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It's hard not to notice Herman "Lee" Counts. Nearly 7 feet tall, he towers over most people, but his many friends and acquaintances say he is one of the friendliest men you'll ever meet.
At age 92, he still drives his full-size Cadillac from Ravenna to Leander's Barber Shop in Kent.
A Ravenna area resident since 1953, he's also a pillar of the community, having served as a volunteer for 40 years at the Skeels Center in Ravenna Township, where for 25 years he delivered food donations. He has served as president of the Skeels Vernon L. Mathews Advisory Board, is a life member of the Portage County NAACP and a member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He's a 59-year member of the Allen Chapel AME Church in Ravenna. He also was a trustee of the church.
He's also a veteran of World War II, having served in occupied Germany in 1945.
Counts said he was in technical school at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland when the war in Europe ended. He served with the 657th Ordinance Ammunition Co., part of the 9th Army, just outside Munich. Counts said he was the unit's motor sergeant.
"It was fun, but I didn't like it," Counts said. "I wouldn't give anything for the experience, because if I would have had to go over there by myself, I would have never got there."
His wartime service started about five years earlier in Newport News, Va., where he helped build ships for the U.S. Navy as a civilian worker.
It was a hard job for someone who had a hard upbringing.
Counts was born on Aug. 18, 1921, to Hattie and Julius Caesar Counts in Pomeria, S.C. He was the seventh of eight children in the family of sharecroppers, sometimes picking more than 100 pounds of cotton a day.
Counts said his brothers and sisters would walk barefoot three miles to school and church, stopping just short of their destination to wash their feet off in a ditch before putting on their shoes. His father died when Counts was 6 years old.
Counts left home when he was 17 and eventually made his way to the shipyards, where he drilled holes in steel plate.
"One of the ships I remember, it was a battleship and the name was the Indiana. That's about the heaviest one I've ever seen because on the port and starboard side of the engine, there were armor plates 26 inches thick."
After four years and 10 months building ships, he was drafted and sent to basic training at Fort Lee, Va., which was called Camp Lee at the time.
Counts said his initial experience was tough.
"If a noncommissioned officer said something, it was his word over yours every time," he said. "Some of it was hard, yes sir, but you've got to roll with the punches."
His unit eventually departed by ship for Europe.
"It took us 13 days to go from Staten Island, N.Y., to LeHavre, France," he said.
The black soldiers were in the back of the ship. The white soldiers, who got three meals a day, were in the front.
He and other troops destined for Munich traveled by train.
"The boxcars are smaller than American boxcars, so what they did was put in a bale of straw, and that's all you had to sleep on," he said.
In addition to repairing vehicles, one of his responsibilities as motor sergeant was knowing the whereabouts of all the unit's vehicles.
"If an officer were to call me -- I could be in my bunk -- and want to know where such-and-such a truck was, or such-and-such a jeep was, all I needed was the last four numbers, and I could tell them whether it was in action, or what," he said.
"My memory was good back then," he added, then tallied up the number and varieties of more than 80 vehicles he was responsible for.
He also got a chance to do some traveling by motorcycle, though rules required travelers to have permits to pass through military police checkpoints.
"I got kind of slick. Every time I wanted to go someplace, you put 'as directed' on the pass, and then you could go wherever you want."
He said the cities were "all bombed up," but he still had the opportunity to meet people.
Due to his great stature, the Germans nicknamed him "Goliath."
Counts said that before the Army instituted a "no fraternization" policy, prohibiting servicemen from having social contact with German nationals, Black GIs were free to date most German women.
"You could walk down the street with a black haired woman, a red haired woman or a brunette, but if you walked down the street with a blonde, you were in trouble," he said.
He got a speeding ticket just before leaving and was fined $40 out of the $100 in "muster-out pay" he received before leaving the service.
After arriving back in the United States, he had the opportunity to go back to work in the shipyard, where he would be guaranteed employment for a year.
"There was no security there," he said, explaining why he didn't take the job.
He was also eligible for a $25-per-month stipend while unemployed. He said it was called "rocking chair money," adding it wasn't enough to support him.
And the reality of segregation remained.
"It's not that they wouldn't serve you," Counts said, describing how restaurants would treat blacks. "You'd just sit at the table and nobody would come see what you want."
He eventually got work as a stevedore, unloading ships, then with a demolition company, where a crane operator dropped a boom on his head.
"Is he dead?" a supervisor called down to the other workers. "Not yet" was the response.
A sister in Ravenna told him she could get him a job at the hospital, so he moved to Ohio.
Eventually, he got a job operating machines and working in the maintenance department at Rockwell International in Newton Falls. He worked there for 23 years.
He said his experience in the Army was a unique part of his life.
"It was kind of fascinating. I couldn't have paid for the experience. I didn't like it but I still thought it worked out pretty good for me. I got a lot of experience," he said.
"I made it. In fact, come the 18th of August, I'm 93. I figure I didn't do too bad here, you know? I could have done better maybe, but I did the best with what I had and I'm still surviving."
Eric Marotta: 330-541-9433