Paris on June 14 and forcing an armistice. In the meantime, the surviving British forces were evacuated through the port of Dunkirk, leaving their heavy equipment behind.

The United States, which had been supporting England with supplies, equipment and ships, began calling up its reserves in anticipation of deeper involvement.

Gibbons was brought to the colors on March 12, 1941. At that time, I was serving with the Marine Detachment of the aircraft carrier, USS Wasp.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gibbons was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla. I was still serving aboard the USS Wasp, anchored in Grassy Bay, Bermuda, having just returned from a so-called neutrality patrol, during which we had orders to sink any German submarine on sight.


Bronze Star winner

Sam Gibbons married Fern Howell of Memphis in 1942. While he was training with artillery units in the desert of California, she was able to live nearby in Palm Springs. 

He shipped out with the 79th Infantry Division for the European Theater on April 7, 1944. The 79th landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, June 12-14, 1944, six days after D-Day, and encountered the enemy on June 19.  After a heavy engagement, it entered Cherbourg on June 25. The advance continued across the Seine on August 19.

In late 1944, Gibbons received the award of the Bronze Star for Gallantry in Action “somewhere in France.”

During February and March 1945 the division mopped up German resistance and returned to offensive combat March 24, 1945, to cross the Rhine. It later went on occupation duty in the Dortmund, Sudetenland and Bavarian areas successively, until returning to the United States in October 1945 for inactivation.

Gibbons was relieved from active duty as a lieutenant colonel on Feb. 6, 1946.


Walking Horse man

After a stint in the newspaper business in Auburn, the Gibbonses moved back to Tennessee in the late 1940s, where Sam Gibbons managed Murray Farm, a walking horse farm and auction operation in Lewisburg. In the spring of 1949 the show manager of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, held annually in Shelbyville, Tenn., died, and Gibbons was hired as the “new guy.”

He was the show manager for 37 years before retiring.

While at Murray Farm, he also began raising broilers in a chicken house behind the barns.  His principal business career gravitated during those years from horses to chickens, concluding with his retirement as Marketing Manager of ConAgra Poultry in 1984. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which originated in 1939, takes place each year during the 11 days before Labor Day. It is the premier event for the Tennessee Walking Horse, during which the breed's World Grand Champion and some 20 World Champions are named.

The Tennessee Walking Horse, sometimes called the Tennessee Walker, is a gaited horse with a unique 4-beat "running walk." Originally developed in the southern United States for agricultural use, it is a popular riding horse, smooth-gaited and sure-footed, with a calm disposition. Outside the show ring, it is popular for trail riding, using both English and Western equipment.


A show in his honor

As manager, it was necessary for Gibbons to make several trips yearly, traveling from his home in Athens, Ala., in order to plan and coordinate the activities of this large-scale event.

In describing his responsibilities, Gibbons was quoted in the Shelbyville, Tenn., Times-Gazette as follows:

“The manager sees less of the horse show than anybody. We try to keep track of everything that goes on in the ring, who’s in the ring; the numbers the judges have called; those horses excused and those who have passed inspection. We have records to substantiate every action we take.”

Sam Gibbons pursued many charitable endeavors during his long life.  In 2012, following his death two years earlier, The Colonel Sam Gibbons Memorial Walking Horse Show was established as a fundraising event of the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens. He had been a board member and long-time treasurer of the museum, where his uniforms and memorabilia are on display.

His obituary includes this tribute: “Sam was a man of integrity, high moral values and a committed volunteer to his community, state and country.  He remained active in the community until his death.”

I am sure that Sam Gibbons’ family, friends, and associates would all agree.


Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His latest book, Remembrances of World Wars, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm and Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, may be purchased at Terhune Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center or from Amazon.com.