EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.

The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.

“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.

We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...

My name is J. B. Colleps. I grew up in Waxahachie, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Ben H. Colleps and I graduated from Waxahachie High.

I am married to Charlene Parks, and we have a baby girl. We live at 500 Williams Street. In my spare time, I served as the assistant Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop Number 232.

After Pearl Harbor, I joined the Army Air Force in February of 1942 and received my training at the Army Air Field at San Angelo. I was part of the first big class of men training at the new bombardier schools of the West Texas Bombardier Triangle. They were also training bombardiers at Big Spring and Midland.

When I first arrived the base was still under construction. There were construction crews busy lengthening the runways, building barracks, maintenance shops and aircraft hangars.

Everything was being thrown together in the cheapest and fastest way possible, mostly wooden structures.

There was urgency all about the base, everyone had it, build it quick and train them prompt. The 12-week program here reflected the need to get us into combat right away.  

Being part of this first group here did indeed make for heady times. I felt that we were a part of something big.

I was trained to use the new Norden bombsight. It was one of America’s most closely guarded secrets. They were removed from the aircraft when not in use and stored in one of three vaults in the bombsight maintenance building. The building was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence and kept under armed guard 24/7. We had to sign an oath of secrecy as to our knowledge of it.

Our primary training plane was the twin-engine Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan, which provided twin-engine training for the pilots.

The plane had a large glass nose where we could sit and become familiar with the bombsight. That took some getting used to, setting up front in the glass nose of an airplane watching the ground fly by under your feet.

Practice missions were flown with 100 pound concrete practice bombs that were dropped from altitudes ranging from 300 to 12,000 feet.

Each of us dropped about 200 bombs during our training. I got fairly good at this, but I’m not sure about that claim of being able to hit a pickle-barrel.

I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, and was sent to Alaska. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Islands and I was to be part of the counter offensive to recapture them.

We were with the first bomber group to go to the Aleutian Islands, and the first planes to land on Adak Island.

The weather out here in the Bering Sea is unbelievable. What a place this was, cold, foggy, windy, muddy, no trees and a volcano that from time to time issues puffs of smoke. … I don’t believe that I could get much farther from Williams Street than this.

Taking off and landing was just as hazardous for us as the enemy was. It was the worst flying conditions I had ever seen. Our airfield was built in 10 days in a lagoon that was drained by the Army engineers. They filled it with volcanic sand and covered it over with perforated steel panels, called Marsden matting. This metal runway was often covered with an inch or two of water due to all the sudden downpours of rain.

I flew combat missions during the battles of Attu Island and Kiska Island. The anti-aircraft gunfire over Kiska was the worst of it. We lost several good men to enemy flak there. … The dead were buried on a hillside overlooking our camp. We carried them up there ourselves.

It seemed as if we were a forsaken part of the war effort, and here we were in the most remote and desolate place that I had ever seen. It was a hostile and unforgiving environment, to say the least. And fresh food, it never happened.

On one of our missions, my plane was able to destroy the Japanese radar station, which really helped our situation. What a grand relief to see that thing blown apart! Maybe all that pickle-barrel talk was true after all.

But a good number of our aircrews would never make it back home. The weather conditions alone cost us many a good man. The fighting down south at Guadalcanal got most of the press back home; meanwhile we were the forgotten ones.

By August of ‘43 we had recaptured all of our Aleutian territories back from the Japanese. I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and because of my combat experience, I was re-assigned back to San Angelo to be an instructor.

Being back in Texas, it seemed to me like my war was over. I felt lucky to be one of the guys that actually made it back.

I spent the remainder of the war training new bombardiers. The fighting in the Pacific and in Europe was still going on with no end in sight. There was a great need for new aircrews, for losses in the Air Corps were very bad.

We pushed the new cadets hard, and by now they were getting more training than we ever did. These fellows really have no idea what they are up against.

We instructors flew along with the cadets on their training missions. I could teach them more up there than they would ever get from a classroom. Any advantage we could give them, we did.

It was a hot summer night in ‘45 we were flying over the open moonlit fields of West Texas. Suddenly something went wrong, there wasn’t any warning, there wasn’t any time. … There were no survivors.

It was Friday, June 29, and I was 24 years old.

We were Airmen once, and young. Remember us.

Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.