Before his football fame, World War II shaped Paul Dietzel

 

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By George Morris

Much of the memorabilia that Paul Dietzel kept at his Baton Rouge home involved a legendary sports career — All-America football player, national championship at LSU, connections to such coaching legends as Paul Brown, Bear Bryant, Earl Blaik and Sid Gillman.

Among the plaques, posters and game balls, however, was a photo of the B-29 bomber he flew over Japan in World War II, years before the lesser combat of football made him famous.

There is no question, Dietzel said, as to which experience was the more important.

“Those two and a half, three years, that was the greatest part of my life,” Dietzel said. “I owe it so much.”

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The first U.S. soldier to die in Europe

Loustalot_GraveKilled in the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, Edward Loustalot was the first American solder to die in Europe in World War II.

By George Morris

The cross at Edward V. Loustalot’s grave is all but identical to the tens of thousands of markers that spread across American military cemeteries in Europe. Like the others, row on row, it communicates with classic military brevity: name, rank, unit, place of birth, date of death.

Only that last piece of information tells of his historical significance.

When he died, the United States had fought in World War II for less than nine months. Already, American military personnel had been killed in the Pacific, just the first of multitudes who would die there, in Asia, in Africa and, ultimately, in Europe.

For the foot soldiers, Europe’s toll came last, the carnage delayed until invasions of Italy in 1943 and Normandy in 1944. But, little remembered amidst the more epic battles of the war, a small band of Americans was part of a force that landed at the French coastal resort of Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942.

On that day, Loustalot, a Franklin, Louisiana native, became the first American soldier to die on European soil in World War II.

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Working on planes that ended the war

Fat Man, Little Boy and the Graci brothers *** New Orleans natives got a close look at the atomic bombs that ended WWII

Twins  Ben and Joe Graci, originally of New Orleans, hold a photo they are in that was autographed by pilot Paul Tibbets. They served on the Pacific island of Tinian, from which the airplanes took off that dropped both atomic bombs of Japan. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

In the months that twin brothers Joe and Ben Graci of New Orleans worked on the Pacific island of Tinian, Col. Paul Tibbets was just another pilot they knew and the “Enola Gay” was just another bomber that they and their comrades worked to keep flying in World War II.

That changed abruptly on Aug. 6, 1945.

When the B-29 Superfortress bomber flown by Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb code named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan, it was just as big a surprise to the men on Tinian as it was to the rest of the world. They found out about it the next day.

“Everybody went wild,” Joe Graci said.

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Turning war’s worst into verse

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To deal with his memories of World War II, Dale Carver wrote poetry about what he saw and felt, a form of self-therapy he turned into a book, “Before the Veterans Die.” (Photo by Travis Sprawling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

For years, Dale Carver got depressed around Christmas. It wasn’t the typical holiday blues. It was much worse than that.

In 1944, Carver was a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 106th Infantry Division in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest when German troops began their last major offensive of World War II in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge.

There, he saw what war is: the grisly death of friends and innocents, cruelty, stupidity, cowardice, strong men breaking under the strain. As much as he wished otherwise, these sights and sounds and smells would not leave him even after the battles ended. Not even when the rest of his world was celebrating.

“I never had nightmares. I never woke up screaming,” Carver said. “I used to get depressed at Christmastime.”

His method of coping was neither to lie on a psychiatrist’s couch nor bury these images in his subconscious. Instead, Carver wrote poetry.

Carver let the horror of war spill out into verse. He had long loved poetry, memorizing it for the sheer joy of basking in aptly turned phrases. Now, it served a different purpose.

“I think it was therapy,” Carver said. “I think I would have gone crazy if I hadn’t. I’m not kidding.

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On the run behind German lines

Osce Jones                                   P-51 pilot Osce R. Jones poses beside his aircraft. (Photo provided by Carol Ann Jones Lizana)

By George Morris

Many veterans returned from World War II with stories to tell, and most relied only on their memory.

P-51 fighter pilot Osce R. Jones, had something more tangible — a diary.

Forced down over occupied France by antiaircraft fire the day after the D-Day invasion, Jones, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spent a week trying to evade capture and work his way back to England. He got caught, but while the events were fresh on his mind in a POW camp, he wrote about his experiences in a tiny notebook. His wife, Thelma, kept the notebook after he died in 1994.

“He had to write real small, because they didn’t have much paper,” she said.

The small print told a big story.

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‘Who more than self their country loved’

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Leon Standifer holds the French Legion of Honor media he was awarded on April 26, 2012, in New Orleans (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

The headstones are there by the thousands, row on row. Throughout Western Europe, American dead from two world wars are at rest, many near the epic battlefields where they lost their lives.

Fifty years after he lost his dear wartime comrade, Leon Standifer didn’t go to any of those. Rather, he showed up in a tiny town in a corner of France where little real action took place. But even there, men of courage stood up.

And, in the case of Dale Proctor, fell. Standifer couldn’t let that be forgotten.

So, far from the grand ceremonies that marked other half-century remembrances, Standifer came to a country road outside Redene, a small Brittany town, where about 60 persons gathered to celebrate their liberation from Nazi Germany. Most who attended had lived through the occupation. Few, however, knew the man they specifically honored that day.

Standifer did.

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A “Lucky Bastard”

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Rex Shearer, from Baton Rouge, was an engineer/top turret gunner on a B-17 crew during WWII and was awarded a “Lucky Bastards Club” certificate after surviving the required missions and being sent home. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

Call a man a “lucky bastard” and you’re asking for a punch in the nose. But not from Rex Shearer.

When the B-17 named “Blythe Spirit” touched down at Rattlesden, England, in early February 1945, Shearer and the rest of the nine-man crew joined the elite ranks of those who completed all their bombing missions over Europe.

They called it the “Lucky Bastards Club.” The name was appropriate.

“We were fortunate,” said Shearer, a Kansas native and Baton Rouge resident since 1965.

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