Category Archives: Veterans Stories

Stories from interview with WW2 and other combat veterans from Caldwell County, Texas

WILLIAM MCGREGOR ‘BILL’ TAYLOR – A CALDWELL COUNTY FARMER AND WARRIOR

A CALDWELL COUNTY FARMER AND WARRIOR

WILLIAM MCGREGOR “BILL” TAYLOR

1921-1997 

RECIPIENT OF TWO SILVER STARS, A BRONZE STAR, AND THREE PURPLE HEARTS

By Todd Blomerth

            In 1945, William McGregor “Bill” Taylor finally made it home from the war in Europe, but not in the way he had hoped. Severely wounded on December 9, 1944, he spent nine months in hospitals in France, England, and finally at Wm. C. Borden General Hospital in Chickasha, Oklahoma, recovering from shrapnel wounds. For the rest of his life, his body bore evidence of what he endured, including small bits of shrapnel that would occasionally come to the surface of his skin.

Bill Taylor died in 1997. His is a story of survival, almost from the day he was born. He was one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

Born in 1921, Bill was the eighth and last child of John Hugh Taylor and Emma (Williams) Taylor. His oldest sister, Ella, died in 1910. She was followed by Luke (1902-1946), Bauzzle Turner (1905-1959), Martha Ann (Dinges) (1907-1971), Pearl Ether (1909-1976), Myrtle Ollie (Mercer) (1913-1972), and Jess Willard (1913-1946).

The family farmed and ranched outside of McMahan. Tragedy struck early. When he was nine, Bill’s father died of a stroke. His mother died two years later. Now married, older sister Myrtle Mercer took him in to raise and for several years, Bill attended the tiny Oak Forest School, outside of Gonzales, Texas. He never finished high school. He returned to McMahan, but “got tired of milking cows,” so, at sixteen, he enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Bill was assigned to a CCC company stationed at Glorieta, New Mexico. For a year, he and other young men worked on public works projects, and were required to send most of their pay home to help support their families.

Returning home to McMahan, he worked on the family farm. Perhaps encouraged by older brother Bauzzle, on September 10, 1940, he enlisted at Lockhart in the Texas National Guard’s Company F, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th “Texas” Infantry Division.

To say that the United States was unprepared for World War II is a huge understatement. The pre-war Guard units were poorly equipped and undermanned. That didn’t prevent the Texas Division’s men from feeling greatly honored to be a part of the historic military unit. In the years to come, the 36th Infantry Division’s combat record would more than justify its members’ pride.

Bill and older brother Bauzzle in 1940 Company F roster. Company F, 141st Infantry, drilled in Lockhart. Luke was also a member. Company I, 141st Infantry, drilled in Luling. Lockhart also was home to the Regimental Medical Detachment.

  

Realizing that the United States would soon be drawn into the world conflict that had begun in China in 1937 and in Poland in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt nationalized all National Guard units in late November, 1940. Bill had been in Company F for less than three months. Farmers and shopkeepers who were accustomed to weekend drills and two week summer camps found themselves in a full-time military force desperately in need of training, leadership and equipment. Early in 1941, the Division, with ranks swelling

Bill, a Texan in the harsh winter snow of Massachusetts – early 1943

with new enlistees and draftees, began training at Camp Bowie, outside of Brownwood, Texas. Bill and his buddies endured rather Spartan conditions at the unfinished post. Training accelerated, and the Division participated in pre-war maneuvers in Louisiana and the Carolinas. The Division moved to Camp Blanding, Florida, and then to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. Finally, in late March and early April 1943, the Division loaded on ships. Bill Taylor arrived in North Africa on April 13, 1943.

The Texas boys were eager for action. What they got was more training, and occasionally, guarding thousands of Italian and German prisoners of war. The Allies invaded the island of Sicily in July 1943, but the 36th Division remained in North Africa.

Wading ashore at Salerno

On September 9, 1943, F Company, 141st Infantry Regiment, saw its first action. It was very nearly its last. The Italians had suddenly surrendered to the Allies, and some Allied commanders expected little opposition to the landings near Salerno, Italy. The American and British divisions were put onto beaches split by a river. There was insufficient pre-landing bombardment. Unknown to the Allies, German troops had quietly moved

into the surrendering Italians’ defensive positions. The 36th and 45th Divisions were nearly pushed off the beachheads by the well-entrenched enemy. Bill saw many men die that day. The 36th Infantry Division lost 250 mean killed in one day.

Destroyers and cruisers moved dangerously close to the shore and fired at almost pointblank range at the enemy. Overcoming the horrific enemy counterattacks, the 36th pushed ashore, and very slowly began the northward push toward Rome. The ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ turned out to be anything but. Mountains succeeded mountains and the Allies advanced against a well trained enemy. Rain, mud, cold, artillery barrages, snipers, and incomprehensible orders to take hills that hid German fortifications were the order of the day.  The results were predictable. Young men were wounded and killed. Somehow, Bill survived bloody battles that drained the Texas Division of many good men. San Pietro, Mt. Lungo, Cassino and the Rapido River became synonymous with often unnecessary suffering.

The battered 36th Division was pulled off the front line in March 1944 to reequip and replace men lost. Meanwhile, in a badly executed attempt at an end-run around the Germans, Americans landed a force on the beaches at Anzio, sixty miles from Rome. Again, the Germans were nearly successful in pushing this force into the sea. The 36th Division went back into action, shoring up the beachhead, on May 22, 1944. The men of the 36th were instrumental in the Anzio breakout. The 141st Infantry Regiment captured the town of Velletri. The German defenses began to crumble and Rome was captured on June 6, 1944.

The Bronze Star is awarded for acts of valor in combat. Somewhere during the fighting in Italy, Bill was awarded a Bronze Star. While his platoon was retreating under withering fire from enemy tanks, “Sgt. Taylor improvised a litter with poles and blankets and aided by a buddy ran through the fire to rescue their wounded lieutenant.”

The Silver Star is this country’s third highest combat decoration for gallantry in action. Only the Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor stand above it. Sergeant Bill Taylor earned two Silver Stars.

The first was during the break-out from Anzio toward Rome. The Gonzales, Texas newspaper later described what happened:

[Sgt. Taylor] attacked a tank which was holding up the movement of his company from a road junction…, and while the tank’s guns tore limbs from the trees over his head, he slammed a bazooka shell into the enemy vehicle and knocked it out. “We fired simultaneously,” recalled Sgt. Taylor. “I had to peer through the foliage of the broken tree limbs which were covering me to get a look at that smoking tank.” His squad arose and finished off the Nazis and took 18 prisoners and the company resumed their advance on Rome. Sgt. Taylor was decorated with the Silver Star for bravery and resourcefulness.

The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military. Sergeant Bill Taylor was awarded three Purple Heart decorations.

The first Purple Heart came during combat somewhere north of Rome, Italy. On June 17, 1944 a mortar shell exploded in a tree burst, and shrapnel struck him under his left arm. Fortunately, the wound was not serious, and Bill remained with Company F, where he was now a platoon sergeant.

The exhausted 36th Infantry Division was again taken out of the front line in Italy to prepare for another beach attack. Troubled by the slow movement against the Germans in the tangle of hedgerows after the Normandy Invasion, Allied commanders landed it as part of a large military force in Southern France. Thankfully, this seaborne attack went smoothly. Soon, Bill and Company F were pushing northward as the Allies tried unsuccessfully to surround and capture the thousands of enemy soldiers retreating toward the mountainous regions near the German border.

The weather turned cold and wet. The enemy retreat slowed. The Allies’ supply lines stretched thin. I’m sure the ‘old hands’ who’d been in 141st Infantry Regiment wondered constantly whether the war would ever end, and whether they’d live to see that day. As the Allies closed on the Rhineland, the terrain became a huge factor.

Bill’s second Purple Heart resulted from more serious wounds. On October 4, 1944, he and his men were returning from a successful reconnaissance mission when an enemy shell landed nearby. Its shrapnel shredded the shoulder of Bill’s field jacket and some pierced his throat. He was patched up at an aid station, where he recruited his commanding officer’s help to avoid being evacuated to a hospital.

Reading combat reports and histories of late 1944, I was struck with the descriptions of the 36th Infantry Division as being “tired and undermanned.” Clearly, attrition had begun to affect the unit’s readiness. Needing an additional four thousand men, it never got them. The reality of American combat in Europe at this time was that there weren’t enough properly trained soldiers in the pipeline to replace the large number of those wounded or killed.

By late October, the Division was down to two-thirds its authorized strength, and part of a slow moving offensive in the gloomy Vosges Mountains. Nearing the German border, the enemy became more and more desperate. Hitler ordered his generals to strike back at the advancing Allies, in part to keep attention away from the thousands of soldiers massing in the Ardennes for what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The fighting was vicious, and often hand-to-hand.

Regimental after-action report 30 October – 1 November 1944

Near the French town of Saint Die-des-Vosges, near the German border, on November 1, 1944, Technical Sergeant Bill Taylor earned his second Silver Star. The citation speaks for itself:

William M. Taylor, technical sergeant, Company F, 141st Infantry Regiment, for gallantry in action on 1 November 1944 in France. During an attack against an enemy-held hill, Sgt. Taylor located the hostile machine gun which was delaying the advance of his platoon and immediately opened fire on the enemy weapon. After several anti-tank grenades had failed to dislodge it, he called for a friendly tank which was supporting the attack and directed it in knocking out the machine gun emplacement. Then, advancing directly in the face of heavy small arms fire, he led his platoon in an assault against the hostile force and with machine guns and tank fire, killed 12 of the enemy soldiers, captured 14 and completely routed the remainder of the hostile troops. By his personal courage and aggressive leadership, he enabled his unit to seize its objective. His gallant reflects great credit upon himself and the armed forces of the United States.

Bill’s modest version was that “swapping machine gun and small arms fire was getting us nowhere and looked like it would prove costly in the long run. So we had the tank blast their positions while we rushed up the hill and wiped them out. Thanks to the bravery of the men, it worked OK.”

Vicious action near Riquewihr

Bill’s luck ran out on December 9, 1944 near the town of Riquewihr.  Fanatical fighting erupted as the 141st took two small hills, and were then counter-attacked. The battle raged for hours, and Company F fought off a determined enemy in the Bois De Kientzheim. Severely wounded by mortar shrapnel, Bill was evacuated to a hospital in Paris. He later told his wife Jimmie that while in Paris, he stayed awake all night, quietly loosening bloody bandages. He knew they were to be changed the next morning, and the pain would be excruciating.

Portions of Company F after action reports of fighting in the Colmar region when Bill was seriously wounded – 9 December 44

Bill was moved to the 187th General Hospital in England, and finally to the United States. In all, he spent nearly nine months recovering from his wounds.

Technical Sergeant Bill Taylor’s discharge record with dates of wounds, and list of awards and decorations

Bill awarded his metals while recovering from wounds

Bill put the war’s miseries behind him. He farmed and ranched. In 1949, he married Jimmie Secrest in Uvalde, Texas. She comes from a ranching family with roots in Gillespie and Uvalde Counties. Jimmie recalls their wedding day laughingly. They almost didn’t make it to the Justice of the Peace. Rain began filling a low water crossing. Desperate to get to the judge’s office in Uvalde from her grandmother’s house on the Nueces River, before the water closed the road, the couple eased into the crossing, only to have their car stall in the rising water. Jimmie punched the starter button to jump the car ahead, while Bill got out and pushed. Finally out of the water, they looked back to see a relative frantically waving to get their attention. Bill had forgotten their wedding license. Back through the water he trudged. Despite the rocky start, the two had a wonderful marriage. They were blessed with two children; John Wayne, who is married to Diana Lynn, and Peggy June, who is married to Weston Voigt.  The family members were faithful members of McMahan Baptist Church.

Jimmie Taylor – a most delightful lady

Jimmie, along with her best friend, Bobbie Dan Gideon, retired from the Lockhart State Bank. Bill farmed and ranched all his life. He also raised watermelons. He suffered from heart disease, and also underwent two hip replacements. He suffered a series of heart attacks, and died at St. David’s Hospital in January 1997. He was seventy-six years old. He is buried in the Jeffrey Cemetery.

Did Bill suffer from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he endured? No doubt he did, but showed little outward sign of it. Jimmie’s only recollection along that line was of the time, when firecrackers went off on the Courthouse Square, Bill instinctively threw himself to the ground. He didn’t talk much about his ordeal. He was quiet, almost bashful at times. Jeffrey Van Horn remembers him fondly. Before Bill and Jimmie build their own house between Lockhart and McMahan, the couple lived for a dozen years on the Van Horn property near Tilmon. “You couldn’t ask for a nicer man,” recalls Jeff. “He and Jimmie were good friends with my mother and father.”

In 1983, there was a reunion of some of the men who served in Company F. Bill’s former company commander, Bill McFadden attended, and later wrote a letter to Bill. Nearly forty years later, McFadden remembered that “the only time that I ever cried in WWII was when I helped you on a stretcher at Riquewihr.”

Company F Reunion 1983 – Bill’s CO is on far left standing

Bill’s Company Commander’s letter in 1983

What praise! His words speak more clearly of Bill’s courage and leadership than any military commendation.

Grandson John Paul Taylor’s shadowbox for Bill’s decorations that he made for Jimmie

Various newpaper clippings from Lockhart and Gonzales regarding Bill

Bill’s headstone – Jeffrey Cemetery

T’ODON C. ‘CHUCK’ LESHIKAR – Silver Star Recipient -“You might say I was in the thick of things”

  

                                          2nd Lieutenant Leshikar 1967

 

Chuck Leshikar 2018

                      

T’ODON C. ‘CHUCK’ LESHIKAR

SILVER STAR RECIPIENT

SOLDIER’S MEDAL RECIPIENT

“You Might Say I Was In the Thick of It”

 

By Todd Blomerth

 

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Chuck Leshikar for this story. I planned on a couple of hours. It didn’t work out that way. Five hours after arriving at his home, the two of us were still talking. Well, mostly, I listened. To say Chuck Leshikar is an interesting human being is like suggesting that the sun is kind of warm.

Chuck Leshikar was born in Austin, Texas on January 10, 1946. The son of T’Odon Leshikar and Angel (Dexter) Leshikar, he was the second of four children. Chuck’s father, of Czech heritage from Smithville, was Bursar at the University of Texas. Raised in Austin, Chuck attended Austin High School, graduating in 1964.

Chuck enrolled in the University of Texas, intent on majoring in architecture. He flunked out. Vietnam was heating up and expecting to get drafted, Chuck decided he want to fly helicopters. Taking a preliminary flight physical that showed him to be a good candidate for Warrant Officer School and his wings, he enlisted. After basic training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana and Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Ord, California, he was given another flight test and told that, no, he wasn’t going to get to go to flight school – his eyesight wasn’t quite good enough.

Chuck’s Plan B? To complete Infantry Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Then, he pinned on his 2nd lieutenant bars and signed up for additional schooling. In the mid-60s, everyone ‘knew’ you wouldn’t get sent to Vietnam if you had less that a year to go on your enlistment (That wasn’t necessarily so). He figured if he took enough schools, by the time he finished them, he’d have less than a year to go on his active duty commitment, and miss the usual one year tour in Southeast Asia.

Airborne School, Pathfinder School, Ranger School, Jungle Warfare School, 4.2” Mortar Platoon Leader School. Chuck completed them all. And still received orders for Vietnam. He’d finished all the training and still had one year and seven days left on his active duty hitch!

While at Ft. Hood he was temporarily assigned to the 1st Armored Division.  Along with several thousand other soldiers, Lt. Leshikar was ordered to Chicago when riots broke out in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. The mayhem and violence left its mark on him, both internally and externally. During the riots his arm was sliced open with a rioter’s rat-tailed comb.

After a thirty-day leave, 1st Lieutenant Leshikar lumbered onto a flight from Bergstrom AFB to California. At Travis AFB he and others were packed onto a commercial flight. Destination – Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. “It was miserable,” Chuck recalls. “And to top it off, the in-flight movie was Will Penny, which was a really depressing story.”

Chuck had originally been assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. That brigade had taken its lumps and had been rotated to a relatively quiet area of Vietnam. Had he remained with the 173rd, it is probable he would never have seen the horrors and intensity of the combat about which I write. However, Chuck had volunteered for the 101st Airborne Infantry Division, which was assigned to one of the hottest combat zones in Vietnam.

