The U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees, built roads and airfields across the Pacific Theater during WWII. In this episode, James Smith recalls his service with the Seabees beginning in 1943. Smith shares his memories of training with the Marines and the trip through the Panama Canal on the first large ship he ever saw. He also discusses how the Seabees would distill their own bootleg whiskey and his unconventional way of doing laundry aboard their small transport ship.
PODCAST EXTRA: Smith’s last assignment as a Seabee was repairing an airfield on the recently-liberated island of Okinawa. He discusses the Okinawans’ history with the Japanese and the devastating cost of “liberation.”
Born in 1906 in Himera, Indiana, Esther Stanton was just 14 years old when she began playing piano at the local nickelodeon. These were the days of silent movies, when musicians set the mood for the flicking images on the big screen. In this episode, she explains how live music was used to enhance the movie-going experience before “talkies” came along.
It was this experience that prepared Stanton for a career as a professional pianist. Along the way, she met several famous entertainers, like Red Skelton, one of the most beloved comedians of the Twentieth Century, who grew up in nearby Vincennes, Indiana. Stanton recalls playing piano for Skelton in home talent shows and discusses his meteoric rise to fame.
When WWII erupted, Stanton joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp or WACS, serving as director of the female dance band. When the WAC became part of the regular army, Stanton chose not to reenlist because of the limited opportunities being offered them. After leaving the WAC, Stanton formed an “all-girl” jazz band with several of her former band-mates. She credits the band's popularity to the shortage of male musicians during the war.
PODCAST EXTRA: While touring with her band in the 1940s, Ester Stanton met, and became friends with, popular pianist and showman, Liberace. She remembers his friendly demeanor and devotion to his mother.
In 1954, as half of a performing duo with her husband, Stanton moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She played and performed until 1966, when she retired in Biloxi.
The Battle for Guadalcanal, known as Operation Watchtower was the first major offensive by Allied Forces against the Nation of Japan during WWII. Willie Hammack served on the crew of the U.S. Navy destroyer Sterett (DD-407) during the Battle for Guadalcanal. In this episode, he recalls their mission to support the Marines on the islands while fighting off the Imperial Japanese Navy.
During the Third Battle for Savo Island in WWII, half of Hammack’s shipmates were killed or injured. As the night battle raged on Hammack describes assisting the ship’s doctor, despite being wounded himself and holding a friend’s hand as he died. He remembers the fierce ship-to-ship fighting and the advantage radar gave the US Navy. After the battle was over he recounts the 20+ burials at sea and the welcome back they received from the Pacific fleet when they reached Pearl Harbor.
PHOTO: By U.S. Navy, photographed from a USS Chenango (CVE-28) aircraft. - Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-321653 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1991079
William Locke was living in the Gulfport Naval Home in 1999, when he shared his memories of Pearl Harbor with us. In this episode, he recalls with pride being assigned to the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania, in 1939, the flagship of the Pacific fleet. He remembers how they were sent to Hawaii for a three-month training mission at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, a place they had heard of, but knew little about.
That three-month assignment stretched into two years and Locke was waiting for their return trip stateside, at which time he would be discharged and on his way home. History had other plans.
Locke recounts the events leading up to the “Day which will live in infamy.” How he and a friend left the ship that Saturday to watch a University of Hawaii football game. He recalls waking up the next morning as Japanese dive bombers began to attack the fleet. During the battle, Locke looked on as the low-flying enemy planes relentlessly attacked anything that moved. He describes feeling helpless and relates how a shipmate’s body saved him from an exploding bomb.
After the attack, Locke compiled damage and casualty reports for the Navy. He explains how the U.S.S. Pennsylvania’s trip to dry dock for routine maintenance the day before, saved them from a torpedo, but how claims from the Japanese of sinking what they thought was the Admiral’s ship, lead his parents to think he was dead for ten days. He also discusses the horrible things he witnessed and why his memories still haunt him today.
The Korean Conflict began in June of 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. Aubrey Freshour of Noxubee County joined the Army in October of 1951, as the war was heating up. In this episode, he shares his memories of that time like how his basic training got off to a rough start, the long journey from San Francisco to the front lines, and the importance of wearing dry socks during the harsh Korean winters.
