At the beginning of February, 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad was coming to its cataclysmic conclusion. After a little over five months of fighting in and around the great city, over two million people were dead, wounded or missing. In the end, ninety-one thousand German soldiers surrendered to the Russians. Only five thousand survived their captivity.
The Third Reich had been on a four and a half year winning streak. They had not suffered a serious defeat since invading Poland on the first of September, 1939. The Russians’ successful defense of Stalingrad was big news.
On the 1st of February, the Independent Record in Helena, Montana ran a seven column headline: “Germans at Stalingrad Wiped Out“. In Lumberton, North Carolina, The Robeson used eight columns to announce: “Death Blows Hitting Trapped Nazis“. My personal favorite came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The bold face, all cap, banner headline in the Telegraph is an almost perfect horror movie elevator pitch:
I say the headline is an “almost” perfect pitch, only because, there is no way movie zombies could match the true horror of what actually happened at Stalingrad.
As the surviving Germans surrendered on the Volga, aviation Cadet Thomas A. Parks, was at the Army Flying School in Columbus, Mississippi finishing his twin-engine flight training.
He had enlisted the previous March in Washington, DC. On April 10th, 1942, he had boarded a train bound for Montgomery, Alabama. Over the next three months, he had learned how to march and who to salute and what a five mile run in Alabama in the middle of summer felt like.
In August of 1942, my father and the rest of the cadets that made up the class of 43B went to Arcadia, Florida to learn how to fly single engine bi-planes. Two months later, they moved to Bainbridge, Georgia to learn to fly a bigger single engine aircraft. Two months after that, they were in Columbus learning to fly still bigger airplanes.
Now, after ten months in the Army Air Corps, Cadet Parks was about to officially become a pilot and be promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Enlisted men and non-commissioned officers would now be required to throw him a salute. He was looking forward to that.
His buddy, Russ Dougherty, was still in Bainbridge, Georgia finishing his primary flight training. He had been held back because, right before Christmas, Russ had had to take family leave when his father suddenly died.
The end of January, 1943, Russ wrote to my father from Bainbridge:
In his two line message, Russ mentions that Kelly Ritter and Charlie King would be coming with him. Only one of those three cadets would see combat.
Russ Dougherty became a flight instructor and Charlie King was assigned to a Ferrying Group that flew new war planes out of Nashville to points of embarkation in the United States.
Lt. Ritter, from North Carolina, wound up flying B-24 Liberators with the 93rd Bomb Group out of Hardwick, England.
On February 4th, 1944, the Ritter crew was headed for Frankfurt, Germany. This required the Americans to fly through the Ruhr Valley. Heavily industrialized, the Ruhr was one of the most closely defended regions of the Nazi homeland. An hour before the target, German anti-aircraft fire took out the #4 engine on Ritter’s B-24.
With his bomber losing altitude and too badly damaged to limp home, Ritter’s asked his navigator, 1st Lt. Edwin “Ed” Whitefield, to give him a heading for neutral Switzerland.
Like his pilot, Whitefield was also from North Carolina. He grew up in Durham and had dreamed of flying since high school. High over Germany, Ed quickly plotted a course southward toward Switzerland and safety, a little over two hundred miles away. The stricken bomber covered less than fifty.
Their plane was on fire when Lt. Kelly order his men to bail out. All ten members of the Ritter crew parachuted safely from the bomber. Nine were taken prisoner by German forces. Upon landing, twenty-five year old Ed Whitefield, was surrounded and beaten to death by enraged civilians.
Three weeks later, toward the end of February, Whitefield’s wife, Vera, got a telegram from the Secretary of War expressing his regret to inform her that Ed was missing in action. It would be more than a year before Vera would receive the news that her husband was dead.
The surviving members of the Ritter crew were taken to the interrogation camp at Oberursel, a suburb of Frankfurt, the city they had intended to bomb. A few weeks later, Lt. Kelly Ritter was moved to Stalag Luft I, where he re-united with my father. It had been a little over a year since they got together with Russ Dougherty and Charlie King to celebrate my father’s graduation from flying school.
On the 26th of January, 1943, the day Dougherty, Ritter, and King arrived in Columbus, Cadet Parks wrote his mother about his impending graduation:
“Dear Folks ~
Three weeks from today! Doesn’t seem possible. Russ got here today and I was really glad to see him. Haven’t had a chance to talk to him much yet though.
Started our navigation flights this week. Went to Memphis Sunday afternoon, Meridian (Mississippi) yesterday. Probably go up to Nashville sometime this week. Night flying starts next week.” Letter to his Parents – January 26th, 1943
The following document contains the names of all 225 young men who graduated with my father on February 16, 1943.