Chuck arrived in Vietnam on June 13, 1968 and was assigned to the 101st on July 1, 1968. He remembers July 1 ruefully. “That’s the same day the 101st Airborne Division became “Air Assault,” and went off “jump status.” This meant, among other things, his hope of receiving the much coveted “jump pay” was gone.  After processing, he was flown to Hue, only recently retaken from North Vietnamese troops after bloody building to building fighting. From Hue, a jeep took him to LZ Sally, near the A Shau Valley. Despite his training as a mortar platoon leader, he was assigned as an infantry platoon leader in the “Delta Raiders,” D (Delta) Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment (D/2/501).

Vietnam’s A Shau Valley runs north and south for twenty-five miles. Flanked by two strings of heavily forested mountains, it was a key entry point into South Vietnam for North Vietnamese (NVA) soldiers and equipment, using the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. The 101st’s areas of operation were in this hotbed of enemy activity.                The daily log of Delta Company shows almost constant contact with the enemy. Search operations and reconnaisances in force were met with attempted ambushes. Sudden sniper and artillery fire from the well concealed enemy were encountered. Bunkers, weapons caches, were found and destroyed. 1st Lieutenant Chuck Leshikar found he was a natural leader of men. On August 18, 1968, his radio telephone operator (RTO) fell down a steep embankment and into a river. Chuck saved the man’s life, and was later awarded the Soldier’s Medal, awarded for “heroism not involving conflict with the enemy.”

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting the Soldier’s Medal to First Lieutenant (Infantry) T’Odon Charles Leshikar, Jr. (ASN: 0-5344035), United States Army, for heroism not involving actual combat with an armed enemy force in the Republic of Vietnam on 18 August 1968. First Lieutenant Leshikar distinguished himself while serving as a Platoon Leader in Company D, 2d Battalion, 501st Infantry. The Third Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Leshikar, was conducting a search and clear operation along the Song Bo River, Republic of Vietnam, and, because of the nature of the mission, it was necessary for half of the element to move through the water in order to locate any enemy weapons caches along the bank. Private First Class Robert L. Walker, the platoon radio telephone operator, stepped into a deep depression in the stream bed and, because of the weight and bulk of his equipment, was unable to remain above water. Observing the situation, First Lieutenant Leshikar, fully clothed and equipped, immediately jumped from the bank into the water to rescue the man. In the absence of First Lieutenant Leshikar’s quick action, Private First Class Walker undoubtedly would have drowned. First Lieutenant Leshikar’s personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.

Three days later, while operating six kilometers east of Fire Base T-Bone, Delta Company ran headfirst into the NVA. The Silver Star, the Armed Forces’ third-highest medal for gallantry, is awarded for singular acts of valor or heroism. The description of Lt. Leshikar’s actions, as part of the commendation, speaks for itself:

 

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918 (amended by an act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to First Lieutenant (Infantry) T’Odon Charles Leshikar, Jr. (ASN: 0-5344035), United States Army, for gallantry in action in the Republic of Vietnam on 21 August 1968. First Lieutenant Leshikar distinguished himself while serving as Platoon Leader with Company D, 2d Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. First Lieutenant Leshikar was leading his platoon on a search and clear operation in mountainous jungles near the city of Hue, Republic of Vietnam, when it made contact with an undetermined sized enemy force. He immediately deployed his men and moved with his weapons squad under the increasing volume of automatic weapons and small arms fire to within twenty-five feet of the fortified enemy position. By successfully directing the fire of this element, he enabled another squad to begin maneuvering against the enemy in an attempt to flank the position. When the weapons squad was pinned down by sniper fire, First Lieutenant Leshikar crawled across an open spot in the trail and became the primary target of the enemy riflemen as he closed on their position. He then engaged the enemy with effective supporting fire, allowing another of his men to successfully eliminate the snipers with hand grenades. First Lieutenant Leshikar returned to his men and discovered several members of his platoon were wounded and lay directly in the line of fire. He again directed the fire of his men, while under direct enemy fire, and made possible the evacuation of the injured. First Lieutenant Leshikar carried one of the more seriously wounded to the rear. Even though he was wounded himself during the initial confrontation, First Lieutenant Leshikar refused medical evacuation, and again moved forward to the front lines. He then continued to lead the advance of his platoon by constantly moving from position to position, directing and giving encouragement to his men, while continuing to maintain accurate artillery fire support. The enemy retaliated by firing an intense barrage of rocket propelled grenades, which forced the friendly troops to withdraw. First Lieutenant Leshikar remained behind, covering the withdrawal of his men and directing the fire of helicopter gunships into the enemy positions, dangerously close to his location. First Lieutenant Leshikar’s personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.

In mid-October 1968, the Delta Raiders were operating in a rugged and mountainous area They advanced on a sharp ridgeline, eventually dubbed Blue Falcon Ridge, they were met by murderous NVA fire. During the two day battle, the enemy hit the company with one of the heaviest mortar attacks he experienced in Vietnam. At dusk, a resupply helicopter arrived. Unable to land because of the tight perimeter, its crew threw out food and ammunition and began to ascend when it was hit by an RPG. The helicopter exploded and “it fell over the side of the hill in flames,” wrote Chuck. Some of what he saw was heartbreaking:

The medevacs came out and we were trying to get the co-pilot on board. He had suffered a severe and very mangled right leg, it was just hanging on by threads. He had lost all of his finger tips and was burned over quite a bit of his body. I will never forget standing on that ridge line to hold a strobe light to guide the helicopter in with. I was a standing target for all to see. The helicopter hovered above us with its spot light shining down on us, the wind from the blades whipping around us. It seemed to be a dream. All the tragedies of that day were around us. It was if I was watching the twilight zone. I was immediately returned to reality when I heard an AK-47 fire three rounds. I knew what was about to happen and it did. The mortar tube started firing again. Again, I heard three shots and the mortar rounds shifted to the other side of the ridge line. The NVA were adjusting mortar fire on us as we tried to medevac our wounded Delta Raiders.

The medevac lowered the basket and the pilot was placed in it and as it was going up one of the other men who had been on the helicopter walked up to me and asked, “Sir, am I very bad/” I looked at him and said, “No, you’re not hurt very bad at all. You’ll be okay.” And the young man looked at me and said, “Sir, do you know who I am?” And I looked at him and said, “No, I don’t.” The man was burned all over his face, had all of his hair gone and was burned pretty bad. I was trying to comfort him and tell him that he was not very bad when he informed that he was SGT Frank Wingo, who I knew very well but I couldn’t recognize because of the extent of the injuries and burns. It caught me totally off guard when he told me his name. That moment is something that I’ve thought over the years….I can’t keep from thinking about how he must have felt – that his injuries were so bad that I didn’t recognize him. I wanted to do something, but was totally unable to. I felt helpless and that I should been able to make it all right – all of it – the burns, my failure to recognize him –everything. This haunts me still. (Excerpt from Delta Raiders, Southern Heritage Press, 1998, The Days of Blue Falcon Ridge, by Chuck Leshikar).

1st Lt. Leshikar on the radio – October 1968

In January 1969, Chuck became Echo (E) Company Commander. In May of 1969, some of the 101st units were involved in the protracted and deadly assault on Hill 937, or what became known as Hamburger Hill. The seemingly pointless extraction of blood from Americans, and the ensuing press coverage of this encounter with well dug in NVA, overshadowed an almost equally deadly battle.

While the battle raged for Hamburger Hill, Chuck’s company – a combat support unit – was in support of artillery and other 101st Airborne units securing the top of a remote hill dubbed Firebase Airborne. “It was the roughest territory I ever saw,” Chuck recalls. Upon approaching the hilltop, the helicopter carrying him and others was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the tail boom. “I was thrown out of the chopper from about fifteen feet up,” he recalls. A defensive perimeter was constructed, and the Americans dug in. The firebase came under increasing sniper fire. E Company had ground surveillance radar, and a reconnaissance platoon. The radar and the recon both were telling 1st Lt. Leshikar that the enemy was about to hit the firebase, and hit hard. “I told the S-3 [operations officer] that we were about to get overrun,” Chuck recalls. “I was ignored.”

In the early morning hours of May 13, 1969, that is exactly what happened. Stationed with his RTO near an artillery battery, he fought for his life. “Three enemy ended up in my foxhole. You do what you have to, to survive.” By morning, the NVA had disappeared. “They had no intention of taking the firebase. Their intention was to damage us and leave,” he recounts. Some areas of the

 

Chuck’s photos of artillery firing at FB Airborne just hours before the night attack

firebase were held only after hand-to-hand fighting, and artillery firing deadly “beehive” rounds directly at the oncoming enemy.

The U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s truncated information provided to the press of ‘significant events …during May 1969’ cannot begin to describe the hell of May 13, 1969:

III MAF (THUA THIEN PROV) – At approx 0330, an elm of the 3rd Bde, US 101st Abn Div (AM) at a fire spt base 27 mi SW of Hue rec a gnd atk fr an unk size NVA force. The en atkd fr several dirs, empl hv SA & auto wpns fire along with RPG. The trps dir organic wpns & point blank arty fire at the atkg en. No en were reptd to have pent the peri & contact was lost at an unreptd time. Res: 31 NVA soldiers kd. US cas were 25 KIA & 51 WIA. 9 I/Wpns & 1 CSW was cptrd.

Carlton Meyer’s Lost Battles of Vietnam –http://www.g2mil.com/lost_vietnam.htm  – describes the incident more honestly:

  1. Firebase Airborne Overrun- There are several short, vague accounts about how this artillery firebase was overrun on May 13, 1969. One veteran believes it was bait to draw the NVA into combat. VC sappers slipped inside its weak defenses and exploded the artillery ammunition dump, killing a dozen and causing confusion. The NVA swept through the base at night killing and wounding most defenders and destroying its big guns. Many Americans managed to hide until the NVA left before dawn, so the base was never officially captured. However, it was wrecked and later abandoned.

Along with the Silver Star and Soldier’s Medal, Chuck was awarded the Purple Heart and three Bronze Stars.

At the end of his tour in Vietnam, 1st lieutenant Leshikar reverted to Reserve status, joining a Texas Army National Guard Airborne unit while re-enrolling and completing his college degree. He attended Jumpmaster School at Ft. Benning, completed the Advanced Officer Branch Course by correspondence, fully intending to continue in the military. It was not to be. The U.S. Army Reserve was glutted with officers and there were no positions available, unless you were willing to “drill for points” only, in hope of one day getting a paid position. It was time to move on to other things.

In 1975, Chuck’s life took a dramatic turn. Walking into Austin’s Scholz Garden, he eyed a beautiful young lawyer. It was love at first sight. “My single days are over,” he thought. “I just knew I was going to marry her.” He and Nancy Burrell were married at Hyde Park Presbyterian Church on January 31, 1975.

Chuck became a CPA and eventually had his own company. He also developed a software program for bottle distributors. “I found out I was good with computers.” But, he was traveling all the time, so in 1989 he sold his company, and he and Nancy purchased their Caldwell County property. Unable to stay idle, he and a cousin purchased a commercial flooring business. He retired the second time in 2004. Nancy, after a legal career in both the private and public sector, also retired.

PTSD – for years, Chuck didn’t give much credence to its existence. After all, he’d come through the horrors of Vietnam unscathed mentally. Or so he thought. In the late 1990s, Chuck’s world went upside down. Nearly thirty years after the combat he’d survived, PTSD struck him down with a vengeance. Even now, Chuck’s voice changed dramatically when describing PTSD’s effect upon him and his family. “Once it hits you, it doesn’t go away.” Clinical treatment, counseling, and support got him through PTSD’s tornado-like havoc. He feels blessed that there were resources available, and that he took the often extremely painful steps needed, to overcome PTSD’s potential life-destroying effects.

The Lesihkars have two grown children. Son T.C. Leshikar III is a tax partner with Price Waterhouse. Daughter Jamie uses her skills as an excellent horsewoman to use those remarkable animals with autistic children and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers.

Chuck and Nancy share their property with two longhorn steers (“Butch” and “Cassidy”) and a bull aptly named Ferdinand and 15 longhorn cows. Chuck is an active member of The Single Action Shooting Society, the organization that organizes and sanctions Cowboy Action Shooting competitions. His interest is this type of competition gave Chuck the idea of creating his own Western town. Chuck’s Agarita Ranch sprouted a frontier town, complete with saloon, hardware store, and bordello. Carriage races, cowboy shooting, and wedding receptions, were just part of the Old West created by Chuck. He recently sold this property, but has no end to interests, primarily involving military history.

With a passion for military and American history, his collection of World War I artifacts is eye-opening. Photos of long-forgotten Doughboys line walls. I asked Chuck if any of the photos are of his family. “No,” he replied. “I’ve found them in garage sales and antique shops. It seems to me that they deserve some respect, so I gave them a home.” Complementing the photos are rare uniforms, diaries, and accoutrements of American soldiers of the early 1900s and World War I.

Next time you see Chuck, be sure to thank him for his service to his country. A simple acknowledgment of his efforts is most richly deserved.

Complete WWI American infantryman uniform                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

1913 American artilleryman’s saddle and gear

                

        

 

 

WWI Uniform with manuals

 

 

 

 

Chuck with doughboy’s WW1 Diary

 

 

 

 

 

Before the Purple Heart                                          if wounded, you received this

 

 

 

 

NOTE: After publishing this, I visiting with Chuck again. “It’s funny what comes back to you,” he told me. “And what, at the time, we thought was either funny, or that could have killed us, that we didn’t think much of at the time.”

  1. He recalls being in contact with the enemy and calling in fire support from the old battlewagon, the USS New Jersey, sitting off the coast. The naval gunners didn’t take into account the changes in elevation. They let look with the ship’s huge guns, only to have the shells fall the WRONG side of the hill they were dealing with. Fortunately, the impacts and explosions were 500 meters away and no one was hurt. “Cease fire, cease fire,” was quickly shouted into the radio.
  2. While at a firebase, or location of some kind – i forgot which – someone commenced firing.  The enemy was spotted on a LZ. Hopping into a LOACH (small spotter helo), he and others proceeding to get airborne and open fire on enemy. All of a sudden, the NVA opened up with a 12.5mm (.50 caliber) anti-aircraft gun. The pilot banked the helo, and took a round into the armored seat. The round extruded (but fortunately didn’t go all the way through), injuring the pilot. The pilot’s only worry: “Now I’ve got to tell my momma I got shot in the ass.”

ROBERT ‘BOB’ PEEBLES – A Peaceful man who has witnessed the horrors of war

Lt. Peebles USMC – Midway Island 1943

ROBERT “BOB” PEEBLES

A Peaceful Man Who Has Witnessed the Horrors of War

By Todd Blomerth

Col. Bob Peebles USMC (Ret.) 2016

Bob Peebles was born on January 19, 1922, in the small town of Alvin, Texas. His father worked for Gulf States Utilities, and the Peebles family lived and around the Alvin area all his early years. Bob was the youngest of three children. His brother Howard (now deceased) was ten years older. Marjorie (Wyatt), who now lives in Edna, was four years older. Bob attributes much of his success academically to Marjorie. “She became my ‘teacher,’” he tells me. “We would walk home from school.  Starting when I was in the first grade, Marjorie would then sit behind an apple crate on the screened porch, and make me learn reading, arithmetic and writing. She was relentless.” Bob’s grandfather had passed down many classics, so Marjorie used some as her primers. He still remembers with clarity certain portions of stories by Charles Dickens, because they were found on pages holding his grandmother’s pressed flowers, and “we were told to be very careful with those flowers.”

Bob attended Alvin High School, and was voted ‘most popular boy’ in 1938 and “Best All Around” student in 1939. He played baseball and basketball, but his favorite sport was football. He graduated in 1939 and then enrolled at the University of Texas taking pre-med courses and playing freshman football. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he rushed to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Although he “hadn’t been within five miles of an airplane,” he signed up for naval aviation training – and flunked the physical! He had varicose veins in and around his knees from playing football. Disheartened, he hunted down a physician to fix the supposed ‘disability,’ had minor surgery, and finally, on May 1, 1942, passed the physical. He was now officially a naval aviation cadet. For the next year, Bob moved through the various phases of aviation training starting in Luscombe single engine trainers, then graduating to PT-17 Stearman “Kaydets” (nicknamed “the Yellow Peril”), to Vultee “Vibrators,” and finally to the SNJ “Texans.” His class ranking allowed him the choice of Navy or Marine Corps aviation, so he chose the Corps. Part of Flight Class 9A (42-C), he received his aviator’s wings and commission as a 2nd lieutenant at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  On the way to combat aircraft, he took a short detour, flying C-47 cargo aircraft. He credits his time in that beloved aircraft’s cockpit for allowing him to hone his navigation skills. Apart from occasional ‘radio ranges’ there were few electronic aids in those days; no GPS, FM radios, or omni-directional beacons. Dead reckoning was a skill that would prove invaluable in the Pacific theater.

