The Glider Boys

Glider (CG-4A) in flightAmerican Waco CG-4A glider being towed in flight (National Archives)

By George Morris

After a half century, World War II aircraft and airmen remain famous. Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 raiders bombing Tokyo. Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers dueling Japanese Zeros. British Spitfires and Hurricanes fighting off the German blitz. The Memphis Belle.

Less well known is another group of combat aviators — glider pilots. Yet, they were part of some of the war’s biggest, most dangerous missions.

“A bunch of us are lucky guys to be here,” said W.T. Owens of Baton Rouge in advance of a reunion of about 100 other World War II glider pilots.

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Assigned to bomb Hiroshima — the day after the A-bomb

FATEFUL DAY *** WWII airman recalls mission to Hiroshima, NagasakiStan Shaw holds a photo taken of him in a bomber cockpit during World War II. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

On Aug. 7, 1945, Stan Shaw was like any other airman on a combat mission — prepared, yet wondering what to expect. Certainly, Shaw didn’t expect what he saw when his bomber arrived at its primary target.

For all practical purposes, it wasn’t there, replaced by a rust-colored stain — Hiroshima, Japan, a day after the first atomic bomb attack.

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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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Tuskegee Airmen

arthur-ward-1Arthur 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.
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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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Before his football fame, World War II shaped Paul Dietzel

dietzel211.adv.jpgPaul 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.”

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Working on planes that ended the war

Fat Man, Little Boy and the Graci brothers *** New Orleans natives got a close look at the atomic bombs that ended WWII

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.

“Everybody went wild,” Joe Graci said.

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