Not a ‘Lucky Bastard’ — Shot down on his 21st mission

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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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Liberating Cabanatuan

BR man recalls dramatic raid to liberate Japanese POW camp... 11/23/04Tom Grace was part of an Army Ranger unit that liberated more than 500 prisoners from Cabanatuan, Philippines. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur made good on his promise to return to the Philippines during World War II, Tom Grace’s initial role in the invasions turned out to be uneventful. But it didn’t stay that way.

Grace, a New Orleans native and long-time Baton Rouge resident, was part of a dramatic 1945 raid behind Japanese lines that freed more than 500 Allied prisoners to prevent their being massacred by their captors. A force of just 121 Army Rangers and two groups of Filipino guerrillas marched 30 miles behind enemy lines, where they were vastly outnumbered by the Japanese military.

“What we were going into, we were either going two ways or only one way, because we’re not going to come back until we get them out,” Grace said. “That’s what we went in with on our mind.”

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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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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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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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