During flight training, Bob met Lesley Valentine Strandtman, whose family lived outside of Lockhart, Texas. Strandtman was a Fightin’ Texas Aggie and member of the Aggie Band. The two put college rivalries aside and became good friends. Besides a life-long friendship, Valentine’s younger sister, Adeline (“Addie”) Marie would eventually become Bob’s wife in 1946.

Bob’s next duty station was Cherry Point, N.C.  After a short time there, he was ordered to El Toro Naval Air Station, California where he transitioned into the Grumman F4F Wildcat, one of the first modern fighters able to take on the more nimble Japanese fighters. It still had some primitive mechanisms, such as having to retract landing gear by 27 hand cranks!

Lieutenant Peebles was assigned to Marine Corps VMF 114, a fighter squadron that was equipped with one of the premier American fight aircraft of World War II – the Vought F4U Corsair. The Japanese would soon describe the aircraft as “Whistling Death.” The new squadron’s top three officers were veteran combat pilots; the rest of the pilots were newly minted. VMF 114 was shipped to Hawaii where it continued training. The U.S. Navy had turned back a Japanese invasion of Midway Island in June 1942. The island’s location in the Northern Pacific was of strategic importance. As a result, combat units continued to defend the tiny patch of land. In December 1943, VMF 114 was shipped to Midway Island for three months. Then it was back to Oahu to prepare for shipment to Espiritu Santo, a staging area for the Americans’ advances against the Japanese. After additional flight and survival training. VMF 114 moved into its first combat area. Flying from the Green Island group near Papua New Guinea, the squadron suffered its first losses. The Japanese had created a huge base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. By 1943 there were over 100,000 enemy stationed there. Although Rabaul would be ‘bypassed,’ American air and naval forces kept up unremitting attacks on it and on another enemy base at Kavieng. The Americans did not dare allow an exceeding well trained and increasingly desperate enemy any opportunity at disrupting our advances elsewhere. Weather, combat and air accidents resulted in VMF 114’s loss of nine pilots. The reality of war was now sinking in.

Over many beers during R&R in Sydney, Australia, the men designed their squadron’s new “Death Dealers” logo.

VMF 114 then was thrown into the maelstrom of the American landings in the Palau Islands.

General Douglas MacArthur’s advance into the Philippine Islands in 1944 initially required that his eastern flank be protected. The Palau Islands, some 800 miles to the east had several islands that were heavily fortified, and a plan had been in place to attack and neutralize the Japanese there. However, the American landings in the Philippines were moving ahead of schedule. Certain U.S. commanders expressed extreme doubts as to the need to invade the Palau Islands insisting that, given the circumstances, they could be bypassed and isolated. However, invasion plans were already laid on, and the Marines’ 1st Division and Army regimental combat teams were tasked with taking the Palau group’s Peleliu Island. It would set in motion a horrific battle, which to this day is still cloaked with controversy. Echelons of VMF 114 began flying northward to provide close air support on 9 September 1944. Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Emirau, Pityiliu, and Owl Island were rest and refueling points enroute. After an inadequate pre-landing naval bombardment, young Americans hit Peleliu’s beaches on September 15, 1944. They immediately found themselves in a living hell.

How does one begin to describe the protracted hell of Peleliu? Consider this: Peleliu was defended by nearly 11,000 Japanese troops. The enemy had rethought how to confront Americans in island fighting, and no longer would expend its men on massive suicide attacks. The plan was to make the Americans pay for every inch taken. The Palaus had been in Japanese hands since the end of World War I. Peleliu’s six square miles held a defensive system where virtually every square yard was covered by interlocking fields of fire. The island’s mountain range, the Umurbrogol, contained over 500 natural and man-made caves, as well as the command center. All beaches were mined, with extensive anti-tank traps and obstacles. All caves were connected with tunnels, and heavy artillery was hidden behind sliding steel doors. Caves and defensive bunkers were virtually invisible, concealed behind rock and vegetation. The Japanese even had a miniature railroad to move some artillery from firing point to firing point.

The Marine’s commander predicted the island would be taken in four days. It would take two months, and decimate the 1st Marine Division.

The squadron landed on Peleliu on September 26 (D+9) as the land battle raged less than two miles away. As Bud Daniel writes in A Cowboy Down: A WWII Marine Fighter Pilot’s Story: “All 24 Corsairs arrived in good shape. The howitzers were firing their large shells toward the caves on Bloody Nose Ridge. Marine infantry was busy fighting the ten thousand Japanese that were holed up in these caves. Peleliu looked to us like it was on a planet in another universe. Almost all of the trees had been blown to shred or splintered into pieces. The surface, nothing but coral rock, was also blown apart. We had been warned of snipers and we could hear large shells blasting, creating massive holes and generating lots of smoke. In the distance stretcher-bearers were trying to bring dead and wounded Marines down the coral precipices. It was a horrible battle and we were on the perimeter 1500 yards from the action. What I’m describing was continuous round the clock horror.” El Paso’s Tom Lea, an artist with Life magazine, was a changed man after witnessing Peleliu’s carnage. “The Two thousand Yard Stare,” is one of his most famous paintings. It captures a young Marine’s mental state as he prepares to go back into battle, after seeing many of his compatriots die:

The Two Thousand Yard Stare, by Tom Lea

 

The squadron’s pilots would load up with bombs or napalm, take off, often not even retracting their Corsairs’ landing gear, as some targets were fifteen seconds away. They would return to the airfield, reload, and fly another mission. For the next six months, VMF 114 labored tirelessly to support Marines and soldiers trying to root out the well-hidden and ferocious enemy. When time and circumstances allowed, “barge runs” were made in and around neighboring islands. Other Palau islands were also well defended. The carnage on Peleliu caused the U.S. to re-think invading most of them. But the Japanese on Koror, Babelthuap, Ngesebus, and Anguar were bombed and strafed continuously, to ensure no reinforcements would slip into Peleliu, and no aircraft could lift off. It was dangerous work for Bob’s squadron. The grind of battle, tension of close air support and enemy anti-aircraft artillery, long combat air patrols providing ‘cover’ for the invasion fleet, and stifling heat and humidity (Peleliu lies just seven degrees north of the equator), took its toll. Occasional beer runs to rear areas like Hollandia helped some, but not much. VFM 114 also flew long-range bombing missions – some as far as Yap Island, another enemy stronghold.

All the pilots suffered ‘gray-outs’ from the g-forces of dive bombing. Low flying attacks attracted flak, and on several occasions, Bob’s aircraft was holed by anti-aircraft shrapnel. On one occasion, Bob got shot up on a barge run over Babelthuap. Suddenly, his cockpit filled with smoke. American DUMBO aircraft (sea rescue float planes) were staged under air routes and pilots knew that if captured by the Japanese, they would be tortured and killed. Bob unbuckled his safety harness, threw back the cockpit canopy, and turned for friendly waters. As he prepared to bail out, the smoke cleared. He sat back down, hoping to make it home, It was a long thirty minutes of flying back to Peleliu, with Bob wondering when the engine would seize up. It didn’t. It turned out that shrapnel had struck his radio equipment. When his canopy was opened, the fire went out.

Others were not so lucky. The squadron’s revered commander, Major Robert “Cowboy” Stout died on March 4, 1945 on a strafing and bombing run over Koror. His death devastated the squadron.

The squadron rotated back to the United States in late March of 1945. Captain Peebles was then placed at Page Field, where he taught new pilots gunnery and rocketry at Parris Island. The war ended in August, and Bob was given a choice of staying in the military. His response was affirmative. The Marine Corps told him to go home, and he would be called in six months. As six months rolled around, he still hadn’t received his call back, so he decided he had better do something else with his life, so he re-enrolled at the University of Texas, and signed up to play football. Within a week, the Marine Corps called to invite him back into the service. “I was so sore from football practice,” he told me, “that I was never so happy to get a call in my life.”

Bob’s military career ‘took off’ after World War II. He married Adeline in Lockhart, Texas at the First Christian Church. They would have five children, Robert Jr., Bonnie, Sarah, Jo Leslie, and Patty. Fortunately, Addie proved to be a wonderful military spouse, as the growing family would move with Bob to his various military assignments. In 1950, North Korea invaded the south.  Captain (and later Major) Bob Peebles was shipped to Japan, and then to South Korea, and became the Executive Officer of a radar squadron. Then he returned to Cherry Point, N.C. The next years were fulfilling. As a major, he was appointed to the Joint Landing Force Board at Camp Lejeune, where future amphibious operations were studied. Then it was back to Korea in 1954. Duty stations included Kaneohe Marine Air Station in Hawaii. In 1959, he became squadron commander of VMF 232, flying F8 Crusaders. In 1967, Colonel Peebles served in Viet Nam as air officer attached to amphibious operations.

Bob retired in 1969, and in 1973 he and Addie moved to Caldwell County. They settled on some of the Strandtman land outside of Lockhart, living there until Addie passed away in 1999. Bob now lives in Bastrop with youngest daughter Patty. He is proud of his service to his country, but not one to brag.

The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to someone who “distinguishes himself or herself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” He received that honor for airstrikes in the Rabaul, Kavieng, and Palau Islands areas during World War II. The Legion of Merit is awarded for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” He was honored with this award for service during the Vietnam conflict.  When asked about his Bronze Star with V device, which is only awarded for combat heroism or for someone “exposed to personal hazard during direct participation in combat operations,” he only laughs and says, “I guess I got that for bravery.” The reality is more vivid: He was the acting commanding officer of a Ground Control Intercept unit near the North Korean port of Hungnam in December 1950. The Americans were in a fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir area in the bitter winter, as hordes of communist Chinese tried to surround them. Those who survived the near-debacle were evacuated through Hungnam, along with tens of thousands of Korean refugees. Captain Peebles evacuated the over two hundred men in his squadron on an LST just before the port facilities were destroyed as the enemy entered the area.

Destruction of Hungnam Harbor

Colonel Bob Peebles typifies the best of the “Greatest Generation.” If you see him, be sure to tell him thanks for his service to our country.

 

 

 

 

LT. COL. KENNETH BYRD ‘KEN’ WHITTEMORE – How the Byrd Learned to Fly

Major Ken Whittemore taxing out for mission over North Vietnam – 1966

Ken Whittemore – Lockhart, Texas – 2018

COL. KENNETH BYRD “KEN” WHITTEMORE

HOW THE BYRD LEARNED TO FLY

By Todd Blomerth

Newspaper account of a close call – 1954

On October 6, 1954, 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Whittemore took off on a training mission in an F-86D from Sioux City, Iowa. Suddenly, the engine of his fighter exploded. Too low to bail out, Ken opted to crash-land in a farmer’s field just across the Missouri River in Nebraska. He sprinted from the burning aircraft. Pausing to catch his breath, he turned to see the plane explode. Ken recalled, “As I sat beside a road awaiting the crash crew to arrive, a farmer came up and asked me if my combine was on fire!!”

How an impoverished child of the Great Depression wound up flying sophisticated jet aircraft is a story of determination, skill, and, Ken  is absolutely convinced, God’s grace.

Kenneth Byrd Whittemore was born in Red Bank, Tennessee on June 26, 1930. His parents, Byrd Whittemore and Naomi (Harvey) Whittemore, were factory workers. In the depths of the Depression, Ken and his brother Eugene moved from place to place. His parents divorced when he was ten, and eventually his father became the custodial parent. Life wasn’t easy. Somehow, Ken made the most of it. While living with his father in a rented room in downtown Chattanooga, he would often skip school and use his ten cents of lunch money to watch double features at the Cameo and Dixie movie theaters.

In the summers, he was farmed out to various aunts and uncles in Tennessee and Georgia. While in Elberton, Georgia, he was baptized by the local Methodist preacher, who happened to by his Uncle Alton. Once, when visiting his Uncle Max, he was  exposed to polio by his cousin and quarantined for several weeks.

Byrd Whittemore remarried, but this did not provide any geographic stability. Byrd became a barber, and worked at Fort Oglethorpe and Dalton, Georgia, before moving back to Chattanooga where Ken graduated from Central High School in 1947. The school had an ROTC program. Ken found he enjoyed its structure.

Enrolling in Reinhardt College, a small Methodist school in Georgia, and short of funds as usual, Ken enlisted in the Georgia National Guard. The three dollars drill money was a Godsend.

Ken graduated from college two months before the North Koreans invaded the South. A draft notice was inevitable. The misery of National Guard summer camps at Fort Jackson, South Carolina dissuaded Ken from a career in the infantry, so he enlisted in the US Air Force. After completing courses at the USAF’s Supply School, Ken was assigned to the newly- reactivated San Marcos Air Force Base (renamed Gary Air Force Base in 1953, it now contains Gary Job Corps Center, and San Marcos Regional Airport). Almost completely shut down at the end of World War II, the facilities were primitive. No street lights. Barracks in disrepair. Runways and taxiways in sad shape.

That said, the young enlisted man thoroughly enjoyed his time there. Ken convinced his boss, Tech Sergeant Charlie Chester Brooks, that, because of the ‘valuable inventory’ of band instruments and athletic equipment in the Personnel Supply Room, it was necessary for Ken to sleep in the Supply Room’s isolated building. He avoided the bustle and lack of privacy of barracks living. Relief pitcher for the baseball team, he traveled to other bases. However, there had to be more to life than this.

Luckily, the Air Force was looking for pilot trainees. Not surprisingly, Ken was accepted into the single engine jet pilot program. Getting into the program was much easier than staying in. While at the Southern Airways training school, Ken remembers, “I soon realized that I needed help getting through this program, and I prayed to God for His help. He not only gave it, but has stayed with me ever since.”

                          Three of the aircraft Lt. Col. Ken Whittemore trained in

            While training at Laredo Air Force Base, Ken took his 1937 Nash to the dealership for servicing. While standing around, he was introduced to a beautiful schoolteacher from San Marcos who was teaching in Laredo. They fell in love almost at once, marrying on October 17, 1953, just two months after their first meeting. Loraine Brooks, whose Texas frontier roots run very deep, proved to be a perfect mate. Ken and Loraine have been married for sixty-five years.

The following years passed in a flurry of radar and interceptor training and assignments. Some were short. Others longer. The peripatetic military life saw Ken and Loraine in Panama City, Florida, and Sioux City, Iowa, where the Whittemore’s first son, John Michael was born in April 1954.

In November 1954, 1st Lt. Whittemore’s squadron was assigned to RAF Station Bentwaters, England. John Michael was too young to cross the Atlantic on a ship, and he and his mother were required to fly. Lucky for them. Ken recalls “rough seas, kippered herring for breakfasts, and sea sickness.” After three years in England, it was time to rotate home, this time to Shaw AFB, South Carolina. Here, their son David Mark was born. It was a joyous time, and eased the sadness of the loss of an infant daughter Karen Marie, who was just three days old when she died in England.

 

1ST LIEUTENANT WHITTEMORE OVER THE NORTH SEA IN F-86D

Being a desk jockey wasn’t in Ken’s blood. After eighteen months as a staff officer, he volunteered for the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Some may not recall just how important SAC was to the nation’s defense during the 50s and 60s. The Soviet Union, nuclear capable, made no secret of its willingness to use those weapons. The Cold War was often in danger of turning white hot. A SAC assignment required a commitment far greater than was ordinarily expected of most service personnel. Nuclear weapons delivery, survival, and B-52 flight training were completed. In the meantime, Loraine gave birth to the couple’s third son, Paul Stewart. She and the three boys rejoined her husband at his new duty station – Biggs AFB in El Paso, Texas.  

Captain Whittemore’s first assignment was with the 334th Bomb Squadron as a co-pilot of the massive bomber. To say that SAC training was intense is an understatement. There was zero tolerance for mistakes. On one occasion, his crew’s gunner missed the answer to one test question. The entire crew was confined to a room for two hours. The crew then re-took the test. Everyone aced the exam this time. The crews trained, flew and spent much time together on ground alert. Crews were tested constantly. Ken recalls, “There were three kinds of tests: Alpha, Bravo, and Coco. For Alpha, all crewmen went to the plane and strapped in their seats. During Bravo, crew members strapped in and started engines and then cut them off. For Coco, the crew strapped in, started engines, taxied onto the runway, and simulated takeoff by taxiing to the far end of the runway and then returning to the parking place.”

