A well-loved local “hero” has passed away and taken a piece of American history with him. According to the family of Soddy Daisy resident Russell LeeRoy Pickett, on Sunday, “he closed his eyes here on earth and opened them again in heaven.” He was the last living survivor from the U.S. Army’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, which bravely stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day… fighting for the freedom of not only France, but the entire world.
At only 19 years of age, Mr. Pickett and his fellow soldiers were young and naïve to the horrors of exactly what lay ahead of them on the sandy shores of France that day, but they did know that some of them would never make it back home. Yet when offered an opportunity to opt out of participating in the attack, Mr. Pickett would later share, in a voice heavy with emotion, that not one of them chose to leave. They were courageous beyond their years; deeply devoted to the love they had for their country and the freedoms they were fighting for, and they had a duty to fulfill.
Mr. Pickett carried a heavy flamethrower on his back as the frontline sailed towards the Normandy seashore that historical morning. He knew that carrying this weapon was a “suicide mission” because it would most certainly draw heavy artillery fire, but he wholeheartedly planned to accomplish his assigned goal of taking out his target - a German pillbox. However, before the British boat he and fellow soldiers were riding in could even make it ashore, there was a sudden, reverberating sound and a hole in the side of the boat stopped their forward advancement. Mr. Pickett was suddenly thrust into the water, unconscious and with the weight of the flamethrower pushing him under. His assistant flamethrower cut it off him and dragged him to shore where he awoke sometime later, unable to walk because of a severe back injury. Still under a barrage of weapon fire, he laid there helplessly watching some of the 2,000 plus men who were killed that day, dying all around him. The gruesome scene and agonizing sounds were overwhelming, but amazingly, and according to him “by the grace of God,” he lived.
As one of the only survivors in the first wave of soldiers that invaded that day, Mr. Pickett not only personified strength and patriotism, but he became a part of the bravest generation that ever lived and though his family said he would continually deny it from that point forward… he also became a real life hero. Despite his injury, as soon as he was able, he returned to the fight; something he would also repeat later when grenade shrapnel tore through his arm in a subsequent battle and sidelined him for 21 days. It was not until he suffered a third life threatening injury from a shell that exploded in his foxhole that he was forced to stop actively fighting, but he pleaded to be able to remain in England to work at the military hospital until the war was over. Despite everything, this United States soldier still felt strongly committed to the cause.
In 2019, the Best Defense Foundation flew Mr. Pickett to the 75th D-Day Anniversary Celebration in France. During a ceremony there, U.S. President Donald Trump said of Mr. Pickett, just after he hugged him, “You honor us with your presence. Tough guy.” And his family and community couldn’t agree more. The heartwarming video of this interaction and Mr. Pickett’s story made national news and soon “our local hero” was everyone’s “hero,” and the beloved father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend was an overnight “celebrity” of whom his family could not be more proud! While there, Mr. Pickett and the other veterans were treated like royalty by the French, who generations later are still just as grateful for the blood and sacrifice that were spilled out on their shores by Mr. Pickett and his comrades all those years ago. Upon returning home, he shared with his wife, children and grandchildren how much this meant to him. It touched a place in his heart that still beat to the sounds of freedom that he and fellow soldiers had marched to during the entirety of WWII.
Shortly thereafter, letters began to pour into the small (and previously little known) town of Soddy Daisy from all over the globe as well wishers reached out to Mr. Pickett to offer thanks, express encouragement and assure him that he would not be forgotten. His granddaughter Sherry Price said, “Our family is so very thankful for how God worked this out for Papa to be honored in this way and for the world to get to meet the wonderful, soft spoken man we all love so much. It meant the world to him and gave him renewed energy. Just days before he died, he was contacted by Valor Studios and asked to autograph some special cards commemorating D-Day and despite being ill and very weak, he signed every one of them, all 250.”
For numerous years after WWII, Mr. Pickett was unable to talk about the war, not even with his closest family. He suffered from PTSD but tried to keep it buried like the many friends who had lost their lives on foreign soil. It was not until after his retirement in the 1980s that he was finally able to begin sharing his experiences. This led him to a forging a life changing relationship with the local chapter of the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) that would last for the next few decades. In his role there, he became a difference maker for countless veterans; helping them to receive benefits and help when they needed it most. The friendships he made with so many of these former soldiers live on in the stories they share about the impact he had on their lives, and became just one more brick in the legacy he has left for future generations.
Prior to retirement, he operated Mr. Pickett’s T.V. shop located just minutes from the Soddy Daisy home where he raised his family and lived until his death. And it seems like in the many years that he ran his business, the entire community knew him through this venture and had a television, radio or some kind of electronic he had fixed at one time or another. The family says his grandchildren thought it was an adventure indeed to visit him while he was working because of the many fun gadgets he had there. Before he became a national household name, his little business gave him a well-known name amongst his friends and neighbors.
In addition to his shop, Mr. Pickett played the bass guitar in a Christian family group and spent many weekends happily travelling with them to various churches to worship the God who he adamantly proclaimed completely changed his life when he was saved in 1964. His faith became the foundation of who he was, and he shared his testimony of what a relationship with Jesus had meant to him every time he had the opportunity. While fighting in the war, he had highly valued the definition of what the word freedom meant. But according to Mr. Pickett’s testimony, it was in his walk with God that he was able to truly experience freedom and what it was like to actually live free every day. His granddaughter says it was his prayer that his family and everyone else would experience that grace, forgiveness and freedom for themselves. Mr. Pickett loved to study the Bible and served as a gifted teacher in his church for many years until his health would not allow him to do so any longer. His family says he never claimed to be perfect but he put his faith in a God who was and who provided grace and guidance that carried him through the remainder of his life.
Mr. Pickett lived through the great depression, WWII, and decades of great change and attributed his survival and ability to thrive to the prayers of those who loved him. He said a praying mom and grandmother helped see him through until he learned to pray for himself. His granddaughter said, “We were blessed to have Papa in our lives and blessed to be able to share him with others. He was a soldier in battle and in life, and Papa often and passionately repeated one of his favorite verses. He would start out by saying God is good to us, isn’t He? Then he would smile and say the psalmist said ‘Oh that men would praise God for his goodness and wonderful works to the children of men.’”
She went on to say, “Papa’s 95 years were filled with adventure, sacrifice, a deep rooted faith in God, and the kind of heart that beat to give back to those around him. To say that he positively impacted the lives of so many people is an understatement, and his legacy of living out a Christian life, patriotism to his country, and his kind and gentle spirit will live on in the lives of all of those who loved him. He deeply enjoyed studying and teaching God’s word, helping fellow veterans, golfing, laughing, and living life. The flag that will cover his coffin will attest to his love for his country and the footprints he has left on the hearts of his family, friends, and now the world will attest to the person God made him to be. He was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, and we all loved him. He was a good man. He was a brave soul. And he will be greatly missed!”