In World War II, most African-American soldiers were not allowed to go into combat. Many were sent into the Quartermaster Corps where several units gained distinction for lightening-like delivery of weapons, ordinance and food. But, for some like Calvert’s Lorenzo Portis, the Quartermaster Corps translated into combat as they fought the Japanese to deliver their loads.
Portis’ job was to deliver bombs through sniper-invested jungles to an Army Air Corps ammunition dump in the Philippines. From the cargo ship port of entry to the dump, Portis often had to fight his way through 30 to 40 miles of territory that the Japanese had not relinquished. In recent years, he hadn’t thought a great deal about his tour of duty until Katrina and Rita flattened parts of the Gulf Coast. The devastation reminded him of what he had seen in WWII.
Lorenzo Portis was born and grew up in Hickory Flat on the south end of Calvert, the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. Though he started school in one of the little church supported primaries in the county, he soon transferred to what is now W.D. Spigner to become a member of the school’s “first” first grade class in 1928.
Living with his grandparents during each school year, Portis stayed with his Calvert class until he left school just short of graduation. He got married and moved to Houston to work because he didn’t want to farm any more. Then the war caught up with him and he was drafted. He brought his wife back home to Calvert and went to San Antonio to enlist.
From San Antonio, he was sent to Ft. McClennan, Alabama, for four months of infantry training that the Army probably didn’t intend for him to use. Several months later, it came in handy.
From Alabama, Portis was sent to Ft. Ord, California, on the Monterey Bay Peninsula, a place many have called the most beautiful military base in the United States. For Portis, it was the jumping off place. He was soon aboard the U.S. Gen. William Wagner headed for the Philippines.
The voyage took 26 days and he was seasick for about three, but after those first days, he adjusted. On board, he met a friend of his from Red Hill just south of Calvert, and they made the trip together.
Within 15 minutes of going ashore at a point just south of Manila, he and a buddy were introduced to the realities of war. “We were sitting on a log and one bullet killed the man beside me and the one behind him – one shot killed them both,” said Portis.
Portis’ assignment with the 3666 QM Trucking Company was to drive a truck carrying two bombs to the ammo dump, turn around, and repeat the trip. The road was frequently booby-trapped and Portis had to wait for the all clear before each run. One time early in his tour of duty, he was held up near the port in a foxhole for three weeks. Heavy bombing in the area prevented him from delivering his load, but life in the foxhole wasn’t much safer. “If you dozed off, the Japanese would come in and cut our heads off,” said Portis. On more than one occasion, Portis saw headless follow GI’s in neighboring foxholes. He spent a lot of time behind a big rock protecting him from heavy enemy fire.
On his 30 to 40 mile runs, Portis frequently had to lob hand grenades into the jungle to discourage enemy attacks. The problem was the timing was off. Before the grenades exploded, the Japanese could throw the grenade back into the truck convey. A few trucks were lost that way. The Army had to shorten the time from pulling the pen to explosion to make grenades US rather than Japanese weapons again.
Though Portis was safer in camp, he wasn’t much safer or free of combat duties. To return frequent enemy fire, he and a partner manned a bazooka. His job was to take the coordinates radioed in from observers in planes above the area and line up the sight.
Portis remembers with fondness a little 12-year-old Philippine boy who came into camp dragging a gun. The Japanese had wiped out his family and probably his whole village and the Americans took him in. One day he started “raisin’ up sand” and pointing at the camp’s water tower. The Americans saw a man up on the water tower but thought he was repairing something. Soon after, the boy took his gun and shot the man off the tower. The GI’s later realized that the man was Japanese and he had been attempting to poison the water and kill everyone in camp. He liked that 12-year-old boy.
“We learned their language,” said Portis, at least the basics. He remembers the gestures for “come in” and “go away” were just the opposite of ours.
Portis sent all but $44 of his small paycheck home each month because he didn’t have as much use for it as his family did. It was too dangerous to leave the camp and go into town.
Despite its horrors, Portis says his time in the service was good. His wife received $121 a month, enough to live on in Calvert during WWII.
After the war was over, Portis drove a bus hauling merchandise over the island because he did not have enough points to go home. When he had enough, he took a ship home to Camp Stormer in California (the trip was only 14 days on the way back) and from California, he traveled by train to San Antonio to be discharged in 1946.
Speaking of his service to his country, Portis said, “I was fighting for my country so it was all right. I’m just glad I lived through it.” After returning home, he attended Veterans’ School in Waco to study mechanics and then shoe repair. He never liked putting engines back together but he liked the shoe business. “I learned how to make shoes. I liked it.”
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, Oct 19, 2005 Melissa Freemen, Reporter
World War II veteran Joe Ondrej has done some living in his 86 years. By land, sea and air, he is traveled thousands of miles from his original home on a farm near Cameron. And, in his long journey, he’s out-lived all of his people. “When you lose all your people, what do you do? Ondrej asks. You turn to your friends, your memories and the Creator.
And, Ondrej has a wealth of memories to draw on, memories of events he can still see vividly in his mind’s eye. He was mentally playing them back last Thursday when Ondrej gave an account of his service in World War II and his years as a mechanic and auto parts supply man in Hearne, the town he spend most of his 86 years in.
Speaking from the Bremond Nursing Home, Ondrej began at the beginning. “I was born on June 29, 1921, in Cameron Texas, Milam County,” he said. After graduating from Milam High School in 1939, he volunteered to go into the military well ahead of the war and the draft. But, he didn’t want to go into just any branch. He wanted to fly.
To fly in the Army Air Corps, one had to have at least one year of college, Ondrej explained. And, he was willing to go to college if that’s what it took. Instead, he went before a panel of five servicemen ranging in rank from lieutenant to general and answered their questions. “When thy got through with me, they all agreed I was qualified to fly.” He was 18 years old.
