Editor's note: The version of this story published in the June 4, 2020, edition of the Herald Chronicle contained a few errors which have been corrected for the online version. A corrected version of the story will also appear in the June 11, 2020, edition of the printed paper.
D-Day, celebrated each year on June 6, is a day in history that will forever be distinguished as having reversed the course of World War II.
This year marks the 76th anniversary of that significant event, codenamed “Operation Overlord.”
Shannon Russell, daughter of Larry and Becky Russell of Huntland, interviewed her great-uncle, J.B. Russell, a WWII soldier, in 2004. The interview was used as an essay assignment in her history class at Motlow College.
She called her paper simply “WWII Interview.”
Russell, the subject of the paper, and his brother, Clyde Russell, both well-known farmers from Huntland and both now deceased, served in the U.S. Army during WWII.
The Russell family graciously shared the following composition, authored by their daughter about J.B. Russell, referred to as her Uncle J.
“My great-uncle J.B. Russell, brother of my grandfather Clyde Russell, was in the U.S. Army in WWII from January 1943 until he was discharged in February 1946.
“Prior to joining the Army, Uncle J.B. told me he was working in Virginia in 1942 for a man named Marvin Ray building airports for the government with his older brother, Dee Russell, who was a concrete finisher.
“’Uncle J,’ as he is known to his nieces and nephews, was exempt from being drafted because he was working on government projects, but he decided to join the Army because other young men his age were going into the Army.
Induction & Training
“Uncle J. was inducted into the Army at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. When they asked him what the initials “J.B.” stood for, Uncle J told them that they stood for nothing — that was his name. It was hard to convince them that was the truth. Finally, they asked him what his father’s name was and he told them John.
“They told him from now on in the Army his first name was John.
“From there, he was sent to near San Luis Obispo, California, for training that lasted about three months. Next, he was sent to Camp Rucker near Ozark, Alabama, for advanced training.
“After advanced training, his outfit went by convoy to Lebanon, Tennessee, for about three months. On the meandering route, the convoy stopped for breaks. One of those stops was centered in front of his father’s home on the old Huntland-Elora Road in Franklin County. The convoy was about a mile long.
“Near Lebanon, Uncle J’s outfit held maneuvers for about three months. From Lebanon, they walked and camped the entire way back south to Camp Forrest near Tullahoma. From Camp Forrest, Uncle J’s outfit was sent to Camp Buckner near Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina.
“Uncle J was in pretty well with the captain and managed to get three-day passes to ‘visit his sisters.’ The captain once told him he had more sisters than anyone else. That might have been the truth as Uncle J is one of 14 children, including eight sisters.
“The captain once gave Uncle J two three-day passes to bus home because it was impossible to make it to Huntland and back to Raleigh, North Carolina, in three days. On that trip home, Uncle J was briefly held by military police in Chattanooga while they verified one of the three-day passes by phone with his captain. One of the military policemen told Uncle J he might make it home, but he couldn’t possibly make it back to Camp Buckner on time, not knowing Uncle J had the second three-day pass.
“Uncle J said he was in the 35th Infantry Division, which was a marching division for parades. Their badge worn on their shoulders was a cartwheel.
“About April 13, 1944, he thinks, his outfit was sent by ship to Liverpool, England. From there, they went by train to a small town where they trained until he was sent in the second wave of the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944.
“He remembered climbing down the side of the ship on a rope ladder into a boat called an “LST.”
“He said it was late afternoon and the tide had moved out. They relieved the 29th Division — or what was left of them — as they had been mostly wiped out. All one soldier already entrenched said to him was, ‘Soldier, watch them 88s.’
“The captain was a rookie. He led Uncle J’s outfit single file down a big ditch forward instead of having them spread out side-by-side. They went so far, they were surrounded and both German 88s and Allied artillery were firing on them with friendly fire killing many. The 8.8 cm flak is a German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery, developed in the 1930s. It was widely used by Germany throughout World War II, and was one of the most recognized German weapons of that conflict.
