The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021.
Al Key and his brother Fred developed a passion for aviation while in their teens and worked hard to make their dreams of flying a reality. They started their own flying service and took over as managers of the Meridian airport in the early 1930s. When the city decided to close the airport in 1935, Al and Fred decided to promote Meridian as an aeronautical hub by breaking the world record for longest time sent in non-stop flight. They succeeded on their third attempt, remaining aloft for over 27 days. The no-spill nozzle they helped develop for mid-air refueling is still used by the US Air Force.
In 1939, Al helped form the Mississippi Air National Guard and became a full time military pilot in 1940. He was commanding a squadron of B-17Cs when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He and Fred made several suggestions for armament modifications for US bombers that were adopted by the manufacturers. Their work landed them positions with the 8th Air Force Operational Engineering Section and Al became a Chief Liaison Officer with the British on designing new types of bombs.
Al retired as a colonel from the US Air Force in 1960 and served two terms as mayor of Meridian.
1973 – Al Key grew up on his family’s Kemper County farm in the 1910s. He describes being inspired to pursue a career in aviation when three biplanes planes landed in their pasture.
While managing the Meridian Airport in the 1930s, Al and Fred Key joined the newly formed Mississippi Air National Guard. Al Key recalls how their jobs as B-17 pilots changed after Pearl Harbor. During WWII, Al and Fred Key commanded bomber squadrons on submarine patrols and combat missions. Al Key explains how their suggestions for bomber designs made the planes less vulnerable.
While serving with the 8th Air Force Operational Engineering Section, Al Key worked with the British to develop a massive bunker-busting bomb known as the “Disney bomb.” He discusses how it was used to destroy German concrete-reenforced submarine pens.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. This week, we delve into one of our first POW interviews.
Lt. Commander James W. Bailey (Bill) sat down to share his experiences with us on September 11, 1973, less than a year after his release. His memories of sixty-eight months as a POW were still fresh and raw in his mind.
1973 - Kosciusko native, Bill Bailey, served as a Navy Flight Officer on the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger. In this episode he recalls how his F4 Phantom jet was shot down over North Vietnam on June 28, 1967. When Bailey’s plane was downed by the North Vietnamese, he and his pilot were taken prisoner. He describes being tortured for three days by interrogators trying to obtain information.
As a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Bill Bailey was subjected to harsh treatment by the camp guards. He remembers how they were replaced by with new, more humane guards in early 1970.
After spending sixty-eight grueling months as a POW in North Vietnam, Bailey was finally allowed to go home. He recounts how conditions in the prison camp improved dramatically about a month before they were released.
CAUTION: CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF TORTURE.
PHOTO: A plane load of recently released POWs on their way home in 1973. Public domain.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was established in 1933 to create jobs for young single men. In this episode, Charlie Odom of Gulfport recalls learning to operate heavy equipment as part of the CCC.
Odom learned to drive large trucks while working with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He explains how that ability proved useful after being drafted into the Army during WWII.
During the war, Odom was a motor pool sergeant, hauling men and materials to the front lines. He discusses his service in the European and Pacific theaters. After the war ended, Odom spent six months serving in Yokohama, Japan, as part of the occupying force. He remembers befriending several of the Japanese soldiers assigned to his motor pool.
Ruth Colter attended school in Natchez from the first grade through high school during the 1930s. In this episode, she shares her memories of those days and life in Natchez during WWII.
During the war, thousands of young men from across the country came to Mississippi for basic training. Colter recalls how the Military Maids assisted these new recruits. After graduating high school in 1942, Colter went to work for a Natchez trucking company. She explains how she and her friends still managed to shop and socialize despite wartime shortages.
PODCAST BONUS: During her lifetime, Ruth Colter witnessed many changes to her hometown of Natchez. She remembers shopping downtown, buying produce from street vendors, and the low cost of groceries.
