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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

July Military Stories (July 5, 7 & 9)

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Monday, July 5, 2021

Fate and Battle Injury Unite Ralph and Jean Puckett

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

Perusing the morning newspaper, Nan Strickland, a teacher at Columbus High, spied the photo of First Lt. Ralph Puckett, her former English student, propped up in bed at Martin Army Hospital with two mangled feet. So much had happened since she taught him English in Tifton. Ralph had graduated from West Point and made sure he didn’t miss the war in Korea, where he volunteered for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. As company commander of this newly formed Ranger unit, Ralph was talking on the radio from a foxhole in November 1950 when two mortar rounds exploded beneath him, wounding his legs, feet, lower back, and arm. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in this sixteen-hour battle. Ms. Strickland decided the best present she could give Ralph was some female companionship to take his mind off the pain.

At school later, she passed the newspaper story to her student Jeannie Martin and told her to go visit him. “He’s a nice boy from a good family,” she said. Jeannie (daughter of Frank C. and Jean Martin) had noticed the same article at home and thought. “he’s cute,” but when she took the clipping from Ms. Strickland, she had no intention of traipsing to Fort Benning to visit even a handsome stranger.

A couple of days later, however, when a friend of Jeannie’s asked her to go visit someone at the Army hospital, the girls realized this was the same soldier Jeannie had told her teacher she would visit. When they knocked on the hospital room door, the two were greeted by Ralph’s father whose first words were, “Ralph’s going to marry one of you!” Ralph turned red as a beet as his father explained that a few days earlier, a soldier/patient who told fortunes had looked at Ralph’s palm and said, “Very soon, you’ll meet two girls – one blonde, the other a brunette, and your going to marry one of them.” The blonde (Jeannie) and the brunette (Peggy Ashworth) now standing before him shared a nervous laugh.

For almost a year, Ralph convalesced at the hospital. Doctors considered amputating his right foot. The bright spot in those long, painful days was seeing Jeannie walk in the door with one of her girlfriends. By the spring of 1951, their relationship had blossomed into a romance. During an Easter convalescent leave, Ralph took Jeannie to Tifton to meet his parents who endorsed their relationship. Jeannie’s parents were less enthusiastic, insisting that she go off to college.

The summer before she left, Ralph’s condition required further surgery. This time, the doctors performed a two-stage graft on his right foot. A flap was partially severed from his left calf and sewn to his right foot. Both legs were cast to make the joining immobile. After several weeks in this very constraining position, the cast was removed and the flap cut loose from his left leg and completely stitched to his right foot, which was recast.

Ralph Puckett in Vietnam

Until she left for college that fall, Jeannie visited Ralph every day, and Ralph missed her cheery caring presence terribly after she had gone. As soon as he was released from the hospital, he visited her at college, and they soon set a date. Exactly two years after his battlefield injury, Ralph and Jeannie married at St. Paul’s Methodist Church. Over the next nineteen years, the Pucketts traveled the world in service to their country.

Ralph receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from President Lyndon Johnson

Jean’s gift was in raising three children and keeping the family stable and happy. In each of the twenty-six different houses they occupied, she created a beautiful home. Meanwhile Ralph served the Army in Puerto Rico, Germany, and South America. He organized a Ranger School in Columbia for the Columbian army. He earned a second Distinguished Service Cross in Vietnam. After retiring, he became the National Programs Coordinator for Outward Bound, Inc. before they returned to Columbus. Today, Jean is an interior decorator and artist, and Ralph cannot be prouder of his wife or more thankful to her for being “the wind beneath his wings.”

Ralph has also received the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal, and Air Medal. On April 30, 2021, Puckett was notified of the recent decision to award him the Medal of Honor for his actions on November 25, 1950. He received the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House from President Joe Biden on May 21, 2021.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Columbus’ Eugene Bullard, First African American Pilot in French History

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

Born in a three-room shotgun house on Talbotton Avenue in 1895, Eugene Bullard was destined for a life of adventure and achievement unprecedented by southern Black men of his time. Growing up in Columbus at the height of Jim Crow segregation, Eugene witnessed the near lynching of his father and rankled under the racial contempt that enclosed his life as a boy. When he was barely a teenager, he had had enough. He hit the road, hiding under a gypsy’s wagon in a field in East Highlands neighborhood on his first night away from home. Armed with only a third-grade education, Eugene stowed away on a merchant ship bound for Britain in 1912. He had already toured Europe as a successful prize fighter when World War I broke out in 1914. Gene enlisted in the French Foreign Legion – one of only a dozen African Americans serving in France – on his nineteenth birthday. For two bloody years, he endured the arduous life of a foot soldier on the Western Front.

In the spring of 1915, while Bullard manned a machine gun along the Somme River, his worried father wrote the U.S. State Department, asking for its help in returning his boy to him. There must have been a mistake, he wrote, since Eugene was too young to enlist. Mr. Bullard, then living on Sixth Avenue in Columbus, implored authorities to “have him freed at once” and sent home to his family. Even though U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing personally forwarded Bullard’s letter to the American embassy in Paris, Eugene had broken no French statute, and the matter went no farther.

