A Life of Distinction: WWII Tank Driver, “Choc” Charleston
During the blackest nights and toughest battles of WWII, soldiers marveled at Gilbert “Choc” Charleston’s calmness, saying, “The Indian isn’t afraid of anything.”
Now, as Choc turns 100 years old, he vividly recalls his service as a tank driver. Although Choc shields listeners from the harsh details of the carnage he witnessed, he can’t forget surviving America’s bloodiest battle in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge. He tells about being shot at for nine months, never getting to sleep in a bed, and rarely getting a hot meal.
Despite unimaginable horrors, Choc also encountered an array of special people who became his fast friends: movie stars, politicians, and musicians. The walls of his home, where he lives with Billie, his wife of 79 years, are filled with photographs of himself and the friends he’s made along the way.
Choc Goes to Europe
As a Choctaw raised in Duncan, Oklahoma, Choc was taught to be fearless and accept life’s challenges. He was bullied at school by those who didn’t like his dark skin color and beaten by teachers who wanted to “civilize” him. He took up boxing and whipped the school bully.
“I guess you could say I had a bad start,” Choc said.
But Choc’s life took a turn after he was drafted into the Army. He reconnected with a childhood friend, Billie, during a training leave from Fort Lewis. A week later, they married. Three weeks later, he shipped out.
Suddenly, Choc was seeing scenery very different from Oklahoma: large trees in Washington, thousands of soldiers packed on a ship in the Atlantic ocean, and even a London subway. “An underground tunnel with people getting onto moving stairways called escalators,” Choc said. “Strange experiences for a country boy.”
Choc was a strange experience for the people of Europe. “They’d never seen an Indian before,” said Choc. “I was pretty popular. They wanted to look me over real close.”
Once Choc’s military duties began in earnest, his whole world revolved around his tank. “We lived in the tank. We slept in the tank. We ate in that tank. And at night, two of us walked around the tank on guard duty,” said Choc. “Invariably, they’d get spooked, but I never felt scared. One cold winter night, I saw a pinpoint of light behind a blackout window from a nearby home. I knocked on the door and said, ‘We’re two American G.I.s freezing to death, can you let us warm up?’ The man spoke English and invited us in for hot chocolate.”
“The man pulled out a photo album and pointed to a picture. ‘Do you know who this is?’ he asked. I said, ‘That’s Jesse Owens, who ran in the 1936 Olympics.’ The guy said, ‘Yes, and that’s me standing next to him. I ran against Jesse in the Olympics.’”
Little did Choc know that he would have many more brushes with fame, but war was to come first. December 1944 was the pivotal moment when Germans shot the tracks off Choc’s tank.
“I was sent to Belgium to pick up a new tank,” Choc said. “While they prepared the tank, my buddy and I chowed down at the food tent. I wanted to stay a few more days, but he wanted to head back, because his girlfriend had sent him a package, and he didn’t want to miss mail call. He started whining and moaning, so I finally said, ‘Get in the tank. Let’s go.’”
“It’s a good thing we did, too, because when we returned, the Captain said, ‘Choc, turn your tank around. We’re headed back to Belgium to fight. The place you just came from got blown off the face of the earth!’”
Choc likes to say that love saved his life that day.
What followed next was six weeks of destruction. Choc drove his tank through Europe, blasting at the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge. It was impossible to navigate Europe’s narrow streets without damaging buildings. “By the time 17 tanks went down a street, we were driving through someone’s kitchen. And sometimes, a deserted kitchen provided dinner.”
In Service to the Stars
After the war ended, Choc was stationed in Germany, where he was invited to help run a hotel for USO performers entertaining the troops. Choc soon managed the hotel staff––and took care of celebrity guest needs. Choc met the big-name stars: Ingrid Bergman, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant. He became lasting friends with many of these entertainers, and he has the photos hanging on his wall to prove it.
Choc indulged in his love of music while working at the hotel. Since he had the keys to the opera house, he picked the best seat for himself: the box formerly reserved for Hitler. What gave him chill bumps, however, was not Hitler’s seat nor the warfare he’d endured, it was listening to Paul Robeson sing Ol’ Man River. “Now, that gave me chills,” Choc said.
Once Choc returned home to Billie, he embarked on a civilian life that included management, sales, and ownership of Antique Alley in Oklahoma City. His military heroism followed him, and even though he had sergeant status, he was invited to honor three high-ranking generals.
Choc also served as a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism, meeting tribal chiefs and dignitaries from around the world. He became close friends with Carl Albert, George Nigh, Erle Haliburton, and David Boren, adding their photos to his wall of friendship, along with a birthday card from President Jimmy Carter, who is just days younger than Choc.
On the eve of a century, Choc speculates that his “toughness” is a result of his Choctaw raising in the 1920s. The “Indian who isn’t scared” does express one fear for the future: another war. Fortunately, Choc is surrounded by friends, Billie, and a wall of photographs to remind him of the many reasons why he drove that tank 79 years ago.