After being inducted into the military at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Ondrej was sent to Randolph Air Force Base and assigned to the 47th School Squadron for training on the BT 7 and the BT 13 trainer planes.
“I wanted to see the world and get a little action,” said Ondrej. “I’ve always been an aggressive-type person. I’ve always looked for things to do and always had faith and positive thinking.”
At Randolph Field just out of San Antonio, “I went in as a private and made all seven enlisted ranks in ten months” Ondrej was a master sergeant at age 19. During those 10 months, he worked as an airplane mechanic, a crew chief, line chief and technical inspector in charge of routine inspection and maintenance of aircraft and fire and safety for the entire base.
One of his more interesting duties as Technical Inspector was safety observer on pilot instrument flights—part of a pilot’s training. He had to watch from a seat in the cockpit while a pilot flew hooded, relying entirely on instruments.
Ondrej took care of maintenance at Randolph until the war began in December 1941. The following month, the squadron was split up and sent to different locations with Joe and his brother Ed, who had been stationed with him since ’39, being sent to Coffeyville, KS, to help open an advanced training base. There, bomber crews-in-the-making flew AT 6’s and AT 17’s (AT standing for advanced training).
At Coffeyville, Ondrej served as technical inspector and set up the inspection office for the base. His team included four inspectors, a secretary and an engineering officer. But, as productive as all that was, Joe’s passion for action was not satisfied.
“I walked into the office one day and told the engineering officer and the squadron commander that I wanted to be sent overseas. My brother Ed who held the same rank and did the same job asked me, ‘Are you losing your mind?'”
Joe replied, “Anybody can do this job.” He explained that he had set up the office and it could run by itself. So, the Army sent him to Greensborough, North Carolina, a port of embarkation.
There, he received training in all the handheld weapons the Army Air Corps used–the M-1 carbine, the 45-caliber army pistol and the 45 caliber Thompson machine gun. His experience with the Thompson machine gun was memorable. “There was no way you push the trigger and hold that gun steady.” If you were aiming at a wall, the bullets would climb up the wall.
Training completed, Ondrej boarded a big ship, part of a 100-vessel convoy, and took off across the Atlantic in the dead of winter. It was miserable. The rain, the snow and ice, the wind and the freezing temperatures made it unpleasant for the troops and the 2,500-man crew. But, said Ondrej, it was well protected from German U-boats by two lines of destroyers that surrounded the entire convoy. The destroyers dropped depth charges when they detected a submarine in the area.
However, they were not prepared for another danger–a case of meningitis. Ondrej saw a burial at sea, but not from military action.
After 17 days of zigzagging across the Atlantic, the convoy landed in Glasgow, Scotland, just months ahead of the Normandy Invasion.
Ondrej, now part of the 398-bomb group, was assigned to a base 30 miles east of London and 45 miles away from the English Channel. Its proximity to the Channel made sense because the purpose of the 398 Bomb group, part of the Third Army, was to soften up German defenses ahead of the invasion of Europe.
For a few months, the crews trained on their Flying Fortresses–the B17E–and in May of 1944, the bomb group started flying over the French coastline and countryside to take out German artillery positions ahead of D-Day–June 6, 1944.
Ondrej served as a flight engineer checking all the gauges, monitors, and other instruments to make sure the plane was running properly, and served as a part-time bombardier. He got the second job when the bombardier, copilot and a gunner of his B-17 crew were killed by machine gun fire from enemy fighters that swooped into their formation.
Being a bombardier was easy, he said. “All I had to do was push buttons.” But, walking over the bomb bay was not. The B17E carried six 500-lb. bombs, three on each side of a narrow catwalk. “You didn’t want to fall off that catwalk,” said Ondrej.
His forays over Europe included five non-stop missions. “We never turned the plane off,” he said. The plane would complete a mission, fly back to base to load six more bombs, and take off immediately. It was harrowing. And, if the crew could not hit their primary target, they had to unload on the secondary target. “We couldn’t take any bombs back to base.”
“We bombed everything flat,” said Ondrej, but when the marines finally landed on Omaha beach after a seven-day delay due to high tides and bad weather, most of them died despite the heavy pre-D-Day bombing. “We suffered heavy casualties in the Normandy Invasion–3,500 to 4,500.”
Flight Engineer Ondrej realized something on those flights over France that made a big difference in combat effectiveness. “In a clip in a 50 caliber machine gun–100 rounds in a clip–every 5th round is a tracer. It’s supposed to show you where the bullets are hitting. I told intelligence that the tracer bullet was giving a false reading because it had less powder and it was falling behind the target. Tracers were eliminated and the knockdown power nearly doubled.” Ondrej had made a significant contribution to the war effort.
Shooting was something Ondrej knew about before he entered the Air Corps. As a country boy, he’d done a lot of hunting. Military shooting practice looked a lot like clay target shooting to him. “I had a better record than a lot of the gunners. I thought I was shooting quail.”
After taking the beach at Normandy, the allied forces under Patton, Clark and British General Montgomery moved into France, Holland, Belgium and then Germany, leading up to the German counter attack at the Battle of the Bulge.
At first, said Ondrej, the American bomber formations encountered little resistance, but the further the 398 penetrated, the stiffer the resistance from German fighter planes. Luftwaffe fighter pilots would fly a few thousand feet above the US bomber formations and attempt to take them out with their guns. The U.S. countered, said Ondrej, with the P51 Mustang–the Cadillac of the sky–taking on the German fighters in high altitude dogfights.
