Oliver by the River: WWII Veteran Reflects on Family History and Life in the Navy

Written by: Bridget Callahan  | Photography by: Soriano Photography

Department: Down to the Roots

Every morning, WWII veteran Oliver Boykin comes downtown to sit next to the Cape Fear River. He shows up around 10:00 am, and leaves around noon, rain or shine, with the exception of Sundays. Prior to city renovation, he would be found sitting in front of the courthouse on Water Street. With all trees and benches having been removed, Oliver finds rest next to the Cape Fear River.

“There was a sparrow with one leg,” Boykin remembers, “I would feed him separate from the rest of them, because with one leg, he had to put his whole body down to eat. The only time I ever saw the bird get up on the bench, he was sitting here when I got here late one morning. I think he was fussing at me for being late. Well anyway, they tore that park down, and I moved here, and I haven’t seen him since. I come every day looking for him. I come here every day, but he never shows.”

For over twenty years, Boykin has  stuck to his  routine. As  for downtown morning regulars, he’s as much of a city fixture as the Coast Guard ship he sits next to. His memory is sharp as he connects with the passersby, their fury friends, or their children.  This spot is a special place, as it gives him peace to watch the river, which has been connected to his family for so long.

“My grandparents, they never worked for anybody. They never had a job, they used the river water for clams, oysters, fish. They had a place in the city market for 25 cents a day, and on the weekends they sold their products. And then regulations broke that up,” Boykin says. But sitting where he does, across the river from the Battleship North Carolina, it’s not hard to suppose he has other reasons to be there as well.

Mr. Boykin is 92 years old, and one of Wilmington’s last World War II veterans. Drafted at the end of the war in 1944, he joined the Navy at only 18. Born in Wilmington, during the Depression era to a big family, he started working after school when he was a young boy. At ten years old, he made four dollars a week delivering milk. When he finally left for the Navy, having just graduated high school, he was making sixty four dollars a week washing bottles and loading trucks, but he was ready to go.

Boykin was the last of his family to be drafted, and the only one to be sent to the Navy. First, sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, then off to Brazil as part of food services for troop transport. Later, with the 8th Amphibious, he fought in West Africa, Tunis, and Italy. When the war ended, he re-enlisted and was assigned to Trinidad. Then, in 1947, he left the service and got his degree from North Carolina College, now, North Carolina Central University, in Durham.

Mr. Boykin pulls out a little card-sized copy of his diploma to show me. He has his degree in biology. “College was wonderful, they paid for everything, your books, pencils, everything. I never had it so good. I didn’t want to graduate, right? Life was too good,” he says.

Ninety-two years is a lot of life. Two wives, two children, countless friends. From working at the Navy Yard, to doing autopsies on cancer victims at the National Health Institute, to twenty-plus years at the Post Office. It can be argued that Boykin never really stopped serving his country.  He recalls that his Navy education is what really got him on his feet. But he says that the free education he got from the Navy is what really got him on his feet:

“All of my life, I’ve said it’s because of the Navy that I’m where I am. The services are good for young people if they take the opportunity to go to school. A lot of people tell their children, go into service, go to school. Service is a wonderful place to go,” Boykin says. “Life did me a good favor, and I took advantage of it, and I feel like right now if I could just go back to college, I would. Everybody wants to.”

In his later years, Mr. Boykin has been a regular writer for the Wilmington Journal, and op-ed contributor for the Star News. He writes mostly about his two loves, education reform, and minor league football. But after such a busy life, he never misses a morning at the river.

“Birds and squirrels, they pay me no mind. I’m a peace with everyone right here. Though,” Boykin adds, looking over the river, “I think I’d like if I saw that sparrow one more time, and it would let me look at it. You know, that bothers me.”