Published March 21, 2013
ROME — James C. Austin, born on May 15, 1925, cites Zechariah 4:10 as a worthy life Scripture verse. In that passage the Lord declares: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (NLT).
While Austin may have had an unheralded birth, he has had a notable life that includes a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, a college and seminary education, several significant pastorates, and employment as a Certified Fund Raising Executive, all adding up to 65 years of active ministry.
One year after having graduated from Appomattox County High School in Appomattox, VA, Austin joined the United States Navy and soon thereafter sailed across the Atlantic Ocean headed for England to join our troops in the war. On the way over, Austin led the men in an Easter devotion standing on an LCT (Landing Crafts Tank) positioned on an LST (Landing Ship Tank).
Austin’s medical team hit the beaches of Normandy on LST-57 as part of Foxy 29 medical evacuation group. He was a Pharmacist’s Mate, 2nd Class, in the U.S. Navy, and it was June 6, 1944 – D-Day.
Austin recalled, “We had a large-scale rehearsal for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which we called “Operation Tiger.” The admiral made us take a vow of silence for 50 years, because it was to be a covert exercise. The plan was to land our troops on Slapton Beach in Devon.
“The operation was launched in a misty fog and choppy waters, but the Germans had somehow managed to break our secret code and sunk three of our LST boats. German E-boats attacked the Allied convoy positioning itself for the landing. Additionally, coordination and communication problems resulted in multiple friendly fire deaths during the exercise. Consequentially, almost 1,000 troops were lost in what was supposed to be a secret operation.”
Austin explained, “We lost more American boys in the cold waters of the English Channel that night than were lost on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“D-Day was delayed by one day because of rough weather. I knew it was the real thing when we took whole blood aboard. In the early morning hours of June 6, as we pulled out into the English Channel, the sky was darkened with planes and gliders (paratroopers). We trembled from the salvos going over our heads from the battleship Nevada and Texas. How could anything or anybody survive that battering on the beaches? But the Germans did!
“Their guns from pillboxes and especially German 88s (an anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun) cut down hundreds of our troops. Many soldiers died on the beaches, and some washed out to sea.
“As a medic, I treated many wounded and I picked up the nickname of ‘Morphine Flo’ (from marking foreheads after administering first aid and morphine). We pulled many soldiers from the waters in our LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle Personnel, a craft used extensively in amphibious landing in WWII) and brought them back to our LST. We filled every bunk, even the captain’s and the tank deck, with litters on davits three high.
“There were 20 corpsmen and two doctors on each LST in this medical evacuation. After 40 trips, I was assigned to the Naval Dispensary at COMNAVUE (Commander, Naval Forces, Europe in London), while V-bombs were still coming into London every night.”
After his military service, Austin enrolled in the University of Virginia and in 1948 was ordained to the Gospel ministry by Liberty Baptist Church in Appomattox. It was also during his college days that Austin met Madeline, who has been his life companion for more than 60 years. While in college Austin was called to be the pastor of four rural churches in the North Albemarle field of churches. One of those churches was Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, which Thomas Jefferson had frequently attended when it was known as Buck Mountain Baptist Church. After having been present for several of their business meetings, Jefferson wrote a letter to the church stating: “This church has the purest form of democracy I have found on the face of the earth.”
The simple gospel
Following his graduation from UVA, Austin earned a Master of Divinity from Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, and subsequently served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, TN and Eastwood Baptist Church in Tulsa, OK after completing his formal education. Austin commented, “Tulsa was an oil boom town in those days and we had an almost continuous revival while I was there.”
While in Hendersonville, Austin became intricately involved with the Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville in 1954 and got to know the famed evangelist well. He played golf with Graham during those days at the Bluegrass Country Club in Hendersonville.
Austin mused, “Dr. Graham’s sermons at the crusade in Nashville were all published in the Nashville newspaper; and I still have all of those sermons which I saved for almost 60 years. He was a great influence in my life and convinced me of the importance of just preaching the simple Gospel. In those days I preached a lot of revivals myself, and my friends started calling me ‘the poor man’s Billy Graham.’”
In 1958 Austin returned to Southern Seminary as assistant to the president under Duke McCall, raising funds for the seminary’s James P. Boyce Centennial Library and the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism.
Raising money for Baptist causes got in Austin’s blood and the Stewardship Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention decided they needed his services. He headed back to Nashville to assist with the “Together We Build” and “Forward Program” of Church Finance initiatives.
“In those days,” Austin stressed, “We emphasized planning a budget, promoting a budget, and pledging a budget.”
In reminiscing about those days Austin said, “I helped churches raise a lot of money, but I always had a struggle helping churches build big buildings when there were so many hurting people all around. I guess I justified it by reading about Nehemiah’s rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem and the passages about building and caring for God’s Temple.”
But Austin has always been adamant about paying his own way and expressed concern over the socialistic push evident in American politics today. He commented, “Margaret Thatcher said it well, ‘Everybody wants to get on board the wagon, but nobody wants to push it.’ Madeline’s daddy used to say, ‘When is the last time you asked a poor man for a job?’”
In 1986 Austin joined the staff at Shorter College (University) as the vice president for Institutional Advancement. In that role he directed the school’s fund raising, public relations, and alumni efforts. He remained in that position until 1992. In his later years in Rome, Austin pastored Unity Baptist Church in Summerville from 1989 to 2011. He retired on Easter Sunday after 65 years of active ministry.
During his years of ministry, Austin was named a “Kentucky Colonel” by Governor Alben Barkley; named an “Adjutant Aide to the Governor” by Governor Frank Clement of Tennessee; and admitted to the “Thomas Jefferson Society” by the University of Virginia. As Chief Development Officer for 17 years at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Austin served 30 churches in Georgia as interim pastor. Now living in Rome, he was made a Paul Harris Fellow by the Rome Rotary Club and was named a Robert Battey Fellow by the Floyd Healthcare Foundation.
Last Sept. 27 he was awarded the title of “Chevalier” in the French Legion of Honor.
Austin was among 12 WWII veterans from the Southeast to be recognized. A Chevalier, or knight, in the Legion of Honor is a French order established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and is the highest decoration in France. It is France’s equivalent to the United States Medal of Honor.
French Ambassador Francois Delattre wrote in his letter to Austin: “By decree of President Nicolas Sarkozy on February 14, 2012, you have been appointed a ‘Chevalier’ of the Legion of Honor. It is a sign of France’s infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II.”
Austin is a part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” There were 16,112,566 individuals who served in the United States armed forces during World War II. More than 700 of these WWII veterans die every day. The median age for a World War II veteran in June of 2012 was 93 years.
We owe a debt of gratitude to James Carter Austin and those like him who have carried the banner for freedom and faith.
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