One of his most frightening experiences, said Ondrej, was a low altitude-bombing run (16,000 ft. rather than the usual 25,000 ft. altitude) over Cologne, Germany. Low altitude runs were extremely risky, he said, because they put the plane in the range of German anti-aircraft artillery. He considers himself lucky to have gotten back from that one, dodging shells for miles. “The Germans had mounted guns on railroad cars,” he said, “giving them more maneuverability and longer geographical range.”
In the midst of all this intense Flying Fortress action, the Army Air Corps found out what Ondrej had done state-side and took him out of the air to head up their 478 Battle Damage Repair Squadron Depot.
Before transfer, his last bombing run over Hamburg frightened not only the American bomber group and the Germans, but also Patton’s troops who had advanced 100 miles farther than they were supposed to. Ground control broke silence–something they were not supposed to do–and radioed the 398 with the message, “Hey Fellers, I’m on your side!” Said Ondrej, “I had a friend–Alvie Franks–who was down there. Ike [General Eisenhower] called Patton back to England and chewed him out.” Intelligence had not kept up with Old Blood and Guts’ advance.
Patton, always a man with an apt reply, told Ike something like, “If you will give me the gasoline and the ammo, I will run those Krauts all the way back to Berlin, Germany.” Ondrej said those might not have been the exact words, indicating they may have been more colorful.
Though Ondrej was back on the base, inspecting B17Es for damage and deciding whether to repair them or use them for spare parts, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“The German Messerschmitt BF109 looked a lot like the P51,” he said. One day, a German pilot in an unmarked 109 made it all the way into an American base, landed, taxied down the runway and shot up a lot of parked planes, then took off. “He made it back across the channel but some fellow in a P51 (the real thing) knocked him out.”
“We had a huge hanger,” said Ondrej, speaking of his shop and he was working in or around it when he received his single wound of the war.
“I was working on top of an inner wing panel when a German fighter bomber strafed the base.” A piece of flying metal got stuck in his back.
“They got me to the hospital in London and dug the metal out of me. I stayed in the hospital for two days, then they released me to the field hospital on the base.” They wanted to get him back to work, so he was essentially an outpatient, getting medical care while working to return planes back to service.
He paused long enough one day to watch an American fighter pilot “buzz” the base, something the pilot did after every successful mission. He flew extremely low–almost hitting the ground–and flew back up by way of salute. This time, he over did it.
“Hey Lefty,” Ondrej said to a co-worker–“look a that spark fly!” The pilot made a circle around the field and a hasty landing. He was a young fellow, said Ondrej–probably in his mid-twenties. “I asked him, ‘What’s the trouble, lieutenant?’”
The flyboy replied, “When I made this run, I felt vibration in the cockpit.” Ondrej said, “Well, get on down out of there and I’ll show you.” He continued, “I got him down, walked him in front of the plane, and told him to look at the prop blades.” He had damaged the ends.
“Sergeant, you reckon I’m going to get in trouble?” he asked. Ondrej reckoned he might. It says something for the maneuverability of the P51 and the mentality of American fighter pilots.
Soon, the war in Europe was over and Ondrej was called home. He came back with five metals, including the European victory metal and a purple heart.
His squadron had the option to fly or sail home and they opted to sail. “A lot of the guys said they were tired of flying.”
They sailed out of Glasgow on the Queen Elizabeth, the largest ship in the world at that time. A total of 14,500 people were aboard–4,500 were WACS–Women’s Army Corps.
It was nothing like the first trip–making it home in about five days, which was almost too soon because the QEI was a luxury liner with swimming pools, ballrooms, “all kinds of stuff. The ship was big enough that if you didn’t have a guide, you could get lost.”
When the troops passed the Statue of Liberty, “I waved at her,” and “we docked at peer 92 in New York harbor. It was June 29th–my birthday. We celebrated.”
From New York City, Ondrej took the train back to Cameron “to see my people.” His brothers Ed and Alfred had made it home too and he saw his mother and brothers for the first time in four years. He remembered what his mother said to them as if it were yesterday. “‘I want no excuses. I want you three boys to be here Sunday, and I’m going to cook ya’ll a dinner.’ None of us were about to miss it.”
After two weeks at home, Ondrej reported back to base. The Air Force sent him to Drew Field in Tampa, Florida, to rest, then to Chatham Field to take another technical inspector’s position, this time inspecting the B29. But, in the meantime, the Japanese surrendered after A-bombs demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Ninety thousand were killed in Nagasaki, 100,000 in Hiroshima. I had flown with the pilot that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima when he was a lieutenant at Randolph Field–Lt. Wade. He later became General Wade.”
With the war over, Ondrej went to Ellington Field in Houston to separate from the Air Force. He was released on Oct. 18, 1945. “I had been in for six years and two weeks.”
“What did it do for Master Sgt. Joe Ondrej, number 6299899? It was a college education,” he said. “I learned to work, respect my people, and I learned the value of a dollar.”
He’s also done a lot of thinking about World War II and what it meant. “It was the war that turned the world around, the war that defeated dictatorship and stopped it in its tracks,” a war that allowed Democracy to grow.
Ondrej took all he had learned, moved back home, and then moved to Hearne with his cousin in February 1946, to purchase a little grocery store/filling station. From there, he went on to become a mechanic–working in every dealership in Hearne, then later worked as service manager for Chrysler. In 1957, he opened his own auto repair shop, then, some years later, opened the parts store in Hearne, which later became CarQuest. In 2007, he was still helping people from his room in the Bremond Nursing Home.
First published in the Hearne Democrat, Melissa Freeman, Reporter
Bill Brunette was a young fellow working in Palestine, Texas, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By the end of the next month, he was in the Army and his life had changed forever.
One of the first things Brunette had to do was take a test. He knew if he passed it, he would be in the Army Air Corps, so, he said, “I tried to pass it!” He read and responded to each question carefully, and when the test was scored, he was on his way to the Air Corps, what would later become the modern day Air Force.