PHOTO: Camp Shelby Military Museum
This Memorial Day, we salute all our service men and women who have paid the ultimate price in the line of duty, with the story of Marine demolition man, Alvy Ray Pittman. A Columbia, Mississippi native, Pittman volunteered to join the U.S. Marine Corp in November of 1942. After bootcamp, he went to demolition school for training in the use of high explosives and landmine removal. In this episode, Pittman explains the hazards of being on a demolition team and why their casualty rates were so high.
During WWII, the campaign to take the Pacific Islands held by Japanese forces, resulted in thousands of casualties. Pittman recalls how so many of his friends died in combat.
On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marine and Navy forces attacked the island of Iwo Jima. During five weeks of constant fighting, the Marines endured heavy artillery barrages from the entrenched and fortified positions of the Imperial Japanese Army. Pittman describes a phenomenon he calls “Combat Wisdom.”—a combination of battle experience and premonition that helped him and his team escape death on multiple occasions.
Given the human cost, some have questioned the strategic value of taking certain Pacific Islands during WWII. Pittman discusses why the battle of Iwo Jima saved more lives than were lost.
James Bass of Laurel was fifteen years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. In this episode, he recalls convincing his father to sign his enlistment papers when he was only sixteen. After joining the Navy, Bass was assigned to a destroyer minesweeper. He remembers learning to be a gunner as they sailed from Boston to Pearl Harbor.
During the battle for Okinawa, Bass’s ship was struck by a kamikaze plane and heavily damaged. He describes the events leading up to the attack and how their captain managed to keep the ship afloat.
After Bass’s ship was damaged in the battle for Okinawa, the crew was given a 25-day leave. He reflects on how the dropping of the atomic bomb probably saved his life and millions more.
PHOTO: USS Harding DMS-28
Kosciusko native W.C. “Billy” Leonard got married and joined the Army in 1940. In this episode, he recalls how his life changed after hearing news of the Japanese attack on a place called Pearl Harbor.
While serving as an artillery officer, Leonard met several people from his hometown. He remembers being pleasantly surprised by one such Kosciusko connection.
Leonard’s artillery platoon was transferred to a base in Burbank, California to await deployment. He recounts how he and his wife were able to tour Hollywood before he was shipped out.
After months of fighting in the Philippine Islands, Leonard was given a 30-day leave before the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. He explains how dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed those plans.
After the war, Billy Leonard came home and eventually took over Leonard’s Department Store from his father. He ran the business until his retirement in 1985. Leonard passed away in fall of 2005.
During WWII, a key component of the Allied strategy to defeat the Axis powers in Europe was a sustained aerial bombing campaign against key German military and civilian targets. Despite the vaunted reputation the B-17 bomber achieved, they were outnumbered by the lesser known B-24 Liberator.
Greenville native, Colonial C.R. Cadenhead trained to be an B-24 bomber pilot. In this episode, he shared some memories of his time flying missions over Germany. Cadenhead explains how he and his crew dined on fancy French cuisine while on their way to Europe and how they helped a shell-shocked bombardier complete his tour of duty. He also describes how, on one mission, his crew made it back to base after losing two of their four engines with some help from the Tuskegee Airmen.
PODCAST EXTRA: After completing his tour of duty in Europe, Cadenhead expected to be sent home. Instead he was shipped to California to prepared for the invasion of Japan. He remembers how the sudden end of the war in 1945 allowed him to return to college that fall and play football for Mississippi State.
This episode of Mississippi Moments was researched by Hayley Hasik and produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
PHOTO: US Air Force
During WWII, young men from cities and towns across the nation, answered the call to serve. So too, did young men from isolated areas of the country—boys who had never been away from the farms where they were raised—but were still compelled to go to the battlefields of countries they had only read about in textbooks. For many, that rural lifestyle held advantages in wartime. For example, those who grew up hunting with their fathers found the experience of targeting game with hunting rifles and shotguns useful in the army.
In this episode, Thurman Clark of Laurel remembers training for combat and winning a prize for his marksmanship.
