In 1939, the onset of World War II was upon us; Germany was invading Poland with the rise of Adolf Hitler and in December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, officially ushering in the United States presence in the war.
June 6 was the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day, remembered as the day American, British and Canadian forces began to take back Europe and end the war.
More than 156,000 servicemen landed on five beaches along France’s Normandy region after large-scale deception and extensive planning, aimed at misleading the enemy. Each soldier played a part in the overall success.
Rubert “Smitty” Smith, 100, Avon, was just 22 when he received his draft notice in Indianapolis in 1942 and became a member of the Army Air Corps, later to be known as the United States Air Force. He was interviewed earlier this year and died June 20.
He spent time in Ogden, Utah, and recalls celebrating his 23rd birthday in Fort Dix, New Jersey, preparing to board the Queen Mary to land in Lytham, England.
Smith recalls the Queen Mary was not like the cruise ship some may imagine, but rather had more than 17,000 soldiers — men sleeping on the floor or “wherever they could find.”
“The food wasn’t fit to eat either; we called it rotten lamb stew.”
The Queen Mary took seven days to cross the Atlantic.
“The only way the Germans could shoot us was to lay in wait for us,” Smith said. “Our ship was faster than the subs they had, so we would zigzag every eight minutes so the subs were too slow to track us.”
Time spent in England was memorable as the crew was close to the sounds and reactions of war. “When we were in England, we heard Germans bombing Manchester. I was in Blackpool, which was a celebrating town. Talk about fireworks. We heard real fireworks that night,” Smith said.
He served in North Africa for one year, England for several months and was eventually stationed in Italy with the 376th Bomber Group, a bomb loading crew. “We loaded seven or eight 500-pound bombs on the planes each night. We’d send around 30 of them out each morning and that’s what we did every day,” Smith said.
He remembers as planes took off, the “sky would be black” because they all left together. Unfortunately, not all of them came back.
“If you piloted a B-24, your life expectancy wasn’t very good. Many of them didn’t come back, so I was lucky. I just did what they told me and I got on alright.”
He and the others on the crew had no knowledge of the D-Day invasion. They didn’t know where the planes were going when they took off from the base each day.
“We found out when it was over,” Smith said. “There was no celebrating. It was just another day for us. We knew we lost a lot of planes.”
Despite the task at hand, Smith recalls some memories with a smile. “They called me smiley because I was smiling all the time. I like to say when the lieutenant or captain told a joke, I didn’t laugh, so I just made it to corporal,” Smith said.
After returning home, Smith married in 1948 and had a daughter. In his later years he was able to find old friends from the service and visited a few, but now all those men have passed away.
Tom Costin, 94, Plainfield, was 17 and a senior in high school and had already attended one semester at Purdue University when he was called to duty, also in the Air Corps in 1942.
He recalls hearing about the Pearl Harbor attack over the radio at 16. “It was disbelief; we’re in the latter part of the Depression and that was more of a concern to us than what Japan was doing,” Costin said.
Though he was just 18 when he entered the service, Costin was able to fulfill a lifelong dream. “I’ve wanted to be a pilot all my life; ever since I was 4 years old,” he said. “We lived in Paragon and one of those old biplanes landed on the high school grounds and I saw him and took off running toward him.”
He can list each step of the training process, from basic training in Missouri to San Antonio, Texas, Garden City, Kansas, and more. Fighter pilot training allowed Costin to master a variety of planes and he recalls feeling awe at some of the aircraft.
“I was practicing landings in Garden City and looked up and saw the biggest plane I ever saw in my life. It was a B29 bomber. They built them in Kansas and flew over us every so often.”
Costin earned his wings in 1944. While plans were made to send the crew overseas, the war in Europe was dwindling and the war in Japan was becoming the focus.
“They sent us to New Jersey with plans to go to England,” he said. “The war was beginning to go our way in ‘45 and we sat there waiting. Then, they sent us over to Tallahassee to train for the B29s in Okinawa. We spent a good amount of time there, practicing missions.”