Brunette went to Ellington Field near Houston to receive his basic training. He thought for a while he would be sent to India but was relieved when he went to bomb training in San Angelo instead.
In San Angelo, Brunette learned the bomb basics, a tricky business. He spent six months in North Carolina supporting two airborne divisions. He also spent time training and “practicing” in Kentucky and Fort Blythe, California. At Blythe, he became part of the 34th Bomb Group, the “Grand-daddy of the 8th Army Air Corp,” a group with the motto, “Valor to Victory.”
In April 1944, two months before the Normandy Invasion, Brunette and the 34th Bomb Group left Fort Miles Standish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a 14-day voyage to Liverpool, England on the U.S.S. Singapore. From there, it was a short trip to Mendlesham, England, to fuse and load bombs in planes bombing Nazi positions on the European mainland.
As a member of the 34th Bomb Group, Sgt. Brunette headed a squad of ordnance men who fused bombs and loaded them into the bomb bays of big, lumbering B-24 Liberators, a plane that Brunette did not particularly like. They were sitting ducks – a too slow moving target. Arming them was a job that required skill (you did not want to mess up a fuse on a 500-pound bomb), patience and strength. “We had to go to school to learn how to fuse bombs,” said Brunette. Before the 34th devised a mechanical hoist, bombs had to be loaded by hand, a job that took three to four men working together to left bombs into a plane’s bomb bay directly overhead.
“We worked at night,” said Brunette. “The planes flew out in the morning.” Plane crews were engaged in the risky business of daylight precision bombing; ground crews were engaged in the business of fusing and loading bombs in the dark, with just a small light under the plane. The base was blacked out every night.
“We had five minutes from the time incoming planes were picked up on radar,” five minutes to get ready to re-arm five B-24’s, or later in the war, arm five of the more maneuverable B-17’s, the Flying Fortresses. The squad would have to take a truck to the other end of the field and load it with bombs and 41 lb. ordnance boxes to meet the planes as they came in. Enough bombs to fill a three-acre field were moved in every day.
The job was difficult but reasonable at first. But then came June 6th and the Normandy invasion and bomb loading became an almost 24-7 ordeal with bombing missions running throughout the day and night. As soon as the bombers came in, they had to be reloaded and made ready for another mission. That meant loading twelve 500-pound bombs on each plane – a total of 6,000 pounds, and loading all the ammunition for the gunners. Loading 100 planes, the number that typically took off for a mission, required 20 crews servicing five planes each.
Attaching the fuses to the tail and sometimes (depending on the bomb), the nose in the dark was challenging. In the early days of the war, fuses had been attached hours before the bombs were loaded, but in an attack on Lille, Germany, in December 1942, about a third of the bombs did not explode. The arming mechanisms had frozen up after being exposed to damp conditions on the airfields overnight. By the time Brunette arrived, fusing bombs immediately before loading them had become standard procedure.
Fusing bombs was also tricky because different bombs had to be fused in different ways, explained Brunette. General-purpose bombs required one kind of fuse, fragmentation (anti-personnel) bombs and incendiary bombs had to be fused in another. All had to be done with care. Brunette remembers relieving crewmen who got impatient or sloppy.
The war got hot for Brunette when the Germans started following the 34th back to base to retaliate. Brunette remembers June 8, 1944, when “we lost four planes and 36 men in one night. We lost them right over the field.” The planes were coming in to land with the Luftwaffe was right on their tail. The result was total chaos. “Hit the ground” was the order of the night. German strafing runs over the field were also becoming routine as the allied invasion progressed.
In the months that followed, Brunette and crew started loading 1,000-pound bombs, six per plane, to clear out a mile and a half strip for British General Montgomery to advance through. Before Brunette left England, he was loading 2,000-pound bombs.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest battle of the war, “everything froze over – we had to get all the snow off the runways before the planes could take off and land.” Off duty, Brunette and crew were huddling in little huts with coal fires to warm them (hardy warm them). On duty, crewmembers worked in sheepskin flight suits to protect them from the extreme cold.
Brunette also remembers the V1 and V2 German rockets flying over to attack London. Sometimes they would miss the city and fall on the air base. Considering the strafing, the bombing and the V1 and V2 rockets, Brunette said, “I’m glad I didn’t get blown up while I was over there.”
The 34th Bomb Group flew its last combat mission in the war on April 20, 1945, but Brunette did not get to return home until the summer of 1945. “All the sick and injured were sent home first.” He came back on the Queen Mary, the greatest luxury liner of its day, but during its service as a troop ship, it was hard to find the “luxury” aspects.
Since then, Bill Brunette has returned to Mendlesham. He was touched that the people there still remember the 34th Bomb Group. A roster of the 237 men who lost their lives is attached to the wall of the church, and, said Brunette, “Once a week, they still pray for the 34th.”
How does a farm boy from Kosse, Texas, find himself knee-deep in snow in the Italian Alps, taking out German outposts dotting winding mountain roads? He becomes part of the 88th Infantry Division with the assignment to clear the Germans out of Italy. That is exactly what happened to Mr. Adrian Cordova, but that is also why Cordova had four memorable days in Rome. “I had bad times and I had good times,” said Cordova.
The 88th Infantry Division, or, as Nazi radio commentator Berlin Sally dubbed it, the “Blue Devils,” was re-commissioned in July 1942, and assigned to Ft. Gruber near Muskogee, Oklahoma. When Cordova was drafted in January 1943, he was initially part of the 86th Division but after basic training at Camp Howze near Greenville, Texas, he was reassigned to the 88th, 350th Regiment, Company B and thus part of a division whose commanders were determined to make the best of their time in the US military.
