HILLSVILLE – There is an old saying that “Dynamite comes in small packages.”
Ninety five years ago, Ballard Preston Price was born and raised in nearby Pulaski County. He was the son of Fredrick Roscoe Price and Neva Quesenberry. Shortly after high school, “Preston”, as so many of his friends know him by, entered the United States Army on April 23, 1943 at 19 years old, 5’4” and 140 pounds. After finishing basic training at Camp Lee, Virginia, Preston traveled to the west coast to take 26 weeks of radio operator training at Fort Walton, California. The young Army private was then shipped to New Guinea while World War II was at full speed.
Several months later, a call came in to Preston’s radio while he was on his docked Patrol Torpedo “PT” boat, an 85-foot fast attack craft that the Japanese nicknamed “mosquito” and “devil boats.” A downed pilot was in shark infested waters and needed rescued right away. Tec Sgt. Price yelled out to a soldier that was standing nearby and asked him “Can you run this old wagon?” Preston recalled that when the pilot pulled the throttle back, the front end of the PT stood almost straight up and water poured into the boat and slapped Preston right in the face, which made his radio operator headset crackle and pop.
The military ships in the area shot flares up over the downed pilot until the PT arrived on the scene. The water was extremely rough around the injured pilot as he bobbed unconsciously. Preston grabbed the life preserver and rope and proceeded to throw it out to the downed pilot. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to secure the end of the rope. With no regard to the shark danger, Preston jumped in the water and swam to the pilot. The PT driver yelled out “Is he alive?” Preston responded “Yes, but he’s unconscious.” “Well then, slap him!” the driver yelled back. Preston slapped the pilot several times under he came to.
The downed Mustang pilot had a huge gash on his head and one of his front teeth was knocked out. Preston swam back to the PT boat with the injured pilot that he only knew as Officer Ryan according to his flight jacket. After the two service members pulled the pilot onboard, they returned at shore where an ambulance sped off with the pilot and Preston never saw him again. Later that year, Preston was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroic service in a combat zone. He was also awarded the American Theater Service Award, the Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Honorable Service Lapel Button and the Expert Badge for Carbine M1.
As Preston was showing his awards for this article, his wife was astonished as she had never seen them before. Preston, like most war heroes, does not brag about his awards. He just goes on with life and considers what he did as just a job that needed to be done.
Preston returned home to Pulaski in 1946 and fell in love with a Sylvatus young lady named Mary Ellen Brown, the daughter of C.T. Brown and Pierce Mitchell Brown. They met at a deli while hanging out with friends. Preston walked Mary Ellen home that night and they fell in love over the next year. They married on September 10, 1955 and lived at 519 Bunts Street in Pulaski. Shortly after their honeymoon, the young couple moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Preston worked at Bethlehem Steel for the next 17 years as a mechanic. Unfortunately, a ladder was knocked out from under Preston and he suffered a hip injury that made him receive two hip replacements. Mary Ellen worked at Western Electric as a machine operator after a short stint at Martin Aircraft.
In 1976, Preston and Mary Ellen moved back to Virginia and settled in the Mitchell’s Crossroads community. Both of them were named elders at the Dinwiddie Presbyterian Church and served for many decades. After 61 years of marriage and many adventures, Mary Ellen (93) and Preston (95) are living at the Commonwealth Assisted Living. They are very active with the Sylvatus Ruritan Club as Preston leads the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the American patriotic song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at every meeting. Mary Ellen sells the 50/50 tickets and greets everybody with her beautiful smile and wit. They still drive around some including going to church every Sunday morning and eating out at the local restaurants in Hillsville. If you see this couple around, make sure you say “Hi” and thank Preston for his military service. Preston is what Veterans Day is all about.