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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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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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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‘Unbroken’ Louis Zamperini

peo Zamperini bf 0176.jpg
Louis Zamperini’s face is reflected on the surface of a table as he speaks to reporters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2011. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate.)

By George Morris

When I picked up the office phone and recognized the caller from a Baton Rouge church-supported school, I knew a story pitch was coming. What I didn’t expect was the subject.

“Would you like to interview Louis Zamperini?”

Why, yes. Yes. I. Would.

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USS Hornet: Launching the Doolittle Raid

doolittle-hornetA B-25 launches from the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, as part of the Doolittle Raid on Japan.

By George Morris

Less than two months after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II, the USS Hornet sailed from its base at Norfolk, Virginia with two B-25 bombers aboard. That had the sailors talking.

“We had scuttlebutt running around, all kinds of scuttlebutt,” said Tom Varnado, who served aboard the Hornet. “We just thought that was an experiment to see if they could take off.”

Which they did. Two months later, when the Hornet departed San Francisco Bay, there were 16 B-25s aboard, but the sailors thought they would simply be delivering the aircraft to Pearl Harbor. After all, the Hornet passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in broad daylight with the bombers in plain sight on the flight deck.

“Traffic was just stopped there,” Varnado said. “It was just a mass of people on the bridge. We went right under them. I thought, ‘Well, we’re not going on a secret mission because they wouldn’t do this.'”

But they would. A day into the cruise, the crew got the news. They weren’t going to Pearl Harbor. They were going to bomb Japan.

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Flying ‘The Hump’

John Ferguson

By George Morris

A generation of LSU fans knew John Ferguson as the play-by-play voice that carried the action of Tiger football into their homes and car radios. But in World War II, Ferguson wasn’t just on the air. He was in it.

Way up there, in a wild and wooly section of the sky over the world’s tallest mountains.

They called it flying “The Hump,” that being the understated description of the Himalayas. They ran cargo missions from India to China, helping keep the beleaguered Chinese in the war against Japan. It sounded simple enough. It was anything but.

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