Commitment to God and countryPublished 9:25am Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Television anchor and author Tom Brokaw calls the veterans of World War II “The Greatest Generation.” To those of us of the same generation, so they were — and are.
The memories of that war still burn brightly in the hearts of those who served in the armed forces and merchant marine as well as the families of those veterans and the citizens of this country who “did their part” to secure victory.
Those “war years” were a time when patriotism was as much a part of Americans’ lives as breathing. For the first time, women went to work on assembly lines to build the weapons of war. “Rosie the Riveter” was as well known as the first female bank clerks and airplane ferry pilots.
Thousands of women volunteered for Red Cross duty, both in the United States and overseas. College students knit sweaters by the dozen for merchant mariners on duty in the icy waters of the North Atlantic and for the GI’s in the trenches of Europe. Families struggled with food ration books, rode bicycles to save gasoline for the war vehicles, cheerfully observed the shortages of leather shoes, silk stockings, toilet tissue, chocolate and cigarettes.
In brief: It was a time when everyone did his and her part to help America.
It was also a time when America’s young men literally stood in line to enlist in the military services, some because of their sincere love of this country, others in order to choose their favored branch of service by avoiding the draft.
On Dec. 7, 1941, written in history as Pearl Harbor Day, the three Russell brothers, sons of Edgar P. and Ruth MacDonald Russell of Selma, were already young men. The eldest, Edgar Jr., 21, had finished college and was in Naval Flight Training. The second, Donald MacDonald Russell was 19, and in college at Marion Military Institute, and John Archibald Russell, 16, was a student at Parrish High School in Selma.
The two younger sons followed the example of their older brother, Edgar, who became a Navy pilot when he completed training. “Donnie and I decided if he could learn to fly, we could, too.” John Russell recalls. “You know how brothers are; would not be outdone.”
According to his brother, Edgar Russell Jr. was “a very cautious and thorough person, who checked everything out before he ventured forth.” Already having a pilot’s license, he was quickly accepted as a naval cadet and after earning his wings, he was assigned to Terminal Island, California, where he tested planes just off the assembly lines. If he rejected it, so did the Navy. There were 20 pilots in his squadron and five were killed testing new aircraft.
Edgar Russell also ferried planes from coast to coast: Norfolk, Va. to Los Angeles, and his youngest brother has vivid recall “of his flights over our house when he was flying from L.A. to Norfolk. He’d come right in over tops of the trees — sounded like the end of the world had come. Our mother always knew when Edgar flew over.”
A well-known movie actor named Buddy Rogers, whose wife was actress Mary Pickford, was stated in Edgar’s squadron. Well liked, he became more or less the squad’s pet pilot. One day a plane with naval markings buzzed the field at Terminal Island. The commander, “mad as a wet hen,” according to the tale later told by Edgar, called the squadron together to learn who was responsible.
“Was it you, Buddy?” he asked. “No sir, Captain,” Rogers replied. “If I could fly like that guy did, I would be with the Black Sheep Squadron.”
Edgar Russell Jr. flew every plane of the U.S. Navy except for two and serious considered either a Naval career or one as a commercial airline pilot. But he returned to Selma and a successful career as a judge, who on occasion filled his courtroom with laughter at his witty accounts of Black Belt people and happenings.
The middle Russell brother, known as Donnie, was, again according to his youngest brother, John, “was as different from Edgar as night is from day. He didn’t give a damn, Sam, and would charge hell with a bucket of water. Donnie Russell graduated from the Army Air Corps in Cadet Class 43-J, November 1943. He was assigned to the 10th Air Force, 459th Fighter Squadron stationed at Chittagong, Burma with the Twin Dragon Squadron.
Flying combat for two years, he shot down five enemy planes, was promoted to captain and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Unit Citation, awarded for the annihilation of a crack Japanese Marine Regiment.
Donnie Russell flew a P-38, one of the most versatile and popular Air Corps planes, and he named it for the young woman (Jacqueline Brown) who became his wife, “Jackie Bee.”
John Russell once asked his brother “if there were ever a time when the Holy Spirit took over his mission. And he told of the time his friend Bill Wilson had a P-38 engine shot out and was flying beside him on one engine .Although low on gas, Donnie stayed behind with Bill, flying low over the tops of trees in Rangoon to stay away from the Japanese Zeros pursuing the two.
“Then they spotted a small airstrip with a British flag flying and took a chance on landing, A British sergeant greeted them and said the field had been taken from the enemy only the day before. So filling his P-38 with gas, Donnie put Bill in his lap — the only place in the tight cockpit for him, and they made it back to Chittagong safely.”
Combat pilots, according to Russell, wore survivors vests with pockets filled with articles to be used for money: gold coins, opium, foreign currency to exchange for freedom instead of capture. Printed on the vests was “This is an American airman. If you will aid him you will be greatly rewarded.”
Right after graduation from Parrish High Johnny Russell went into service, Air Corps Cadet Class 44K, which graduated on Feb. 1, 1945 at Altus Air Base.. Immediately after he came home for his first leave in 19 months and married his high school sweetheart, Bootsie Foxworth. “We were so young, 19, but I was a lieutenant and Daddy said if you’re old enough to fight for your country, you are old enough to take a wife.”
His father was Alabama Commissioner of Prisons, with his office in the state capitol. And Johnny Russell still laughs when he thinks of then Gov. Chauncey Sparks coming to their wedding in an official government caravan “with sirens blaring and horns blowing.”
For a few months Russell was a flight instructor. Next he was sent to B-17, the Flying Fortress, school and later to B-29, the Super Fortress, school. (This was the forerunner of the 727, 747 and 757 civilian aircrafts).
Russell says “If you want to know what it was like to take off in a B-29, imagine sitting on the front steps of your house. You would put the flaps down to one-half and use the southbound lane of I-65, firewall your throttles and after lumbering along for about a half-mile, slowly lift off at 95 to 110 miles per hour. “
His squadron was training for the South Pacific, but that all changed when the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. At Kearns, Utah when the war ended, Johnny Russell had served two years and eight months, stationed at 11 bases. He remained in the Air Force Reserves, retiring with the rank of Major. Both Edgar and Donnie also returned to Selma, but both are deceased.
Not nearly all Russell’s memories of his war service are grim. He still gets a kick out of relating the tale of the time he accidentally took a major general’s short coat from an officer’s club cloakroom by mistake. “I didn’t realize until a group of senior officers saluted me as I walked outside.”
And he knows he is fortunate to have lived through several near-misses, and he still wonders “Why me, Lord. Why was I saved?”
But his favorite thoughts of those now long-ago days are of “the esprit de corps, the feeling of brotherhood, and the love of our country none of us ever forgets.”