Tidbits of Shelby County History
Childhood Recollections of WWII
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This week’s article was shared by a family member and is the recollections of World War II in Center, Texas from the memories of Y.W. (Bill) Rogers and Louis S. Muldrow in 2002.
I was born in Center, Texas on February 28, 1932, making me nine years and nine months old when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. My cousin Louis Muldrow was born on August 22 of the same year. Louis and I went through WW II together, and in this document I have combined our half-century-old memories of how we experienced wartime as kids in Center, Texas. ----Y.W. “Bill” Rogers.
The “Day of Infamy” --- On December 7, 1941, my family huddled anxiously by the radio as details of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded. And, over fifty years later, I still have a mental picture of standing on the sidewalk in front of my grandparents’ house on Shelbyville Street with my younger brother John and our cousins, wondering what it all meant. Where was Pearl Harbor, anyway?
My cousin Louis Muldrow recalls that his family was having Sunday dinner with his mother’s cousins, Henry and Louella Runnels, when his Uncle Hap (my father) called and told them to turn on the radio because “Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor”.
On Monday, Center Elementary Principal Oren B. Wheeler, a man with an appreciation of history, gathered all the students into the auditorium on the second floor of the building. One exception was my brother John’s second grade class, which was being disciplined because a student had used the pencil sharpener without permission. My cousin Louis and I were in the fourth grade and were included in the audience. In the center of the stage Mr. Wheeler had placed a radio. And, although I did not fully understand its significance at the time, I remember hearing the broadcast of President Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech in which he called on Congress to declare war on Japan and Germany.
The Army in Our Back Yard --- One day in the summer of 1941 – before Pearl Harbor – a jeep pulled into our driveway in Center and an Army officer stepped out. Thus began a boy’s fantasy come true, because the soldier was there to ask my father for permission to look over the wooded property behind our house and , if it proved suitable, to bring the Army there to camp for a few days.
Even better, he asked if I would like to ride in the jeep with him as he scouted the territory. Of course, I would. So, the Army came to camp on the twenty or so acres that was then our playground and which, many years later, became the site of homes built on John C. Rogers Drive.
It was all a part of the big 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers -war games – featuring troops from Fort Polk, Louisiana divided into the “Red Army” and the “Blue Army.” Blue armband and markings identified our guest, our Army. We boys came to consider the “Red Army” as the “enemy.”
In the ensuing “battles” there were referees who decided who was killed or wounded, which vehicles had been disabled or destroyed, and which groups had been captured. In spite of your hopes, we never got to witness a “battle.” The 1941 Maneuvers were defined as “a peacetime assessment of maneuver warfighting abilities,” and the obvious conclusion had to be that the U.S. was not ready for war.
My little brother John – two years younger than I – was hobbling around on one foot that week because of a bicycle accident and was pampered by everyone, including the Army. Every morning a big sergeant would come to our house and carry John out to sit on the sand bags that surrounded a machine gun mounted in our front yard. He also had a be transported through the woods daily to visit the encampment.
Louis tells the story that, when someone told us there was a General among the bivouacked troops, his Aunt Ercyle (my mother) baked a plate of cookies and sent us off to deliver them to the General.
“We went into the woods and among the tents and asked a soldier where the General was. “What do you want him for?” was the reply. “We have some cookies for him” one of us answered. With that, a young man in a nearby tent got up and walked over to us and announced that he was the General. Bill, John, and I were skeptical. One of us asked where his stars were. “It has been raining, and I took them off to keep them from rusting.” It had been raining but we still went back to the house with the cookies.”
The Army Passes Through Center --- For weeks, units of the maneuvering Army passed through Center From time to time tanks, half-tracks, armored scout cars, jeeps, and trucks pulling artillery pieces rumbled through the Town Square in seemingly unending lines. Louis remembers that “Most came up Shelbyville Street, passed in front of my grandparents’ home, hit the Square, and turned right toward Louisiana. Other columns when through the Square and out toward Tenaha. All of us – not just boys, but adults alike – would stand and watch and watch until forced to retire for work or for the night.”
Wartime, he says, “began then for me because I could see, hear, feel, and even smell the instruments of war.” Even to this day, he considers that summer of the maneuvers among the most exciting times of his life. He says, “It was during that summer that I experienced, for the first time, the smell of tents and tarps and canvas vehicle covers in hot summer sun. It is a smell that one never forgets. And since, in later life (during a hitch in the Army), I lived and rode under those materials, I still associate the smell with the military; and I always feel some instant unease when I encounter it.”
