This is a place to reflect on history's greatest conflict. You'll see stories about soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and civilians, people I've been privileged to meet as a reporter for Louisiana's largest daily newspaper, The Advocate. You're welcome to share stories of your own by posting a comment or emailing the author at email@example.com.
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.
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.
A German Messerschmitt Me 163B Komet rocket-propelled fighter at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, Ohio (Public domain photo)
By George Morris
In 1943, a month before his 16th birthday, Joachim “Joe” Hoehne was drafted into the German military. It was the fate of many boys his age in a country seeing World War II’s fortunes turning against it.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, though, Hoehne ended up on the cutting edge of aviation.
Hoehne, later a resident of Denham Springs, Louisiana, flew the Messerschmitt 163 Komet, a rocket plane introduced late in the war as the United States, Britain, Russia and France tightened the noose on Germany. Although it had little impact on the war’s outcome, it indicated where manned flight was heading.
Two years after the war, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in an X-1 rocket plane. Today, the vehicle’s most advanced descendent is the space shuttle.
All of that, of course, was more than Hoehne could have imagined at the time, even though he had grown up around aviation.
Gen. 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 …
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.”
When he got the idea to write a book on Gen. George S. Patton Jr., former University of New Orleans professor Richard Stillman received some honest, if indelicate, encouragement.
“As my younger son put it so well, we’re a fading group,” Stillman said.
Certainly, few alive today worked so closely with the famed World War II general — and Patton himself was an original.
So, in 1998, Stillman, then 81, wrote “General Patton’s Timeless Leadership Principles,” a work that is part biography, part self-help book and all the culmination of Stillman’s two-fold career. After retiring from the Army as a colonel in 1965, Stillman became a management professor at UNO, retiring in 1982. Stillman died in 2008.
“This was a great American hero,” Stillman said. “I consider him perhaps the most outstanding army commander that our country, and perhaps any country, has ever produced.”