Before earning an agriculture degree and beginning an impressive career that has spanned seven decades so far, Tom Ingram earned his stripes—literally—during WWII.
There was one item Tom Ingram’s father would not allow his children to possess: a rifle. The elder Ingram insisted his brood had no practical use for a gun that “shot so far, so fast.” So when young Tom, who began hunting at age 9, decided to go against his father’s wishes and purchase a rifle of his own, he was forced to keep it hidden at a neighbor’s house.
By the time Ingram graduated from Beauregard High School in 1944, he was quite the marksman. The skill he had developed hunting squirrels and other small game on his family’s land in southern Lee County would prove itself invaluable a few short months later. As friends back home prepared for Christmas that year, 18-year-old Ingram and his fellow soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 90th Infantry Division—also known as the Tough ‘Ombres—were on the front lines of World War II’s biggest and bloodiest battle.
After a month of fierce, frigid combat in the Battle of the Bulge, machine gunner Ingram and Company F of the 359th Infantry received orders to capture the nearby town of Wallmerath, Germany. The temperature had lingered near 25 below zero for weeks when, on the last day of January 1945, the company came under attack in enemy territory, and an officer near Ingram was hit by a sniper’s bullet. As German tanks fired on the injured lieutenant’s position and most of the company sought cover, Ingram remained with the man, dressing his wounds under heavy fire and in a knee-deep bed of snow.
Unable to save the officer’s life, Ingram turned his attention to the nearby sniper whose sights were set on the company. With the skill of a seasoned sharpshooter, Ingram took out the sniper before facing down four enemy tanks that were positioned less than 40 yards away from him.
“I only survived because those tanks couldn’t lower their guns enough to shoot me,” he recalls. In all that day, six men of Company F were not so fortunate.
Ingram received the Bronze Star for his actions during the episode, but his work in the European Theater was not done. He and the 90th Division proceeded east to liberate Flossenburg Concentration Camp and next, the country of Czechoslovakia.
Being a single man with no children, war’s end didn’t mean immediate passage home for Ingram. He stayed on as part of the occupation force until nearly a year after the last shots were fired in Europe. By then, he had earned the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three service stars and the WWII Victory Medal.
“I promised the good Lord if He didn’t let me freeze to death in that war, I’d never complain about the heat again,” Ingram recalls.
The fall of 1946 found him back in the sweltering South, beginning classes at Alabama Polytechnic Institute courtesy of the G.I. Bill. When he wasn’t in the classroom, he was in the cotton field. He farmed throughout his four years of school, and when he finished with a degree in agricultural education in 1950, he farmed while teaching high school ag ed. Compared to all he experienced in two years of war, Ingram has found little to complain about in the 70 he’s spent farming.
In fact, his post-war life has been quite a ride. While Ingram and his bride, Janette, a childhood friend and fellow API grad, raised five children, he grew cotton and other row crops with his brothers first, then with two of his sons. Along the way, he earned a reputation among Alabama farmers as a leader and innovator. In addition to being a pioneer of minimum tillage, Ingram developed his own strip-till cultivator and other machines to make the conservation methods he prefers possible at a time before similar practices and tools were common.
The first farmers in the county to purchase a mechanical cotton picker, the Ingrams were also among the first in Alabama to begin trapping boll weevils in their cotton crops, nearly a decade before the federal Boll Weevil Eradication Program made its way to the state.
“We were the first farm in Lee County to buy a computer and use it for farm business,” Ingram says.
And he would know that sort of thing, because he also spent 32 years serving as president of the Lee County Farmers Federation. He now serves on the board of that organization.
At “91 years young,” Ingram still travels the world to visit the places and people he came to know during the war. He’s made 23 trips to Europe in the seven decades since WWII ended, and he’s visited more than a dozen other places around the globe on Auburn College of Agriculture teaching tours. This past December, he had the honor of participating in the wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He plans a return trip to Arlington later this year.
Asked what he’s proudest of among his many accomplishments, he describes the row cleaner he developed to adapt his tiller to no-till farming. It’s one of many achievements that earned him induction into the Alabama Agricultural Hall of Honor in 2003 and numerous other awards.
While Ingram’s youthful enthusiasm about his wartime friends and experiences is inspiring, his love for farming—and for conservation farming practices in particular—is equally so. Though he’s undoubtedly shared his stories of fighting and farming with eager listeners hundreds of times, don’t look for this tough ‘ombre to stop sharing—or farming—anytime soon.