Lance, Waddy & Oklahoma Go to War
Ponca City native Waddy Young and the famous Time magazine photo of him and his crew emulating the nose art on the B-29 Superfortress bomber "Waddy's Wagon" that he piloted against the Japanese. Aviation and football legend Waddy, a major character in my upcoming historical novel Mustang, was in real life one of the greatest military heroes in Oklahoma history.
World War II was the greatest cataclysm in history. It reached across the world on land, at sea, and through the air. It wiped out between sixty and eighty million people, far more than any other disaster, approximately 3% of the earth’s population. It virtually destroyed some nations, raised up others, doomed still others, and freed millions of oppressed and enslaved human beings.
It is the great crusade into which Oklahoma buddies and college football teammates Lance Roark and Waddy Young plunge as American aviators in my upcoming historical novel Mustang (Tiree Press), which you can now pre-order. Many of you met Lance and Waddy in the Will Rogers Medallion Award-winning 2017 novel Shortgrass. In some ways, these books comprise my own written testament of life, though they are novels that take place in a different era. They depict what I have learned, or still ponder, about love and loss, history and heroes, patriotism and war, inner conflict and unanswered questions, the American character, and God.
I hope you will come and follow Lance and Waddy’s exploits. Laugh with them, weep over them, and cheer for them, as I have. More about World War II in just a moment. First, here are some Mustang-related links:
READ the first three chapters: DOWNLOAD PDF
COME join me at these Mustang book signings: SEE DATES
World War II cut down thousands of Oklahoma's most promising young and not-so-young men, and wounded and/or shortened the lives of many thousands more of them. Parents buried their sons, wives lost their husbands, and children grew up without their fathers, or with (or without) fathers who survived the war, but not intact, whether physically, psychologically, or both.
Thrilling scenes also animated the era, feats consecrated in the American memory then and even now. These included the Big Band and Swing music of Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Benny Goodman, former Oklahoma City resident Count Basie, OKC native Charlie Christian, and others. Also, the unparalleled sacrifice and total effort of nearly the entire population to turn the tide of worldwide conflict in which America’s opponents were triumphant over all comers prior to its entrance and even for a long awhile after it.
And, the legendary battles and deeds at locations now hallowed in the national soul. The unforgettable “V” days when first Nazi Germany and then Imperial Japan surrendered. The unmatched post-war commercial innovation and economic boom that propelled the U.S.A. into the greatest financial and political power in history.
Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVE) mechanics working on a combat plane at the Naval Air Technical Training Center (South Base) in Norman, now part of the OU campus. Courtesy Sue Schrems.
By far the greatest hardships that wartime Oklahomans faced on the home front concerned their worries over loved ones in harm’s way and separated from them by oceans, continents, and war. Cushing native Ruth Sullivan’s Navy midshipman husband served overseas on a combat ship that the Japanese sunk in shark-infested waters. Agonizing time passed before she learned he had survived. Her summary of the emotional trauma experienced by hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma civilians on the home front during the war contrasts dramatically from the mythic nostalgia of us who were not even alive during the war: “Those were awful days.”
Oklahomans on the home front contributed to the war effort in many ways. Housewives grew much of their family’s food during the spring and summer in “Victory Gardens.” Nearly everyone contributed to War Bond drives, scrap material collections, and Red Cross efforts. They also helped shoulder three crucial efforts that tipped the scales of victory toward the Allies over their determined Axis foes. These were:
1) manufacturing plants that produced war-related machines and equipment
2) the petroleum industry whose chemical inventions, oil wells, refineries, and pipelines fueled Allied armies, navies, and air forces, and ultimately spelled doom for the German and Japanese militaries, whose engines ran dry
3) the farm and ranch crops and stock that fed “our boys,” even as the Axis armies and civilians gradually ran out of food
One-eighth Osage, Oklahoman Clarence Tinker was the first U.S. Lieutenant General with Native ancestry. In June 1942, he personally commanded a bomber attack against the Japanese during the pivotal American victory at Midway. His LB-30 bomber (forerunner of the B-24 Liberator) went down on the mission and he became the first U.S. general to die in the war. A few months later, the Army Air Corps changed the name of the Oklahoma City Air Depot to Tinker Army Air Field in his honor. It became the world’s largest air base.
The Greatest Generation
Scores of Oklahoma women themselves left the home front to serve in the Army’s (including Army Air Corps) Women’s Army Corps (WAC) or the Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVE). Oklahoma A&M (now OSU) established a WAVE training center. WACS and WAVES followed U.S. military forces onto every battlefront in the war.
These women performed a vast array of duties, including as medical and surgical technicians, telephone operators, radio operators, teletype operators, cryptographers, cryptanalysts, photographic experts, weather forecasters, weather observers, electrical specialists, sheet metal workers, link trainer instructors, control tower specialists, airplane mechanics, photo-laboratory technicians, photo interpreters, and radio mechanics, installers, and administrators. They trained men in field artillery and code sending and receiving, rigged parachutes, processed troops and mail, and served in numerous capacities within the Medical Department.
Oklahoma’s warm climate and friendly relations between President Franklin Roosevelt, its Democratic Congressional delegation, and Governor-business titan Robert S. Kerr helped spur a flurry of military base and manufacturing construction across the state. This included twenty-seven new army and army air corps bases and thirteen naval bases in the landlocked state. Also, Douglas, Spartan, and other plants employed tens of thousands of people and produced everything from giant C-47 “Gooney Bird” cargo planes to gunpowder and ammunition. Air bases across the state trained fighter and bomber pilots for the U.S., Britain during the Battle of Britain, and other Allied nations.
