By Charles Petty
When it comes to family history, Steve Underwood has quite the story to tell. The former Lee County High School history teacher has used his own family history to write a historical fiction novel about his native state’s role in World War II.
From an early age, Underwood, who was on staff at Lee Senior for more than 30 years, always loved history. Even in grade school, one of his teachers would allow him to teach classes about the Civil War. That teacher was one of the first Black instructors at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte and enjoyed Underwood’s help navigating the recently desegregated school system.
Since his childhood, Underwood has always felt led to help educate people in his native state and tell them about the cast of characters who’ve lived here. He later went on to get a degree in history from UNC Greensboro.
While working on his doctorate in sociology at UNCG, Underwood became fascinated with military history. That was where he stumbled upon books discussing North Carolina’s role in World War II. One Army division with a connection to North Carolina was dubbed “Old Hickory,” and primarily made up of troops from Tennessee and the Old North State. The division was recently given a presidential unit citation for their dedication in the war. Details of this historical group formed the basis for Underwood’s fictional account.
The book, entitled “Young Hickory,” focuses on the 30th Infantry, which marched into Europe during the dark days surrounding the Battle of the Bulge. The primary fight the division was involved in, from Aug. 6-12, 1944, was a battle near Mortain, France. There, against all odds, Old Hickory pushed through and held off the German army for a week.
The novel weaves the historical elements of the battle of Mortain and the fighting in France during the war with fictional subplots, including a romance and the backstories of the soldiers themselves. Underwood’s characters include soldiers from across North Carolina — each bringing a unique part of the state to the novel.
“I have men from Pittsboro to Greensboro in the story, to have a variety of North Carolina voices,” Underwood explained.
Underwood used research and his own imagination to grant “Young Hickory” the historical flavor needed for a war novel. Additionally, Underwood’s family also has experience in World War I. His grandfather was a mechanic on the Western Front and helped clean engines during the war. Underwood said this personal family history helped him develop a respect for military history.
“It’s a story about remarkable North Carolina boys who braved the odds in the dark days of World War II,” Underwood said, noting that he wants the public to know about the division’s bravery. “North Carolina has a great claim to glory in World War II and we should be proud of that.”
“Young Hickory” is available digitally through amazon.com, while print copies can be purchased for $17.95 at www.hometownreads.com.
“Old Hickory” continues to live on in the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina Army National Guard with a unit in Sanford. The brigade just completed its third deployment to the mid east since 2005.