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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Arthur W. Ward during flight training in World War II. (Photo provided by Deborah S. Ward)
By George Morris
As the United States neared its entry into World War II, the world wondered whether England would fall to German bombs or the Soviet Union would fall to Nazi troops.
For much of black America, though, attention focused on the small, East Alabama town of Tuskegee. There, a racial barrier was falling.
Of blacks’ numerous contributions to Allied victory, perhaps none is as compelling as the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Resisted by the American military at home and enemies abroad, they advanced the civil rights struggle in an area where many doubted they could succeed — in the skies.
Although the airmen’s names are seldom mentioned in war history, Baton Rouge resident Arthur W. Ward knows them well. Ward, a retired Southern University professor, went through wartime pilot training there. Continue reading “Tuskegee Airmen”→
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.
Paul Dietzel holds a photo of ‘Banana Boat,” the B-29 he piloted in bombing missions over Japan in World War II. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
Much of the memorabilia that Paul Dietzel kept at his Baton Rouge home involved a legendary sports career — All-America football player, national championship at LSU, connections to such coaching legends as Paul Brown, Bear Bryant, Earl Blaik and Sid Gillman.
Among the plaques, posters and game balls, however, was a photo of the B-29 bomber he flew over Japan in World War II, years before the lesser combat of football made him famous.
There is no question, Dietzel said, as to which experience was the more important.
“Those two and a half, three years, that was the greatest part of my life,” Dietzel said. “I owe it so much.”
Twins Ben and Joe Graci, originally of New Orleans, hold a photo they are in that was autographed by pilot Paul Tibbets. They served on the Pacific island of Tinian, from which the airplanes took off that dropped both atomic bombs of Japan. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
In the months that twin brothers Joe and Ben Graci of New Orleans worked on the Pacific island of Tinian, Col. Paul Tibbets was just another pilot they knew and the “Enola Gay” was just another bomber that they and their comrades worked to keep flying in World War II.
That changed abruptly on Aug. 6, 1945.
When the B-29 Superfortress bomber flown by Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb code named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan, it was just as big a surprise to the men on Tinian as it was to the rest of the world. They found out about it the next 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.