Graduation – February 16th of February, 1943
The week before his mother arrived to see the ceremony, my father wrote:
“…I had to get you a room in a private home in town. The hotel was sold out a week after we got here and I didn’t know in time whether you would be here. However I’m sure you will like the arrangements I did make. Almost 300 homes in town give their names to the USO who arranges accommodations during graduation week since the hotels are so inadequate.” – Letter to his mother – February 8th, 1943
War rationing had made heating oil hard to come by that winter and on graduation day, the East Coast was in the grip of a cold wave that had swept out of New England the day before killing twenty-six people and damaging crops as far south as the Everglades. On graduation day, temperatures in Mississippi barely reached the 40s.
The ceremony was held in the main hanger at the airbase. The structure would have offered some protection from the wind but it was cold.
Columbus was full of families who had traveled long distances to witness their sons, brothers, fiancees, and husbands become 2nd Lieutenants and United States Army Corps pilots.
At 10:30 in the morning the post chaplain, J.B. Wilford, gave the invocation.
The graduation program lists Mr. Birney Imes as the commencement speaker. Birney, it turns out, was a big part of the reason cadets were training in Columbus.
Imes owned the local newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch, and, in 1940, he was the chairman of the Columbus Airbase Commission. A full year before Pearl Harbor, this group of local businessmen saw the writing on the wall and convinced the Army to build an airbase in their town. It’s Economics 101, War may be hell but it is also very good for business.
And business was good. The airbase opened January 25th, 1942. It had been graduating a class a month ever since. This would be the base’s eleventh commencement ceremony and the 225 surviving cadets of 43B comprised one of the largest classes to graduate to date.
The picture of 2nd Lieutenant Parks at the opening of this post was taken a a local photography studio in Columbus to celebrate his graduation. Every member of his class got their picture taken. A couple hundred pictures every month would have been big business in 1943. The young cadets also needed Cokes and socks and movies and burgers and cigarettes and beer and… everything.
Birney Imes spoke at the base’s second commencement and, now, he had been asked to speak again. To that point, he was the only person who had been accorded that honor twice. We don’t know exactly what Mr. Imes told the cadets that day but it was probably along the lines of what another class later that year would hear from its commencement speaker when he told them that, “…there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of being privileged to fight for the upholding of a free people and a free world.”
The Old Magnolia State
In January of 1943, while my father was in Columbus preparing to fight for “free people” and a “free world”, Federal Government prosecutors were 180 miles away in Hattiesburg, indicting five white Mississippians for depriving Howard Wash, a black Mississippian, of his civil rights
In October of the previous year, a jury had found Mr. Wash, the 49-year-old father of eight, guilty for the killing of Clint Welborn, Wash’s employer of eight years.
During the trial, testimony indicated that Mr. Welborn, a “dairyman“, was put out when his employee, Mr. Wash, arrived “late for his chores“. While “reprimanding” Wash (apparently with a shovel), Howard picked up a milk bucket and killed his boss.
Wash claimed self-defense. The all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison for unpremeditated murder.
The local community was outraged at the leniency of a life sentence and so, on the night of October 17, 1942, a mob of between 50 to 100 people dragged Mr. Wash from his jail cell, took him to a nearby railroad bridge, and lynched him
Now, as my father prepared for graduation, the Federal Government was bringing five men to trial on charges of inciting a lynch mob.
It was big news around the country. In the 42 years since the turn of the previous century, there had been 572 lynchings in Mississippi alone. The same week Howard Wash was killed, white Mississippians lynched, Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, both black and both fourteen.
The Hattiesburg trial in early 1943 was only the second time since 1903 the U.S. Government had attempted to prosecute the perpetrators of a lynching using the due process and equal protection under the law guarantees contained in the United States Constitution.
According to the St. Louis Star-Times, it was the prevailing opinion in Hattiesburg, before the Federal trial began that, “…you’ll never convict a white man in Mississippi of lynching a Negro“. It took fifteen minutes for twelve white jurors to confirm that opinion.
According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch of April 24th, 1943, during his final summation, defense Attorney Andy Scott stated, “These gentlemen (the Federal Prosecutors) seem to have forgotten that the south will remain where it is so far as white supremacy is concerned until Gabriel blows his horn. The Anglo-Saxon bloodstream must remain pure.”
In the same article, defense attorney, Ed Franklin, from Jackson, Mississippi, is described as giving an improvised address that at times could be heard a block from the court house.
Franklin thundered to the jury that, “Social equality” was the guts of the case and that it constituted one of the guiding principals of the Communist Party in this country.
“Negroes and whites“, Franklin roared in closing, “understand one another in Mississippi and social and political equality is out of the question in the Old Magnolia State“.
Upholding a Free People
During World War II, black Americans, while only 9% of the U.S. population, contributed over 16% of all volunteers for military service.
In January of 1944, one month after my father became a prisoner of war, William E. Griffin, a black fighter pilot and one of the famous Tuskeegee Airmen, joined the ranks of Allied servicemen being held at Stalag I.
But, in February of 1943, that particular unpleasantness was still somewhere off in my father’s dim and distant future. Right now, he was an Army Air Force pilot and a brand new 2nd Lieutenant. “Yipee” indeed.
“Off we go, into the wild blue yonder… Flying high, into the sun…”