During his sixteen-month deployment, Freshour often experienced times of loneliness and uncertainty. He credits his creator and letters from home with giving him the strength to make it though and shares with us the full experience from beginning to end.
As the son of a WWII Marine fighter pilot, Hardy Stennis of Macon, Mississippi was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. In this episode, Stennis discusses his military career spent as a combat pilot during the 1950s & 60s. Determined to see the world, he requested to be stationed in Suga, Japan immediately after graduating flight school. At that time, regulations required that new graduates be assigned to a stateside training squadron, but somehow Stennis was granted his request. He remembers how a veteran pilot named Trigger Long took him under his wing and gave him the chance he needed.
According to Stennis, there were plenty of ways for a young pilot to get into trouble in Japan in those days. He credits the fatherly advice of a major who encouraged him to stay away from wild living and stay in shape if he wanted to excel as a fighter pilot. It was the major who convinced Stennis to try out of a local rugby team in Yokohama.
Stennis goes on to detail his involvement in the Vietnam War. He remembers a mission to destroy a ferry in Laos, wiping out a large group of North Vietnamese soldiers attacking the Fifth Marines, and an altercation afterwards with an overbearing reporter.
Ernest Potter boarded a troop ship bound for Italy on September 5, 1944, the same day his daughter was born. In this episode, he shares his memories of receiving the news a month later and meeting boxing legend Joe Louis. He also describes the luxurious accommodations of his first post and the primitive conditions of his second.
Working an air traffic controller with the Allied Forces, Ernest Potter’s group supported the British 8th Army. He discusses how much tea the British drank during the course of a day, how the Germans would shell their positions at night and recounts a couple of opportunities he had to aid a young Italian girl and a German POW.
Extended conflicts in the middle east have meant extended deployments for our troops. Time spent away from home, often in combat situations, can be stressful for soldier and family alike. In this episode, Brigade Commander Trent Kelly discusses a variety of challenges faced by the modern military family. Since joining the army in 1985, Kelly has been deployed to Iraq multiple times. He shares how growing up in Union, Mississippi, his family and his church inspired him to serve, the periods of adjustments that soldiers and their families face once they are reunited, and why it is so important for them to have a core support group of family and friends.
Additionally, Kelly offers his prospective on the needs of our veterans, including an overhaul of the VA medical system and problems related to PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Learning to recognize the symptoms of PTSD has taught him that the soldiers who need treatment the most are the least likely to ask for help.
Sidney Land of Los Angeles joined the U.S. Navy in 1952 after graduating high school, so he was well into his military career by the time he came to Vietnam in the mid-60s. He eventually became a patrol officer on a PBR (patrol boat river) working to disrupt enemy supply lines along the upper Saigon river. Because of his experience and interest in Vietnamese culture, he became an advisor for several of the South Vietnamese boat crews that patrolled alongside the U.S. Navy crews.
In this episode, Land discusses how he earned the respect of the Vietnamese by learning their culture, recalls being the guest of honor at a funeral for a Vietnam boat captain, and recounts a moonlight river battle with the Viet Cong that landed him and two of his crew in a MASH unit.
This interview was conducted in 2002 at the U.S. Naval Home in Gulfport, MS that Hurricane Katrina destroyed in 2005.
Photo: Aad Born, Flickr.com
Irene Smith was 17 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As her older brother prepared to go off to fight for his country, Smith began to search for some way she too could serve during this time of national crisis. When the women’s branch of the U. S. Naval Reserve, known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) was established in July of 1942, she went to the recruiting office to enlist, but was turned away because the minimum age at that time was 20.
In this episode, Smith recalls biding her time until she met the age requirement by going to business school, working nights in a factory and picking up shifts at the local five and dime. When she was finally old enough to join, Smith trained as a mechanic. She explains that although women were allowed to perform many important jobs during WWII, old sexist attitudes remained. Smith details how gender bias affected her role as an aviation machinist’s mate. She also looks back fondly at the Chief Petty Officer they called Pappy Vaughn.
