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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‘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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Turning down a million-dollar wound

JamesCombs.adv
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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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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Bataan Death March

Bataan Death March
Prisoners of war on the Bataan Death March. (U.S. Air Force photo)

By George Morris

When their ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on Nov. 1, 1941, all J.S. Gray and his buddy, Cletis Overton, knew was they were heading to Manila, Philippines. As they left Hawaii, though, ships carrying their airplanes left the convoy. Gray, an ordnance specialist, and Overton, an airplane mechanic with the Army Air Forces, received no explanation. They learned after the war that the planes went to Australia.

“We were looking out watching them, and they just turned south, and we never saw them again,” Gray said.

They would soon see airplanes, but they weren’t American.

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Building Patton’s bridges

Charles Hair... 04/11/02
Charles Hair (Photo by Travis Sprawling, published April 24, 2002, used by permission of The Advocate.)

By George Morris

In almost a quarter-century as city engineer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Charles Hair Jr. was responsible for a lot of bridges. But no one was shooting at him when they were being built.

Hair wasn’t always so fortunate as commander of the 3rd Army’s 88th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion. His outfit made 15 river crossings as Gen. George S. Patton Jr. led 3rd Army through France, Luxembourg and on into Germany.

The 88th made three crossings of the Seine, five of the Moselle (in three countries) and three of the Main. They never had to make the same crossing twice.

“To be a good soldier, you’ve got to be lucky,” Hair said in 2002. “We went through that whole thing without any severe times, because when Patton crossed a river, he stayed. If he’d gotten thrown back, we would have been lost.”

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