In July, Historic Columbus will be celebrating our community's military history through the stories of our veterans. For the Thursday History Spotlights, we will focus on stories from World War II. Stories of our veterans from other wars are also being highlighted during the week on our social media. You can check them out here:
There are so many stories and the ones that will be featured merely scratch the surface. Thank you for celebrating our veterans with us this month!
Two wonderful books will be our main sources to honor our heroes:
Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby and Saluting our Heroes: Part I - World War II by the students of the Shaw High School Service Learning Project, 2004.
Edward Neal, Hooper Turner, and John Swift Go to War (sort of) Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007) The boys of Columbus High School Class of 1944 were downright lucky. Among the last to go to war, they actually never found it. Childhood friends since their days at Wynnton School, Hooper Turner, Edward Neal, and John Swift joined the Navy just before their eighteenth birthdays in 1945 when they would have been drafted into the Army.
But Ed didn’t feel very lucky the day the Chief Petty Officer picked him to represent his company at the weekly boxing match at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Green Bay, Wisconsin, which was attended by what seemed like thousands. With no experience at boxing whatsoever, Ed thought he was going to faint right there and then. As fate would have it, he was scheduled to sing in the men’s choir that Saturday. More good news came a few weeks later when Ed learned that Germany surrendered. After boot camp, Ed worked in a separation center near Shoemaker, California, which processed veteran’s papers before they could be discharged. Close enough to San Francisco to attend the opera with his erudite, new friends, Ed viewed the city skyline from the Top of the Mart Hotel the same night that Bing Crosby dined there. While sight-seeing in San Francisco, he befriended a family whose living room overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. They invited him to dinner, and after dessert, the family pushed back their chairs for the night’s entertainment. They turned to this southern boy and said, “Now talk.”
18-year-old Ed Neal on leave in 1945
The most perilous moment (and the closest he came to a ship) during all of Ed’s Navy days was when he hitched a ride across the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge with a couple of speeding dare devils who thought it was great fun to careen toward the railing while asking him, “Can you swim?” The day that Japan surrendered, Ed was in San Francisco at a serviceman’s hangout. The city broke out in an impromptu party as the news spread, and Ed was swept down Market Street by the jubilant throngs. Just the day before, Hooper Turner had graduated from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The next week, he boarded a troop train bound for the West Coast. Most of the guys were herded into “cattle cars” of about twenty men to a car, but Turner was lucky enough to draw accommodations in a Pullman car, and to spend that week in relative luxury. When it was time to board the former Mississippi riverboat, the Delta Queen, which would deliver Hooper’s unit to their ship bound for Asia, Hooper ran into another Columbus friend, Otis Gilliam, who manned the ferry. It was Thanksgiving Day, and while Ed Neal dined with yet another charming San Francisco family, Otis smuggled Hooper a purloined turkey leg.
18-year-old Hooper Turner on VJ Day (Victory in Japan), 1945
Two weeks later, Second Class Seaman Hooper Turner was assigned to the supply office of the repair ship, U.S.S. Delta. As luck would have it, this was the best job on the ship and afforded Hooper the tranquility of sleeping alone on a cot in the ship’s store instead of with 150 other guys. In Shanghai, Hooper witnessed the one and only combat scene when a group of U.S. Marines faced off against a group of sailors. Back in San Diego, Turner hitchhiked to Hollywood to stand on the infamous corner of Hollywood and Vine, then he was bound to Philadelphia via the Panama Canal. By that time, Ed Neal was sweeping the floor at the Jacksonville Naval Air Base’s separation center when he rounded a corner and almost collided with his old friend, John Swift. Embarrassed for his Columbus chum to see his broom, he was thinking of hiding it behind his back when he noticed John’s mop. In the ensuing weeks, they worked by day as custodians, but at night John entertained Ed at the swanky Ponte Vedra Club. Meanwhile, Hooper came south from Pennsylvania to the separation center in Jacksonville. Standing in line to be discharged, John Swift, and Ed was soon typing up Hooper’s separation papers. After a year and a half of the best the Navy could offer, Hooper, John, and Ed returned to Columbus, thanking their lucky stars they never encountered the war they had left home to win.
Ed Cox By Brandon Jones and Darius Alexander Saluting Our Heroes: Part I – World War II by Shaw High School students (2004) You may have seen the article about Mr. Ed Cox in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that said he was the oldest active musician in town. This is not surprising, since his father played harmonica with the Grand Ole Opry, and his parent had a dance hall in Tennessee. But how he came to be where he is today is because of his service in the Army during and after World War II. Mr. Cox was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, where he grew up with many good friends. While they were still just children, he and a friend started a bicycle shop to make some money and did not suspect anything was wrong with the man who would hang around the shop and let them drive his car. One day Mr. Cox and his friend were stopped by the police, who found tickets for the numbers game in the car. They were arrested and given the choice of going to jail or joining the Army. Tennessee judges often gave that good reason to call it the “Volunteer State.”