In an address to his troops, Commanding General Sloan said, “We’re going not only to Rome and Berlin, but all the way around to Tokyo. We will fight our way around the world and prove the 88th is the best division in the entire Army. This coming year of 1944 will see new history made – we are lucky to be in the making.” Though Sloan’s prediction did not come true entirely, the 88th did distinguish itself as one of the best in the military and Hearne’s own Adrian Cordova helped make the Division’s “history.”
After maneuvers in western Louisiana and East Texas from late June to early August, the 88th was assigned to Ft. Sam Houston as a reward for its “stand out” performance. In the fall, the 88th was sent to the east coast to deploy to North Africa and then to Italy. In 21 miserable days at sea, the troops had to stay mostly below deck on short rations and many were seasick most of the way across. Cordova developed his sea legs immediately and was not sick at all. For him, the trip was not so bad.
In October, Cordova was in Oran, North Africa, engaged in something a flatland farmer had probably never dreamed of –mountain training. The US military was planning to take Rome by striking through the mountains, a plan that no other invading army had ever been able to accomplish in Rome’s long history.
The 88th reformed in Naples, Italy, in February 1944 and staged in the Piedmont d’Alife area. Then they waited for the action to start. The wait was not quite as bad for Cordova because he could speak Spanish and his Spanish enabled him to speak to the locals – Italian and Spanish speakers can usually understand each other fairly well. But mostly, the 88th was impatiently waiting – waiting for the push for Rome. Elements of the 88th would be briefly deployed to relieve other divisions, but they saw very little action until May.
In May, the push through the mountains and into Rome began. The Americans faced strong opposition on May 11 as they broke through the German Gustav line. They fought so fiercely, the Germans said those devils with the blue cloverleaf insignia were “blood-thirsty” cutthroats.
The 350th was ordered over a mountain near Rome in June 1944, and “we went over it.” They were ordered to “dig in” but they could not. It was all rock. So Cordova and his buddy constructed a little rock enclosure a few feet high all the way around. It did not work. The next morning, Cordova was hit with an 88 round that left a chunk of metal the size of a fist in his leg. Cordova kept on advancing for about eight more hours, some of the time through a mine field, until he ran into a Red Cross Station. They told him it was time for him to go the rear.
Cordova spent a month in the hospital and then another month recuperating before he was sent back to the front. “I was thinking I was going to go home but I didn’t. They returned me to my company and two or three weeks later, I became the squad leader.” Some of the Division’s heaviest fighting was yet to come.
In August, the 350th was sent to assist in Livorno operations northwest of Rome and south of Pisa. It crossed the Arno River and continued advancing until it was relieved on September 6.
After a little time off, Sgt. Cordova and the 350th was back into action from the third week in September and throughout October. The regiment advanced rapidly along the Santerno River Valley toward Imola. They used their mountain training on Monte Acuto and seized Monte Pratolungo and Monte del Puntale where they met strong German resistance. The Battle for Monte Battaglia, fought from September 27 through October 13, was extremely bloody, as was the Battle of Monte delle Tombe.
The 350th took Monte Grande on October 20 but the offensive was halted on October 26 after over a month of hard mountain fighting. The Division dug in to defend the territory it had fought so hard to claim. In January, the Division was relieved for rehabilitation and Cordova rehabbed in Rome. And the good times rolled.
The division started attacking again in April 1945. They took Monte Mario on April 18. They reached the Po River valley later in the month and Verona and then Vicenza. “We had them on the run,” said Cordova. When the German forces in Italy surrendered on May, the Blue Devils were advancing through the Dolomite Alps, heading for Innsbruck, Austria.
Cordova remembers a time on the long trip to Austria when Company B “liberated” a German warehouse full of bicycles. In his entire life, Cordova had never ridden a bicycle. “We all got one and I rode it.” He grabbed on to a truck and was having a great time, but “then we hit an enemy outpost. We all dropped our bikes and ran.”
Throughout those long days before the German surrender, Cordova and his squad would hitch rides on the tanks, then drop off to clear out Nazi “nests” along the sides of the steep mountain roads. When the mountain fighting was over, they fully expected to finish the war in Japan.
“We were supposed to spend 20 days at home and then go back,” said Cordova. To get back home, they returned to Casablanca, boarded a ship to Brazil and then sailed up the coast to the United States. He was safely back in Texas when the atomic bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered.
Cordova spent a little time in Fort Worth and San Antonio before being discharged. “I was glad to come home alive,” he said. He moved to Calvert in 1947, married a Robertson County lady and came to Hearne to work on cars. When he had the opportunity to buy the cleaners his wife worked in, he seized the moment and the rest is Cordova Cleaners history.
Whenever you hear a story like Mr. Cordova’s, you’ve got to wonder what kind of “medal” it took to advance through a mine field with a fist-size piece of metal in the leg. Those young men coming out of the Depression were tough – they weren’t complainers. Those Bloodthirsty Blue Devils were certainly more than the Germans had bargained for.
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, February 2, 2005 Melissa Freemen, Reporter
For many American young men, Christmas Eve, 1942, was not marked by gifts under the tree, hot chocolate on the stove, and carols sung during a candlelight church service. It meant disembarking from a crowded troop ship with a furtive eye scanning the skies for the German Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force). That is where Bremond’s Walter Lyon was—instead of home with family and friends. Lyon was the 18th man to enter the Army from Falls County and one of at least two later residents of Robertson County to serve in the 67th Regiment of Patton’s 2nd Armored Div., “Hell on Wheels.”
After being inducted into the Army on March 18, 1942, Lyon went to San Antonio and then on to Ft. Benning, GA, to join General Patton. He met Calvert’s Red Sessum there and the two Texans had a good time.
