A witness to Pearl Harbor

By George Morris

Seventy-eight years ago today, Lydia “Diane” Grant woke to the sound of a machine gun bullet smashing the wall above her bed. But disturbed sleep was the most minor casualty that day.

The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor.

The long-time Baton Rouge resident, then the 14-year-old stepdaughter of a naval officer, witnessed the event that thrust the United States into World War II. It took a few moments to realize what was going on. Aircraft skimmed the tops of the palm trees of her Navy Yard home.

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Seven Matherne brothers served in WWII

sevenbrothersepl110.081517.jpgMarion Matherne holds photos of himself (lower right) and his six brothers, all of whom served in the military in World War II. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)

By George Morris

Marion Matherne doesn’t claim to be a World War II hero. As far as he knows, no one in his family earned that individual distinction.

As a group, however, the Matherne siblings were remarkable.

Matherne, a Baton Rouge resident for almost 60 years, said he and six of his brothers served in the American military during World War II. Seven siblings serving wasn’t a record – one Texas family claimed nine – but it was a real rarity.

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‘Crossing the T’ at the Surigao Strait

Roy Romano... 10/07/03Roy Romano holds a photo of the USS West Virginia and crew, where he served during World War II. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When the 16-inch guns of the USS West Virginia opened up on approaching Japanese ships 72 years ago, Roy Romano only knew that a big battle was happening.

What no one realized was that an era was ending.

The Baton Rouge resident was a gunner’s mate second class aboard the West Virginia when the Battle of Surigao Strait was fought in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 1944. A resounding victory for the U.S. Navy, it marked the last time that battleships — long the pride of every fleet — would attack each other in a major battle. Already, aircraft carriers had become the most important naval vessels.

“You hear about great battles — Midway, Coral Sea, Battle of the Bulge, D-Day,” said Romano, 80. “All were decisive battles, but you never hear about Surigao Strait. This was the last battleship battle in history.”   Continue reading “‘Crossing the T’ at the Surigao Strait”

The invasion of Pointe a la Hache

By George Morris

In 1943, with World War II in the middle of its fury, Louisiana’s National Guard had been called into active Army service.

As necessary as a militia can be in peacetime, the Guard’s absence was especially acute in a state whose ports and refineries were vital cogs in the homefront war machine.

So, when Gov. Sam Jones announced the formation of the Louisiana State Guard, a force to fill the National Guard’s mission in its absence, little recruiting needed to be done, even though the State Guard would serve without pay.

“It was still one of those times where you had all of the motivation,” said JoPaul Steiner, who joined. “You wanted to serve your country. You wanted to do anything you could.”

Little did they know at the time what that would mean.

Continue reading “The invasion of Pointe a la Hache”

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)