American soldiers deployed to the battlefields of Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean by the thousands on troops ships. Clark recalls the misery of being seasick for his entire seventeen-day voyage. As a member of the 66th Infantry Division, Clark was assigned to harass German installations in the occupied city of Lorient, France. He describes dodging artillery fire and the stress of keeping watch for enemy attacks at night.
For many Mississippi farm boys, WWII was their first time traveling far from home. Clark reflects on the culture shock of his time in France and the myriad of memories he brought back.
PHOTO: wikimedia commons
In 1973, Gayle Greene-Aguirre, a professor at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, was studying History at the University of Connecticut. In this episode, she recalls her decision to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, College Junior Program. Green-Aguirre chose a career in the US Army based more on economic incentives than a sense of duty. She explains how that experience, and exposure to top secret information, made her a pragmatic patriot.
Green-Aguirre joined the US Army as the war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down. As a historian and officer, she gives her perspective on why that war was unwinnable.
When soldiers returned home from Vietnam, they faced a hostile American public, who viewed them as complicit in the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese people. Green-Aguirre discusses the burden shared by those returning veterans and how their legacy has evolved over time.
There was a variety of landing craft utilized in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Cmdr. Rip Bounds of Hattiesburg piloted a Utility Landing Ship designed to carry the heavy equipment Allied forces would need to wage war on the Axis occupiers in France. He bravely guided his craft into enemy fire loaded with tons of highly explosive ammunition, landed on the beach, waited to be unloaded, and headed back for another load. He also carried troops to the beach and wounded soldiers back to a waiting hospital ship, often the same men. In this episode, he gets emotional as he talks about the "Red Cross ladies" who rode with him, providing comfort for the wounded on the bloodstained decks of his vessel.
Please note that this episode, produced in 2012, contains contact information that may not be accurate today. For more information, visit COHCH.org.
Mississippi Moments is produced by Ross Walton and narrated by Bill Ellison.
Jim Swager of Brookhaven joined the US Army shortly after his 18th birthday, three months before D-day. In this episode, he shares his memories of the journey from Mississippi to the battlefields of France as part of the 103rd Infantry, Cactus Division. Although he weighed a mere 130 lbs. his captain made him a machine gunner and assigned him a BAR. The Browning Automatic Rifle was a 30-caliber light machine gun used extensively by Allied forces during WWII. Swager recalls the challenge of lugging the twenty-pound weapon across Europe.
During the war, Swager always enjoyed meeting other Mississippians and remembers how he and his buddy from Iuka survived a German artillery barrage together. In the chaos of war, soldiers are sometimes mistaken for the enemy by friendly forces and pay the ultimate price. Swager gets emotional when he discusses how another friend was killed doing night reconnaissance.
The Nazi government sent millions of Jews and other so-called undesirables to concentration camps for forced labor and eventual extermination. Swager describes the barbaric conditions of one such camp they helped liberate near the end of the war.
WARNING: This episode contains graphic descriptions of violence and atrocities.
Mississippi Moments is written and produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
During WWII, American long range bombers decimated German industrial sites in order to shorten the war. In this episode, Phil McGuire of Macon recalls his decision to become a ball turret gunner on a B-17 flying fortress.
The B-17 heavy bomber, bristling with machine guns, is one of the most iconic planes of the war. They could survive heavy damage and still make it home again. Even so, being part of a B-17 crew was a high risk job with the most dangerous position being ball turret gunner. The tiny motorized Plexiglas and aluminum pods, tucked underneath the fuselage, held twin 50 caliber Browning machine guns. Unlike the rest of the crew, the ball turret gunner had no room to wear a flak jacket or parachute and had to lie on his back in a fetal position with his feet held in foot rests level with his head. McGuire discusses how he would tie his parachute in the plane’s waist close to his station in hopes of reaching it in time.
