World War II has left an indelible mark on the fabric of human history. The exploits of men like Hitler and Mussolini, Roosevelt and Churchill are chronicled in countless books and movies. Their names and their actions will never be forgotten-and for good reason. To gain a deeper understanding of the war's impact, however, we must look beyond the names that grace the pages of textbooks and recognize the sacrifices of the anonymous soldiers who risked life and limb to serve the country they loved.
With each passing year, their stories-which persist only through the oral history passed from generation to generation-fade into the ether of time. As a boy, author William S. Murray listened to his grandfather's stories about training as a pilot during World War II with rapt attention. In an effort to preserve these memories, Murray sat down with his grandfather, Thomas Stewart, to record these stories for posterity. Stewart shares memories both happy and bittersweet, from his beginnings in Byhalia, Mississippi, through his experiences as a pilot during the war years.
Journey to War is not the story of familiar heroes like Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur. This is the story of one ordinary man doing his part to serve his country during extraordinary times. This is the story of Second Lieutenant Thomas Stewart and the men with whom he served.
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Journey to WarThe Thomas Stewart Story A Fighter Pilot's Memoir of World War II
By William S. Murray
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 William S. Murray
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy Roots In Byhalia, Mississippi
Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power, the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. William George Jordan
My parents, George Marion Stewart and Cora Adella Downer, were married on January 8, 1896. He was twenty, and she was sixteen. They moved from Stonewall to Byhalia in 1903 and ran a hotel on Main Street. Cora did the cooking for the hotel because she was an exceptional chef and could make anything. George did everything else. One of only two hotels in town, it was usual to host traveling salesmen, who they called "drummers."
After the drummers would come to town via the railroad, George would personally take them to surrounding areas to rent horses and buggies. Few people knew the way to the small town, and streets back then were not exactly the same thing as they are today. Gravel roads with no names were not uncommon. When the guest's horses were not in use, they would stay at the livery stable next to the hotel.
After running the hotel for a year, they tried their hand at opening a butcher shop and lived in the home of Dr. Sigmund. He was a bachelor and one day made some "unwelcome" advances to Cora. She, being a married woman, turned him down, and he responded by taking her clothes out to the yard and setting them on fire.
When George returned home he discovered the burned wardrobe and learned the story behind it. His response was to explain his discontent to Dr. Sigmund with a hammer. George did not kill him, but the doctor soon understood that advances to Cora would not be tolerated. Needless to say, they moved out of Dr. Sigmund's house and bought their own stretch of land in Byhalia and built their own house.
Clocks today are modern conveniences, but in 1914 they were considered a luxury. He bought an old Waterbury clock secondhand. Just knowing the time of day took some effort, because a windup clock had to be set and wound to keep running and show the correct time. Of course, sometimes the clock might stop or miss being wound at a proper interval, but my daddy had a backup system. He was always an independent thinker and devised a reliable way to set the clock.
Aligning the foundation with the North Star, the sun would move east to west and arrive directly overhead at noon. Having a vertical line of nails down the side of the exterior, it would form a straight shadow down the house at noon, which gave him a reference point to set the clock.
Ingenuity like this was not unique to George. He had come from a generation that learned to make use of what they had. Seemingly difficult things could always be accomplished somehow. I would come to learn the value of this philosophy in the coming years.
I was born on September 23, 1921, and they named me George, after my daddy. To prevent confusion, they decided to call me by my middle name, Thomas.
It was only a few years after the end of World War I, and I was twenty-five years younger than my only sibling, Lottie. She would serve as a third parent as I grew up. It is difficult to get away with anything when you have three parents watching you. One instance I will never forget was an afternoon when I got three spankings for the same thing. I must have been five or six years old when I thought it would be a good idea to hit my sister with a barbed wire. She did not like that, so she spanked me. When mama got home and heard the story from Lottie, she spanked me too. When daddy got home and heard the story from mama, he spanked me. I still remember it, so I guess they got their message across.
When I was born, daddy was running a dairy farm. He was a deeply religious man, and cursing was not tolerated in our house. He kept this rule himself until one day when he was trying to run a sow back into her pen after she had gotten out. He expected her to turn into her pen while he was rushing at her, but she turned the opposite way and ran over him. He went face first into the mud. As he got up with mud covering the entire front of his body and dripping off of his face, I would hear the only curse words he ever uttered, "You son of a bitch!"
I was eight years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. I remember daddy talking about Roosevelt closing the banks for a day, but being so young, I did not realize what all the fuss was about. I did learn that the Depression changed everything, and there was just no money to go around. The city people really had a hard time. I still remember seeing men in business suits lined up outside soup kitchens in Memphis. The churches were providing free soup to those in need, but the value of money was next to nothing, even if you had any.