As a machine gunner in the U.S. Army during WWII, Robert Leslie survived some of the bloodiest battles of the European Theater. In this episode, he shares some of those memories that still haunt his dreams. He recalls his company’s first battle to take Saint Dié, France in November of 1944 and how his soldiers were saved from a booby-trapped roadblock by a herd of pigs.
Later, as the Allied Forces pushed across the Siegfried Line, a defensive wall along Germany’s western border, Leslie endured bitter cold, deprivation, and the anguish of losing so many of his fellow soldiers to the horrors of modern warfare.
The podcast ends on a high note as he remembers the 761st Tank Battalion, the first armored combat group comprised of African-Americans. Even whites from the segregated South recognized the bravery and skills of these tankers and Leslie credits them with saving his life on more than one occasion.
In preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, a key first step for the liberation of Europe during WWII, the 82nd Airborne Division traveled by boat to the North African city of Casablanca in the spring of 1943 to prepare and train. In this episode, General Elmo Bell of Wiggins recalls the hot, arid countryside and being greeted by the Red Cross.
On the night of July 9th, 1943, U. S. Army paratroopers parachuted behind enemy lines on the tiny island of Sicily. Separated and alone, Bell recounts the harrowing events that followed as he attempted to find and regroup his scattered unit. His memories of that night and the following day are graphic and disturbing.
After 15 years under fascist rule, the reactions of the Sicilians to Allied forces were mixed. Bell describes the generational divide of the local population and the large number of political prisoners they liberated.
Warning: this episode includes graphic descriptions of combat!
In 1942, Brigadier General Elmo Bell of Wiggins was working as a contractor, building barracks for soldiers at various military bases around the South. At that time, he had a low opinion of the Army and so when he came to Hattiesburg, it was with the intention of joining the Marines.
In this episode, he recalls how an Army recruiter convinced him to become a paratrooper and shares his memories of Paratrooper Jump School. He discusses how the Airborne Infantry attracted a special breed of soldier and why some of the strongest candidates washed out of the program.
PODCAST EXTRA: As WWII progressed, the equipment Paratroopers used evolved to meet the challenges they encountered in actual combat. Bell discusses some of the many hazards they faced.
In March of 1942, the first African-American armored combat unit was formed at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. Viewed by army brass as more of a novelty or public relations tool, the 761st might never have seen combat were it not for General George S. Patton who requested they be placed under his command. In this episode, James Jones of Laurel discusses the history of the 761st tank battalion. Jones was serving at a replacement depot outside of Paris when he assigned to the 761st as a replacement. He recalls being trained to operate a tank just five miles from the front and how the European populace reacted to seeing black soldiers.
On December 16, 1944, Germany launched a major counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest in an effort to cut off Allied supply lines. Jones recounts the often overlooked but vital role the 761st played in the Battle of the Bulge.
After the attack on the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, America declared war on Japan. In this episode, Laurel native, Doris Barwick recalls how their community responded. Young men, some not even out of high school, volunteered for service by the thousands and soon found themselves on the front lines in Europe and the Pacific.
As a result of intense fighting during WWII and later the Korean Conflict, many of these soldiers suffered from battle fatigue, known today as PTSD, for years afterwards. To treat the lingering effects of PTSD, they often turned to alcohol.
Doris Barwick remembers her husband’s frequent nightmares and describes how he overcame his addiction. After getting sober himself, Jim Barwick became a drug and alcohol counselor and spent his remaining seventeen years helping others.
Image: 2,000 Yard Stare by Thomas Lea, c 1944 Life Magazine
John Childress joined the Navy Seals in 1968. In this episode, he recalls training teams of mercenaries for raids into North Vietnam. As a result of his efforts, the Viet Cong placed a bounty on Childress. He explains how a bomb left on an ammo pile outside his office nearly got him.
Childress also discusses how the Viet Cong charged Vietnamese businesses protection money during the war and in a podcast extra describes a raid his team conducted on a VC prison camp.
In 1965, George Hall of Hattiesburg was an Air Force reconnaissance pilot stationed in Thailand. In this episode, he recalls the day in September his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. Hall spent the next seven and a half years as a prisoner of war. He describes life at the infamous Hanoi Hilton and the torture he endured at the hands of his captors.
