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 and special guests 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 and every Wednesday in the Midlothian Mirror through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
• First of two-part series
My name is James Hill Lewis. I was born and raised on Cantrell Street on the south side of Waxahachie. I walked to school at Bullard Heights, but later I rode my bike across town every day to the Central Ward School on Marvin Street.
I was the sixth of eight children. Times were real tough and you could say that we grew up poor. Our garden and our fruit orchard saved us from going hungry. Having good credit at the Bridge Store also helped. Canning our own food and hard work kept us going.
We spent a lot of time as kids exploring the creek and the hollow on Cantrell Street. By the time I was of age, I knew my way around those woods.
I worked at the Dairyland Creamery just south of the square and also helped my dad some in his carpenter business. Working at the creamery had its benefits as I waited on just about all the girls that came into town, including one very special gal from Maypearl.
I graduated Waxahachie High School in 1941, just in time for World War II. After Pearl Harbor, I went to volunteer with my good friend and neighbor, Gordon Walker. We had decided to join the Army Air Corps and fight the war on the buddy system. It didn’t take us too long to discover that the Army didn’t go along with our plans.
I tested out high in math and mechanical ability so I was selected to train as a flight engineer for a B-24 bomber. The Army sent me to Kessler Army Air Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was really the first time in my life that I had ever been three dollars outside of Waxahachie.
We were trained by grizzled old veterans who had already been in theater and made it back. They kept reminding us how much tougher it was over there.
And then it was on to the Consolidated Aircraft plant in California. I had to learn what makes this airplane tick and how to keep it running smooth. I was also the emergency pilot in case anything happened to the pilot and co-pilot. My workspace and battle station were just behind the cockpit.
After that, it was back to Laredo for gunnery training. They liked us Texans as gunners because they knew that most of us could shoot. Many of the city boys from up north just didn’t understand how to lead a target and that you have to follow through when you pull the trigger.
While home on leave, I married the sweetest girl I ever met, that special gal from Maypearl, Laverne Higgins. The wedding was done on the quiet in Dallas on Christmas Eve 1943. Oh, her parents approved, but the school administration would not have, being as she was still in high school.
Finally it was on to Tucson, Arizona, at the Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, where I was put on an air crew and we trained together as a team. There was George, the pilot from Florida; we all called him “Cap.” And Warren, the co-pilot from New Orleans, and Winston, the ball turret gunner from Vermont; we all called him “Sax.” There was Tom, the nose-gunner from Jersey; Ted, the left waist gunner from Detroit; and George, the right waist gunner from Connecticut. Hal, from Iowa, was the tail gunner; Roy was the bombardier and John was the navigator. I was the top turret gunner and the flight engineer.
It seemed to me that next to the pilot, I was the busiest guy on board. My job was to watch my gauges and assist the pilots on the condition of the four engines, make sure everything was working like it was supposed to. Also, the defense of the upper hemisphere of our plane was my responsibility.
Being the top turret gunner was a lonely assignment. I was the only one with a 360-degree view above us. That was a lot of sky to be watching, and usually with the sun in my eyes.
We were part of the 727th Squadron of the 451st Bombardment Group. Quite a crew, the 10 of us were, going off to win the war.
We received orders to prepare to ship out in June of 1944. Before leaving Arizona, there was a get together for our crew. Laverne was there along with several of the other wives from all over the country. We had a grand old party, a bittersweet sendoff, you could say.
The next day we boarded a troop train and headed for the East Coast. Somewhere along the way, while stopped at a small town in the desert, two girls came running alongside the train calling our names. It was Laverne and one of the other wives. They had been driving alongside the train all the while.
It was great to see her one more time, but it was also another tearful goodbye. We had no idea when we would ever see each other again. I could already see that going to war is not a pleasant venture.
We boarded a liberty ship and set sail for destinations unknown. It was my first time to ever see the Atlantic Ocean and here I sat in the middle of it. Seemed like a long way back to Cantrell Street and my garden.
Our ship passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to southern Italy, where we joined the 15th Army Air Force at Foggia. Our crew was assigned to an older battle-tested B-24 that was named the “Patsy Jack.”