Being out in the country, we did not have any nice clothes, and most of ours had patches on them, but we ate. We had our own access to cows and to crops, while the city people starved. Years later, the country band Alabama had a tune called "Song of the South" that has a line that says, "Somebody told us Wall Street fell; we were so poor that we couldn't tell." That was not far from the truth where my family was concerned. I can even remember working for roughly seventy-five cents a day. Reflecting on it all now, I realize how blessed we were because we lived close to the land and it sustained us.
Daddy had sharecroppers who worked for him who tended the cotton. He had three families of sharecroppers who worked 120 acres of land that he leased from another man. He would provide them with enough corn to sustain their hogs and chickens, and he provided the mules, seed, and tools. The sharecroppers provided the labor. In the fall, the cotton would be harvested, and they would sell it and divide the money.
The stores would open on March 15 and the sharecroppers would get the supplies they needed, such as flour, sugar, coffee, and clothes, on credit. When the cotton harvest came in, they would pay the stores back out of their share of the profits.
By the age of twelve, my mornings consisted of rising at 4:00 a.m. and milking twelve cows. The hired hand milked twelve, and George milked six and took care of the feed for the herd. Afterward, it was time for breakfast and then a walk to school. In the late afternoon, it was back out to the pasture to round up the herd and do it all over again. The days seemed long, but I remember my daddy saying that no matter how long we live, it all goes by really fast.
We sold our milk to the Clover Farm Dairy. It was common at the time to see small barns all over that were doing the same thing we were doing. Many of the old, small, dilapidated barns along the highways now are left over from the Depression era. Today, there are really no small dairy farms. They are either corporate farms or very large family operations.
The Byhalia schoolhouse had been built the year I was born and was fairly new when I began attending at the age of six. I lived too close to school to ride the bus unless it was raining, and the bus driver would feel sorry for me and stop to pick me up. The schoolhouse still stands today, although with a few extensions that did not exist back then.
At the time of the eighth grade, the small high school did not have enough boys to make a basketball team, so I was made a substitute, even though I was not old enough to play on the high school team. Since they did not have a uniform for me, I played my first game in warm-ups. However, for the following four years that I was really eligible, I was attired accordingly.
Life on the farm had its moments. When I was about fifteen, we had a mean Jersey bull that terrorized anyone who came around. One afternoon some boys cut across the pasture, and that bull chased them up a tree and kept them there until my daddy came home and could get the bull to leave them alone.
Anytime I entered the pasture, I carried a broom handle with me because that bull was so unpredictable. One day, he dropped his head and decided to charge me. Just before he got to me, he threw his head up to see where I was, and I met him with a hard blow between the eyes that bought me just enough time to dive under the property line fence and get away. I told daddy about it, and the following day the bull was off to the stockyard, never to be seen again. Trust me, you do not ever want to be charged by a mean Jersey bull. It is a lot more frightening than it sounds.
During summers, I farmed alongside my daddy. We worked behind a mule. Daddy even preferred this method long after tractors and heavy equipment were developed. As I mentioned earlier, he was just set in his ways, and he stuck to them. Farming a rented 120 acres was a full-time job that created more than a few memories along the way.
For example, farm animals were just that, farm animals. They were necessary tools and were seldom regarded as pets. However, one sorrel horse, named Dick, was the only one that I ever really cared anything about. He was a good saddle horse and a good workhorse. I used to ride him down to see my Uncle Arthur to visit and spend the night. He was so gentle that daddy never had to worry about my heading out riding anywhere as long as I was riding him. Some animals you just trust instinctively because they have that special something that makes a connection.
One day after swimming in the creek, I grabbed Dick by the mane to swing up onto his back. He moved forward and accidentally stepped on my bare foot. I yelled and pushed on him, but he had a very settled disposition and just never got alarmed at anything, so he did not pay much attention to my yelling. I had to push him in the belly a few times to get him to move. Finally, he moved his hoof off my foot. I was very careful from that time forward whenever I was barefoot around a horse.
Daddy was first and foremost a farmer and a businessman. He was fond of trading horses and selling them again for profit. It was not unusual for him to unhitch the horse from the plow while he was working and sell or trade him right then. He was always ready for a good deal. However, he knew I was fond of old Dick so he kept him around for a few years.
One afternoon after returning home from school, I learned that Daddy had sold Dick to a man from nearby Holly Springs. I threw a fit, but the deal had already been closed, and he was gone. I was heartbroken. It is amazing how animals can be just as important to us as family members, and it hurts when you have to say goodbye.
