SANTA ROSA BEACH — If there was one thing young Vernon Bishop knew, it was that he had to be a part of World War II.
He became part of one of the biggest wartime deceptions in history, although he didn't really know that until he got back home to Walton County.
Bishop's wartime story began shortly after his graduation from Point Washington High School. As a young newlywed, he was working with a construction company that built runways, work that qualified him for deferments from military service. But as he saw young men heading off to war, including his three brothers, he chafed against not being a part of it.
"I said to my wife, 'You know, this is bothering me,'" he remembered. "We talked about it, and we finally made up our mind to tell the company not to give me any more deferments."
So one day in 1942, Bishop went to Jacksonville to enlist in the Army. A short time later, he was at North Carolina's Fort Bragg for training as an artilleryman.
"I wasn't there but a couple of weeks, maybe, and here comes my wife," Bishop smiled during a recent interview. "She followed me right to the camp, got a job on the base, and stayed with me for the whole basic training."
After basic training, Bishop and his wife, Loyce, spent a couple of weeks back home in Walton County before he reported for duty near Washington, D.C.
"And here she came again," Bishop said. The couple spent a week together before Bishop boarded a troop ship bound for England, where he spent a long time waiting for an assignment. Given his training, he expected to go to an artillery unit. His actual assignment, though, would be far different.
"One day, I didn't have anything to do, so I went to the mess hall and asked, 'Do you folks have anything I can do?'" Bishop remembered. "They said, 'Yeah, take this machine and slice that bologna.' Next thing I knew, somebody was up beside me, talking to me. He said, 'I want you to report to this theater.'"
Later that day, Bishop reported to the theater with about 10 other soldiers.
"Next thing I knew, here came a train," he said. "We didn't know where we were going."
Where they were going was a headquarters unit of the 1st Army Group, a "paper army" created with relatively few actual troops, like Bishop, that included tanks, ships and other military vehicles and buildings crafted from cardboard and fabric. The object of the deception, part of a plan called Operation Fortitude, was to keep the Germans guessing as to the actual location of the Allies' D-Day invasion of France.
The deception worked, as German forces continued to concentrate on the French coastal town of Calais even after the real D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
"Nobody knew what we were doing, or why we were doing it," Bishop said. He's learned more about Operation Fortitude in the years since the war than he knew about it at the time, he said.
"We didn't have much to do," Bishop said. One of the things he did, though, was teach new soldiers how to shoot.
"They were sending guys overseas who didn't know the front end from the tail end of a rifle," Bishop said.
Among his other memories are seeing Gen. George Patton, commander of the 1st Army Group.
"Patton, he came to the outfit a lot," Bishop said. "He wore them pearl-handled 45s on his hips. He was different, I can say that."
Following Operation Fortitude, Bishop went to France, and then to Germany, where he got advance notice of the May 8, 1945 end of the war in Europe.
"There was a buddy of mine, working in the 'war room,' and he came out that day and told me, 'The war is over,'" Bishop said.
Bishop got the news 12 hours before it was formally announced. In the meantime, he and his buddy had to struggle to keep their secret.
"They had a pub there, so we went to it and got us some cognac and drank it," Bishop remembered. "We had to do something."
Still, Bishop and his buddy struggled not to share the news.
"It was hard. That's why we drank the cognac," Bishop laughed.
Bishop didn't get aboard a troop ship until Thanksgiving Day of 1945. He left from Antwerp, Belgium, and was home 21 days later. He and his wife, Loyce, who passed away in 2005, had two sons as he made a life locally in the grocery and service station businesses.
Now 95, and likely the oldest native of Walton County — his church, South Walton Baptist, hosted a birthday celebration for him on Saturday — Bishop is among the dwindling number of World War II veterans left to bear living witness to the conflict. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served during World War II, 558,000 remained alive as of last year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
These days, youthful bravado tempered by wisdom, Bishop is a more circumspect about his wartime experience.
"I look back now and think, 'Why did I do that?'" he said.