German forces relied on FLAK guns to protect them from Allied aircraft in WWII. McGuire describes his first bombing mission and the harmless-looking puffs of smoke the guns put before them. In the early days of the war, American bombers had to fly daylight missions deep into enemy territory without fighter escorts. McGuire recounts how one of his crewmembers mistook hostel gunfire as a friendly signal.
Podcast Bonus: Bomber crews were required to complete 25 combat missions before returning home. It was estimated the average crewman had only a one in four chance of actually completing his tour of duty. McGuire discusses fulfilling his obligation and spending the rest of the war as an aerial combat instructor.
Bay St. Louis native, Henry Capdepon, was 18 years old when the United States entered WWI in April of 1917. In this episode, Capdepon shares his memories of the two years and two months he spent serving in the trenches and on the battlefields of Europe. He describes his decision to enlist with the Marines as a “thirst for adventure.”
When Capdepon joined the Marines, the journey to the front lines of France was long and difficult. He recalls being packed into troop ships and the boxcars that could hold forty men or eight horses. Despite international bans on the use of chemical weapons, poison gases were widely used in WWI. He remembers seeing his first mustard gas victim and the dangers of chemical warfare.
After a two year tour of duty, Capdepon returned to Bay St. Louis, but had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He discusses seeking medical help for symptoms that might be diagnosed as PTSD, today. He also looks back with pride at his decision to join the American Legion and the Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses: a charitable and patriotic organization whose purpose is “To uphold and defend the United States Constitution of the United States, to promote the well-being of veterans, their widows, widowers, and orphans, and to actively participate in selected charitable endeavors, which include among others, programs that promote child welfare and nurses training.” [Source: http://www.fortyandeight.org ]
PHOTO: By Feddacheenee - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15696349
After Japan attacked the US Navy Base at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, thousands of American teenagers volunteered to go and fight. In this episode, humorist Jerry Clower of Liberty, Mississippi, explains how growing up on a farm prepared him for life in the Navy. Raised in the rural South, Clower’s perceptions of race were limited to Black or White. He recalls an incident in basic training that opened his eyes to a wider world of ethnicity and prejudice. (caution: uses a racist word that he had never heard prior to joining up.)
Clower served as a radio operator on the aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, in the Pacific Theater. He remembers the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa and the lessons they learned from each.
While serving aboard the Hornet, Clower survived several attacks by Kamikazes. He describes feeling conflicted about watching the Japanese pilots die, and discusses suffering from symptoms of PTSD for many years after the war.
PHOTO: courtesy of the Clower family.
Troy H. Middleton was born on a farm in Copiah County, Mississippi in 1890 and lived there until he was fourteen years old when he left to attend Mississippi A&M College preparatory department. A&M was a land grant college, therefore it had military training in which the students were required to participate. Middleton rose through the ranks until his senior year when he was promoted to Cadet Lieutenant Colonel. After graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army in 1913 and took part in the Mexican Border Campaign of 1914.
When the United States entered World War I, Middleton went to France as a company commander and by the end of the war he had received three promotions in one year becoming the youngest colonel in the Army. He then became the Dean of Administration for Louisiana State University. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he returned to active duty and subsequently went to Europe, participating in the North African, Sicilian and Italian Campaigns before going to Normandy for the main campaign against Germany as Commander of the Eighth Corps.
In this episode, Middleton discusses the traits of a good leader and how to earn the respect of your subordinates. He remembers his longtime friend and fellow commander, General George Patton. He shares his opinions of Patton’s good and bad points. According to Middleton, Patton had no qualms about visiting the front lines any time of the day or night. He shares a humorous story of a late night visit by Patton and his encounter with a sleeping soldier.
The Battle of the Bulge was the last German offensive of WWII. It was Middleton who made the decision to hold the town of Bastogne against overwhelming opposition, in the winter of 1944. Although he was heavily criticized by Patton at the time, it turned out to be the right choice. He reflects on what it meant to the course of the war.
PHOTO: L-R, Middleton, Eisenhower, Patton
African-American soldiers returned home to the Jim Crow South after WWII, determined to press for an end to black voter suppression and “separate but equal” segregation laws. In this episode we examine the military career and civil rights activism of Taylor Howard of Gulfport.