Nuclear Airborne Alert Missions, with thermonuclear weapons, were flown frequently. These flights originated and ended at Biggs AFB, with much time over the polar regions of Northern Canada. Beginning in 1960, one-third (this later went to one-half) of the Squadron’s aircraft were on fifteen minute alert, fully armed, fueled, and ready for combat, all to reduce the vulnerability of a Soviet nuclear attack.

In 1963, Ken was promoted to B-52 Aircraft Commander. If anything, the pressure became more intense. With names like Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Head Start, SAC kept nuclear-armed B-52s in the air constantly, flying routes near the Soviet Union’s borders. Each bomber crew had specific targets it was to attack in the event of a war. The Soviet Union had similar strategies aimed at the U.S. Ken’s B-52, refueled midair by KC-135s, flew missions often lasting twenty-two hours! Thankfully for mankind, no thermonuclear weapons were ever needed. Those of us living in the 1960s can well recall the bomb shelters, drills, and gallows humor that went with the ever-present threat of ‘what could happen.’

On August 4, 1964 the Tonkin Gulf Incident occurred. North Vietnamese torpedo boats apparently (the event is still the subject of intense controversy) attacked an American warship lying off the coast of North Vietnam. Congress’s Tonkin Resolution led to the substantial escalation in an already bloody conflict.

The B model Stratofortress was being decommissioned. Ken was intent to on ‘getting into the war,’ but not flying another version of the huge bomber. Anti-aircraft defenses in North Vietnam were substantial. “I had no intention of flying over Hanoi in a B-52.”  In November 1965, he received notice that he would be going to Southeast Asia within the year. First, he had to learn to fly the F-105 Thunderchief (endearingly nicknamed the ‘Thud’). During that time, Ken and Loraine decided that the family needed a stable home base. Loraine’s parents were living in San Marcos, so the two searched for a house nearby. In 1966, they purchased a house on Maple Street in Lockhart. They continue to live there today.

The supersonic single seat F-105D Thunderchief conducted the majority of the strike bombing missions in the early days of the Vietnam War. The massive fighter bomber could carry up to 14,000 pounds of armament, more than a World War II B-17 or B24. The two seater variant, the F-105G was dubbed the ‘Wild Weasel,’ and was designed for anti-aircraft missile suppression.

F-105D with full bomb load

On July 22, 1966, Major Ken Whittemore reported to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base for assignment to the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron. Between then and January 1967, he flew over one hundred missions. All but four were over North Vietnam.

In 1965, the U.S created Route Packages, dividing regions of North Vietnam for air missions. Route Package Six (Pac 6), around Hanoi and its port of Haiphong, held the deadliest concentration of anti-aircraft weaponry in the world. Other Pacs were only marginally safer to attacking bombers.

Ken describes a ‘routine’ mission:

Bombing a transportation center – North Vietnam – 1966

“The method of delivery was to approach the target at an altitude of around five to six thousand feet, with the throttle in afterburner. The altitude was determined by the area defenses, and the afterburner gave us a very high speed. At a preplanned point we would begin a rapid climb to about fifteen thousand feet and at an air speed of 350 knots, roll over into a steep dive, aim at the target, release the bombs at six thousand feet, and get the heck out of there.”

On one occasion, his empty external wing fuel tank took an anti-aircraft round, rather than his left wing. “I jettisoned the tank, and the plane settled down,” He recalls. “I did not want to bail out up there. That was pretty exciting and another reminder that God had His eye on me.”

The Wild Weasels would fly with bomber formations. The two-seaters were tasked with attacking surface to air missile (SAM) sites before their weapons could be launched.    It was a deadly cat-and-mouse game, played daily.

Ken’s aerial map showing location of MiG 17 shootdown

 

Two missions stand out in Ken’s memory. The first was an attack on a railroad and highway bridge at Dap Cau, about twenty miles northeast of Hanoi. Ken was part of Ford Flight, a Wild Weasel-led contingent of four aircraft intent on protecting a large attack force from SAMs. Ford Flight entered North Vietnam from the Tonkin Gulf, when two MiG 17s began tracking the lead two aircraft, but not seeing the trailing two. Lt. Karl Richter scored a rare ‘kill’ on the unsuspecting enemy. Do Huy Hoang, the MiG’s pilot, bailed out, and survived the war. Richter would be shot down and die ten months later.

The second was an attack on a railroad bridge in Pac 5. After dropping his bombs and strafing a train, a pilot radioed Major Whittemore that his aircraft had been hit. He escorted the stricken fighter-bomber, and stayed on station long enough to ensure that a rescue helicopter was able to retrieve the pilot.  Another pilot in the four aircraft flight was not seen again.

And so it went, day after deadly day. In the words of one F-105 pilot, “There was simply no room for error.” Over three hundred and fifty F-105s were lost in the conflict. Many young crewmen never came home. The reasons were many: the F-105 was originally a nuclear strike aircraft. It wasn’t designed for the mission, but served admirably until replaced by newer aircraft. Russian ‘advisors’ to the North Vietnamese ensured they received state-of-the-art radar and missiles. The American commanders insisted on certain attack corridors in the north. The predictability played into the hands of the enemy.

Ken Whittemore was one of the lucky ones.

Lt. Colonel Whittemore’s last assignment in the Air Force was Chief of Safety at Laredo AFB. He retired in 1972. Lockhart became Ken’s ‘permanent duty station.’

Ken became the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce manager for two years and was instrumental in the creation of the Chamber’s Chisholm Trail Roundup. Then, working under Joe Rector, Ken helped in the change-over from Lockhart’s collection office to the Caldwell County Central Appraisal District.  Meanwhile, Loraine, a gifted teacher and counselor, worked for Lockhart ISD, mentoring countless children, until her retirement in 1990.

Ken returned to college, earning a degree from Southwest Texas State University in 1977, and finished his formal schooling with completion of an electronic tech course at Texas A&M in 1980.

For years Ken could be found most mornings at the Lockhart State Park, intent on getting in eighteen holes of golf. The couple remains actively involved in the lives of their sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Lt. Colonel Whittemore’s career was, to say the least, exciting. During his tenure, he flew nine different types of aircraft including cargo, fighters, reconnaissance, trainers and heavy bombers. Among his many awards: the Distinguished Flying Cross and eleven Air Medals. He is, quite rightly, extremely proud to have had the opportunity to serve our country.

Be sure to thank him for his devotion to duty. He’ll be the first to tell you to not forget Loraine. Without her love and support, he couldn’t have done it.

“I FEEL PRIVILEGED THAT I HAVE LIVED AN EXCITING LIFE”

Lt. Col. Ken Whittemore USAF (retired) – 2018

 

 

JACK KENNEDY (‘KEN’) DORAN, JR. – PROMISES WERE MADE AND BROKEN, ORDERS WERE MADE AND THEN DELAYED, AND HE’S THANKFUL IT TURNED OUT THAT WAY

 

Ken Doran 1968

Ken Doran 1918

 

PROMISES WERE MADE AND BROKEN, ORDERS WERE MADE AND THEN DELAYED, AND HE’S THANKFUL IT TURNED OUT THAT WAY

 

By Todd Blomerth

 

Hundreds of young soldiers sat in the hot bleachers. They were beginning the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s two week jungle school at An Khe, Vietnam. The training sergeant eyed the newly-arrived men. “Look to the man on your left,” he shouted. “Now to the man on your right. Now look to the man in front of you. Now to the back. Only one of you will come back from Vietnam just the way you got here.”

As Ken recounted this, his voice and countenance changed noticeably. The sergeant was wrong. No one who experienced combat and field operations in Vietnam returned home unchanged.

. Ken’s mother, Malou King, was a Mississippi farm girl. His father, the son of a West Texas sheep rancher, was a Fightin’ Texas Aggie, Class of 1940. The two met in Little Rock, Arkansas. Jack Kennedy Doran, Sr. flew B-29 Superfortress bombers out of India and later the Pacific during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His family is quite rightly proud of his service to his country. After the war, he joined his family’s farming operation in Midland, TX and also contracted as a civil engineer with various companies in West Texas. Jack Kennedy “Ken” Doran, Jr. was born in Midland, Texas on April 4, 1947.  Ken and his older brother Russell went to school in Midland, San Antonio and Houston, settling in Corsicana, Texas where Jack Sr. owned a Phillips 66 distributorship.

Corsicana was by Ken’s account, a great place to grow into adulthood. He lettered in basketball and enrolled at Texas A&M in the fall of 1965.

 

 

                                              fish Doran – A&M – 1965

Studying didn’t agree with Ken. With dreadful grades, “I was invited not to come back,” he told me jokingly. He made another stab at it, taking courses at Navarro County Junior College, but clearly, Ken wasn’t ready yet to finish his college education.

Ready or not, the Army was ready for him.

It’s hard to explain the choices, or lack thereof, available to draft-age men in the late 1960s. The United States was embroiled in a seemingly never-ending war in Southeast Asia. Enlistment or being drafted into the military often resulted in a tour of duty in the war zone of Vietnam.

Ken was, and is, a very patriotic American, Young and seemingly invincible, he wanted to help his country in its war. Not only that, he wanted to do it as a helicopter pilot – an incredibly dangerous occupation with a very high casualty rate.

To speed the process along, he reckoned that if he had to serve, he’d enlist rather than wait to be drafted. Off he went to “Tigerland,” Fort Polk, Louisiana. It was common knowledge that, if you scored well on your initial testing, and if you were in excellent physical shape, you could apply for Officer Candidate School, and Army Flight School, while you were taking Infantry Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training (AIT). Ken was a fit in both categories.

Here, the Army threw its first monkey wrench into his plans. While in basic, a young 2nd lieutenant told Ken, “You can’t go to OCS. You don’t have a college degree.” The shavetail was totally wrong. Being a new recruit, Ken didn’t know it, and opted for another route toward his dream of flying helicopters. Scurrying around amid the time constraints of basic training, Ken somehow managed to complete his application and physical for Flight School. Successful completion of that school meant a commission as a Warrant Officer, a single-track specialty officer, and getting to fly. Things were looking up. Surely, upon completion of AIT, he’d be on his way to the Army’s helicopter flight school at Fort Wolters, Texas.

Instead, Ken wound up at Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Three ‘fun’ weeks went by; he earned his jump wings, but still no orders. Where were they?

Army Special Forces are an elite fighting force. Figuring the Army had ignored his request for flight school, Ken had the opportunity to go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and vie for the coveted Green Beret. However, he and his girlfriend at the time were supposed to be in a wedding back in Corsicana. “If I sign up for Special Forces training, will I get any time off?” “Oh no,” said an instructor. “The class starts immediately.” Ken decided against signing up for the Special Forces’ program. After jump school, he went home to be in the wedding, and later received an infamous “Dear John” letter. In Vietnam, he ran into someone who had volunteered for Special Forces training. “Turns out,” Ken told me, “the guys got to Fort Bragg, and were given thirty days leave, as there were no classes starting at that time!”  The Army had thrown him another curve ball.

Still waiting for the elusive orders for flight school, he received his next set of orders. He was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. PFC Ken Doran was going to Vietnam. As an airborne infantryman.

Pfc Doran and hundreds of young men flew from McCord Air Force Base, through Anchorage and Japan. As the jet banked toward a landing at Cam Ranh Bay, he thought to himself, “What have I gotten into?”

In-country, the men were processed, given one week of acclimatization and ‘culture school.’ He loaded onto a C-123 transport that took him to An Khe. The aircraft landed at an old “shot-up” French airfield. Then two weeks of jungle school began. “We learned how to use claymore mines and improvised explosives. We learned how to make and detect booby traps, and call in air strikes. If necessary, a Pfc could even call in a B-52 strike.”

Ken’s arrival with the unit was fortuitous. The North Vietnamese Tet offensive of January 1968 had been a bloody tactical disaster for the NVA and VC. However, it had proved a propaganda success with the American public. Shocked at the growing number of American deaths (there would be over 14,000 in 1968), President Lyndon Johnson replaced his military leadership in Vietnam, refused to substantially increase the number of American troops, and told the South Vietnam leaders they needed to start carrying a heavier load in the war. The 173rd was a proud outfit that has seen several nasty battles in 1967 and early 1968. It had badly mauled the enemy, but in the process had taken substantial casualties. Hill 882, Dak To, and Hill 875 became synonymous with death and destruction. Its combat effectiveness reduced, the 173rd was re-located to a ‘quieter’ zone of combat just before Ken’s arrival.

173rd Airborne Brigade on an operation

However, in March 1968 when he arrived, “everyone was still jumpy from Tet,” Ken recalled.  He was sent to a combat battalion at Bong Son in Binh Dinh Province. Three weeks of  operations ensued, including avoiding an ambush that had troops scurrying to avoid incoming mortar fire. Then suddenly, one set of orders caught up with him. A sergeant told him, “You’ve got orders to report back to headquarters at An Khe. You weren’t supposed to be here.” Combat infantryman Doran found out he’d been assigned as a pay clerk.

This was a great opportunity to avoid combat zones, stay safe, and ride out the remaining eleven months in-country. Ken chose a different route. The finance officer sought out volunteers to take Military Pay Currency (MPC, or ‘scrip’) to the soldiers at outposts. Loading up ‘monopoly money’ in plastic bags which were stuffed in rucksacks and fatigue pants pockets, he’d head to the airfield, catch a flight on a chopper or Caribou to fire bases. “You were a celebrity when you showed up with        money,” he laughed. Sitting on an ammo crate, Ken would disburse MPC to troopers.

Often, it wasn’t that simple. Ken would arrive ready to pay troops, only to find they were loading on choppers for combat operations. “I wasn’t supposed to be there,” he recalls, “but I’d go with them so they’d get their money. Then I’d start looking for a ride back to headquarters.” I asked Ken why he took the chances. He thought about it a moment and said, “I felt obligated. In a way I felt I was supposed to be out there with those guys to begin with.” His insistence on taking care of his fellow soldiers, and repeated travels to outposts and firebases earned Ken a Bronze Star

The time in Vietnam wasn’t all life-and-death. He was able to take an R&R to Australia, and somehow, wrangle time off at Christmas to visit his older brother Russell, who was stationed at Okinawa with the Air Force. He still marvels at the “loosey goosey” way he was able to hop rides on helicopters and transport aircraft flying around the country virtually unaccounted for.

Remember Ken’s orders for flight school? They caught up with him shortly after he arrived in Vietnam. Once again, someone threw a monkey wrench into the gears. “You have to finish your one year tour before you can go back to the States for helicopter school.” Turns out, the sergeant that told him that was wrong also. Shortly before Ken’s tour ended someone finally got it right. “You don’t need to serve out your tour here,” said a noncom who knew what he was talking about. “I’ll get your orders cut right now and get you sent back.” Ken passed on the chance. It was time to go home.

Ken in Vietnam

 

Spec 5 Doran finished his military service at Fort Hood, Texas as a finance clerk with the 2nd Armored Division and discharged on June 19, 1970. He turned down $9000 in re-up bonus money, and re-enrolled in college. Ken Doran graduated from Texas A&M in 1972.

Thankfully, things haven’t been quite as exciting since he finished his military service. They have been very fulfilling, however. He met a beautiful U.T. student visiting her mother in Corsicana. He and Gail McElwrath married on December 29, 1970. They are the proud parents of three exceptional sons. Alex, older by five minutes than twin brother Jack Kennedy III (“Tres”), is an FBI agent. Tres is a CPA with KPMG. Major Casey Doran is a helicopter pilot and flew Marine One during President Obama’s terms of office. Casey also served two tours of duty in Iraq.

Ken went into banking, working at various levels within the Farm Credit System, first with a Production Credit Association in Mexia, Texas, and then with Farm Credit Administration in Washington D.C, the Farm Credit Banks in Wichita,

Kansas and finally with Texas Ag Finance in Robstown, Texas.. He earned a Masters degree in agricultural banking from Texas A&M in 1975. He and Gail came to Lockhart in 2004, when he accepted the position of branch president of American National (later Sage) Bank. He also operated the Lockhart branch of Camino Real Bank for three years, then ‘retired’ briefly. He was coaxed out of retirement, resuming his role as branch president at Sage National Bank, retiring for good in 2014.

While living in the Corpus Christi area, Ken served on the Calallen ISD school board. His encounters with a demanding coach in Corsicana gave him a strong sense of empathy for students. “We only have one shot at these kids,” he told me. “Kids can be at the mercy of those in power. We have to make sure they are given every opportunity to excel.”

