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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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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The sinking of the HMT Rohna

Tom Hollimon... 01/10/03Tom Hollimon (Photo by Arthur D. Lauck, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When the USS Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor, killing 1,103 American servicemen, it shook the entire world. When 863 perished with the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, the nation was outraged.

When 1,015 died in 1943 with the sinking of the HMT Rohna in the Mediterranean, few knew. Seven decades later, not much has changed.

Tom Hollimon is an exception. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resident survived the second worst naval incident involving Americans in World War II. He understands why so few have ever heard of it.

“They said it was hush-hush,” said Hollimon. “We didn’t talk about it.”

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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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A story for Flag Day

POW flagThis flag, on display in the National Museum of the Pacific War  in Fredericksburg, Texas, was made by prisoners of war held by the Japanese and is similar to one made by POWs held in Davao, Philippines, and Toyama, Japan, during World War II. (Photo by George Morris)

By George Morris

When people think of World War II, the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima is one of the most memorable images. But there is another flag from that conflict, and a friend of mine, that you should know about.

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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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Rangers at Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc

bombing                              Bombers attack Pointe du Hoc in advance of D-Day. (National Archives)

By George Morris

Daniel Farley didn’t know it at the time, but his West Virginia upbringing helped prepare him for a date with destiny in World War II.

On June 6, 1944, Pfc. Farley was part of the U.S. Army Rangers’ D-Day assault on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc. Although wounded, he fought for four days before being hospitalized.

“Being a Ranger is all in the mind and the heart, period,” Farley said.

In his case, having the desired skill set didn’t hurt.

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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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