Patton sent Lyon, Sessum and the rest of the Division all over Louisiana, Tennessee and the Carolinas to train on different terrains. One day, Lyon was working in a tank when Patton and Lt. General Crittenberger, who was about to take command of the 2nd Armored, came by and asked Lyon how they might carry more ordinance in tanks like the one he was working on. Lyon, who did not know who he was talking to at first, casually mentioned that they might tear out some of the flooring to stash more firepower. He was shocked when he realized the two men on horseback were Crittenberger and Patton. But Patton said, “Carry on, soldier,” and later, Lyon’s solution was the one the Army adopted.
When Patton was satisfied that his division was prepared, the 2nd Armored left from Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and landed in North Africa on Christmas Eve. Lyon has one vivid memory of Casablanca. One night, the Luftwaffe was shelling American positions in Casablanca, and his commander, George Patton, climbed up on a roof and shot at the German planes with his famous pearl-handled pistols. Actually, said Patton, they were ivory handled, indicating that pearl handled pistols would not be manly. As for Lyon’s memory—check it out. It is in the movie.
The 2nd Armored, 67th Regiment, didn’t see that much action in North Africa. They did have a harrowing train ride into the Atlas Mountains. The train engineer kept drinking “Vino,” handed to him by little kids who passed out the wine every time the train stopped. The kids would bang on the cars to get attention. It must have sounded like an attack from the inside.
They did not see much action because soon after the 2nd Armored Division arrival, German General Irvin Rommel left North Africa and the big show was over. Lyon spent most of his time in French Morocco in the Cork Forest, a cork plantation owned by a U. S. corporation, instead of engaging the Afrika Korps. But by the time he left North Africa, Lyon had earned his stripes and become a staff sergeant. His squad was assigned to a tank retrieval unit, manning retrieval vehicles.
The T-1 and T-2 tank retrieval vehicles were smaller, less heavily armed converted M-3 tanks that came along behind and kept the front line tanks running while trading fire with the enemy. Lyon was trained to be a tank mechanic who could change out a tank engine, whip on a new set of tracks—whatever it took to keep a tank moving forward.
In May 1943, Lyon and his retrieval unit were loaded onto an LST (a tank/troop transport) and taken out to sea to sit. They floated in the bay of Tunis for two months. Then on July 8, they saw a convoy sailing by, destination unknown, and joined it. Lyon looked off to his right and his chest swelled with pride to see the Battleship Texas sailing beside him. He never forgot it.
The unknown destination was Sicily. The 2nd Armored was part of a joint American/British operation to take Italy from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, allied to Hitler. When they landed on the beach at Gela on July 10, they encountered stiff resistance from the Italians and then the Germans as the 2nd Armored pushed toward Palermo. Lyon remembers being hammered by German 88’s, big guns used to protect the beach and probably the best artillery weapon the Germans had.
On the way to Palermo, Lyon suffered some mechanical problems and Patton road up and yelled at him, “What’s the trouble?”
“We’ll have it fixed in a few minutes, General,” Lyon said. Patton responded, “We’ve got the — on the run!” Remembering the event, Lyon said of Patton, “He was a fine old fellow.”
After Sicily was won in Patton’s lighting advance around the island, Lyon and his regiment camped in an olive grove until they were told they were going home in November. Sure enough, they sailed to within 600 miles of New York City when their ship turned around and headed for England. After a landing in Scotland, the 2nd Armored went into training in Tidworth, England, for the Normandy Invasion. On D-Day plus 3, Lyon and his retrieval tank were loaded on to an LST only to be moved to an LTC, a British landing craft. Shortly after, the first LST hit a mine and sank. “I lost a lot of friends,” said Lyon, who had escaped death by an inch.
By D-Day plus four, Lyon was in the hedgerows, fields divided into small squares by tall, thick hedges, an area that saw some of the trickiest fighting of the war. “We put different colored oil cloths on the back of the turrets to identify us. The Army Air Corps had a man on the ground directing fire for the pilots above.”
The Air Corps was taking out Germans in the hedgerows beyond. That is where Lyon met his new lieutenant, Lt. Norman Williams. He was about 20 years old and straight out of Officer Training School. “He was the best I ever had.”
Williams told Lyon, “I’m new at this. Just keep on like you are going and I’ll catch on.” Lyon added, “He was one of us.”
Under Williams’ command, Lyon went through six battles, including the Bulge. The Division raced through France in July and August, drove through Belgium and Holland, and crossed the German border at Schimmert, on September 18, 1944, to take up defensive positions near Geilenkirchen. On October 3, the Division went on the offensive again, attacking the Siegfried Line around Marienbert. They broke through, crossing the Wurm River. That is when that “fine old fellow” called them back. He needed the Division he had dubbed “Hell on Wheels” to turn the tide at the Bulge in the Ardennes forest. In the freezing cold and blinding snow, Lyon went back to Belgium and one of the greatest horrors of WWII.
Lyon and a fellow soldier would take turns standing in the turret–where they would almost freeze–and driving the T-1 tank retriever. One time when he was up in the turret, Lyon saw the man in the turret ahead of him, Lt. Stephens, be literally cut in two by a German artillery round. He also remembers crossing an ice field and shooting low to dislodge SS troopers. “We would scatter fire with our 50 caliber guns; then the dough boys would come and shoot into each fox hole. They wouldn’t look into them.”
Lyon was advancing one day when a GI flagged him down and asked him to rescue a soldier whose foot had been blown off. “We can’t go in,” the soldier said. “It’s mined.” Lyon agreed and maneuvered his vehicle into the woods. As he was edging into a spot right beside the injured man, a mine went off under the retriever’s tracks. It did not damage the GI or the T-1.
“He was freezing in the snow,” continued Lyon. “I don’t know how I did it, but I grabbed him up by his suspenders and hauled him up. I gave him a shot of morphine and we took off.”
