Around the time of the Great Depression, life was difficult for families.
Food and other items were rationed, jobs were hard to come by and some homes didn’t have electricity.
During that time, John R. and Bessie McKain of the Shale Hill area east of Brownstown experienced those hardships while raising their 12 children.
If that wasn’t enough, six of their sons left home between January 1941 and March 1943 to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, and then another son joined the U.S. Navy, resulting in seven serving at the same time.
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Fortunately, all of them returned home in 1945, although a couple of them were injured in action and one dealt with an illness.
Then in the early 1950s during the Korean War, their other two sons were in the military at the same time.
With most of the McKain brothers being drafted, they didn’t have a choice but to serve their country. But they did it with pride.
“It was a job that had to be done,” said Max McKain, the youngest of the nine brothers and the only one still living. “It wasn’t volunteer. I got a letter one morning that said, ‘Greetings. Your friends and neighbors have selected you.’ That’s what it said on the paper, and that’s what I did. That’s what I had to do.”
Through eighth grade, the McKain children attended the Durland school, which was a one-room building near Crane Hill between Brownstown and Seymour. They then moved on to attend Brownstown High School.
The older boys found whatever jobs they could after high school until they were called to serve during World War II.
John P. McKain was the first brother to enter the Army, doing so Jan. 28, 1941, at age 24.
Richard A. McKain was next, entering March 18, 1941 at age 33, and Otis L. McKain entered Sept. 18, 1941, at age 28. Otis was married with one daughter at the time.
Time passed until Roland V. McKain was called to serve Dec. 6, 1942, at age 22. More than a month later, on Jan. 11, 1943, Kenneth D. McKain was 20 when he entered the service. Then March 6, 1943, Jack McKain was only 18 when he began serving.
John was in an infantry, Otis was with an engineering company, Roland worked in artillery, Kenneth worked in a hospital and Jack was a field medic — all serving overseas.
Richard and Roscoe both voluntarily joined the military and were the only ones among the brothers to stay in the United States during World War II. Richard served with a military police escort guard company, while Roscoe was a part of the Navy.
Once all seven of them were serving, that left John R. and Bessie to take care of their other two sons, Dallas and Max, and a daughter, Shirley Ann. Another daughter, Katherine, was a registered nurse in Indianapolis, while Ethel lived in Brownstown and worked in a defense factory in Seymour.
Jack’s wife, Betty, also came to live with her in-laws at Shale Hill.
Neither John R. nor Bessie could drive, so Bessie went to the courthouse to get a permit so Dallas, who was 14 at the time, could drive them to get groceries when needed.
“People thought it was a rough time. We didn’t think it was. That was just normal living back then in those days,” Max said. “It was nothing fancy or anything. You just went on about your business. People nowadays, you tell them something like that, and they act like they don’t believe you, but we never thought anything about it and what we did.”
Betty said one of the most difficult parts of the time was not knowing how all of the brothers were doing. There weren’t cellphones or the internet. Communication came via mail, going to a movie theater to watch news reels or listening to the news on a battery radio.
“I wondered how their mother kept her sanity with five of them all in battle in Europe at the same time and not knowing day to day,” said Betty, who now lives in the Clearspring area. “It was heartbreaking because you never knew what was going to take place.”
The brothers returned home in 1945 in the order they left. Once they were discharged from the military, it was up to them to find their way home.
John P., who was wounded in action at Anzio beachhead in Italy and earned a Purple Heart, wound up working at Arvin Industries along with Otis and Roland, while Dean worked at a cement company near Shale Hill.
Jack was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He returned home in July 1945 for 30 days and then had to go to the South Pacific because the war with Japan was still going on, Betty said. He was discharged near Christmas that year.
Once he was home for good, he worked at a brickyard in Brownstown until it closed, and then he worked for the state highway department for a few months before working for Rural Electric.
“I remember when Mom got the letter that the government sent informing her that her son was wounded in action because she had to go from Shale Hill to Ewing to pick the letter up at the railroad station,” said Max, who now lives in Brownstown. “It didn’t describe how bad he was hurt but said he was injured. They didn’t get information from the government at wartime.”
Richard moved to Indianapolis and got a job, while Roscoe was medically discharged because of tuberculosis.
Once the seven brothers were home, Bessie McKain and another Brownstown woman, Hattie Manion, were recognized by Indiana’s governor at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh for both having seven children serve at the same time.
In 1951, a year after Max graduated from Brownstown High School, he was drafted to serve during the Korean War.
“You didn’t have too much to think of anything back then. If they wanted you, they got you. That was the way it went,” Max said of being drafted.
Sixteen weeks after he took basic training, Max went home for nine days until taking a train across the country to Tacoma, Washington, where he started a 13-day trip on water to Korea.
Max ended up in Korea about four months after Dallas. Max was a private in the 25th Infantry, while Dallas was a motor sergeant in the 36th Engineer Battalion.
At one point, Dallas made arrangements to visit his brother. One day, the area was bombed, and Dallas saw how dangerous it was for Max.
The two were transferred to serve together, and that lasted about nine months.
Overall, Max was in Korea for 16 months. At the time, soldiers retired on points, which were based on their job and how close it was to the front line.
“I had so many jobs, I could sit here and tell you a thousand,” Max said. “I did whatever was needed to be done. That’s what you did. I just did what they told me. … I was over there for one reason — to get time in and get home.”
Dallas arrived home in 1953 a few months before Max. Max said he was dropped off in Illinois and hitchhiked a ride to Plymouth, Indiana, where he took a bus to Indianapolis and then to Seymour and Brownstown.
Max worked for a gas station and drove trucks until 1959, when he started working for Public Service Indiana. After 35 years with that job, he took a couple of weeks off until landing a job driving a truck for Crown Supply. He retired after 20 years with that company.
The McKain brothers’ military involvement is a source of pride for the family.
“I’m proud of all of them,” Betty said. “They all had to sacrifice a lot to do it.”
She recalled her husband’s commanding officer finding out about the seven brothers serving at the same time.
“He wanted (Jack) to get out of the service,” Betty said. “Of course, Jack wouldn’t do it because he thought he wasn’t any better than his brothers.”
Sherry Settle, one of Max’s daughters, said she can’t imagine the hardships her father and his family faced growing up during the Great Depression and the wars.
“I don’t think I can totally grasp the life that they lived,” said Settle, who lives in Vallonia. “It makes me very proud to be a part of that (family). It makes me extremely proud to know that I have that DNA. Aunt Betty and Dad are the only two left that can tell this story because the rest of them are gone.”
Jenny VonDielingen, Betty’s daughter, said the family’s military service gives her feelings of patriotism.
“You just feel great about it to think that they did this,” she said. “It’s sad to think the shape our country is in. Now, to think what they went through and did, you feel like it’s not appreciated now. That war (World War II) is not taught in school anymore.”
Now that Max and Betty have shared their stories, Settle said it will be documented for all of the family’s future generations to have and appreciate.
“It will live on for generations,” she said.