BENTON – Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation” in his book about the men and women who fought World War II.
They are in focus during Friday’s observation of Veterans Day, the holiday dedicated to all who served in the U.S. military.
The World War II veterans, already honored in Brokaw’s best seller, take center stage in the aftermath of the death of the oldest surviving veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, who died at age 110 on Feb. 28 of this year.
Some 16 million Americans went into uniform and fought in World War II. More than 290,000 gave their lives in combat and another 100,000-plus died in non-combat accidents and incidents.
Many of the World War II veterans came from Marshall County. Three of them are presented as representatives of all those who served.
15th Air Force,
U.S. Army Air Forces
n Flew 35 missions in
n Staff Sergeant
n Decorations include Air
Medal, Purple Heart
Ed Sutherland remembers vividly his duty from 1943 through 1945 with the 15th Air Force. The group was based in Italy, after a multi-front Allied invasion drove the Germans out of the country in September 1943.
Sutherland and other bomber crew flew missions over central and eastern Europe. His first assignment was as tail gunner, in the rear of the four-engine planes nicknamed Flying Fortresses because of their heavy armament to defend against enemy fighter planes.
He ended up as a waist gunner, manning a 12.7mm machine gun fired from an open port in the side of the plane’s slender fuselage at attacking enemy planes.
On one mission, he suffered the wound that earned him his Purple Heart.
“It was just superficial,” he said. “A piece of flak bounced off my gun and hit me in the hand.”
The ball turret gunner, in a rotating emplacement mounted in the plane’s belly, was more seriously wounded and crew members, including Sutherland, were administering first aid as the plane returned to base.
“If we had someone wounded, we were supposed to fire a flare on approach,” Sutherland said. “That way, they’d know to send an ambulance onto the field.”
Sure enough, Sutherland said, the “meat wagon” (slang for ambulance) was there to pick up the wounded ball turret gunner.
“He pointed at me and said, ‘He’s wounded, too.’ So they took me to the hospital, too, and gave me a Purple Heart,” Sutherland said. “I wasn’t gonna tell ‘em not to.”
Sutherland also received a Citation of Valor for an unusual incident.
“We were cautioned that the Germans had a B-17 and were using it to strafe the Russian army,” he said.
“They told us, if you can’t hold position and have to fly over the Russian front, fire a red flare. Otherwise they’re gonna shoot you down.”
Soon after being warned, Sutherland’s plane was flying over Russian troops and Sutherland, from his waist gunner spot, detected fire from the ground.
“I notified the aircraft commander, so we fired a flare,” Sutherland said. “I think that bullet [fired from below] was a warning.”
440th Engineer Depot Company
n FWent ashore at Normandy, France, on D-Day plus 6– June 12, 1944
n Technical Sergreant
n Decorations include Purple Heart
Engineers provide support to combat units in various methods, from preparation of defenses to helping facilitate offensive operations such as undoing or destroying the work of the enemy’s engineers.
As part of the massive Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe in June 1944, the men of Dorse O’Dell’s unit were randomly assigned to duties from the initial landings on through to follow-up operations once the beachhead was secured. O’Dell set foot in France on June 12.
Once ashore, his duties included supervision and direction of various construction projects, including placement of “pierced planks,” the famous Marston Mat made of steel panels pierced with holes to make the 15-inch by 10-foot sections lighter in weight, developed during the war for quick rudimentary “paving” of unimproved ground for use as aircraft runways.
But first, he had to get ashore safely. He didn’t get through the first day before he had earned a Purple Heart.
O’Dell was struggling up a steep grade when he stumbled against a tree that had been blown out of the ground, “roots up.” He broke his hand.
A medic at a field hospital was preparing to set the broken bones, O’Dell said, when another medical officer said, “Put a cast on it. He’s not gonna play the piano for life.”
The iconic “pierced planks” were useful for many things besides aircraft runways. O’Dell remembers Western Europe often being “muddy as thunder” and the steel pieces were in constant demand to help wheeled vehicles, including the famous “general purpose” four-wheel car – GP, or “jeep” – crawl out of muddy traps.
O’Dell remembers how an officer in a small German town offered to provide a jeep to the engineer unit in return for a supply of the planks.
The German surrender on May 8, 1945, brought combat action to a close in the European Theater of Operations. There was still much for the occupying Army to do, but O’Dell’s duty was done.
Soldiers were rotated home based on an accumulation of points for their service, and O’Dell said, “I had enough points that I left my unit and came on home.”
His unit was being readied for deployment in the Pacific, where the invasion of Japan was being planned, when the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 15.
99th Infantry Division
n Saw first combat in the Battle of the Bulge
n Platoon Sergeant
n Decorations include Bronze Star Medal
Veteran soldiers called them the “Battle Babies,” so nicknamed because in late 1944, nearly three full years after the U.S. entered World War II, the men of the 99th Infantry Division had not yet seen combat action.
The unit included J.C. Jones and several of his pals from home – Tas Nelson, Hill Lovett, S.C. Etheridge, Joe Hicks, George Allen Tucker.
“We trained here in the U.S. for two years,” J.C. Jones said. “We thought we knew something about war, ‘til we got in the Battle of the Bulge. That’s when we went from rookie outfit to combat outfit.”
The 99th was on station in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium as harsh winter approached in November 1944. Just when it was thought that the Nazis were played out, German forces surged through the Allied line near Bastogne, pushing the enemy back, creating the bulge that gave the famous battle its name.
Over the next five months, the men of the 99th were involved in major combat operations that took the Allies deep into Germany – in the capture of Cologne, the first major German city to fall to the Allies; in the taking of the Bridge at Remagen, the first Allied crossing of the Rhine; and in the Ruhr Pocket action, the encircling and capture of hundreds of thousands of Whermacht troops.
“The Germans had a first-class soldier and we learned to respect him,” Jones said. “The main object was staying alive.”
Jones was promoted when his platoon commander was killed and the platoon sergeant received a battlefield commission to take his place.
“He said, ‘I’ll take the commission if he [pointing at Jones] can be my platoon sergeant.’ So I took the platoon sergeant position.”
He inherited massive responsibilities for the men of the platoon.
“My platoon had about 80 percent casualties,” Jones said. “You took it pretty hard.”
One of those who did not come home was Jones’ friend, George Allen Tucker. Jones, despite his months of combat, was never wounded.
World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. One year later, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 as Armistice Day.
The anniversary was once again celebrated in 1926.
It wasn’t until 1938 that the date was set aside as a national holiday, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’”
In 1954, the holiday was modified to honor veterans of all wars. The holiday has been known as Veterans Day since then. The date is celebrated in many nations, including Canada, as Remembrance Day.
Like the original event on which the holiday is based, this year’s celebration is numerologically significant. It will take place on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 2011.
Grammarians, note: The U.S. Government has decreed that, while the possessive forms “Veterans’ Day” and “Veteran’s Day” are acceptable, the official form is the attributive case (with no apostrophe).