Once plans were made to bomb Japan, Costin was sent to the West and was a member of two squadrons meant to guide the planes to bomb Japan. The first squadron went, leaving Costin in the second squadron and luckily, the first trip was successful.
Though he never left the United States during the war, his service continued into a career.
Costin loved flying P51s and sought the plane out once out of the service.
“It was such a marvelous airplane to fly. I enjoyed doing all the gunnery. It was just a pleasure and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Costin went back home and graduated from Purdue. He remained in the Air Force reserve, but eventually joined the National Guard at Stout Field in Indianapolis when he learned he could fly P51s.
He served as the air transportation officer for the state of Indiana with the Air National Guard for many years. “I fulfilled my ambition and obligation,” Costin said. “It was a lot of hard training and a lot of practice and work, but it was worth everything.”
James Collins, 94, Plainfield, was a mid-term graduate at Ben Davis High School and was sworn into the U.S. Navy March 8, 1943.
After basic training in the Great Lakes area, Collins was able to graduate high school in his uniform.
He landed in the medical field and participated in medical history throughout the war.
“When we completed the basic training, we had to do another 12 weeks in a hospital,” Collins recalled. “The rumor was if you went East, you were going to Europe; if you went West, you were going to Japan, so several of us went out to Bremerton, Washington, to a nice facility there.”
Throughout his training he learned about various diseases and ailments and even performed minor surgery.
“Over time, I became a hospital apprentice and then a pharmacist maid. They needed corpsmen at Oceanside, California, and we were put in platoons with riflemen, corpsmen and others, sent out in the ocean and brought back in — training to invade Japan,” Collins said.
He and a group of men were sent to Pearl Harbor and on to the Philippines with orders to build a hospital for the injured, anticipating a large amount of casualties from an invasion in Japan.
“While we were waiting in Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt died,” he recalled. “The thing that became apparent is that he never told Vice President Truman that they were building this atomic bomb. It was all top secret and very few knew anything about it. When Roosevelt died, the military got together with Truman and said, ‘Here’s your choice. We can invade Japan, we have plans to build a hospital, we’ll have thousands of casualties, or we can drop this bomb and it’ll all be over.’ Harry made the right choice.”
Subsequently, plans for the hospital were cancelled and Collins continued serving as a pharmacist maid for soldiers. “They built a makeshift hospital out of tents and each tent was like a ward; one for surgery, one for this disease, one for that disease.”
The Hoosier was in charge of the venereal disease ward and at the time, there was little he could give them to treat it.
“Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but they were not able to make it in big batch production,” he said. “England had brought in the U.S. pharmacy people and the military got involved and financed it, including those at Lilly. They finally got to the point of making big batches that could be transported and it would stay good.”
Upon arrival, Collins said directions simply read, “Document everything you do and give us the results each month.” They divided the men up into two groups and administered different doses to each group, documenting the amount and results.
“I was the guy that got to use penicillin in World War II,” Collins said.
After the bombing of Japan, Collins continued working in the Philippines until he received notice that both of his parents were in the hospital and he was needed at home to care for a younger sibling. Travel took so long, by the time he arrived, both parents were home and all was well. The Navy chose to discharge him vs. sending him to another location.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was the GI Bill to go to college. I would have never gone to college otherwise,” Collins said.
He spent the next years of his life on the State Board of Health Food and Drug Division and then worked at Blue Cross in Indianapolis. “They needed a lot of people with my background and I got to work for them for 20 years. As a result, I’ve enjoyed almost 30 years of postretirement,” Collins said.
While he recalls trading cigarettes for souvenirs and the occasional cold six-pack of beer, he is thankful for the education he received. Collins still remembers the shocking environment of a less fortunate part of the world.
“The thing I found extremely difficult to deal with was the level of poverty in the islands,” he said. “Here’s a group of people under Japan’s rule and treated badly and had several terrible years and the minute Americans took back the Philippines, the people were so happy and delighted. They were friendly, interested in us and loved to do business with us.
“It was amazing — the sanitation, the poverty, the way people lived. And people in this country that haven’t seen a Third World country just don’t know how fortunate we are.”