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

NolanRuiz022.adv.jpg
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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10th Mountain Division: Brutal training, brutal combat

peo WW2Black bf 0041.jpgRobert Black fought with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

As a pre-med student in the Enlisted Reserve Corps, Robert Black had his ticket punched to miss the business end of World War II. But an accidental encounter with servicemen whom doctors couldn’t save led Black to ask for active duty.

It was nothing if not active. 

Black fought with the 10th Mountain Division, a unit that trained to ski as well as march and fought in northern Italy in the last months of the war. He also had several close encounters with the famous.

“I was very fortunate to come back safe and sound,” he said.

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Getting across the bridge at Remagen

peo remagen TS 091.jpgA.C. Thomas recalls crossing the Rhine River over the Ludendorff Bridge, which German defenders had failed to destroy, with the U.S. 9th Armored Division. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)

By George Morris

In its desperate final months in World War II, Germany inadvertently left a door open in its defenses. A.C. Thomas, of Central, Louisiana, is one of those who went through it.

Thomas, then a halftrack driver in the U.S. Army 9th Armored Division, had been with the division in the Battle of the Bulge and in its drive into western Germany. But a major obstacle, the Rhine River, stood in the Allied armies’ path, and the defenders destroyed every bridge the Americans, British and French could use.

Except one.

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Gen. Troy Middleton: Right man at the right time at the Bulge

Gen. Troy Middleton: Right man at the right time at the Bulge

middleton-eisenhower-1944                    Gen. Troy Middleton, right, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

By George Morris

When Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton awoke on Dec. 16, 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium, he knew something was wrong. His attention turned east. Sunlight had not yet pierced the fog, but Middleton could clearly hear what he couldn’t see. Artillery.

This was a surprise — especially here, certainly now. For seven months, the Allied forces had beaten German forces across France,Belgium and Luxembourg. To the east, Russia troops had taken the Balkans, the Baltic states and pushed their way into Poland.

Now, a bitter winter was gripping Europe. Certainly, Hitler was preparing a desperate, yard-by-yard defense of the Fatherland. That made the most sense. What Middleton heard this morning, however, did not sound like defense.

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Stuck in the USSR

Ralph Sims

Ralph Sims

By George Morris

In 32 missions as a B-17 tail gunner during World War II, Ralph Sims had his share of memorable moments — fighting off attacking German fighter planes, being rocked by anti-aircraft fire,occasionally wondering if the plane would make it back to England.

Sims’ most interesting mission, however, was a little-known bombing and goodwill run named Operation Frantic.

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The sinking of the HMT Rohna

Tom Hollimon... 01/10/03Tom Hollimon (Photo by Arthur D. Lauck, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When the USS Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor, killing 1,103 American servicemen, it shook the entire world. When 863 perished with the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, the nation was outraged.

When 1,015 died in 1943 with the sinking of the HMT Rohna in the Mediterranean, few knew. Seven decades later, not much has changed.

Tom Hollimon is an exception. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resident survived the second worst naval incident involving Americans in World War II. He understands why so few have ever heard of it.

“They said it was hush-hush,” said Hollimon. “We didn’t talk about it.”

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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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Turning war’s worst into verse

Dale Carver... 12/08/99
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 Spradling, 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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