Ken Doran’s life has hardly come to a halt. He and Gail have nine grandchildren and are quite active in their lives. The couple is heavily involved in the community of First Lockhart Baptist Church. Ken attended men’s Bible studies with the non-denominational Bible Study Fellowship for several years, and continues with his study of the Bible with a men’s group that meets at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Monday nights. Ken is on the Lockhart Kiwanis Club’s ramp building team, which undertakes at least one project a month. He also a co-organizer of the Gig ‘Em – Hook ‘Em golf tournament. This annual event earns substantial scholarships for Caldwell County students attending A&M and UT.

A few more things: Ken’s got a wicked sense of humor, a keen wit, and wisdom that many of his compadres are envious of.

Lockhart is blessed to have him and Gail in our community.

BTW, Ken chose not to elaborate on the night, while on guard duty and taking sporadic VC fire, he shot out the main communication wire around one sector of the An Khe perimeter.

BENNY HILBURN – HIS LIFE IS ONE OF SERVICE TO HIS GOD, HIS COUNTRY AND HIS COMMUNITY

  ENSIGN HILBURN 1968                        BENNY HILBURN 2018

It was early 1968, and thousands of enemy troops surrounded a fire base in South Vietnam. As his aircraft flew at low altitude dropping sensors over the area, the young naval officer knew the North Vietnamese were equipped with several types of anti-aircraft weapons. At the height his US Navy P2V Neptune was flying, rifle fire could also easily reach it. However, his biggest fear was not the enemy. The crew had just received a warning notice. B52 Stratofortresses were inbound, and soon would be directly over the battlefield. From 30,000 feet, thousands of pounds of deadly ordinance would be dropping on targets. It was time to get out of the way.

I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Benny Hilburn was born in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1943. He was the son of Ben Bazzel Hilburn and Pauline (Stringer) Hilburn. Benny’s dad was manager of a Swift poultry plant, and Benny spent his first five years of life in Yoakum, Texas. The Hilburn family moved to Lockhart in 1949. It should come as no surprise that Benny was an active, fun loving kid. He was a Cub Scout, and played trombone in the high school band.

Upon graduation from Lockhart High School in 1961, Benny attended Texas A&M. Benny’s dad and two uncles were Texas Aggies. It only made sense that Benny attend there too.

He was a proud member of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, a military unit within Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets, and the world’s largest military marching band. At A&M, the first two years of Army or Air Force ROTC was compulsory. Benny was determined to be an aviator, and figured the Navy gave him the best shot at attaining that goal. He took advantage of a program allowing him to enlist in the Navy while still attending college, anticipating qualifying for its pilot program.

His wish came true. After completion of the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, the newly minted ensign was selected for flight training, receiving his wings in December 1966. Ensign Hilburn qualified on a variety of aircraft, including the T34 and T28.  Multi-engine training on the Grumman S2 followed at

 

                                Benny’s mom proudly pins on his aviator’s wings  

Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. Benny qualified on aircraft carrier takeoffs and ‘traps’ (landings) on the reconfigured World War II aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Lexington.

Lieutenant (j.g.) Hilburn’s next duty station was Naval Air Station Lemoore, where he was introduced to one of the era’s toughest warbirds. Even though the 1960s was well into the jet age, the Navy continued to fly many aircraft whose vintages reached back to World War II. The A-1 Skyraider was one of these. This aircraft was a beast. Developed too late to see action in World War II, the SPAD, as it was nicknamed, was the Marine and Navy workhorse of the Korean War.  The plane could put fear into an uninitiated pilot. Its 2700 horsepower radial engine was so powerful that the pilot very quickly learned to ‘lead with rudder.’ If he didn’t, the consequences could be catastrophic, as the aircraft would do a ‘torque roll,’ that is, turn around its propeller. Benny recalls that “my right leg became very strong.” The A-1 was a close air support aircraft in Vietnam, eventually being turned over to the South Vietnamese. Its ability to linger over the battlefield, carrying 8000 pounds of ordinance on its fifteen hardpoints made it a welcome sight to troops in combat.

However, flying close air combat support wasn’t in the cards for the young aviator. While training on the A-1, a new squadron came looking for pilots. Observation Squadron (VO) 67 had just been created. It used heavily modified P2V Neptune anti-submarine aircraft. VO-67’s future mission was secret. “I asked where it was going, and they said they couldn’t tell me,” Benny recalls. Twenty-three years old, and with the invincibility of youth, it sounded like a grand adventure. He volunteered immediately.

By 1966, the North Vietnamese (NVA) were moving massive amounts of equipment and personnel into South Vietnam. The powers-that-be had declared Hanoi and its harbor facilities at Haiphong off limits to bombing and mining, so plans were made to interdict enemy movement along a series of hidden routes dubbed the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail.’ The quickest solution to finding the enemy was to use aircraft already capable of detecting hidden movement and sound. The Navy, with its anti-submarine technology, was the only branch of service with that capability. VO-67’s mission was born.

The heavily modified and newly armored Neptunes were secretly flown to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base. Nakhon Phanom was chosen because it was hard up against the Mekong River, Thailand’s border with the country of Laos, ostensibly ‘neutral’ and thus off-limits to United States combat missions. They immediately began the use of converted sonobuoys, dubbed ‘acoubuoys,’ and other devices.

There, VO-67’s twelve crews and a large number of ground personnel went to war. “When we arrived,” Benny says, “it was primitive. The runway was short, and they were still using [World War II era interconnecting steel] Marston mats for runways and hard stands. “We were told that our combat mortality rate was expected to be 75%.” A grim prediction, but one based on reality. By 1967, the NVA had emplaced radar-guided anti-aircraft batteries the length of the Trail. Survivability of the slow moving Neptunes was unknown.

VO-67 began flying clandestine combat missions in November of 1967. Using ‘Mud River’ as part of their call signs, the twelve crews flew over Laos dropping listening devices in jungles near suspected troop movement areas. Drop altitudes depended on the type of sensor used. Some were released at 2500 feet, some at five hundred feet. The lumbering four engine aircraft wasn’t built for speed. Its two jets and two propeller-driven engines could only push it so fast. If known anti-aircraft batteries were suspected in the area, VO-67’s air crews used terrain masking and the many karst outcroppings to survive missions. As ‘third pilot’ Benny sat in the nose of the aircraft, bent over a Norden bombsite. When near the target area, he took command of the aircraft, just like a World War II bombardier.  There was nothing between him and the enemy but Plexiglas.

Then, in January of 1968, communist North Vietnamese besieged Khe Sanh Combat Base, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  As a run-up to, and to distract the South Vietnamese and Americans from the coming Tet Offensive, as many as 40,000 North Vietnamese (NVA) soon were in the mountainous area, cutting the base off from normal supply routes. Life in the surrounded base for the Marines, Army and Air Force personnel was extremely dangerous. There was a very real risk that the base would be overrun. VO-67’s mission changed. Flying low-level missions, its aircraft dropped different types of sensors to get ‘real-time’ fixes on where the enemy was massing. Based on these sensors, fighter-bombers were directed with their deadly ordnance against the well-hidden enemy.

Benny Hilburn reflected that “I wasn’t afraid of getting shot down. There were so many aircraft in the air in Khe Sanh’s defense, I was afraid of a mid-air collision!” However, an even greater fear was being in the area when the B52 Stratofortresses, begin unloading their payloads as close as two hundred meters from the Base perimeter. “We were given five minutes to clear the area,” he recounts. “You did not want to be around anywhere near when their bombs were falling through the air.’

In the minds of Khe Sanh’s defenders, and in those of many who have studied the battle, VO-67’s efforts at finding where the enemy was, so it could be destroyed, was instrumental in the ultimate relief of the combat base.

For nine months, Lt (j.g) Hilburn flew missions over the jungles of Laos and Viet Nam. While his aircraft was occasionally hit by small arms fire, his crew survived unscathed. Others weren’t so lucky. Between January 11, 1968 and February 27, 1968, VO-67 lost nine men in each of Crews 2 and 5, and the pilot and one crewmen of Crew 7 to enemy fire or navigational errors.  

VO-67’s duties were taken over by newer, faster aircraft, and the squadron was de-commissioned in 1968. A richly deserved Presidential Unit Citation was not awarded until 2008, after VO-67’s remarkable story was finally declassified.

                      A long overdue Presidential Unit Citation

Rotating back to the United States, Lieutenant (s.g.) Benny Hilburn filled out his ‘dream’ sheet for his next assignment Unlike many, he actually did receive an assignment that turned out to be a dream.  For the remainder of his Navy career, Benny was assigned to a squadron at Norfolk, Virginia, ferrying all types of aircraft around the United States. It was aviator heaven.

By November 1969, the United States was reducing the size of its military. Lieutenant (s.g.) Hilburn, after five amazing years, decided to leave active service. In 1970, and in part because of his love for aviation, Benny went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration, commonly referred to as the FAA.  While assigned to Corpus Christi, Benny met a beautiful young Oklahoman, who was working as a medical technician. They married on December 29, 1972 (and not in January of 1973, as she had planned), because Benny wanted to get the tax deduction for 1972!

Linda and Benny are the proud parents of three children: Melissa, David, and Alison. They also have seven grandchildren.

Benny’s FAA assignments included Dallas-Ft.Worth, Midland, San Antonio, Lubbock, Enid, (and after the 1981 strike by controllers, he was assigned on an emergency basis back to DFW while the family remained in Enid), Ft. Worth Regional, Houston Intercontinental, and Austin.

Benny and his family returned to Lockhart in 1990, where he and his wife Linda raised their son and two daughters, David, Melissa and Allison.  Benny continued to work with the FAA in a management capacity, to include a position requiring the government’s highest security clearance. Benny’s skills and leadership proved invaluable to the FAA in administrative areas, particularly after 9/11. Traveling between Tacoma, Washington and Panama City, Florida, he coordinated airspace designs to ensure safety for the United States President when on Air Force One. In 2007, he finished out his illustrious career at Randolph Air Force Base as FAA liaison with the Air Force training command.

Retirement did not slow Hilburn down. He just quit getting a paycheck. His service to his church and community just got even busier. What does this ‘retired’ person do today? Where do I start?

Benny serves as a deacon at First Lockhart Baptist Church. He’s also sat on many committees, notably as chairman for Long Range Planning. He meets with men of various denominations weekly as part of a men’s Bible study.

He has served in many capacities with the Lockhart Kiwanis Club. Many Saturdays will find him building wheelchair ramps. These ramps liberate the physically and mentally challenged, allowing them to enter and leave their homes safely. Usually the first to arrive and last to leave the club’s weekly meeting, he sets up the meeting room, and cleans up the tables. The club’s annual Five K Stampede relies on him to coordinate its sign-up system, and place directional and safety signs.

Benny volunteers in many capacities at Chisholm Trail Roundup. He’s always on the Meals on Wheels sign-up sheet, for both Kiwanis and his church. He recently finished up two unopposed terms on the Lockhart City Council. He was universally acknowledged as a non-partisan, level-headed, conscientious representative of his community.

In his ‘spare’ time, Benny volunteers to transport people to doctors’ visits and the airport.  

In January 2018, in recognition of his selfless service, he was named Lockhart’s Most Worthy Citizen by the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce.

Benny is deeply devoted in his faith and love for his God, his family, and community in his willingness to help others. Unfailingly kind and generous, this most remarkable American continues to be a blessing to Caldwell County. And, he is a lot of fun to be around.

If you can slow him down long enough, be sure to thank Benny Hilburn for his service to his country.

Todd Blomerth 2/2018

 

CURTIS OWEN – A MEDIC FROM MCMAHAN AND THE “UTTER CHAOS” OF WAR

                                                                         1943  

                                                                         2016

CURTIS OWEN

A MEDIC FROM MCMAHAN AND THE “UTTER CHAOS OF WAR”

By Todd Blomerth

Imagine yourself as a visitor to Carlsbad Caverns National Park seventy-five years ago, on a tour requiring a long walk down into its vastness. Upon arriving in the Big Room, one of its largest galleries, imagine being seating at a huge formation dubbed the ‘Rock of Ages’ as Park Rangers extinguish all lights, and a recording of the hymn of that name is played. You realize what total darkness really is. Feel yourself blinking as the lights come on, expecting to laugh as you savor a new experience that will help your mile-long trek back to the surface as the tour ends. Then try to imagine your thoughts as a somber Park Ranger announces that he has just received the news that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Imagine the screams of a fellow tourist before she passes out – her son is stationed at the huge Navy base there. Imagine your world changing forever. Private Curtis Owen of McMahan, Texas experienced that on December 7, 1941.

Born in 1919, Curtis was the third of four boys born to Odus and Elizabeth (Handley) Owen.  He attended school in McMahan until the ninth grade. His last two years (high school went to the 11th grade in those days) were completed in Lockhart in 1938. Growing up in the Depression, the family kept food on the table farming cotton with mules and horses. Given the cost of horse feed, he often wondered “who was working for whom.”

By 1940, it was becoming obvious to many that America would end up in another war, in all likelihood against Germany. Young men were required to register for the draft in September of that year. As a farmer, Curtis could have claimed a deferment. He chose not to. Despite a farm accident in 1938 that caused the loss of a finger, he also obtained a waiver and, at the suggestion of his family physician, Dr. Joe Coopwood, enlisted in the National Guard’s 36th (“Texas”) Infantry Division’s 141st Infantry Regiment’s Medical Detachment, of Lockhart.

Almost immediately after enlisting, Private Owen became part of America’s belated awakening to our country’s dangers. Along with other National Guard units, the 36th Division was mobilized to national service, on November 25, 1940. It is hard to conceptualize today just how unprepared for war our country was. Worldwide, nations had been at war all through the 1930s. For years Americans refused to acknowledge the reality that, like it or not, ultimately our country would have to fight. Training facilities were non-existent. With obsolete equipment and a poor organizational setup, and the total unpreparedness of military officials everywhere, the Division’s attempt to mobilize quickly went FUBAR, or “fouled up beyond all recognition.” The Lockhart Medical Detachment and the Lockhart infantry unit, Company F, were first housed in tents on a drill field where Lockhart’s American Legion Hall is now located. The Medical Detachment’s commander, Major Abner Ross MD, recruited a local cook, and his men ate at their camp. Company F’s men were not so lucky, having to march to the Carter Hotel on the downtown square three times a day for their meals.

In March of 1942 the division’s many units, coming from armories from El Paso to Texarkana, were united at Camp Bowie, near Brownwood. Located in old cotton fields, the camp’s water and gas lines still lay exposed. Men were housed in 5-man tents. For the next six months “we played like we were at war,” said Curtis. Maneuvers in Louisiana showed how unprepared our military was. Trucks were painted white and designated as “tanks.” Bombing raids on the infantry were made with sacks of flour. In November of 1941, Curtis was selected to attend Surgical Technician schooling at Ft. Bliss’ Wm. Beaumont Army Hospital in El Paso. He learned about plasma, sulfa drugs, and emergency care for the wounded. During a weekend break, his class was bused to Carlsbad Caverns. It was on that tour that he found out his country was at war. On December 20, 1941, he graduated tied for first in his class.

The 36th Division trained at Camp Bowie, in the Louisiana Maneuvers, at Camp Blanding, Florida, in the Carolina Maneuvers, and finally at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. Then its men and equipment were loaded onto ships at New York and sent to Oran, Algeria, in April 1943. Dr. Coopwood, now a major, was the141st’s regimental surgeon. More training ensued, some for amphibious landings, in the squalor and heat of North Africa. By 1943 Private Owen had become Staff Sergeant Owen, and was the senior NCO of the 141st’s 2nd Battalion medical aid station.   Thomas William Hazen, a subordinate who became a close friend described Curtis like this: ‘Sgt. Owen, the steady one, who tried to keep this motley group in order, was known as “Colonel.” His Texas drawl was so pronounced I think it sometimes made him laugh with the rest of us.’