“Uncle J and his comrade, Ham Morrow, found the captain in a sage field alone and they crawled to him. They asked the captain if they could go back and get our artillery stopped. He said: ‘I’m not going to give you an order to. If you go, you will be on your own. There are Germans all around us.’
“Uncle J described how French farms were divided by built-up hedgerows in that area, which gave them something to hide behind. They crawled to the first hedgerow. When Morrow looked over it, a bullet took his helmet off, but did not injure him.
“They finally made it back to where they had dropped their duffle bags. The duffle bags were blown up by artillery fire. After dark, they found an artillery unit, which called other artillery units and stopped the firing that was landing near and on Uncle J’s platoon.
“Uncle J said he and Morrow stayed there the rest of the night and worked their way back to their respective platoons early the next morning. Uncle J said he never got a medal for that action.
“Uncle J was a sharpshooter and he was assigned a Browning Automatic Rifle that weighed 21 pounds with all equipment.
“Once they were trying to run away from incoming artillery, he said he ran right past another soldier carrying a much lighter load. Uncle J said he lightened his load by throwing away the tripod and spike that were part of the BAR.
“He said he fired 90 percent of the time from the hip with his foot on the strap to keep from increasingly firing up.
Rejoining the platoon
“After he rejoined his platoon, Uncle J remembered that they came to a house occupied by German soldiers who began firing on his platoon. His lieutenant called for 81 mortars to be fired on the house. The first mortar missed, but the second blew the house apart.
“Uncle J’s platoon ended the town of Torigony, France, without firing a shot, but after they were there, the bells started ringing in the church tower and artillery started coming in. They had to wade the river out. They were ordered back into the town the next day, but from then on tanks shot the bell towers out.
“Uncle J said he already had the infantry badge, which paid $10 more per month, but he was awarded a medal and a combat infantry badge which paid an additional $15 a month.
“Although they were infantry and did much walking, there were times when they could ride Patton’s tanks.
“At night, they would dig foxholes a short distance in front of the tanks and guard them. If anything was heard, they would alert a soldier inside the tank. Sometimes at night, the machine gunners in tanks fired a few rounds into the darkness to make sure no enemy was sneaking up on them. One night, they heard something coming through a wheat field. It turned out to be cows.
“The Quartermaster Corps was supposed to bring them food, gasoline, uniforms, ammunition and other necessities, but they often failed to deliver to the front lines. There were rumors that these things were sold to the local people. The infantry and Patton’s tanks took the city of Metz near the France/German border, but Patton’s tanks were running out of gasoline and they had to pull back.
“Uncle J said he was wounded in the Argonne Forest near Metz on Oct. 13, 1944, after having been in combat 127 days.
“He said he felt pain in his left hand and his weapon went flying. He didn’t know if it was a bullet or shrapnel.
“Uncle J said he walked back until he found a jeep and rode back to a field hospital where he stayed for three days. Then he said he was put on a C-47 plane to fly back to England. The plane took off from a make-shift runway and barely cleared the trees.
“Shortly after takeoff, Uncle J said he looked out the window of the plane, saw oil on the engine and the motor quit. They landed and another engine was put on the plane. The pilot said he could have flown to England on one engine, but he couldn’t chance a landing after dark because if the landing wasn’t perfect, he wouldn’t have the necessary power to pull up and try again.
“Uncle J said he stayed in a hospital in England for three or four weeks. He was a walking patient and helped a nurse nicknamed ‘Mud’ because she would tell the wounded soldiers every time they did anything she deemed wrong that their name was ‘Mud.’
“Uncle J found out a hospital ship was headed back to the U.S. and he convinced Mud to convince the doctor that he should be placed on that ship. Uncle J said he was playing cards, holding some in his wounded hand when the doctor came along, complimented him for using his wounded hand and said he was rewarding him by placing him on the hospital ship home.
“When the ship landed at Staten Island, New York, the wounded shoulders were met by an old man who gave each two $20 bills as they got off the ship.
“They were told they were going to be shipped to a hospital nearest to home, but Uncle J was sent to San Francisco to help blind soldiers because he was a walking patient. There, he was finally discharged in February 1946 with three years and one month of service. Uncle J received 18 medals while he was in service.”