By the following spring, Eugene had entered the deadly battle zone at Verdun where three hundred thousand soldiers would perish. Before the German assault even began, the Germans rained wo and a half million artillery shells over the French army in just twelve hours. For the next two weeks, Bullard’s unit was caught in a grinding war machine where “thousand upon thousand died… as earth was plowed under, and men and beasts hung from the branches of trees where they had been blown to pieces.” Going without sleep, Bullard gunned down scores of Germans with his machine gun, and when it jammed, fired his carbine at close range. He lost all but four of his teeth in an explosion that killed his mates. Three days later, as Bullard was taking a message from one French officer to another, a second exploding shell knocked him into a dugout with a gaping hole in his thigh, requiring three months’ recuperation in a Lyon hospital. For this wound, he received the esteemed Croix de Guerre with bronze star in 1916.

Although the Columbus native was too disabled to return to war as a foot soldier, Bullard decided to go into aviation next. A white southern friend of his in Paris told him, “You know there aren’t any Negroes in aviation.” Bullard replied, “That’s why I want to get into it.” And that is how Eugene Bullard became the first Black pilot in French aviation history. Although this accomplishment was noted in European newspapers, it was never mentioned in his native country. Yet, Bullard flew at least twenty missions against the Germans. He survived the Great War to become a nightclub owner in the Montmartre section of Paris. His patrons included Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Gloria Swanson, and the Prince of Wales. In World War II, Bullard re-enlisted and was wounded again. Afterward, he returned to his native land to live in New York. At some point, Bullard returned to Columbus to look up his family, but he found no trace of them. He died in New York in 1961.


Friday, July 9, 2021

Marine Pilot John Flournoy in Near Disaster over North Vietnam

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

Columbus native John Flournoy remembers seeing his father only once in his preschool years. His dad, Joe Flournoy, was in the Marine Corps during World War II and came home on leave only once before the war in the Pacific was over. Later in life, John decided to follow his father’s example and join the Marine Corps. After completing college at the University of North Carolina and playing defensive halfback for four years, John found the physical training at Quantico’s officer candidate school to be enjoyable. After commissioning as a second lieutenant, he attended flight school in Pensacola and trained as a fighter pilot before joining the fleet at Cherry Point, North Carolina. John’s squadron was sent to Vietnam in 1966 where he served as squadron pilot and as the ordinance officer for the Marine Attack Squadron 211 flying A4E Sky Hawk aircraft.

Early in 1967, Marine pilots were in short supply, and John often flew three missions a day, many of those at night along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam and Laos. During his tenure in Vietnam, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and fifteen air medals.

One of John’s most memorable missions occurred over North Vietnam and virtually destroyed his airplane. This story began months beforehand when John conversed with the First Marine Air Wing ordinance officer in Da Nange, Vietnam, and confirmed that there were new technology fuses in inventory in the Philippines which could be used effectively in the close air support and interdiction missions in Vietnam. This technology used radar sensing fusing which allowed the pilot to set the height for the explosion of the bomb above the ground. After the delivery and installation of the fuses into the high explosive, low drag bombs that were used on the air groups’ Sky Hawks, Flournoy led most of the flights which employed the VT (variable timing) fusing.

The resultant damage from this new technology was impressive, and Marine and Army forward air controllers were astounded at the difference in the results of the delivery of the ordinance. A new squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel McCool, came to the VMA 211, and having heard of the weaponry, decided to lead his first mission with this new technology fusing. John suggested that was not the best course of action but was overruled by the squadron commander. John flew wing with Lieutenant Colonel McCool on a mission over North Vietnam in their respective planes. When McCool released his bombs while talking on the radio with controllers, he did not perform the prescribed maneuvers to clear the potential blast zone. Just above McCool, John watched in horror as McCool remained at a level altitude instead of pulling up, out of harm’s way.

Knowing that the bombs had a fragmentation spray area that would severely damage the colonel’s plane, John swooped down to try to gain McCool’s attention just as the salvos detonated and his plane took the full brunt of impact. His landing gear was blown through the right wing of the aircraft and all hydraulics were lost, along with navigational equipment. At this point, John decided that he would rather eject over the Gulf of Tonkin than land in North Vietnam, so he rolled out to the South China Sea desperate to keep his plane aloft as long as possible. The closest landing site was forty minutes away. Amazingly, his mangled plane limped all the way back to Chu Lai and crash landed on an empty center line fuel tank, sliding to a stop when the tail hook grabbed an arresting wire, with no loss of blood.

The first think John wanted to do after coming to a stop was to kill Lieutenant Colonel McCool. But, having lived through the ordeal, John returned to the air to complete his tour in Vietnam. Upon returning to the States in late 1967, John immediately joined Marine Fighter Squadron 451 at the Atlanta NAS/Dobbins Air Force Base and also started his construction and real estate development company in Columbus. He has been flying ever since in his business.

John’s younger brother, Jody, was a naval fighter pilot who was killed in a midair collision off the U.S.S. America in 1976. John’s son Jake, who served as an infantry officer for four years, became the third generation of Flournoy’s to serve in the Marines.

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