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WWII: The women they left behind

On July 15, 1943, John A. Russell did what so many other soldiers going to war did.

He boarded a passenger train at Selma’s Western of Alabama depot and went to Miami Beach, Fla. for service in the Army Air Corps. He also left behind his best girl, Bootsie Foxworth.

“I was waving from the train and Bootsie was waving back from the car and wiping her eyes. I decided I must trust Al (Rockwell); I left him with my car and my girl,” Russell recalls, laughing at the memory.

They were engaged, but Russell would have to get his first leave before they could celebrate the nuptials.

One of the great sacrifices of veterans were the families they have left behind. Tuesday is Veteran’s Day, when we remember all that the men and women of the service gave up to fight for America’s freedom.

In Miami Russell completed basic military training, then was assigned to the College Training Detachment at Rockhurst College in Kansas City.

“I got a letter from her every day,” Russell recalls, “and I wrote her at least twice a week. She kept me up with Selma news and I wrote her about flying. I was determined to fly. My brothers, Edgar and Donnie, were already military pilots. Halfway through my 10-week advance training I passed my final instrument check. My instructor told me I was his first student to finish that early.”

His in-flight training was in Greenville, Texas. Russell was assigned to Central Flying Training Command, with pre-flight training at San Antonio, primary training in Cuero, Texas and basic in Greenville, Texas. First assigned as an instructor, he then transferred to B-17, with the transition in Hobbs, Texas, just over the border from New Mexico.

He graduated and received his silver wings at Altus, Oklahoma on Feb. 1. The Russells married February 8, 1945, “the first time he came home on leave from the Air Corps,” Bootsie said.

“Our wedding plans were made, as much as wartime plans could be,” Russell says. “Dad went with me to the courthouse to get the marriage license because I was under age. I was pretty self-conscious about that. My father said ‘Son, if you are old enough to fight for your country, you are old enough to take a wife.’ My mother though it was fine, too.”

Their wedding was at Church Street United Methodist Church. Lt. John Russell wore his military uniform. His bride wore the wedding gown worn by Dora Russell, wife of his older brother Edgar. And, the bridegroom recalls, “we went all the way to Birmingham for our honeymoon. During his 15-day leave, the Russell went back to Altus, stayed three days in a hotel and finally found a place to live.

His military career was not without humor. Russell’s bride also went with him to Roswell Air Force Base, where he had a short week in class, but no flying. “So, I told Bootsie to meet me at the base for supper. At the officers club I was playing the slot machine and hit the quarter jackpot. Quarters rolled everywhere, and I ran after them, scooping them up, $100 worth. It was time to pick Bootsie, so I ran in the coat room, grabbed a coat, put it on and went out the gate. Everybody was saluting me, and an MP commented “they sure are making generals young. I looked down, saw the gold braid, felt the stars on my shoulders and almost fainted. I had grabbed the commander’s jacket. I looked up and he was waiting for me at the gate.

“I learned something that day. These top men deserve their rank. They are true gentlemen.”

Russell says “during my service I saw God’s hand in everything I did. The 44-K program was delayed five weeks and it kept me out of hot places. Not only am I proud of what I did then, but I stayed in the Air Force Reserve and retired as a major. We draw retirement, Bootsie as an annuitant, medical benefits and once a month we shop in the commissary and base exchange at Maxwell.”

“I enjoyed wearing a uniform. I love my country and served it at a time you had to measure up. War is a gut check you have to reach way up and remember.”

Lt. John Russell was discharged from active duty in February 1946. “And I went home to my wife and our baby boy.”