When he was finally released in 1973, it took time for Hall to readjust to life in Hattiesburg after so long a POW. He remembers being shocked by the price of a hamburger.
Unlike many Vietnam veterans, Hall returned home to a hero’s welcome. He discusses playing mental golf to pass the time and his discomfort with being called a “War Hero.”
In 1997, USM professor Andrew Wiest began teaching a class on Vietnam. In this episode, he recalls looking for ways to make history come alive for his students and the unexpected results of those efforts.
After meeting Vietnam veteran John Young, Wiest was inspired to write The Boys of ’67. He details the writing process and the book’s impact on the men of Charlie Company and their families.
In 2014, the National Geographic Channel premiered The Boys of ’67, a documentary based on the book. Wiest explains how the project came about and the challenges it presented.
The documentary received Emmy Award nominations in four categories. In a podcast extra, Wiest discusses the prospect of winning an Emmy and what it means for the men of Charlie Company.
Emma Foret was the wife of a Navy hospital corpsman. In this episode she recalls their life together and how she and the children coped with her husband’s absence.
She also discusses the special bond between the Navy and Marine Corp and how the wives of these servicemen depended on each other.
PODCAST EXTRA: Even in times of peace, conflicts can arise at a moment’s notice. Foret remembers her husband’s role in two such events and how the Navy kept the families informed.
Bill Barnes of Jackson joined the Coast Guard the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In this episode, he recalls his time in the Pacific spent aboard a Patrol boat. Barnes also describes the process of arming and testing the new craft before heading out to sea.
After serving two years in the Pacific Theater, Barnes returned stateside for a new duty: helping develop rescue methods still used by the Coast Guard today.
At the beginning of the war, the Coast Guard didn’t have enough uniforms, weapons or even beds for the influx of new recruits.
Barnes recalls going to extremes to try and keep warm.
During WWII, most African-American Soldiers served in support units away from the front lines. All that changed during the War in the Pacific where because of the close proxmity of the conflict, black soldiers found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts. In this episode, Lee Spearman of Bay Springs remembers the only objective was to stay alive.
Journalist Ernie Pyle reported from the frontlines in Europe and the Pacific during WWII. Spearman was there when Pyle was hit by enemy fire.
Ray Pittman of Hattiesburg joined the Marines in 1942 as a demolition man. In this episode, he describes a typical demolition team and the dangerous jobs they performed.
Pittman’s team suffered heavy casualties during some of the worst battles in the Pacific theater. He recalls how a spare pistol saved his life on the island of Iwo Jima.
Pittman also remembers the day his friend Maxwell was killed while they were on a recon mission and how their actions prevented an ambush by the Japanese.
This D-Day, as we pause to remember our soldiers who fought so valiantly on the beaches at Normandy, let us also consider those brave men who were fighting on the other side of the world with this--our 400th episode of Mississippi Moments.
(the picture is of a Marshall Island enemy block house blown up by Ray's team)
The Center for Oral History has proudly preserved the stories of hundreds of US veterans.
In this episode, B-24 bomber pilot C.R. Cadenhead of Greenville recalls his crew of 'misfits' and a much welcomed escort by those Southern gentlemen, the Tuskegee Airmen.
Leakesville native, Dr. John Allums was teaching at the University of Georgia in 1951 when the Korean War began. He recounts making the transition from college professor to Air Force Intelligence Officer. He also explains how he worked with representatives from various government agencies to prepare reports for the president.
On May 1st, 1960, a US U2 spy plane was shot done by the Soviet government while on a mission to photograph Russian military bases. Allums discusses why he feels that President Eisenhower made a mistake when he publicly acknowledged the U2 program.
In 2005, Joseph Hammonds of Sand Hill was serving in Iraq with the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion. He remembers searching for stockpiles of weapons and the danger posed by improvised explosive devices or I.E.D.s.
Hammonds recalls earning a Combat Action Citation for surviving an I.E.D. attack while on patrol in the spring of that year. He reflects on the heavy price paid by tank crews who often took the lead in convoys.
While in Iraq, Hammonds’ grandfather passed away and he was denied leave time to attend the funeral. He explains how missing that funeral possibly saved the lives of his friends.