Turning down a million-dollar wound

World War II Veteran James Combs shows off a photo of himself at age 24 Thursday at his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Photo by Bryan Tuck, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge)

By George Morris

For many soldiers in World War II, the best thing that could happen in combat was the “million-dollar wound” — one that didn’t maim for life, but sent them home.

Monroe Combs got his million-dollar wound shortly after D-Day, when artillery shrapnel struck one of his lungs. He was sent to a tent hospital on the Normandy coast.

“This captain said, ‘You got a chest penetration, so you’re home-bound,’” Combs said. “I said, ‘Really? I’m not going home. … I’m going to make that next jump.’ As I recall, I really took him back.”

By not cashing in, Combs would become part of one of the war’s most famous outfits.

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Currahee Military Museum

Toccoa Museum parachute                           The Currahee Military Museum pays tribute to those who trained there during World War II. (Photo by George Morris)

By George Morris

Toccoa, Georgia, is nearly as far off the beaten track today as it was when paratroopers trained at Camp Toccoa during World War II. Camp Toccoa is no more, but its spirit remains at the Currahee Military Museum and in the imposing presence of Currahee Mountain a few miles away.

The museum ($10 for adults; 160 N. Alexander St. in Toccoa) pays tribute to the soldiers who trained there — most famously Easy Company of the 101st Airborne’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose exploits were depicted in Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Band of Brothers,” and the HBO series based on it. The 501st PIR, 511th PIR and 517th Regimental Combat Team also trained there.

This museum is nothing on the order of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans or the Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, but it has one interesting element that neither of those possess. And it didn’t even come from Camp Toccoa.

When the 506th PIR was shipped to England, some of its soldiers stayed in the town of Aldbourne. They were quartered in horse stables. Some years ago, when the owner of those stables was planning to tear them down, the Toccoa museum found out and bought six of them, which were taken apart and reconstructed inside the museum building. It depicts life the paratroopers experienced during that part of their training.

Toccoa Museum bunkStables where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were housed in Aldbourne, England, are part of the Currahee Military Museum display. (Photo by George Morris)

The museum has a variety of memorabilia, both from the camp and war souvenirs brought home by the paratroopers. It includes a wedding dress made from parachute silk for Glenn Bartlett’s English bride, Joan.

About five miles out of town, Currahee Mountain still dominates the landscape. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a gravel road that the paratroopers ran as part of their training. You can drive to the top for the view. Or, if you want to feel what they felt, you can run it. Three miles up. Three miles down.

Toccoa Currahee MountainThe view from near the top of Currahee Mountain. (Photo by George Morris)


A story for Flag Day

POW flagThis flag, on display in the National Museum of the Pacific War  in Fredericksburg, Texas, was made by prisoners of war held by the Japanese and is similar to one made by POWs held in Davao, Philippines, and Toyama, Japan, during World War II. (Photo by George Morris)

By George Morris

When people think of World War II, the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima is one of the most memorable images. But there is another flag from that conflict, and a friend of mine, that you should know about.

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Airborne: First to arrive on D-Day

D-Day, Ike with paratroopersGen. Dwight Eisenhower speaks with paratroopers shortly before they board airplanes taking them into Normandy on D-Day. (National Archives)

By George Morris

Vincent Russo Sr. of New Roads, Louisiana, was already beyond fear. Russo was one of thousands of airsick paratroopers bouncing through the skies in C-47 transport planes in the earliest hours of D-Day.

“A deep breath of fresh air was the only thing on my mind,” Russo said.

Finally, a green light signaled it was time to jump, and men of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions stepped into the night illuminated by searchlights, anti-aircraft bursts and machine gun tracer rounds. They had to secure the roads and bridges leading from the invasion beaches. It was about 2 a.m., and, along with British paratroopers to the east, they were the first Allied combat soldiers to touch French soil.

At that hour and in that weather, it was impossible for the paratroopers to know whether they were going to land in an open field, in a tree, on a building, or …

“I hit with a great splash,” Russo said.

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Rangers at Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc

bombing                              Bombers attack Pointe du Hoc in advance of D-Day. (National Archives)

By George Morris

Daniel Farley didn’t know it at the time, but his West Virginia upbringing helped prepare him for a date with destiny in World War II.

On June 6, 1944, Pfc. Farley was part of the U.S. Army Rangers’ D-Day assault on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc. Although wounded, he fought for four days before being hospitalized.

“Being a Ranger is all in the mind and the heart, period,” Farley said.

In his case, having the desired skill set didn’t hurt.

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The first men on Utah Beach

D-Day, Utah, soldiers ashoreSoldiers come ashore on Utah Beach on D-Day (National Archives)

By George Morris

In the dim but rising light of about 6:30 a.m., Leonce Haydel, of Gramercy, Louisiana, became one of the first Allied soldiers to step on the French beach. He was not expected to return.

“It was a suicide mission,” Haydel said. “What they sent us in on, we weren’t supposed to survive at all.”

If German Gen. Erwin Rommel had his way, that’s how it would have worked out.

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The clock ticks down to D-Day

D-Day, ready to board ships at Weymouth
Soldiers march toward the ships they’ll board for the Normandy Invasion. (National Archives)

By George Morris

They all knew it was coming. It was the reason they were in Great Britain, training for the great invasion of Western Europe. On April 6, all leave had been cancelled for the invasion troops. It was getting closer. But when would it be?

Nobody knew. Even as the towns, woods and roads of southern England filled with more and more men and machines, many of the troops had no inkling of how close the invasion was.

“We were one unit in that town, and we were not allowed to go just any place we wanted to,” said Mike Simpson, a medic with the 4th Infantry Division. “So, we didn’t know the magnitude of what was going on.”

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