Howard was drafted into the all-black, 92nd Infantry Division in 1942. He recalls the racial tensions they encountered while training in Louisiana, as well as, their trek from the Arizona desert to the Italian Alps.
After the Battle of Anzio, entrenched German forces inflicted heavy losses on the 92nd Infantry Division in Northern Italy. Howard recounts how a regiment of Japanese-American soldiers helped turn the tide.
African-American soldiers returned home after the war, convinced they would now be treated as equals. Howard remembers being denied the right to vote by a group of angry white poll-watchers the following year.
PHOTO: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2181029
Staff Sergeant Undaryl Allen of the Mississippi Army National Guard was deployed to Iraq in fall of 2004. In this episode, he shares his memories of that time in this interview conducted in May of 2006. Although trained as a mechanic, Allen’s first month was spent as a gunner on escort duty. He explains how his faith and his family helped him handle the stress of going out on patrol.
As an army mechanic serving in Iraq, Allen worked on a variety of combat equipment. He recalls repairing vehicles in which his friends were injured or killed. While serving in Iraq, Allen was assigned to a Forward Operating Base near Bagdad. He describes how he and his tent-mates would pool their resources for “home cooked” meals.
PODCAST EXTRA: Allen and his crew would occasionally be shelled by enemy forces while retrieving broken down vehicles, forcing them to run for cover. Looking back on those dangerous times, he finds humor in their mad scrambles to the bunker.
PHOTO: Hannah Heishman, Pinterest
When the United States entered WWII, A.J. Jones of Hattiesburg decided to become a Navy fighter pilot. In this episode, he shares his memories of that experience, beginning with the training he received and all those who died trying to learn to land on an aircraft carrier.
As a navy fighter pilot, Jones was assigned to a carrier group in the Pacific Theater. He recounts targeting Japanese ships and supplies around the Lingayen Gulf in January of 1945. The following month, Jones’s carrier, the USS Bismarck Sea was part of the task force assigned to take the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. He remembers providing air support for the Marines on the ground and how his carrier was sunk by kamikazes during the battle. After the ship went down, the survivors of the 1,000-man crew waited to be rescued as the battle raged on shore. Later, when they witnessed the American flag raised over nearby Mount Suribachi, cheers arose, even as they mourned the loss of their 318 shipmates.
PHOTO: By U.S. Navy - U.S. Navy photo 80-G-240135 from Navsource.org, Public Domain
After the Empire of Japan attacked the US Naval Base in Hawaii and declared war on the United States, Americans of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated to internment camps, out of fear they would be loyal to the emperor. But, by the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-American men were already serving in the US military. In this episode, Herbert Sasaki recalls coming to Camp Shelby in South Mississippi to join the 442nd, a newly formed infantry unit of Japanese-American volunteers.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Sasaki was used to driving the most modern highways in the nation. His memories of Hattiesburg include, waiting in long lines and getting stuck in the mud, a lot.
The 442nd was a rapid deployment force tasked with creating breaks in the German lines. Sasaki explains how early success by the regiment convinced General Eisenhower to use them as much as possible. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team is considered the most decorated unit in US history. He looks back with pride at the sacrifices made by these loyal Americans during WWII.
Transport pilots ferried soldiers and supplies between the Pacific Islands during WWII. While the pilots of fighter planes and bombers garnered all the glory, it was the transport pilots whose bravery kept the war going—bringing in cargo, taking out the wounded, delivering mail, escorting fighters to new locations—all while under the constant threat of attack from the enemy and mother nature. In this episode, Nevin Sledge of Cleveland, Mississippi, remembers flying his primitive cargo plane through all kinds of hazardous conditions.
Sledge shares several stories with us about the daily challenges they faced. He recalls how delaying a scheduled flight to Guam until the next morning resulted in the loss of forty wounded men. And how the US Navy construction battalion known as the See Bees, built a landing strip on that island in just ten days.