The British and Americans invaded Sicily on July 9, 1943. The 36th stayed in Africa. Would the Texans ever get into the war? All too soon, they did. The 36th Infantry Division was bloodied – and badly – on September 9, 1943 in the Allied landings at Salerno, Italy. The Italians had just surrendered. However, the Germans were aware that it was going to happen, and took over defensive positions. They were waiting when the landing occurred. It was a near disaster, and a foretaste of the debacle called the Italian Campaign. After securing the beaches, bitter fighting continued until the Germans retreated into the mountains north of Naples. The 36th was pulled out of the line to rest and refit in October, and then put back in November, replacing a badly battered 3rd Infantry Division. It fought northward, was pulled off the front line again and then moved by ship to assist in the breakout from the disastrous Anzio beachhead. In July 1944, it was pulled out of the line again, and took part in the landings in Southern France the following month. It raced north in an attempt to cut off retreating Germans. In October 1944, the point system allowed Curtis to come back home for a thirty day leave, which only started once he got to the US. The leave kept him out of the war for nearly five months, because of the transportation difficulties in getting to and from the European Theater of Operations. During this interlude, he married. Curtis and his family were (and continue to be) members of Bethel Primitive Baptist church. At a church conference, he met his future wife, Edith Morrow. Born in Cuero, Edith was raised in the South Texas town of Sebastian, where her father farmed. Curtis and Edith dated until the war separated them. While on leave, Curtis traveled to Sebastian and asked for Edith’s hand in marriage on a Sunday. They were married three days later on December 13, 1944. Curtis’ parents did not attend the small wedding – he had borrowed the family’s only vehicle and wartime rationing made travel problematic. McMahan is a close-knit community, and many families are interwoven. He says jokingly, “I had to leave home to keep from marrying a cousin!”  He rejoined his unit in March of 1945 as it fought through the Siegfried Line. He was in the Brandenburg Alps, at Kufstein, Austria when Germany surrendered in May 1945.

Curtis looks back on his service in World War II with the eyes of a historian. He sees and interprets much of what he endured as part of the big picture. Nevertheless, I asked him of certain instances in his service remain seared in his memory. He paused, and then shared with me some of them.

The Allied landing at Salerno, Italy on September 9, 1943 – His medical detachment rode into the beach on a British landing boat. When the bow ramp dropped, he and everyone on the landing craft were near-casualties. A German machine gunner sprayed bullets at them. Fortunately, the enemy gunner was entrenched too low, and when he depressed his weapon, his rounds struck sand dunes at his front instead of young Americans. Curtis hit the ground, only to feel something kicking him in the side. Rolling over, he looked up at a British MP yelling at him, “Son, get up and off this beach. The bullets won’t kill you unless they hit you.” He got off the beach, but not far that day.

The “utter chaos” (Curtis used that term a lot in his discussions about the war) of Salerno, where the 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions were nearly pushed into the sea – US Navy destroyers cruised close to shore, depressing their guns to drive off the advancing German tanks. The aid station was set up at water’s edge because of the fierce resistance to the landing. The badly wounded were turned over to Navy corpsmen at the beach and evacuated to waiting ships, all the while under fire. Then it was up the ‘soft underbelly of Europe,’ where in Curtis’ words, “there was just one mountain after another.” Mignano, Altavilla, Mt. Rotundo, San Pietro, Sanmucro, and the Rapido River became bywords for misery and death.

The constant replacement of his men – “Each line company was assigned three medics,” he told me. “I lost many of them. Some were killed. Some were wounded.” Many times infantrymen were pulled out of companies and made stretcher-bearers. Toward the end of the war, personnel shortages were so critical that prisoners in army guardhouses were returned to the line, if they agreed to behave. The Medical Detachments got some of them too. They usually did a good job.

The necessity of finding a place for medical facilities –  “We were usually around one mile from the front lines,” he said, “which was well in range of artillery.” If lucky, they found suitable structure where medics and doctors could work in blackout conditions. But weren’t structures also artillery registration points – in other words, targets? “Well, yes, but that was a chance we had to take so we could work on the wounded.” Until prodded, Curtis said nothing of his Purple Heart – he took shrapnel in a hand in late 1943. The picture below, taken from Hazen’s book, “Medicos Up Front – With the 36th Texas Infantry Division,” shows the 2nd Battalion’s aid station in November and December 1943.

For 43 days, in mud, rain and snow, and with mortar barrages which missed (but barely) Sgt. Owen’s men struggled to save lives. Hazen describes their existence:

 

The Aid Station was located on a mountain trail impossible to reach by jeep and several hundred yards from a point where a jeep could get in. there is where we established our collecting point to be used sparingly during daylight. (light discipline was strict). At night a jeep would bring water and food to the collecting point and then take the dead in body bags (mattress sacks) back to Graves Registration for burial. In order to evacuate the severely wounded promptly in daytime, our drivers had to chance being observed. …One canteen of water was each one’s ration for the day and it was used for drinking and cleanliness. Our clothing could not be changed for 43 days.

The death of Lockhart’s Dr. Joe Coopwood – Major Coopwood was not required to visit aid stations, but he did, and regularly. He was at the 2nd battalion’s Aid Station the day before he died. His last words to Sergeant Owen as he left were, “I’ll see you day after tomorrow.” It didn’t happen. The 141st’s regimental surgeon was killed at regimental headquarters by long-range artillery the following day. “He was like a father to us. His death really affected me. I knew he was different from other doctors. Before going to medical school he had attended VMI. He was a soldier’s soldier.”

The horrific blunder of the Rapido River crossings of January 20 and 21, 1944 – The 36th’s commander, General Fred Walker, told higher authorities that attacking across a river into the main German defensive positions would be suicide. Despite this, he was ordered to move two of his regiments across the swift moving stream and then attack the entrenched enemy. The two attempts turned into a slaughter, as men and rubber boats were riddled with artillery and machinegun fire. Although a toehold was made, the survivors had to retreat. Of the 6000 men involved, over 2000 were wounded, killed or captured The Germans suffered less than 300 casualties. Three days later, a four-hour truce was called, so the Americans could recover their dead. Sergeant Owen was ordered to dispatch two medics with a white flag, where a truce had been arranged. “I recall the silence,” he said. Almost continuous artillery fire had, for a brief moment in time, ceased. “After four hours, the truce was over with, and things started back up again.” Curtis understates his own involvement. Hazen remembers that ‘[a]s might well be expected, Sgt. Owen told the captain that he could ask none of us to go unless he himself went also. [The detachment commander] said that he would not permit the sergeant to go for he felt that these two men might not come back. The captain could ill afford to lose the services of Sgt. Owen.” He would later receive a commendation for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” for his work evacuating the wounded the following month.

The horrors of Kaufering, one of the many Dachau sub-camps – Although Nazi extermination camps were in Poland and elsewhere, Germany was home to over 20,000 labor, transit, and concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. The camps in Germany used Jews, Gypsies, political and social undesirables, and Russian POWs, as forced labor. Hundreds of thousands vanished due to starvation, disease, and outright murder. Like other Allied units, the 36th came upon the horrors of unbelievable inhumanity. Beginning in 1943, Kaufering’s inmates – mostly Jews – were forced to excavate underground facilities for fighter aircraft production. As the Allies approached in late April 1945, the SS forcibly evacuated surviving inmates and murdered those too ill to move. Curtis and thousands of other GIs witnessed these horrors. Of his experience, Curtis says little, just shaking his head.

Starving displaced persons and freed inmates from concentration camps – After Dachau, the Division was on K rations. The GIs did not have spare food to distribute to the thousands of displaced persons and camp survivors that were, seemingly, everywhere. Sergeant Owen, the erstwhile farmer, knew something about places where these unfortunates might find some stored foods. He “suggested” to some that they look in Germans’ cellars. Many did, finding stores of potatoes, which they were able to boil and eat. They also discovered schnapps and wines, and some got quite drunk very quickly.

German autobahns filled with enemy soldiers marching to surrender in late April and early May – The average soldier knew their country was defeated. Only fanatical SS units thought otherwise. SS men hung or shot “defeatists.” Curtis recalls one group explaining that they had to kill several SS men so they could surrender.

The countenance of captured Nazi SS soldiers: “I only saw a few,” he tells me. “But the ones I did see had dead eyes.”

The emotional and psychological costs of war: War became unreal. “If you thought about it too much you would go stark raving mad,” he recalled. “You see so much suffering your mind goes blank.” But not perfectly. By the end of the war, if he saw someone badly wounded, “I had to get up and leave.” The war’s horrors stayed with him afterward. When asked, Curtis acknowledged quietly it took a toll on him. As we talked, Edith nodded.  Although not discussed, she too witnessed Curtis’ suffering in those years. He told me the hours spent alone as a farmer helped put the demons to rest. There is no doubt that a strong and loving wife and family, and a deep Christian faith helped as well.

After Germany’s surrender in May, 1945 hundreds of thousands of GIs spent months awaiting transportation home. Most finally went by ship. Tech Sergeant Curtis Owen (he had been promoted) got lucky and hopped a ride on a four engine bomber. With fueling stops at Marseilles, Casablanca, the Azores, St. John, and Presque Island, it reached Boston. Then it was by train to San Antonio. He arrived home on August 1, 1945. At last, his war was over.

Ed Horne, the local Farmall dealer, knew Curtis was a returning veteran, and put his name at the top of the list for a new two row tractor. He continued to farm for sixty years.

Curtis and Edith celebrated 71 years together recently. They have been blessed with three children (Diane Ross, Beverly Coates, and Tom Hazen Owen), seven grandchildren, and fifteen great grandchildren. Curtis and Edit h now reside at the Golden Age Home. Their warmth and kindness are infectious. They and their family have done much to enrich Caldwell County. Drop by some time.

Curtis and Edith Owen and Their Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren

ADDENDUM 11-15-17 

I wrote this story in February of 2016. I visited with Curtis today at a local nursing facility.  He recently fell and broke his pelvis. He was recovering nicely. His bride of 72 years had recently passed away. Curtis continued, at the age of 98, to be mentally sharp as a tack.  We discussed world affairs, and Curtis expanded a bit on the effects of the war on him. “There were a lot of funerals i didn’t attend [after the war]. I’d seen too much.”

COLONEL STAN REECE – AN INCREDIBLE LIFE OF SERVICE TO HIS COUNTRY AND COMMUNITY

                                                                     1944

2017

COLONEL STAN REECE

AN INCREDIBLE LIFE OF SERVICE TO HIS COUNTRY AND COMMUNITY

By

Todd Blomerth

            It was early 1953. The Allies were locked in vicious combat with communist forces along a line across the Korean peninsula.  Ten miles inside enemy lines, Captain Stan Reece was in the back seat on an AT6 “Texan” artillery spotter aircraft. After flying over thirty missions, the 6147th Group commander had made Captain Reece the group’s operations officer. The unit’s casualty rate was too high, and as operations officer, Captain Reece was told to check out each pilot, to ensure all were qualified and performing at the high standard needed. Stan sat in the rear seat of the two-seater aircraft, where an Army forward observer usually was placed. He was evaluating the skill and proficiency (we’ll call him Jones), trying to ensure Jones would not be another casualty while providing the US Army with an aerial platform for forward observers.

Very concerned about the Jones’s too-casual attitude about the enemy’s willingness to shoot down “low and slow” unarmed intruders, Captain Reece instructed him to make corrections. Before that could happen, the AT6 took 37mm antiaircraft rounds that damaged its right wing and flipped the aircraft onto its back. Smoke poured into the cockpit  Jones failed to respond to Reece’s intercom, and Captain Reece was forced to take over piloting the wounded airplane. Flinging open the canopy to clear blinding smoke, Captain Reece fought to regain control of the damaged aircraft,. He prayed the wounded bird would get the two back across the front lines before it came apart. Fortunately, it did.

“Where were you when I needed you to flying the airplane?” he frantically demanded of Jones. Finally responsive, Jones meekly replied, “I was scared.”. “Well I was too,” responded Captain Reece. “But you still have to fly the plane!”

As Captain Reece landed, the ground crew furiously waved him away from revetments and parked aircraft. It turned out that the anti-aircraft rounds had ignited white phosporus rockets under the aircraft’s wings, used to spot enemy positions. The ground crew’s well founded fear of an horrific explosion and fire was not realized. Fire crews extinguished the flames, as a forward observer pilot and his evaluator leapt from the plane. Captain Reece made sure Jones never flew with the unit again. It was a tough call, as Jones was a friend, but the only one to make.

Sixty-four years later, Colonel Stan Reece sat in his living room, telling me of his life. Now ninety six years old, he expresses some doubt as to why he is being interviewed. “I don’t think my career was all that interesting,” he tells me.

This is his story. You decide for yourselves whether his belief is correct.

Horace Stanley “Stan” Reece was born in the community of Martin’s Mill, Van Zandt County, Texas on September 21, 1921. He was the oldest of five children of Flake Elijah Reece and Nettie (Lancaster) Reece. Flake and Nettie taught school for a period of time.  Flake was also a farmer, but later moved the family to Athens, Texas where he owned a garage. Stan and his younger siblings, Charles, Billy, Bonetia and Mary Jo all graduated from Athens High School.  Like all children of the Depression, Stan knew about hard work. When he wasn’t in school, he worked for his dad as a mechanic. He graduated in 1940, and then worked construction in Ft. Worth and at Camp Wolters.

    Flight Cadet Reece – Eagle Pass, Texas

On June 30, 1942, Stan was sworn into  the United States Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet.  Because of training facility shortages, he was told to go home. “They said they’d call me in a month,” he recalls. He worked in his dad’s garage for almost six months before he received orders to report to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center (later Lackland Air Force Base). Stan took to the air naturally. Without bragging, he calmly states, “I was a very good pilot.” After Basic at Brady, Texas and Primary at Waco Airfield, he finished second in his class at  Advanced training at Eagle Pass Army Airfield. With over twenty hours already in a high-powered P-40, he hoped for a combat assignment. Enamored with the monstrous P-47 Thunderbolt, he tried for an assignment flying that fighter. No luck. Then he applied for a unit flying the magnificent P-51 Mustang. Again, no luck. The Army Air Forces had other ideas. 2nd Lieutenant Stan Reece was assigned as an instructor pilot at Randolph Army Airfield, outside of San Antonio. It was a bitter disappointment, but just one of the breaks. He loved flying, and was a natural teacher.

                                       Edith Clark Reece

The stateside duty proved a blessing in disguise. In mid-1944 he was diagnosed with osteomylitis. Prior to the advent of strong antibiotics, the best someone with this dangerous bone infection could hope for was to survive with an amputation. Stan was lucky, as penicillin was coming available. It still took fifteen months in the hospital to be cured. “They didn’t know how long I had had the infection in my leg before it was discovered,” he recalls. By the time he was released in October of 1945, the war was over. The interminable time recovering was not all a loss. Stan met and married a beautiful Army officer (and nurse) – Edith Clark, from Prairie Lea. Their happy marriage lasted for sixty-six years. Edith died in 2011. They have two children. Ralph was born in 1946. Jacqueline was born in 1948.

Because of his skills, Stan was one of the small minority of pilots who were allowed to stay in the Army Air Force after World War II, as the services drastically reduced manpower. The newly married pilot, soon to be a father, was assigned to post-war Germany, first in Wiesbaden, and then in Kassal. He had several assignments.

Then the Soviet Union and its East German lackeys began closing road and canal access to areas of Berlin controlled by the French, British, and Americans. With one and one half million Soviet troops surrounding the former capital of Nazi Germany, Stalin felt sure that he could force the Western Allies out of Berlin, subjecting its citizens to the communist rule beling inflicted on East Germany. The Americans and British undertook to fly into the beleaguered city over 6000 tons daily, of food, supplies and coal. In was considered an impossible task.

Beginning in late June, 1948, with C-47 Dakotas, and later with C-54s and other, heavier transports, pilots flew narrow air corridors at three minute intervals, day and night, for almost one year. Airplanes got one shot at landing. Upon landing in West Berlin, engines were kept running, air crews remained in their transports, as Berliners unloaded the precious food and supplies. Then it was an immediate take-off and return to friendly territory.  A missed approach meant returning to West Germany, fully loaded. There was no room for error.

Despite Soviet harrassment, eventually the Airlift was moving over 11,000 tons a day! In April of 1949, the Soviets gave up. Berliners actually had a surplus of food and supplies. Stan Reece flew over twenty flights in and out of Berlin. His younger brother Charles, also an aviator, was part of the all-out effort. The Airlift is one of the proudest moments in our nation’s history.

Captain Reece was then assigned to Tinker Air Force Base as an instructor pilot. He had flown and mastered all sorts of aircraft. A small sampling: P-40, P-47, and P-51 fighters; A-26, B-25 bombers; C-47, C-54 transports, AT-6 trainer. Because of the rush to get pilots into aircraft in World War II, and the budget and manpower cuts afterward, training had suffered grievously. Stan recalls that “many of these pilots, including some who’d flown in World War II, weren’t trained properly.”  What better man to help fix the problem than someone of Stan’s stature and reputation?