The maneuvers also included companies of horse cavalry, a weapon never to be used in the war that would begin in only a few weeks because mounted troops proved ineffective in the war games. Formations of horses and riders traveled down the grassy highway shoulders, responding to shouted commands and hand signals to change from walk to trot to walk again or to stop to rest the horses. Troopers always mounted and dismounted together on command.
Real Casualties --- Even in a mock war there were real casualties. My family, Louis included, was out riding one day when my dad was told of a serious wreck just south of Shelbyville, seven miles away. He drove us there immediately to find that a fully loaded log truck had gone out of control and crashed into an Army half-track parked beside the highway.
Two or three soldiers were killed and several injured. My dad was at that time Chief of Center’s Volunteer Fire Department and had a siren on his car. Since no ambulance had yet arrived, he left us with other gathered at the scene, loaded one or two of the injured into our car,and sped away with the siren wailing to the hospital in Center. Then he came back for us.
Our Men in the Military Family --- Four members of the Rogers family from Center served in the militaryduring World War II. Our cousin Dr. James G. Rogers served as a dentist in the Navy, and his younger brother John Oscar Rogers was in the Army. Their sister Marie’s husband, Allen Tribble, was also in the Army. All three served in the Pacific Theater. My father’s first cousin, Edward Rogers, was a sergeant in the European Theater. Several of the more distant Rogers’ cousins and at least two Muldrow cousins was military service. Miraculously, all came home whole.
My father, Dr. Y.W. Rogers, Sr., although 37 years old and with two children, tried to join the Army Air Corp at Barksdale Field. At first he was rejected for having low blood sugar. On his second try he sought to get by that problem by eating a candy bar on the way to Shreveport to temporarily raise his blood sugar; but a smear of chocolate on his clothing betrayed him to the examiners. Finally, they told him to quit trying because, as a dentist, he was frozen back in Center for the rest of the war to serve the home folks and to examine men being drafted.
Toward the end of the war, he was sent a bronze medal for examining inductees. This infuriated him and he considered the medal an insult to men who had fought for their country.
Louis’ father, Choc” Muldrow, joined the Army in World War I. He was seventeen when the U.S. declared war and was about to be shipped to Europe when he caught the measles, which was epidemic at that time. He developed complication and had to be hospitalized for a long period. By the time he recovered, the war was over. Louis speculates that the measles probably saved his father’s life.
The Telegrams --- Louis’ next door neighbor was Brad Collier, the local Western Union telegraph operator. It fell to him, once the messages began to arrive, to deliver War Department telegrams to families, which began “We regret to inform you…” This included his next-door neighbors, the Frames. Louis said Mr. Collier “would frequently tell my father how bad his day had been, delivering messages.”
Sometimes the terrible cost of the war did hit close to us. Louis remembers “Ray Frame, who lived two houses down the street from us, was a tail gunner on a B-24. He was shot down over Italy and killed.”
“Ben Simon, the son of the dry goods merchant next door to Rogers Drug Story, was a fighter pilot. He was shot down over Belgium in 1945. He is buried in a military cemetery near Leige, Belgium.”
“Johnny Allen, one of my best friends, had an older brother who died on some little island in the Pacific.”
And perhaps closest to Louis’ heart was Thomas Brittain, known as “Little Britt,” a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, killed at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He and his older brother, “Britt”, operated a café on the east side of the Square. Louis remembers that “when I was a little kid, Little Britt used to pick me up and swing around, and call me “Little Choc.”
For many it was different. One of our best lifelong friends, Edgar Taylor, had four older brothers in government service at the same time. His mother, Mrs. Duke Taylor, was to our knowledge the only “Four Star Mother” in Center. We remember the little red, white and blue banner with four stars that hung in her window. By the grace of God she never had to change any of the stars to gold. Her sons all came home.
Every Sunday at the First Baptist Church there were prayers for the “boys” in the service. Louis recalls that “Brother Joe Smith, an elderly, retired Baptist preacher, always prayed down on his knees for the boys ‘lying with their faces in the mud and slush,’ hoping that they too, were praying rather than cursing. Brother Joe was a life-long friend of our grandfather, John C. Rogers.