“On the way out, I saw another guy in a tree and I tried to pick him up but he wouldn’t leave.” He got the injured soldier to a medic and returned for the tree’d soldier. “I finally talked him out of the tree and got him into the turret; he was terrified.” Lyon was recommended for a medal he never got. But the memory seems a little likes a medal–it’s firmly etched in Lyon’s mind.
Lyon remembers a less heroic time when he could hear a German horse-drawn artillery unit approaching. He hit his rifle’s clip button by mistake, and the bullet he fired ricocheted all over the place and nicked some of his buddies. “I thought the Germans would get us for sure, but they didn’t.”
Lyon also remembers a lot of nice people–a little Dutch girl named Jeanie Licke who gave him some little wooden shoes and wanted him to write her after the war. The Sweenies in Belgium had a new car they had hidden from the Germans in a haystack, but they could not drive it until Lyon shared some gasoline with them. Often, Lyon has wished he could go back to those countries and look up the friends he made.
Lyon also remembers a group of nuns who were sitting on a curb in Belgium. As the Americans approached, they handed them a bottle of champagne the nuns were saving for the first Americans they saw. “It was really good champagne,” said Lyon. “Some Germans were good people too, but not the SS. They had no conscience.”
On the autobahn, the 2nd Armored was headed for Berlin when Lyon fell behind, burned up a motor trying to catch up, installed another one, then still didn’t get to go into Berlin because he slipped off a gun mount and fell into some protruding metal. His wound would require surgery. He had more than enough points to go home so he decided to take his injury to the US for care. He did not seem to mind missing the grand entry into Berlin too much.
Lyon caught a B17 flying from Marseilles to Dakar, then caught a C47 to South America. From South America, he made it back to the US, his home near Kosse, and finally to surgery. He received his discharge in July 1945.
Lyon earned a lot of medals from March 1942 to July 1945, but the Army could not find his records, so, recently, his family decided to do the research for the military and make sure their dad received the medals he had earned. After Lyon received the first set, the military realized their mistake and sent a second set, so Lyon has two of each of the following: American Occupation of Germany, American Defense Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Award of Belgium Fourigere, a Good Conduct Medal (“I don’t know how I got that one–We pulled some stunts”), a silver star and two bronze stars. And he has the memories of the men he admired–General Patton, the man who “never took the same real estate twice,” General Crittenberger, and Lt. Norman Williams who still gets in touch with him — a friend for life.
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, May 12, 2004
Milton Aalen learned responsibility early. It was a family trait. His father, a career military man, who had moved his family to San Antonio, died when Milton was 12 years old and his older sister worked to support the family until Milton graduated from high school in 1939. Then it was his turn. With about two months of business school under his belt, he went to work at Duncan Air Depot, later Kelly Field, to support the family, and in a few years, moved up to Supervisor of Meteorological Supply.
But, there was a war on and Milton realized he would soon be in it, so he volunteered for the service he wanted. Aalen was in love with aviation.
In June of 1943, he volunteered and signed up for the Army Air Corps aviation cadet program; he wanted to fly.
The Army Air Corps cadet program had two training centers, one in San Antonio and one in Santa Ana, California. “OK, great!” he thought, “I’m already here,” thinking he could stay in San Antonio, and before he knew it, he was off to Santa Ana, CA.
He went through basic in Santa Ana, and it did have one unanticipated advantage. “I got to dance with Linda Darnell.” (For those of you who are too young to remember, Linda Darnell was a particularly gorgeous movie star of the 1940s.) Aalen added that he did not get to dance with her for long—there was a long line of cadets waiting for their chance.
After basic, Aalen was transferred to Thunderbird Field in Arizona. There, he had a flight instructor who was not committed to his success. In fact, he seemed committed to the opposite. Even though Aalen learned how to do the loopty-loops, he washed out when his Stearman airplane wing tipped and hit the ground, “resulting in a ground loop.” Therefore, even though he had completed his solo flight and logged about 40 hours and “enjoyed flying and acrobatics,” he was out.
The Army sent Aalen to Sioux Falls, SD, to become a radioman. It was the winter of 1944 and bitterly cold. Trainees hustled out from under their covers at 3 am for training. But, in February 1944, he was suddenly sent to Laredo, TX to become an aerial gunner. “The training was actually a lot of fun,” said Aalen, “as it mainly involved learning to lead from a moving vehicle and airplane.” He explained that, when gunning from a plane, you actually have to shoot behind the target since the plane is moving away. He was back in the air.
Aalen was sent to Fresno, CA, for a short stay and then to Tonopah, Nevada, where his ten-man crew was assembled and given their new B-24 Liberator, the four-engine heavy bomber that was about to help soften up Nazi resistance for the invasion of Europe. The crew was supposed to pick up their bomber and head for England but the plane was faulty. It “would not trim or fly correctly” and they had to leave the plane in Midland, TX.
From there, Aalen went to New York City where he stayed in the Waldorf Hotel for two weeks. With Aalen, it seemed that every disappointment was soon reversed.
After his Waldorf stay, Aalen was put on a troop ship bound for Northern Ireland, mostly filled with Army infantrymen and WACs. The WACs were separated from the Army men, but wouldn’t you know, Aalen was given the job of chaplain’s assistant, and he was able to move around the ship freely. He remained in contact with some of those women of the Women’s Army Corps during and even after the war was over.
Two days into his stay in Northern Ireland, Aalen caught a “gooney bird,” the nickname for the C-47 transport plane, and was airlifted to Horsham St. Fate at Norwich, England—his headquarters for the rest of his tour of duty. “As the base was a former RAF airfield, we were assigned to permanent-type barracks with wooden bunks and straw mattresses which were good accommodations comparatively speaking.” The straw could get tickly, but most of the time, say Aalen, “If you were tired enough, it didn’t bother you.”