Some of the most famous naval and air exploits of the twentieth century unfolded on and around ships commanded by Oklahoman Marc “Pete” Mitscher. He commanded the U.S.S. Hornet aircraft carrier against Japan when it launched the Doolittle Raid and at the historic Battle of Midway. He was responsible for the tactical planning and direction of most major American carrier operations in 1944-45. According to historian Craig L. Symonds, “Here was the man who…would command the Fast Carrier Task Force that led the American drive across the Pacific to Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and became known as ‘The Magnificent Mitscher.’”
The Sooner State hosted over 20,000 German Prisoners of War in thirty-two camps. The POWs worked for pay on farms and in other jobs, replacing Oklahomans fighting the prisoners’ countrymen overseas. They received good treatment and, upon request, guest lectures from OU professors on such topics as history and democratic government. According to historian Brad Agnew, “Ironically, some Germans interned in Oklahoma look back on their imprisonment with nostalgia and periodically return to reminisce with their fellow prisoners and guards.”
Long after the war, this author witnessed a living demonstration of the hallowed covenant forever melding together “The Greatest Generation” through their shared sacrifice in the conflict. Helen Dwyer and her family dined one evening at the legendary Junior’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, owned by her OKC Central High classmate Junior Simon, a World War II navy veteran, shortly before Dwyer and Simon’s deaths. The two old friends laughed and reminisced about their shared school days. The conversation gradually turned toward brave classmates who never returned from the war. Both their throats grew tight, tears filled their eyes, and a tender hug concluded their final conversation.
Rough and rowdy Maysville native Jake McNiece (right) led the elite “Filthy Thirteen” 101st Airborne paratrooper demolition unit that inspired the iconic film The Dirty Dozen. In four legendary parachute jumps, they destroyed German reinforcement bridges at Normandy, helped save their fellow Screaming Eagle “Battered B------s of Bastogne,” and wreaked havoc behind enemy lines for a year. Drawing on his part-Choctaw mother’s heritage, he and his men gave themselves Mohawk haircuts and adorned their faces with war paint before jumps. “I jumped in with twenty men and came out with two,” he said of his unit’s epic D-Day exploits.
Oklahomans in Battle
Oklahomans suffered through the marathon struggle to defeat Germany, Japan, and Italy like all Americans did, and its fighting men left an indelible legacy of bravery and sacrifice. More than six thousand died and eleven thousand others sustained wounds. Most Oklahoma servicemen shipped overseas for little pay, away from family and friends for months or even years. Multitudes of them endured malaria-ridden islands and jungles or freezing forests and mountains, and experienced the terrors of combat and fear of maiming, capture, or death.
They participated in legendary deeds of valor such as scaling the Normandy cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, crashing their torpedo planes into the Japanese carriers at Midway, holding the line at Bastogne, running the murderous aerial gauntlet at the Ploesti oil refineries, and winning history’s greatest naval battle at Leyte Gulf. The Sooner State produced nearly the highest number of Congressional Medals of Honor winners, proportionate to its population, of any state in the Union.
Tecumseh native Ruben Rivers was the most famous member of the 761st Tank Battalion or “Black Panthers,” the first such African-American unit ever to roll forth on foreign fields. He was one of seven blacks to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II. He received his award posthumously, more than half a century after he went down shooting it out with the Germans as he covered his unit’s fire-blasted retreat.
More than half-a-million Oklahoman men volunteered or answered wartime enlistment calls. This represented nearly 25% of the state’s entire population, including women, children, and senior citizens. Thousands volunteered prior to the war for the 45th Division of the National Guard, based in Oklahoma City’s Lincoln Park armory. Thus began its pilgrimage into legend as the famed “Thunderbirds,” named for the powerful bird of American Indian lore whose various movements supposedly generated wind, thunder, lightning, and storms.
The 45th saw five-hundred-eleven days of combat in World War II. They stormed the beaches of Sicily, fought at Salerno, Anzio, St. Maxine, and Alsace, crossed the Rhine, helped take Munich, and liberated the Nazis’ infamous Dachau death camp. Nine Thunderbirds received the Medal of Honor, including Broken Arrow native and Creek Indian Ernest Childers, and Long native and Cherokee Indian Jack C. Montgomery.
Readers in the future will search long before finding a chapter more brilliant than that written by the quill that was dipped in the blood of the Thunderbirds.
—General H. J. D. Meyer
OKC’s Helen Miller Dwyer and hundreds of thousands of other Oklahomans served America’s crusade for freedom on the homefront.
Longtime President K. S. "Boots" Adams and Bartlesville-based Phillips Petroleum Company made some of the most historic contributions to the war effort of any company in America. They spearheaded an audacious national program to replace America’s southeast Asia supply of rubber, crucial to military victory, which the Japanese had cut off. They also perfected the process that enabled the production of high-octane aviation fuel. This boosted the power of American aircraft such as the incomparable P-51 Mustang fighter plane, and finally helped provide them with the winning edge over the determined and battle-hardened Axis powers. President Dwight Eisenhower painted this portrait of Adams in appreciation for his and Phillips' crucial contributions to helping Eisenhower and his men win the war in the European Theater.
Oklahoma Indian “Codetalkers” played a crucial role in winning World War II. They communicated important battle line messages in their Native languages. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever translated them. Choctaw Schlict Billy’s (pictured) audacious capture of a German pillbox began the Allied breaking of the Nazis’ vaunted Siegfried Line late in the war. A devout Baptist deacon from Scipio, Billy was wounded four times, troubled by those near-mortal injuries the rest of his life, and won both the Bronze and Silver Stars. He used the frequent pain his shrapnel caused him as “a reminder of the battles the Lord had so mercifully” brought him through.
45th Infantry Division Chaplain Lt. Col. William King preaches to the Thunderbirds during Christmas Day services in Italy, 1943.
(Above and below) Downtown OKC the day that Japan surrendered and World War II ended. Courtesy The Oklahoman.