One morning three years later, I was astonished to wake up and see that Dick was standing right outside the gate just like he still lived with us. I suppose in his mind our house was his home. He knew it even after three years of being gone, and it meant enough to him to get loose and return. None of us had any idea how he had gotten out of his paddock, much less how he had found his way for the ten miles between Holly Springs and Byhalia. Like something out of a movie, he loved his home so much that he did whatever he needed to get back.
Telephones had not come along yet, so a letter was the most convenient way to get word to the rightful owner in Holly Springs that Dick was in Byhalia and could be picked up again at our farm. A few days later, he showed up with a stock truck, which is basically a pickup with tall wooden sides. It was commonly used to carry a single head of livestock.
The owner loaded him onto the truck and headed home. He only got a quarter mile down the road before Dick started throwing a fit and jumped out of the truck and broke his neck. Obviously, Dick believed his home to be our farm, and he was not leaving again. The true message the horse taught me that day was that home was worth dying for, although I would not realize this for a few years to come.
Chapter TwoMy Secret Wedding
To love another person is to see the face of God. Herbert Kretzmer
Lillian Algee was a few years older than the rest of the kids at Byhalia High School. Starting her education from a one-room schoolhouse, she had not been exposed to the same curriculum as the other kids. The family physician, Dr. McCaughly, recommended that she repeat three years of school, so she started over at the ninth grade. This placed her in my grade, although she was three years older than me. That did not bother me one bit. Older women tend to run in my family anyway. My grandmother had been three years older than my grandfather, so it just seemed the norm to me. Besides, being in the same grade, we really paid no attention to the difference in age. We began going together our senior year. Having won the title of Miss Byhalia in a beauty pageant, she made me the envy of all the boys. The graduating class of 1939, counting Lillian and me, consisted of fifteen seniors.
We married on May 13, 1939, a week before graduation in what might be called a "secret ceremony." Along with two friends, Grady Fuller and Emily Dee McRary, we took my daddy's 1933 Chevrolet and drove through Memphis, across the Mississippi River, to Marion, Arkansas. It was the only place we knew where we could get a quick wedding service by the justice of the peace. Afterward, we got back in the car, crossed the river again, and drove home to Byhalia. We did not intend to tell anyone we were married until after high school graduation, so we each went home. It sounds bizarre by today's standards, but it was quite common for kids in our neck of the woods to marry before finishing high school.
Somehow the word got out. We never really knew how because our two companions claimed not to have said anything, but all of a sudden people knew. Lillian's mother confronted her and made her tell her daddy. She walked in while he was eating dinner and just said, "Papa, I'm married." He dropped his fork and said, "What the hell did you say?"
My daddy confronted me by walking up to me and asking, "Is it true?"
"Yes, sir, it's true."
His only response was, "Well, go get her."
I promptly went over to the Algees' farm to go get my wife. Stopping along the way, I told Lillian's brother, Jimmy, who was plowing the fields at the time. He came along with me to see Papa Algee and help soften the blow.
He was pretty mad. Since I only had $40 in the bank at the time, he wanted to know how I intended to make a living. I said that I was going to farm with my daddy for now, and that calmed him down somewhat. Neither he nor Mama Algee was too happy about learning of their daughter's marriage secondhand, but they let her pack up and leave right then.
Excerpted from Journey to War by William S. Murray Copyright © 2011 by William S. Murray. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 My Roots in Byhalia, Mississippi....................1
Chapter 2 My Secret Wedding....................7
Chapter 3 Typhoid Fever....................11
Chapter 4 Rumors of War....................17
Chapter 5 How Did We Get Here?....................23
Chapter 6 Choreography of an Attack....................31
Chapter 7 A Call to Duty....................37
Chapter 8 Biloxi, Mississippi....................43
Chapter 9 Rock Hill, South Carolina....................47
Chapter 10 My First Flight....................55
Chapter 11 Look at Us Now....................61
Chapter 12 Bobby Jack....................67
Chapter 13 Back to Training....................75
Chapter 14 Montgomery, Alabama....................79
Chapter 15 Last Train to Memphis....................93
Chapter 16 Back to Montgomery....................95
Chapter 17 Dothan, Alabama....................101
Chapter 18 Eglin, Florida....................109
Chapter 19 Lincoln, Nebraska: Gateway to Theater....................113
Chapter 20 Sherman, Texas....................119
Chapter 21 Stand Down at Montgomery....................123
Chapter 22 Back Home Again....................125
About the Author....................139