As the June 6 anniversary of D-Day in Normandy in 1944 approaches, the thoughts of many Carolina Meadows residents turn to memories of wartime roles. Nearly one-fifth of all residents served as GIs, Marines, sailors enlisted or commissioned, merchant mariners, airmen, fighter pilots, ferry pilots or Red Cross volunteers. Here are the war stories of two residents.
'Here lie 5,000'
In 1943, John Ryan hitchhiked from College Station, Texas, where he was a student at Texas A&M, to Houston. On June 2, his 18th birthday, he was sworn in to the U.S. Army. "There was a war on," he said, "and I didn't want to miss it."He was assigned to an Army specialized training program for high-IQ recruits destined for specialized assignment. But the program was dropped, and Ryan found himself an infantryman in the 84th division. After a submarine-threatened passage to Britain in September 1944 and on to Cherbourg, France, he walked ashore from a landing craft to a Normandy beach that the Allies had recently bought in blood.A few weeks later, on the Siegfried Line, the American troops at night could hear German tanks clanking around the countryside. Ryan's officer sent Ryan and a private named Dix to bring back anti-tank ammunition from a nearby dump. Coming back, they came under small-arms fire from the Germans. Both men were wounded, Dix more seriously than Ryan."We started to play dead, but they came over and found we weren't dead," Ryan said.After 18 days in action, he was a prisoner of war.Dix was sent to a hospital, Ryan to Stalag 11B, better known as Bergen-Belsen, near Neubrandenburg, where Allied prisoners were held. The German countryside was devastated. Roads, bridges and buildings were destroyed, farms left idle. German civilians were near starvation. But the Germans permitted the delivery of food parcels to the prisoners, from Britain's Order of St. John and the International Red Cross. The Red Cross parcels contained concentrated foods and cigarettes, prized for trading for almost anything. "Those parcels saved my life," said Ryan, who plans to remember the Red Cross in his will. He added: "Jews and Russians were dying like flies, not in gas chambers but from typhus and typhoid. Signs in German read, 'Here lie 5,000,' 'Here lie 3,000.' They would take the bodies of people who had died and strip their clothing to burn and get rid of the lice."Allied prisoners who had been inoculated against the diseases were largely spared.In the spring of 1945, as German forces retreated before the Russians, the Allied prisoners along with their former guards made their way west, with the prisoners often carrying the rifles. "We got to the Elbe on May 7, and that was V-E day," Ryan said.On the west bank of the Elbe, Ryan spotted an American jeep waiting. For him, the war was over.
The midnight sun
After Betty Etten -- now resident Betty Wiker -- graduated from high school during the Great Depression, her father mortgaged the family home and underwrote her enrollment in a Chicago business college. With her acquired secretarial skills, she went to work for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago. In 1942, the army came along, and as she now recalls, "I thought, they will not only clothe me, they will feed me, house me and give me a job, so I went off to the recruiting station and put my hand up."After basic training, she was sent to the Army Air Corps at Bolling Field, in Washington, D.C. In a basement room she pushed around model airplanes on a board, in the Air Corps' local air traffic control center. It was not a great assignment for the athletic, outdoors-loving Betty, and she was later offered assignment to an officer candidate school in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Her response was, "My footlocker is ready, my barracks bag is packed, how soon can I leave?"After winning her bars as a second lieutenant, she was assigned as a finance officer at Wright Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio, signing government checks totaling millions of dollars.One more memorable wartime assignment, she recalls, was duty as a squadron commander at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, a refueling base for military aircraft flying under lend-lease to join the Soviet Air Force. She was in charge of all the military women on the base except the nurses, including aircraft mechanics, secretaries, cooks and bakers, medical technicians, among others.Once she flew with three women from the base -- a violinist, a pianist and a singer -- to Shemya, a windswept rock near the western end of the Aleutian Islands, to entertain the troops. "The guys on the base had no women at all," Wiker said, "and I was the watchdog for our girls. Good thing we only stayed one day."On their return to Ladd Field, Wiker and her charges landed amid chaos. The newly built women's barracks had burned down, the result of faulty wiring. The men lent the women fatigues and warm clothing until they could replace their uniforms.On a lighter note, Wiker recalls observing a tradition at Ladd Field: playing a softball game starting at midnight in late June and played entirely by the light of the midnight sun.Remaining in the Air Force after the war, Wiker was assigned to the recruiting service and saw a variety of duty stations. She carried a class one air priority, so she could visit far-flung recruiting stations and recruit new recruiters. In 1949, she married an Air Force man. After he retired, she resigned her commission as major in 1952 and became a fulltime wife and mother.