Then, war in an unexpected place threw the United States in a frenzied effort to save South Korea from subjugation by North Korean, and later, Chinese communists. Bidding farewell to his wife and kids, Captain Reece arrived in the war-torn Korean peninsula in 1952. He was assigned to the 6147th Tactical Control Group. He flew unarmed AT-6 “Texans” over enemy lines, with an Army artillery forward observer onboard. In over twenty-five missions, he was shot at “plenty of times” but never hit.  That is, until he was a check pilot for “Jones,” and was almost shot out of the sky over  enemy lines.

In September of 1953, Captain Reece was back in the States. The 1950s were a transition period for the United States Air Force. Propeller driven aircraft were phased out, and jets of all types were tested. There were fewer straight winged aircraft, as jets’ speeds required swept wings. Thousands of aircraft were moved back to the continental United States from overseas. Some were scrapped, some were sold to friendly countries, some were given to Air National Guard units, and some were retrofitted. Stan was part of this complicated and often dangerous task. Between 1953 and 1962,  Stan took on hundreds of ferrying operations.

 

Assigned to the Military Air Transport Command (MATS) and its 1708th Ferrying Wing, he coordinated and flew transports to and from overseas air force units. One trip nearly got him killed. He and his crew flew a new C-119 to Japan. They exchanged it for one that was on its last legs. Taking off, the overloaded aircraft needed all the runway and overrun to make it into the air. Then, the crew discovered that the extra 900 gallon tank in the fuselage was leaking fuel. Stan was piloting a potential fiery bomb. It turned out that someone had installed a fuel vent pipe the wrong way. Remaining cool, Stan landed the plane without incident. The crew fixed the problem, and made it to Hawaii before the tired bird gave up the ghost. He and his crew caught another flight home.

After an assignment at Andrews AFB, Major Stan Reece and family spent three years in Japan, where he commanded the 531st Fighter Squadron flying F-100s. Later, as the Wing operations officer. He oversaw pilots flying RF-101s, and AD-102s. As he recalls, most of his pilots were “a bunch of kids.” They were lucky to have a proficient and demanding boss, who expected nothing less than the best, and made sure they achieved it. The Wing was equipped with nuclear weapons.

Stan knew that to move up the promotion ladder, it was expected that he be proficient in all areas of aviation. Often that meant accepting assignments to non-glamorous jobs. Because of his willingness and skill, he was often picked to ‘clean up’ situations, particularly those where pilots’ lives were in danger because of inefficiency or poor training standards. The 1960s found him and the family at Eglin AFB in Florida, in another of those roles.

His next assignment put Lieutenant Colonel Reece back in Germany. He was the first commander of the 7th Air Special Operations Squadron,  tasked with supporting the 10th Special Forces, one of the first Green Beret units. Comprised of a hodgepodge of propeller-driven aircraft, and designed for special operations, the squadron’s pilots and crews helped the SF forces conduct airborne training operations. “A large percentage of the Special Forces unit were first generation Americans from Eastern Europe. They spoke with thick accents. They hated the communists,” recalls Stan. Maximum flexibility best describes the operations of the Squadron. It was a heady time, as the United States continued its experiment with small and specialized forces. Stan spent two and a half years as squadron commander. His Army counterpart was “an old OSS [the World War II predecessor to the CIA] colonel. We got along famously.” Practice for insertions and extractions behind the Iron Curtain, providing air support for British Special Air Services commandos, conducting parachute drops, and retrofitting aircraft for unorthodox warfare made life, in Stan’s word, “interesting.” That has to be a understatement

Military spouses have unenviable roles to play. Stan was transferred many times during his career.  Even when assigned to one base, duties often took him away from his family. A full-time mom who often had to parent alone, Edith was the rock that kept the Reece family together. Edith’s duties expanded when Stan was a unit’s commanding officer.  She then became a mentor, advisor, and, occasionally, a shoulder to cry on. It was tough duty, and  deeply appreciated. Stan is unstinting in his praise of Edith. “Edith was a stabilizing influence on many young wives,” Stan recalls.

 

Between 1966 and 1968, Lieutenant Colonelr Stan Reece commanded the 492nd Tactical Fighter squadron, based in England. Flying F100s, the squadron participated in numerous NATO exercises. These included deployments to Bodo, Norway, Aviano, Italy, and Ishmir, Turkey.  Joint exercises, intended as training for possible response to Soviet aggression, came at the heighth of the Cold War. The training was arduous, and demanding. If war came, the Soviets had a numerical superiority that would test the very fiber of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s ability to defend the free countries in western Europe, Turkey, and Scandinavia.

 

It was inevitable that an aviator of Stan Reece’s ability would end up in Vietnam. Saying goodbye to Edith, he reported for duty at the Phu Cat Air Base. A new airfield, capable of jet powered aircraft, it was completed in late 1967. Lt. Colonel Reece was assigned as the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing’s operations officer. Part of the unit was the Iowa National Guard’s 174th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Equipped with the now aging and quirky F100s, the Wing flew interdiction and combat support missions. In just six months, Stan flew 135 combat missions. Most were in South Vietnam, but over thirty were in Laos, and there were a few into North Vietnam. Thankfully, he came through that experience in one piece. His final six months in Vietnam were at 7th Air Force Headquarters in Saigon.

Returning to the United States, newly promoted Colonel Stan Reece finished out a most colorful and exciting career in St. Louis, Missouri as Wing Advisor to the Air National Guard. He retired, after 30 years of service, in 1974.

Edith longed to return to her Texas and Caldwell County roots. In 1975, the Reeces purchased forty-nine acres of land outside of Luling. Anyone who knew him realized that Stan Reece wasn’t someone to sit back and let the world pass him by. He raised cattle. He served on the Luling Independent School District Board of Trustees for twenty-four years, of which nineteen he was the Board’s president. He joined the Luling Kiwanis Club in 1975 and remains active today. He was an officer on the Caldwell County Farm Bureau, and served on the Caldwell County Agent supervisory board for many years. Trying to track him a couple of weeks ago, I found him awash with plans for Night In Old Luling.

Stan will tell you his has been a blessed life. In 2014 at the young age of ninety three, he tied the knot for the second time when Madeline Manford, a dear family friend of many years and a widow, agreed to be his bride.

So this is a short-hand version of Stan’s life (so far). After reading it, I know you will agree that Colonel Stan Reece has indeed led a most incredibly interesting and fruitful life. He truly is a shining example of the best of the Greatest Generation. If you can catch him, please be sure to thank him for his service to his country and community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAVE DURHAM – COMBAT NEAR DAU TIENG 1967

Spec 4 David Durham 1968

DAVE DURHAM

 

                                                     By Todd Blomerth

 

In the late 1960s, Americans became all too familiar with phrases that burned themselves into the American psyche. One phrase was “the Iron Triangle.”

An area west of Saigon, South Vietnam, and stretching to the Cambodian border, its mention mustered images of jungle fighting, ambushes, tunnels, infiltrating North Vietnamese (NVA), Viet Cong (VC), and death. To young Americans sent to fight in that area of Southeast Asia, the reality was all of these, and more.

I sat down with Dave Durham the other day, and he told me about his abbreviated tour of duty in the Iron Triangle during the Vietnam War. Dave had just celebrated his 70th birthday, and while we didn’t dwell on it, it was obvious that he was glad he has made it this far. In 1967, there was substantial doubt that he would live to see his twentieth birthday.

Dave was born on March 22, 1947 in Velasco, which is now part of Freeport, Texas. Both his mom and dad, Harold “B.H.” and Edna Iris, worked for Dow Chemical, as did most everyone in that area. Dave graduated from Brazosport High School, and then enrolled at Stephen F. Austin University in 1966. He dropped out in early 1967 and “within three weeks” received his draft notice. Like thousands of young men, he was going into the U.S. Army, and once there, into combat in Vietnam.

The United States had allowed itself to be sucked into the vortex of a new and dangerous kind of war in Southeast Asia when it stepped into a role abandoned by the French. Since the end of World War II, guerilla warfare had ebbed and flowed as France, a colonial power, resisted attempts at the creation of new and independent countries in French Indochina. Finally, after a disastrous defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French gave up, leaving a power vacuum that was, largely, filled by communist and communist-leaning nationalists in the new countries of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. As part of the negotiated departure of the French, Vietnam was cut in two, with a demilitarized zone divided communist North Vietnam from the pro-Western South Vietnam. This did little to dissuade communist Viet Cong (VC) and their North Vietnamese allies (NVA) from continuing a war of “liberation” in South Vietnam.

The United States and the West stood by as Stalin gobbled up once-free countries in Eastern Europe. Communist Chinese seized power in 1949, kicking the Nationalists off the Asian mainland.  To many, the communists’ efforts in Vietnam were part of a continuing effort at world domination that had to be stopped. Vietnam became to some extent a ‘proxy’ war. The United States and its allies supported South Vietnam. Communist China and the USSR gave its support to South Vietnamese communist insurgents and the North Vietnamese. By the time Dave Durham was drafted, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were engaged in a bloody and widening war.

Dave did Basic Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) followed. Basic and AIT was ‘brutal,’ Dave recalls. When the new soldiers marched, they were required to yell “Kill” every time their right feet hit the ground. It was just one of the many ways that civilians were indoctrinated to become combat soldiers. Most of the training cadre consisted of combat veterans. They knew what the young men would be up against, and did their best to toughen up the recruits and draftees. However, as Dave says, “nothing can duplicate the misery and horror of war.”

While at Fort Polk, Dave met and became friends with Joe Golf, an Italian-American from Chicago. Fresh out of AIT at Ft. Polk’s “Tigerland”, they were assigned to Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. Shortly after arrival in-country, the Regiment was re-assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, known as “Tropic Lightning.”

The “Regulars,” as the 22nd Infantry was called, had a proud heritage stretching back to the War of 1812. In 1967 two of its battalions operated out of Dau Tieng, a large fortified Base Camp, also home to mechanized infantry and Army of Vietnam (ARVN) units. Only 40 miles from Saigon, the Camp lay just to the east of the Saigon River. A mountain range, dubbed ‘the Razorbacks’ lay to its northwest. To its north and east was a vast Michelin rubber plantation.  The 22nd Infantry had been in Vietnam since 1966 and had seen much combat. In March 1967, some of its units were involved in a vicious battle at Soui Tre, where over 700 NVA and VC were killed attacking a forward fire base.

Dave processed in at Saigon. Then a C-130 transport flew him the short distance to Dau Tieng’s airfield.

PFC Durham was given a choice: be a machine gunner, an ammo bearer, or be point man on combat patrols. He chose point man. Why did he choose this most dangerous of assignments? “The M-60 machine gun is heavy. Ammunition is heavy. I didn’t want to lug that stuff around.” The Viet Cong moved mostly at night – the Americans mostly during the day. Serving as point man on a patrol meant that Dave quite possibly would be the first man to detect the enemy – and the first man to be detected by the enemy. Not happy with an M-16 in that role, for a time Dave traded for a Stevens short barreled shotgun. Lethal at short range, it proved more burden than benefit. “Shotgun shells are heavy,” recalls Dave. “I could only carry so many. In one fight I ran out of ammunition.” He went back to using the M-16. He could carry many more bullets than shotgun shells.

Active patrolling and search and destroy missions were two methods of taking the war to the enemy. While he was at Dau Tieng, Dave spent most of his time in the field. Troopers would come in, clean up, sleep in sandbagged barracks, let off a little steam – and then repeat the process. There were many contacts with the enemy. Dave recalls being in at least six firefights in his short time at Dau Tieng.  Dau Tieng was near the terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail actually consisted of hundreds of routes from North Vietnam funneling weapons and fighters for attacks on US and South Vietnamese targets.

Rubber Tree Plantation

Charlie Company kept extremely busy. Road convoys traveling “Ambush Alley” required security. Enemy forces were always present, and battles were common. American patrols crossed rice paddies, which was highly dangerous. In the wide openness, men were  easy targets. Search and destroy missions searched out the enemy miles from Dau Tieng. Patrols roamed the huge Michelin rubber plant, occasionally encountering workers collecting rubber from the trees. “We never knew if the workers were also VC. We were in the middle of a war and this French company was still operating this huge plantation. And being allowed to do it by the VC. It was very weird.” Another combat veteran of that era, Harry Foster, recalls that Americans felt that Michelin was quietly paying off the communists so it could continue its operations.

Odd memories of combat bubble up sometimes. Dave remembers the Army’s mosquito repellent. It came in small rubber squeeze bottles. “It didn’t work on mosquitoes. But it came in handy for keeping snakes away.” He recalls his unit setting up night ambushes, and hearing snakes slithering toward his position. “I’d squeeze that stuff toward them. They hated it, and would slither off in another direction.” He also recalls the shortage of gun oil for M-16s. “They never gave us enough of it. It was oily, so we’d use the mosquito spray to keep our rifles lubricated. It worked.”

The VC and NVA created a labyrinth of tunnel systems in the Iron Triangle; some extended for miles. Some even went into Saigon. It was not unusual for an American patrol to uncover a hidden tunnel opening. This would be blown closed. First, someone had to ensure no enemy lurked inside, waiting to pop out and attack. Who better to do it that someone slim, agile and willing to be a point man? “They’d hand me a pistol and a flashlight, and I’d go check it out.” Responding to the inevitable question about fear and serving as a “tunnel rat” Dave said simply, “I was scared the whole time I was in Vietnam.”

In late October of 1967, Dave came down with a respiratory infection, and was put on light duty for a week. Coming back from another 25th Division base a few miles away at Cu Chi, he was grabbed up on November 1, 1967, and put into a squad going out for a night ambush patrol. A similar thing happened to his buddy Joe Golf. “I had come in from the field with ear infection,” Joe remembers. “Next thing I knew, I was in on a night ambush patrol.” Dave and Joe knew no one else in the eleven-man squad. “I didn’t know anyone except Joe,” Dave said. “I guessed the others were in a different platoon in C Company.” Research shows that in fact, most if not all of the men in this put-together group weren’t even from C Company.

When on combat missions, normal unit integrity was an absolute necessity. As an example, if you were with 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, you trained with that platoon and company, and you went on operations with that platoon and company. You knew your buddies’ capabilities and shortcomings. You knew your officers and NCOs.

Dau Tieng’s base security patrols were a different story. The September 4, 1967 edition of the 25th Infantry Division’s newspaper, “Tropic Lightning News” tells how these patrols were assembled:

Mixed Nightly Patrols Provide BC Security

DAU TIENG – When the nightly ambush patrol leaves the 3d Bn, 22d Inf, lines at Dau Tieng each evening, it’s a mixed bag indeed – representative of every contingent in the battalion.  Along with the ubiquitous medic may go a truck driver, a 4.2 mortar man, an operations clerk, a mechanic or radio repairman, or any of the multiple trades which make the modern infantry battalion function.  It’s a training mission for new replacements and the last time out for the old.
While the main infantry elements are on missions far afield, the ambush patrols carried on by these “instant” units are vital in the security of the “Tropic Lightning’s” third brigade base camp.

 

Joe Goff was ordinarily a Charlie Company assistant machine gunner. On November 1, 1967, Joe told me in his pronounced Chicago accent, “I was carrying an M-16.” Joe continued, “We weren’t expecting anything.” Ambush patrols went out nightly to keep the enemy off guard, and prevent infiltration near the military base. No one wanted to see action. The main concern for the GIs was staying alive.

Leaving during daylight, and moving less than three miles from the Base Camp, the patrol set up for an ambush along a suspected infiltration route somewhere in the Michelin plantation. In groups of threes or fours, soldiers were arrayed in three-prong ambush formation. Trip flares and anti-personnel mines were set up.

Joe and Dave were together with two other troopers they didn’t know, sharing the same poncho liner to stay out of the mud. It was Joe’s turn to sleep when all hell broke loose. “I was asleep and the next thing I knew, someone was covering my mouth with a hand. The VC were about fifteen or twenty feet away. Then a radio mike was keyed, and the world exploded.”

Dave’s memory is similar, but not exactly the same. “We ambushed an enemy unit that turned out to be much larger than our patrol.” He remains unsure of whether the enemy was VC or NVA, or a combination of the two.

