Liberating a childhood friend

MedineRuiz.adv s090.jpgNolan Ruiz, left, and Mervin Medine knew each other in elementary school, and it was Medine’s unit that liberated Ruiz from captivity near the end of World War II. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When the story of how Nolan Ruiz was shot down and captured in World War II and endured a horrific, weeks-long march was told in Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper, he heard from a lot of his friends. The story, however, connected him with someone else from his past.

It was Mervin Medine — who not only knew Ruiz in elementary school 80 earlier near Plaquemine, Louisiana, but was part of the military unit that liberated him.

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Not a ‘Lucky Bastard’ — Shot down on his 21st mission

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Nolan Ruiz, a ball turret gunner on a B-17 during WWII, takes a look at some of his medals and photos from his service days in the war. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

But for a miscommunication, Nolan “Country” Ruiz, of Plaquemine, Louisiana, might have been among the World War II B-17 crews who completed 25 bombing missions and earned a ticket home. That happened so rarely that those who accomplished it were declared members of the “Lucky Bastards Club.”

No one could call Ruiz’s last mission lucky — nor what happened after that.

Ruiz was shot down on March 4, 1944, in the war’s first daylight bombing attack on Germany’s capital, Berlin, and spent the next 14 months as a prisoner of war. Only 11 of those months, however, were in a prison camp.

Instead, he was among several thousand POWs who were marched for 86 consecutive days during a brutal winter before finally being liberated on April 26, 1945. That forced march is not well known except by those forced to endure it.

“It was terrible,” Ruiz said.

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Liberating Cabanatuan

BR man recalls dramatic raid to liberate Japanese POW camp... 11/23/04Tom Grace was part of an Army Ranger unit that liberated more than 500 prisoners from Cabanatuan, Philippines. (Photo used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur made good on his promise to return to the Philippines during World War II, Tom Grace’s initial role in the invasions turned out to be uneventful. But it didn’t stay that way.

Grace, a New Orleans native and long-time Baton Rouge resident, was part of a dramatic 1945 raid behind Japanese lines that freed more than 500 Allied prisoners to prevent their being massacred by their captors. A force of just 121 Army Rangers and two groups of Filipino guerrillas marched 30 miles behind enemy lines, where they were vastly outnumbered by the Japanese military.

“What we were going into, we were either going two ways or only one way, because we’re not going to come back until we get them out,” Grace said. “That’s what we went in with on our mind.”

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Wrong place at the wrong time

Conrad MeijerConrad Meijer was a Dutch civilian teenager who spent much of World War II as a prisoner of the Japanese. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)

By George Morris

As a Dutch teenager who never took up arms in World War II, Conrad Meijer seemed unlikely to end up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Meijer, however, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Meijer grew up in India, where his father, Johan, built sugar refineries. In 1938, his parents sent him to a boarding school in Indonesia, which then was a Dutch colony. Meijer was at the school when they heard radio reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, is a long way from Hawaii, but it didn’t take long for World War II to arrive. Within hours of its strike on Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked the Philippines and Southeast Asia.  Singapore was captured on Feb. 15, 1942, and Japanese forces moved into Sumatra and Java.

Meijer (pronounced MY-er) later learned his father had sent money to the school to pay for his evacuation, but it didn’t arrive in time.

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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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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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‘Unbroken’ Louis Zamperini

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Louis Zamperini’s face is reflected on the surface of a table as he speaks to reporters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2011. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate.)

By George Morris

When I picked up the office phone and recognized the caller from a Baton Rouge church-supported school, I knew a story pitch was coming. What I didn’t expect was the subject.

“Would you like to interview Louis Zamperini?”

Why, yes. Yes. I. Would.

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