After getting settled in for a few days, we were given a bombing mission. Up before daylight for briefing and a breakfast where my appetite was greatly diminished. Coffee and toast was all I could stomach.
After another hour of preparation, we finally rode on a jeep out to our plane. The bombers took off at 30- to 40-second intervals and climbed in a slow, revolving spiral until we gathered at 20,000 feet and got into formation.
Watching my gauges carefully as we headed north, I decided to clear my guns, firing off a couple of short bursts, and rotated my gun turret, just to make sure that everything was in working order.
From here on in, I spent my time straining my eyes against the bright morning sky, watching for German fighters. They were coming for us, we just didn’t know how many and from what direction.
My hands were moist and my mouth was dry. And finally there it came – a German fighter plane, an ME-109. Jeebers!
It was past me before I could even get him lined up. At 400 miles per hour, they were a lot harder to hit than the targets we shot at back in Laredo.
In the following weeks we went on bombing missions over Northern Italy, Romania, Austria, France and Germany. It was a gut-wrenching feeling to watch one of the other bombers in our squadron shot down. Sometimes there were parachutes that came out, and sometimes there were none.
Rumbling down the runway with an 8,000-pound bomb load to the noise and vibration of our four Pratt & Whitney radial piston engines – each generating 1,200 horsepower – was a nerve-wracking thing to do.
There were hydraulic lines all over a B-24 and many of the connections leaked. There were three gas tanks, one over the bomb bay and the other two in the wings just inboard of the engines and right next to me.
The gas lines had leaks too, although the mechanics could never find them. The smell of hydraulic oil and 100-octane fuel does not contribute much to one’s feeling of well-being.
After all the training that we had been through, you would think that this would be routine, but when you see those Messerschmitts dive in on you with their guns flashing, there was cold realization that these guys were out to kill me.
I had German fighter pilots pass by so close that I could almost see the expression on their faces. They were very fast and they were very brave. Hard to hit also!
It looked like most of our bombing runs are going to be against oil storage facilities and on Aug. 2, that’s what we were going after again, this time in southern France.
But this time, our bombardier Roy and navigator John had to stay behind for special training as a lead crew. They gave us two replacements: Lieutenant Gillies, who would handle both the bombardier and navigator positions, and also a photographer, Sergeant Dandrew. Just what we needed, a photographer.
Our orders were to hit the oil storage tanks in the Rhone River Valley at Le Pontet, France, to soften up the enemy for an upcoming American landing in the south of France.
We crossed over southern Italy and headed out across the Mediterranean and passed close to the coastline of Corsica. So calm and peaceful out here over the blue waters, but it wouldn’t last much longer.
I kept myself occupied, going through my checklists, scanning the horizon, cleaning the Plexiglas of my turret, checking my guns, adjusting my oxygen mask, looking for a new stick of gum.
Crossing over land into France, we were into enemy-held territory. Everybody put on their flak jackets. Very soon we approached the target, and I could see a growing carpet of dark puffs of smoke up in front of us.
The German anti-aircraft batteries were rolling out a warm welcome for us. Shells began to explode in black bursts all around us, jolting and rocking our plane with a sharp crack and thump. Flak striking our plane sounded like gravel thrown hard against a tin roof. You had to stay on target so there was nothing to do but fly straight on through it.
I thought all that flak must be tearing up the “Patsy Jack” when she lurched upward as Lt. Gillies yelled, “Bombs away!” Just as I breathed a sigh of relief, a loud explosion shook the plane. The left wing was hit. It was hit good. Looking at the instruments, I could see gauges already going bad.
Our No. 2 engine was on fire. We started pumping the fire retardant on it and by the time the fire was finally out, there were three holes the size of washtubs in the wing. The gas tank was leaking badly and the flaps were shot to pieces.
I started pumping gas from the damaged tank over to the right wing. With one engine out of commission, we started falling behind the rest of the formation during the turn for home.
Just then another awfully loud bang went off right next to me. I turned around to see the Plexiglas canopy of my gun turret shattered and blown out. There was a jagged four-inch hole in the floor. A German artillery shell had passed through my compartment, without exploding.
Just after I had the fuel transfer going, one of the engines on the right side of the plane caught fire. There was very little fire retardant left. … Well that did it!
To be concluded next week.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2015 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.