Either way, the result was same. “An RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] hit the two men next to me,” Dave recalls. “There were killed instantly. I was hit by shrapnel that wasn’t stopped by their bodies.” His friend Joe, also wounded, pulled him twenty meters back into relative safety, as all hell broke loose. Somewhere in the process, Joe lost his M16 in the mud. Grenades were thrown, gunfire erupted… and then suddenly, it was over. The enemy disappeared into the night, leaving the shaken survivors to their misery. Because the patrol had (possibly) “gone out the wrong gate at Dau Tieng,” in the words of Golf, it wasn’t found until morning. The patrol’s medic ran out of morphine. One soldier’s wounds kept the survivors awake all night with his screams of pain. “With the screaming, there was no question the enemy knew where we were. We were afraid they would come back,” Dave recalls. It was a very long night. Joe remembers firing off a flare as dawn approached. The patrol was eventually found, possibly by a mechanized infantry unit, the 2/22, (the “Triple Deuce”) also from Dau Tieng.

Dave remembers the sound of chain saws. Rubber trees were cut down to allow medevac helicopters in to airlift the wounded. A wounded man medevaced out with Dave constantly screamed in pain. And then stopped. The soldier was either given sufficient pain medication, or died. Dave doesn’t know which.

Initially, Dave was treated at the Division’s medical facility at Cu Chi. Shards of metal had peeled his nose open. The skin was folded back, and sewn up. Because of the chunks of skin torn from his legs and one arm, he was flown to a larger hospital in Saigon for skin grafts. Eventually, PFC Durham was evacuated to an even larger facility outside of Tokyo, Japan.

For several months after the surgeries, he needed a cane to support his walk. Then one day, he received orders —- to return to Vietnam. Fortunately, his treating physician intervened. “You’re still walking on a cane. I’ll take care of this.”

Orders were changed, and instead of Vietnam, the recovering soldier spent the rest of his overseas duty in South Korea. His memories of Korea are pleasant, although the “the whole area I was in smelled of kimchi and honey wagons!”

PFC Miller

Because he never returned to his outfit, Dave never knew what happened to the rest of the patrol. He’d heard that eight men were killed. In fact, the best evidence shows two soldiers died violently – the men next to him who’d taken the brunt of the RPG round when it exploded. They were David Tucker, a 20 year-old from Rock Hill, South Carolina. He was in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3/22. He is buried at Red Hill Baptist Church Cemetery in Fairfield, SC. The other was 23 year-old Earl Bertmann Miller, a B Company soldier from Missouri. He is buried at St. Bridget’s Cemetery in Pacific, MO.

One veteran with Charlie Company recently recalled the patrol survivors returning to Dau Tieng, and “looking pretty beat up.” But the names of other members of the patrol? Apart from Joe Golf, we still don’t know. Despite the best efforts of reunion locators for Charlie Company and others, they perhaps have been lost in the fog of war and time.

In February 1968, Specialist 4 Durham returned to the United States, out-processing at Ft. Lewis, Washington. It was time to pick up the pieces of his life. He flew back to Texas on a commercial flight, and, as required, in uniform.  As he walked past the ticket counter at Houston’s Hobby International Airport, he was confronted by a gauntlet of screaming anti-war protesters. “I’d been gone, and wasn’t aware of everything going on at home.” He was spat on and called “every vile name in the book.” He was thankful his parents were waiting for him elsewhere in the airport, and didn’t have to witness the shameful incident.

Dave returned to Lake Jackson, and re-enrolled in college, eventually graduating from Southwest Texas State University. He also married the love of his life, Nan Rives. He has been in the office supply business for years. Nan recently retired as an art teacher from the San Marcos School District. Dave and Nan have two children. Their son Cole lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a professional weight and strength trainer for the AAA Louisville Bats, in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Their daughter Mattisyn (Mattie) lives in Austin.

Dave Durham’s buddy Joe Golf continues to suffer from PTSD. “I can’t sleep at night unless someone is up and awake.” Dave still has shrapnel in his arms and legs. A knee occasionally locks up from the damage it received. His right arm and leg both remain gouged and scarred from the RPG explosion. He’s dealt with the mental issues well over the years, although, as he reminds me, “War is not normal. You can’t go into a war and come back ‘normal.’” Dave Durham has for the most part put the war behind him. What still hurts after fifty years was the way he was treated when he arrived in Houston, Texas. Unlike many veterans, Dave hasn’t been involved in unit reunion groups.

Spec 4 Dave Durham was blessed to return home alive. Over 50,000 of his countrymen weren’t so lucky. Dave doesn’t talk much about his military service. He is a quiet man who feels he was just doing his duty. Be sure to thank him for his service to his country. It is long overdue.

Dave Durham -2017

THOMAS CLEVELAND (TOMMY) HOLLAND

Tommy w MG

A TRIBUTE TO A QUIET MAN

By Todd Blomerth

He is 91 years old now. When he speaks about his life you sense that despite his chronological age he is much younger at heart. He is a quiet and modest man, not prone to boasting. He tends to minimize a series of events that few of us can imagine living through.  His is a story worthy of recalling.

His name is Thomas C. Holland. Tom, or Tommy, as he goes by, was born in Lockhart in 1922. He has been a resident of Caldwell County almost all his life. Tommy’s dad, Cleveland (he went by “Cleve”) was a respected construction supervisor for Holland Page, a large construction company and traveled extensively to job sites in Texas and Oklahoma.  Tommy and his younger sister Georgia were mostly raised by Albert and Myrtle Schneider. The Schneiders lived at 1217 Woodlawn Street in Lockhart. Cleve often helped Caldwell County men get jobs during the late 30s and during World War II. During summer breaks and after high school graduation, Tommy would travel with his dad and work with construction crews. Georgia would occasionally travel with them. Bridge City and Lubbock were two of the places he worked. Slight and wiry, Tommy shoveled a lot of sand and gravel for concrete jobs. He had to be tough. There was no pre-mix in those days.

In 1942, Uncle Sam sent an invitation to Tommy to join his armed HOLLAND - HARLINGEN 1943forces. In other words, he was drafted. When he was three, he had fallen into a wash pot. The burns scarred an arm. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Army thought the scarring had limited his strength and mobility. Much to his disgust, after basic training he was assigned as a clerk at an army airbase in Mississippi. In December of 1942 he was reevaluated. He reiterated to the Army doctors that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, and that he wanted to be allowed normal duties. He got his wish. Knowing it was a quick way to earn sergeant’s stripes, he opted for gunnery school. After graduation from gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas, the Army sent him to aircraft mechanic school as Keesler Army Air Base in Mississippi. Then, because he applied to be a pilot, he was enrolled in the University of Alabama under the Army Air Force aviation cadet program. Designed for young men with only high school educations, it was intended to help turn them into “officers and gentlemen.” After six months of college level courses, he was transferred to an airbase in San Antonio. Pilot graduation rates often depended on the number of pilots needed. With an over abundance of pilots at the time, Tommy did not become ‘an officer and a gentleman.’ Instead, he was assigned as a tail gunner on a B-17 and sent to MacDill Field in Florida to begin crew training.

709TH SQUADRON JACKET PATCH 447th INSIGNIA

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hoyercrew

THE HOYER B-17 CREW – EARLY 1944

Standing, L-R

S/Sgt Bernard Duwel, ENG

Lt. Charles Pearson, B
Lt. WIlliam Hoyer, P
Lt. Joseph Syoen, CP
Lt. John Riddell, N

Kneeling, L-R:
Sgt. Thomas C. Holland, TG
Sgt. Floyd Broman, WG
S/Sgt Walter Degutis, WG
Sgt Edward Thornton, WG
S/Sgt Thomas Burke, BTG

His ten-man crew began training on Boeing Aircraft’s B-17. Dubbed the Flying Fortress, it was a magnificent aircraft, and was rightly loved by those who flew in her. The crew became close, as one would expect. They trained as if their lives depended on it-because it would. The life expectancy of a bomber crew in Europe was aboutRattlesden-07-may-1946 two weeks. In late May, 1944 the crew received its orders assigning it and their bomber to the U.S. 8th Air Force’s 709th Bombardment Squadron, 447th Bombardment Group based at Rattlesden, England near Bury St. Edmunds.  Lt. Hoyer’s crew was given a brand new B-17 at Hunter Field outside of Savannah, Georgia. Because the B-17 was a four-engine aircraft, the crew flew the extremely hazardous northern route across the Atlantic, through Newfoundland and Greenland. Weather was problematic to say the least. Along with other aircraft, their bomber was grounded in Greenland by winds so violent the crew had to feather the propellers to keep the engines from being damaged. In the midst of the horrific weather, word came on June 6, 1944 that the Allies had invaded German controlled Europe.  Despite the weather, base officials told the many stranded crews to head to England. And so they did.

Much to the crew’s disappointment, upon arrival in England, their brand new B-17 was taken away from them. It would be used by more experienced crews. They would be stuck with whatever aircraft was assigned them. Like all fresh aircrews, the Hoyer crew was split up for its first missions, in order to ensure the crewmen and pilots were familiar with combat formations and tactics. Tommy’s first mission, on June 24, 1944, was either to Blanc Pignon Ferme or Wesermude – he can’t recall which as there were simultaneous attacks planned. Neither was successful, and both bomber formations came back with their bombs, as neither target was visible through heavy cloud cover.b17g

His second mission, on June 25, 1944, again with another crew, was to Area #1 of Operation “Zebra.” After a 2 a.m. briefing, the Group’s B-17s flew to Vercors, west of Grenoble, France. Instead of dropping bombs, the planes dropped 420 canisters containing ammunition, supplies, and weapons for the French resistance fighters in the area. Several OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) agents also parachute jumped in.

On June 28, 1944, and again with another crew, Tommy manned the tail guns for a run toward a target in France. Weather obscured the primary target so an airfield at Denian/Prouvy, France was hit instead.

On June 29, 1944, the Hoyer crew was reunited for its first combat mission. The target was an oil refinery at Bohlen, Germany. The crew briefing was at 2:30 a.m. At 4:50 a.m. dozens of Flying Fortresses, loaded with 100 pound bombs, started taking off. With the intercom-connected crews donning oxygen masks and heated tail gunnerclothing, the B-17s lumbered to an altitude of 24,000 feet. They were supported by fighter aircraft. German Bf 109s and Focke Wulf190s shot down many bombers during the war, but the greatest danger by far was anti-aircraft artillery. Nearing Bohlen, flak from German anti-aircraft guns began reaching for the Americans. Tommy had been told that if you saw flak, you were probably okay. However if you could hear it, you had better watch out. He could hear the flak “very well.” Just as Lt. Charles Pearson, the plane’s bombardier, finished releasing the bombs, flak hit near the Number 2 engine. Some of the crew was injured by shrapnel. Fuel streamed back, and then erupted in fire. Lt. William Hoyer’s last words heard by Tommy were, “let’s bail the hell out of this thing.”

44-6027 GOING DOWN
44-6027 GOING DOWN

ship crash goodThe B-17 tail gunner was the most isolated member of the crew. He did have one advantage however – his own escape hatch. Tommy didn’t need to be told twice. Throwing off his oxygen mask, helmet, and intercom connections and snapping on his parachute, he jettisoned the escape hatch and flung himself out of the plane. The shock of the parachute deploying knocked him unconscious momentarily. When he came to, he was floating under a canopy deep in enemy territory.  “I seemed to all alone,” Tommy remembers. “I wondered if my insurance would pay off if something else happened.”  Since he was alive, he worried that his dad and the Schneiders would not know for some time that he had survived.

Lt. Pearson was blown free of the plane as it exploded. He had chuted up, and although badly battered, survived. Cameras were mounted in various aircraft to record bomb strikes and anti-aircraft sites. In this instance, Tommy’s B-17, aircraft number 44-6027, was photographed falling out of the sky. Lt. William Hoyer and seven other crewmen all died a fiery death high over Germany.Arndt Teichmann - later Lt

Things got even more interesting when Tommy hit the ground. A welcoming committee of angry German farmers armed with scythes approached him as he landed in a hay field. It looked as if he would be chopped to pieces. He was rescued by someone his bombs had intended to kill – a German soldier. Lt. Arndt Teichmann (shown here as he appeared in 1939) waved off the farmers with his weapon and took the relieved tail gunner into custody. . (Arndt Teichmann would later be captured by the Russians and somehow survive the hell of Stalin’s gulag, coming home in 1948).

Tommy was put in a farmer’s child’s playhouse, and Lt. Pearson, much the worse for wear was then brought in. Lacerated on his face and head, he also probably had broken ribs.

His captors were gentle. He was given some bread and margarine, and a bit of sausage. He asked for water in English, and instead was given a glass of beer.

Tommy was first taken to Nobliz, a Luftwaffe airfield. Then to Wetzler, where German intelligence officers interrogating him. “Hell, they knew more about our organization than I did. I just told them I was a new crewman.”  The interrogation did not last long. The Germans knew crewmen didn’t have a lot of secret information to impart. The Germans took his electrically heated boots, and gave him a pair of shoes.

Eventually, Tommy arrived at Stalag Luft IV, a German Prisoner of War camp at Gross Tychow, Eastern Pomerania (now Poland). Inadequate shower facilities, heating, and clothing, spotty distribution of Red Cross parcels, bad food, overcrowding and poor medical attention were the order of the day. Escape was not remotely possible. Boredom reigned among the nearly 8000 American, and the thousand or so British, Polish, Czech, French and Norwegian POWs. The men slept in barracks designed for 160 men but holding 240 or more. Each barrack had a two-hole latrine, to bealagerphoto2 used only at night. During the day, POWs were required to use open-air latrines, with pits cleaned by Russian POWs. The daily ration consisted of bread bulked up with sawdust, a soup made with a mixture of potato, turnip, carrot, rutabaga, kohlrabi and horsemeat. The men also received cooked barley and millet once or twice a week. Most camp guards were benign, but some, with nicknames like Big Stoop, Green Hornet, and Squarehead, were known to be sadistic. Guards also would open Red Cross parcels and steal the best of the food before turning them over to POWs. Most of the POWs lost about between 15 and 20 pounds during captivity here. Upper respiratory infections, diphtheria, diarrhea, skin diseases, jaundice, meningitis were common. As bad as this was, at this stage of the war, the German populace in cities wasn’t faring much better.

By early 1945 terror gripped Germans in their eastern provinces. The Soviet Union’s huge armies were driving for the heart of Germany, and revenge was their byword. While German soldiers fought desperately, civilians fled east. On February 6, 1945, some 8000 men imprisoned at Stalag Luft IV were told they could take what they could carry, and then were marched west as the camp was evacuated. The ordeal became known as “The Black March.” To the distant sound of Russian artillery in the east, over 8000 POWs began a forced march across East Prussia, Poland, and almost to Hamburg. The ordeal began in one of the coldest winters in European history, and lasted for nearly three months, on a trek nearly 600 miles long. Divided into sections, the prisoners zigzagged west.

Marched during the day, they were housed in barns, or in open fields. Some men became violently ill from drinking from fecal laden ditches. Pneumonia became endemic. Food usually consisted of potatoes which were sometimes eaten raw if no firewood could be found. The sick were often carried in farm wagons. In the camp, Tommy had become good friends with Floyd Jones, another B-17 crewman. Jones was a great scrounger. His skill proved very useful. Jones stole two bottles containing water for a farmer’s bees. He and Tommy drank the water, and kept the bottles to brew dandelion tea. They ate raw soy beans. On March 28, 1945 many of the men were crammed onto a freight train at Ebbsdorf, sixty to eighty to a boxcar. Many men were wracked by dysentery but the cars remained locked until the train arrived at Stalag 357 near Fallingbostel on the afternoon of March 30. Another move was ordered by the Germans for those fit to continue. Tommy, too sick to travel, was excused by an American doctor. Floyd wasn’t, so he made himself sick by smoking all the cigars in a Red Cross packet, and vomiting on the doctor’s desk. It worked. Five days later, British forces liberated the camp. The ordeal was over.

Tommy returned to Lockhart after the war, planning to go into construction like his father. Instead, he became an auto mechanic with the local Dodge / Plymouth dealership. In 1960 he purchased a service station property from Charlie Kelly on South Main, and transitioned into small engine repair. He married Opal Lackey on November 24, 1946. The couple was blessed with two daughters and a son. His daughters became school teachers, and his son, a trouble shooter for Waukesha Pearce. Opal passed away in 2007.

Tommy got his pilot’s license in 1949. Beginning in the early 80s, he built or partnered in ownership four airplanes. No longer an active pilot, he still has an ownership interest in a kit-built aircraft hangered at the Lockhart airport. And he still fixes lawnmowers and chainsaws on South Main. Drop by and say hi some time.

tommy in one of his kit planes

Tommy takes off in a kit built aircraft.

tommy in shop

Notes: This story was published in the Lockhart Post Register and the Luling Newsboy Signal in August of 2014. Tommy passed away on January 7, 2016 at the age of 93. It was a privilege to have known him.