On June 7, 1944, he found himself in another crew’s Liberator in the “waist” section, flying over Normandy the day after D-Day. The regular gunner was sick and Aalen got the call to fill in as waist gunner.
Artillery fire was intense on the ground below, and Aalen mentioned to the pilot that it looked like they were really mixing it up down there. The pilot indicated that he (Aalen) was not seeing the situation exactly right. “It turned out to be anti-aircraft guns shooting at us!” Moreover, Aalen was introduced to flak, the Liberator’s most serious threat, first hand.
“The flak was pretty heavy but we only caught a few holes in the wings.” It was Aalen’s “baptism of fire” – an experience he might have delayed if the gunner had not been sick in bed.
June 7 was the first of Aalen’s 50 missions over France and Germany. Thirty-five were combat sorties; fifteen were supply missions to re-fuel Patton’s tanks.
On combat missions, Aalen’s 458th Bomber Group, 754-squadron, hit targets like refineries, factories, marshalling yards (train stations), bridges, airfields and communication centers. The most difficult targets were those in Berlin and Munich because the return trip was so long—more chances for anti-aircraft fire to hit them. “They were very accurate too.” Munich was heavy guarded, and Aalen remembers one bombing run on a train-switching yard through particularly heavy fire. But, they made it. “It was a magic time.”
The 458th was engaged in daylight precision bombing—a very hazardous business early in the war. The U. S. Army Air Corps bombed during the day, the RAF at night.
On those sorties, Aalen served as tail gunner, waist gunner or nose gunner, but he never actually shot at an enemy plane. The bombers flew in tight formations of 12 (painted strips on the tails of each Liberator would tell you if you were in the right group), and Germans could not handle such concentrated fire. They would wait until a plane had a problem and had to drop back. Then they would pick it off.
Aalen’s plane lost an engine over Belgium on one sortie, but, fortunately, they were close enough to home base that, even though they were a sitting duck in every sense of the word, they were not picked off. The crew threw out what they could to lighten the plane and limped on into England.
But, flak, not enemy fighters, was the real problem. One thing the crew frequently did after they safely landed was count the holes. If they had encountered lots of flak, they would see if the holes in the plane’s skin would break their standing flak record. Aalen remembers 17 as being the ultimate flak-hole record set in one of those missions. He flew in two bombers during his 50 missions– the “Tail Wind” and the “Little Lambsy Divey.” Crews could get pretty inventive when it came to naming (and painting) their planes.
Even though Aalen was not doing any shooting to speak of, he found himself engaged in another activity on occasion that may have been a lot more dangerous to him and the bombing target. Liberators carried 250 lb. bombs with propellers attached. The propellers were actually triggering devises that blew off in the air, beginning the ignition sequence.
Sometimes, said Aalen, those propeller wires would hang and the bomb would not drop. You could not bring your bombs home with you—they had to go somewhere—so someone had to kick the bomb off, out of the open bomb bay doors. The wind was horrendous and the catwalk running between the two bays was only about a foot wide, and you had to make a little leap before you could find something to hold on to so you could kick the bomb off. To top is all off, “you couldn’t wear a parachute.”
“Never look down” was the rule.
The two or three times he had to kick bombs were some of his more terrifying moments. The other came when Aalen was sitting in the nose turret. “A big hunk of metal came through the Plexiglas and, like a ball on a roulette wheel, circled [round and round] the turret and dropped at my feet.” That was the closest he came to being hit.
On a Berlin raid, “I was able to drop the bombs and possibly hit my grandfather’s alleged brewery.” He had heard during his childhood that one of his grandfathers had owned a brewery in Berlin.
Another memorable mission was a sortie over Hamburg, home of the German U-bomb fleet. It was a “booger,” lots of anti-aircraft fire, very heavy flak. “We watched one of our planes take a direct hit with no chutes.” The plane went to pieces—no survivors. That was the mission on which Aalen’s crew achieved their “17-hole” record.
On its 15 non-combat missions, Aalen and crew carried fuel to the Eighth Army on the ground. “The gas was stored on the aircraft in the bomb bay area in large rubber tanks which were unloaded to tank trucks on various airfields north of Paris.”
On Christmas Day, 1944, Aalen’s crew flew their last mission. It was a memorable Christmas. Then it was off to the coast to catch a ship home. The return trip was a lot quicker than the first—a good thing, too, because the WACs were not available on the trip home—but it, too, was memorable. Aalen came home on the Queen Mary, probably the greatest cruise ship of its day.
After a two-week leave, Aalen reentered the aviation cadet program, this time hoping to become a navigator. And, unlike the first time, he was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. But, apparently, it wasn’t meant to be. On his second time through, he injured his knee playing football and never got to fly over the Pacific.
Instead, Aalen was attached to the Corps of Engineers and “sent to Ft. Lewis at Tacoma, Washington, to learn how to fight forest fires.” After a month’s training, he was sent to Boise, Idaho, where he “operated the radio for the men working in the mountains putting out fires.” His early radio training came to good use.
After several months in the Corps of Engineers, Aalen was discharged and returned to San Antonio. A good friend of his, Ed Tschoepe, was going to Texas A&M University and Aalen decided to become an Aggie as well, thinking he might want to get a permanent commission in the Air Force (after all, he had flying in the blood).
During his college years, he was introduced to Bernadine Wright; they were married in September 1948.
He did not make it back into the Air Force. He made it to Hearne instead. After five years of working for the IRS in Houston, he became administrator of the Hearne hospital. Moreover, that is how he became the first name in the phone book for over 40 years, and, along with Bernie, an invaluable member of the Hearne community.
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, Melissa Freemen, Reporter