PODCAST BONUS: On the remote islands, far from US repair facilities, transport crews found creative ways to keep their planes in the air. Sledge recounts having to replace one of his wings using coconut logs and handful of tools.
No soldiers faced more hardships than the infantry, during WWII. In this episode, James Mulligan details his time with the 103rd Infantry Division, known as the Cactus Division, as they fought their way across Europe in the winter of 1945.
In the harsh cold, the uniforms the men depended on were barely adequate, according to Mulligan. He describes his army-issued weapons and clothing, as well as, the ready-to-eat meals known as “K-rations” and the four cigarettes each contained. During both world wars, tobacco companies provided free cigarettes to US soldiers and encouraged the families back home to send cartons of ‘smokes’ to the men as well. A practice Mulligan describes in his interview as a “life sentence.”
Mulligan made friends with several of the men he served with on the front lines. He discusses sharing a foxhole and his regret of losing contact with those soldiers after the war.
Podcast Extra: In March of 1945, Mulligan was shot in the leg during a firefight with the Germans in the Upper Rhine Valley. He shares his memories of the hospital in Dijon, France where he was still recovering when Germany surrendered.
The U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees, built roads and airfields across the Pacific Theater during WWII. In this episode, James Smith recalls his service with the Seabees beginning in 1943. Smith shares his memories of training with the Marines and the trip through the Panama Canal on the first large ship he ever saw. He also discusses how the Seabees would distill their own bootleg whiskey and his unconventional way of doing laundry aboard their small transport ship.
PODCAST EXTRA: Smith’s last assignment as a Seabee was repairing an airfield on the recently-liberated island of Okinawa. He discusses the Okinawans’ history with the Japanese and the devastating cost of “liberation.”
Born in 1906 in Himera, Indiana, Esther Stanton was just 14 years old when she began playing piano at the local nickelodeon. These were the days of silent movies, when musicians set the mood for the flicking images on the big screen. In this episode, she explains how live music was used to enhance the movie-going experience before “talkies” came along.
It was this experience that prepared Stanton for a career as a professional pianist. Along the way, she met several famous entertainers, like Red Skelton, one of the most beloved comedians of the Twentieth Century, who grew up in nearby Vincennes, Indiana. Stanton recalls playing piano for Skelton in home talent shows and discusses his meteoric rise to fame.
When WWII erupted, Stanton joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp or WACS, serving as director of the female dance band. When the WAC became part of the regular army, Stanton chose not to reenlist because of the limited opportunities being offered them. After leaving the WAC, Stanton formed an “all-girl” jazz band with several of her former band-mates. She credits the band's popularity to the shortage of male musicians during the war.
PODCAST EXTRA: While touring with her band in the 1940s, Ester Stanton met, and became friends with, popular pianist and showman, Liberace. She remembers his friendly demeanor and devotion to his mother.
In 1954, as half of a performing duo with her husband, Stanton moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She played and performed until 1966, when she retired in Biloxi.
The Battle for Guadalcanal, known as Operation Watchtower was the first major offensive by Allied Forces against the Nation of Japan during WWII. Willie Hammack served on the crew of the U.S. Navy destroyer Sterett (DD-407) during the Battle for Guadalcanal. In this episode, he recalls their mission to support the Marines on the islands while fighting off the Imperial Japanese Navy.
During the Third Battle for Savo Island in WWII, half of Hammack’s shipmates were killed or injured. As the night battle raged on Hammack describes assisting the ship’s doctor, despite being wounded himself and holding a friend’s hand as he died. He remembers the fierce ship-to-ship fighting and the advantage radar gave the US Navy. After the battle was over he recounts the 20+ burials at sea and the welcome back they received from the Pacific fleet when they reached Pearl Harbor.
PHOTO: By U.S. Navy, photographed from a USS Chenango (CVE-28) aircraft. - Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-321653 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1991079