Robertson County’s Greatest Generation – WWII Veterans’ War Stories

Adrian Cordova (Hearne)

RC Greatest Generation-Press Ready_Page_033_Image_0001
Adrian Cordova

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

Walton Lyon (Bremond)

WWII Victory Medal
WWII Victory Medal

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

Melissa Freemen, Reporter

Milton Aalen (Hearne)

Milton Aalen
Milton Aalen

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