When America entered World War II, Mr. Cox was shipped to the West Indies to help keep the supply lines open. Germany’s Wolf Pack, their submarines, sank too many of our supply ships on the long trips to Europe. Mr. Cox’s job was to help find these submarines. In 1945, the war ended, and Mr. Cox went home to finish high school and enter Fisk University. He and some friends joined the Reserves because of the extra money, thinking that there could not possibly be another war any time soon. How wrong they were. The war in Korea meant that Mr. Cox was called back to active duty. He was sent first to Fort Bragg, then to Fort Benning. As the troop train pulled up and unloaded, Mr. Cox watched the Army band play for the new troops. The director, Sgt. Kenny, asked if he were a musician, and Mr. Cox nodded his head although he could not play a note on any instrument. Sgt. Kenny told him to get on their bus, and so he was assigned to join the band. For the first month, he held on by using what he knew about the music world and its stars, stuff his family talked about all the time. He also volunteered to take KP for the other band members when they had it during the day, and a friend taught him to play the clarinet at night. By the time he actually had to play for others, he knew two songs, enough to win him a spot where he wanted to be. Being in the band turned out to be much more than Mr. Cox expected. He got to see lots of things that others could not, he got to go places that others did not, and he played for important people all over the world. It was all really interesting, because everybody enjoyed the music, but nobody paid any attention to the band. That, and his security clearance from working with codes, meant that he was soon doing undercover work. Although he joined a club because it had pretty girls and good music, he overheard important information. It turned out to be a communist cell. After his military service was over, Mr. Cox came back to Columbus, Georgia to live. He started a club to beautify his community, but it turned into a neighborhood watch group, and then into the first anti-drug citizens’ group in Columbus. They would sit across the street from where the drug dealers waited for the big, expensive cars to pull up. When they took out the cameras, the cars would speed away. When the drug dealers would yell at them or threaten them, they would chant, “If we’re disturbing the peace, call the police,” which of course the drug dealers would not do. His group would go to crack houses late at night, turn flashlights on the house and chant, “Drug dealer, drug dealer, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.” The next day, the house would be clean again because the last thing those people want is a lot of attention. February 24, 2004, was Mr. Cox’s 80th birthday, and at his party both Sanford Bishop and Calvin Smyre gave him citations from Congress. The Columbus Police Department gave him a plaque with pictures of his anti-drug activities, and the mayor gave him a certificate from the City Council recognizing February 24th as Ed Cox Day. Mr. Cox, we are proud to have this chance to get to know you, a real American hero.
Richard Hecht Protects Crucial B-29s in Saipan Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007) General Hap Arnold, Chief of the U.S. Air Forces, put all his hope for defeating Japan into the untested bomber known as the B-29. The warplane was the first to have a pressurized cabin and remote-controlled machine gun turrets. It flew very fast and could sail above most anti-aircraft weapons. But in the midst of World War II, there was no time to develop it fully. The B-29 went directly from production into combat without a shakedown period to perfect its design flaws. Take-offs were especially dangerous in the heavy planes as pilots struggled for altitude at the end of the world’s longest runway at Isley Field, Saipan. Once aloft, the threat of engine failure and fire was extremely high. But General Arnold knew in his heart that the B-29 was the best way to defeat Japan, and he dispatched this order to the commanding general of Saipan: “Protect B-29s at all costs.” Columbus native Richard Hecht commanded a platoon of the First Provisional Task Force whose duty it was to guard the B-29s taking off from Isley Field at the rate of one per minute. His group protected the Saipan airbase from raids by both Japanese paratroopers and the hundreds of Japanese soldiers who slipped out of their caves under nearby Mount Topatchau to sabotage the planes parked on their hardstands.
Richard lived in tented quarters between the airfield and the ocean on an island so devastated by the naval invasion that the landscape was more black and white than green. The only sign of life he found on the island was the lone chicken he adopted. In all, Hecht survived twenty-one air attacks. Meanwhile the 509th Composite Group was practicing secret maneuvers on Tinian Island, three miles away. Hecht had no knowledge of it, but the secret operation was preparing to drop the new atomic bomb on Japan. When the B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” took off from Tinian and passed right over Isley Field that August morning on its way to Hiroshima, Hecht did not suspect anything out of the ordinary until his radio announced the stunning news. After a second B-29 dropped another atomic bomb over Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered.
The men of Isley Field cheered when they learned they would be going home, but Richard went first to Guam to work as the Assistant Provost Marshall. To get home from Guam, he was offered a ride in a B-29 but having seen so many of the crash on take-off and remembering the many others who never returned from their missions, Richard waited for the relative comfort of the U.S.S. Breckenridge, a converted cruise ship. When he finally returned to Columbus, Hecht joined his family’s hotel and restaurant supply business, in operation since 1912. Only recently (at the time this piece was written) did he learn that he had been awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for protecting the B-29s during air and ground attacks. Richard is proud of his service in the Pacific theater and full of respect for the pilots and crew who risked it all to fly the B-29.
Saipan viewed from Tinian Island. The "Enola Gay" flew its famous mission from here in 1945.
Next week: We will highlight three more stories from World War II veterans! If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director