Senior Spotlight: Cullman’s John Tillman, part 1

John Tillman poses for a photo at Westminster Assisted Living in Cullman. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – As you walk into the front doors of Cullman High School, to your right is Tillman Hall, named in honor of John Tillman, who served as principal from 1962-1981. He is known for his many wonderful contributions and his dedication to Cullman City Schools, but he is also a hero, having served in the Army during World War II.

He began his story, “I was born in Carroll County, Georgia and at the age of 4, I had an uncle here in Cullman to pass away so we came out here. Daddy decided while he was out here that he would sell the old Tillman homeplace. We moved out here, and the first year, well, his brother was in the process of having a new house built but not completed. His wife moved into the new house and we rented the old house that first year.”

Tillman moved to Cullman in 1928 and was just 4 years old when his family rented the house in Cullman.

He said, “I became a Democrat when I was 4 years old, and the reason I became a Democrat is that year we were renting that land, the people next door to us rented land. So, here comes a team of mules out from some place here in Cullman that he had loaned and they were collecting. Here they had taken his mules and taken his working tools away. What got me though was the two milk cows tied onto the back of the wagon. At 4 years old that struck a bell with me. How can you take away the milk from those poor people?”

Tillman started school at Antioch when he was 6 years old. Once he completed the sixth grade, he went to Fairview for six years and graduated in 1943.

He said, “During 1943, I was 18 years old and eligible for the draft. They did let me stay and graduate, but a couple of months later, I got a Dear John letter to report. I became a private at that time and we moved up to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Camp Edwards was out there.”

Tillman was sent up with 50 boys from Alabama, 50 from Florida, 50 from Tennessee and 50 from Georgia.

He continued, “They put us in some GI tucks one weekend and they let us drive down to Plymouth, Massachusetts. That was my first opportunity to see the ocean or to be in the water. At that particular time, there was a bunch of girls that was from the college there in the Edwards area. They were there at the beach and somewhere along the line, those girls picked up, well we had Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida and that’s actually about four different languages. They became interested in the conversation and the boys finally picked up on what it was.”

Tillman was a medic and sent to Burma by ship through the South Pacific.

“They carried us around through the ships that were down from what was happening. I was amazed, we had 3,300 troops on the ship, and the pilot would be dead ahead onto an island or into a ship and all of a sudden, he cut like that. He knew the depth and so on of where he could go.”

The ships they were going around were the remains of the ships from Pearl Harbor.

Tillman’s ship first docked in Melbourne, Australia, but the men weren’t allowed to leave the ship.

He explained, “The group that was up there where we were going, some of them had jumped ship, so they wouldn’t allow us green people to go.”

Next stop for Tillman was India where he would travel by train through northern India on his way to the jungles of Burma. With no way to heat water for coffee, he was relieved on the second day when he learned that the steam locomotives were a good source for clean hot water.

In part 2, Tillman will share his experiences fighting alongside the Chinese against the Japanese in the Burmese jungles to take the Burma Road.

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John Tillman poses for a photo at Westminster Assisted Living in Cullman. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

Christy Perry