During World War II, about 16 million men and women served in the U.S. Armed Forces, to include the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. Of those 16 million, 310,979 were either killed in action or died in accidents during or shortly after the war from wounds received in combat. There were also 12,780 veterans listed as missing in action and 673,483 wounded in action.
Today, there are about 2 million World War II veterans still living, but they are dying at the rate of about 900 per day.
To coincide with the DeRidder reunion, the Guardian introduces Fort Polk and surrounding communities to a few of the World War II veterans who call DeRidder home. Each has a story to tell …
“I knew if I didn’t volunteer I’d be drafted.”
George A. “Shorty” Crain joined the Navy in 1945 when he was 17 years old. He said that he figured if he didn’t volunteer, he’d be drafted and could wind up enlisted anywhere.
“My mom signed for me to join the Navy because I was under 19,” Crain said. “They were rushing everyone through boot camp to try and get them into the fight.”
But Crain never made “the fight.”
“I was in the last week of boot camp when they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima,” he said. “After the bombs, they had a bunch of guys they didn’t know what to do with. I wound up serving on the U.S.S. Montrail, a troop carrier, until five days before my 19th birthday. That’s when I was discharged.”
After his Navy days, Crain, a native of Nashville, Tenn., moved to DeRidder to be near relatives. He returned to Tennessee to finish his college education, then came back and made DeRidder his home.
(Crain will participate in the reunion.)
“You put your faith in one man — the navigator.”
Oran Benskin joined the Army Air Corps on Oct. 10, 1941. He was in aircraft school on Dec. 7, 1941, the day President Franklin Roosevelt said would “live in infamy.” Many know this day as “Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.”
“I joined because I wanted to learn how an airplane engine worked,” Benskin said.
In April 1942, the 21-year-old Colorado native was assigned to the 19th Troop Carrier Squadron in Hawaii. He vividly recalls the scene he was greeted with upon his arrival.
“They were just starting to clean the island up after the attack,” he said. “The amount of rubble was incredible. There were big holes in the sides of barracks and battleships sticking half in and half out of the water.”
Benskin spent three years based in Hawaii as a flight engineer — or flying crew chief — on a C-47.
“We had a lot of tense moments,” he said. “We carried mail north to Guam and every island in between. You always wondered if you were going to crash in the ocean. You put your faith in one man — the navigator.”
Benskin said he still remembers thinking about water, looking down for hours and hours at the vast Pacific Ocean and wondering what he would do if the plane crashed into the surf.
“You also wondered about the folks you knew that had vanished out there somewhere and were never seen again,” he said. “You miss them. And you just put it behind you and kept going. And when you got home, you wondered why you made it and they didn’t. When an airplane goes down, you usually don’t get a second chance. Not over water anyway.”
When his service days were over, Benskin and his wife of 65 years, Marion, were traveling around the country in their motor home when they made a stop in DeRidder. They decided to stay because, as Benskin put it, “the people were friendly and it seemed like home.”
“I never want to live through it again.”
Elmer Royston was married with a small daughter when he “got an invitation from Uncle Sam” in 1943. A carpenter by trade, Royston was assigned to A Company, 311th Engineer Battalion, 86th Special Troops Brigade. To prepare for an eventual deployment to Europe, Royston’s unit participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers held on Fort Polk. He said the deployment to Fort Polk was the most difficult part of his military career.
“During the winter it froze for days,” he said. “I’ve seen tanks buried. It was rough.”
Following the maneuver, Royston’s unit headed to Europe.
“We landed in the port at LeHavre, France, right after the Battle of the Bulge,” he said. “The shipmaster just ran that old Higgins boat up onto the beach and you jumped out. If you didn’t time it right, you’d wind up in the water.”
While in Europe, Royston’s unit transported Soldiers across the Rhine River in boats. After that, they built a pontoon bridge across the river.
“It was a lot of hard work,” Royston said. “We had to float the pontoons into place. The current was so swift you had to go upstream first, and then down.
“We were fortunate that we only lost three men during bridge building.”
Royston recalled one visitor the unit had on the pontoon bridge.
“General (George S.) Patton came walking out on the bridge with his two six guns on his hips looking all-important,” Royston said. “That was a sight.”
Royston said one of the most difficult things for him was leaving his wife and daughter behind to go to war.
“It’s not like today when Soldiers can call their Families from the front,” he said. “The only way to communicate was by mail and all of the mail was censored. I got a letter that the censors scratched out so much of I just threw it away.”
After the war in Europe was over, Royston said his unit returned Stateside, then prepped to head to the war in the Pacific. They were preparing to leave when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We were very happy to hear about the bombs being dropped,” he said. “If we had gone to Japan, it would have been terrible.”
(Royston will participate in the reunion.)
“I was drafted on my mother’s birthday.”
Jack Daniels’ wartime service was about as short as anyone’s.
“I was drafted Aug. 7, 1945, on my mother’s birthday,” Daniels said. “I entered the Army at Kalamazoo, Mich., went to Fort Sheridan, Ill., and caught a troop train headed south to Camp Fannin, Texas. We stopped in Texarkana and there was a large crowd celebrating. We found out that the bombs had been dropped and the war in Japan was over.”
Daniels served as an armored car driver in Austria as part of the Army of Occupation.
“We worked the border from the American Zone to the Russian Zone while in Austria,” he said.
Daniels originally got out when his tour of duty was complete, but later decided to return to the Army.
“I never disliked the military,” he said. “After a couple of weeks, I missed it so I enlisted for three years in the reserves. After six years, I came back on active duty and stayed until Aug. 1, 1972.”
(Daniels will participate in the reunion.)