‘Who more than self their country loved’

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Leon Standifer holds the French Legion of Honor media he was awarded on April 26, 2012, in New Orleans (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

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.

Standifer did.

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A “Lucky Bastard”

Rex Shearer... 10/11/04
Rex Shearer, from Baton Rouge, was an engineer/top turret gunner on a B-17 crew during WWII and was awarded a “Lucky Bastards Club” certificate after surviving the required missions and being sent home. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

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.

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Rocket man

Me_163BA 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.

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Turning down a million-dollar wound

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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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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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Gratitude for the fallen

Caring to remember *** Dutch family continues adoption of WWII graves

 

By George Morris

Some time after Harold Gayle’s family got the dreaded telegram informing them that he had been killed in World War II, they received a wholly unexpected correspondence designed to give them comfort.

A family that lived near the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium wanted them to know that Gayle’s grave would be cared for.

“They wrote to my mother, I guess, 62 years ago and told her that they had adopted his grave and that they put flowers on it,” said Gayle’s younger sister, Edna Kennedy, of Baker

In 2008, she learned that the care was continuing.

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Gen. George Patton through the eyes of his aide

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Retired Col. Richard Stallman (Photo by Jeff Adkins, used by permission of The Advocate newspaper)

By George Morris

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.”

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