A Brief History of Our Involvement
It was during the early morning hours of September 2, 1939, 75 years ago, while most Laurens Countians were still asleep that the British government declared war on Germany because of its unwarranted invasion of Poland. World War II began. Officially, the United States remained neutral. Despite our country’s detached stance, locally Laurens County men continued training at the National Guard Armory in anticipation of the inevitable conflict.
Dublin and Laurens County once again stepped forward and sent thousands of young men into military service during World War II. Scores of Laurens County boys joined the National Guard, which was attached to the 121st U.S. Infantry division. The Guard mobilized in September of 1940 into Federal service.
Alta Mae Hammock and Brancy Horne were the first women to join the W.A.A.C.. Marayan Smith Harris was the first woman to join the WAVES. Louise Dampier also served as a yeoman in the U.S. Navy. Seaman Elbert Brunson, Jr. was onboard the U.S.S. Greer on September 4, 1941. The destroyer was the first American destroyer to fire upon the dreaded German U-boat submarines in an incident which accelerated the country’s declaration of war against Germany. Despite strong support from all the communities of Central Georgia and Cong. Carl Vinson, the powerful chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, the federal government denied the location of a naval air training station on the Oconee River just below the city due to the lack of a large labor force and the heavy infestation of mosquitos in the area.
Before the United States officially entered the war, Lester F. Graham, a Dublin marine, was among a thousand U.S. Marines assigned to protect American interests in Shanghai, China which was under attack by the Japanese army in the summer of 1937.
Several Laurens Countians were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Marjorie Hobbs Wilson and her husband were eyewitnesses to the bombing. Also at Pearl Harbor on the “Day of Infamy” were George Dewey Senn, William Drew, Jr., Bascom Ashley, Walter Camp, Joel Wood, Harold Wright, Charles Durden, Hardy Blankenship, Rowland Ellis, Wade Jackson, Nathan Graham, Obie Cauley and Claxton Mullis. Lts. William C. Thompson, Jr. and Everett Hicks were serving in the Philippines and Woody Dominy was stationed on Wake Island. Mess Attendant 1st Class Albert Rozar served aboard the U.S.S. Gudgeon in the first submarine patrol into Japanese waters.
Alton Hyram Scarborough, of the D.H.S. Class of '37, was the first of one hundred and nine casualties of the war. Robert Werden, Jr. loved to fly and was so anxious to fly planes in World War II that he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the United States declared war, he joined the Army Air Force, only to be shot down and killed in the early years of the war.
Capt. Bobbie E. Brown of Laurens County was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in the assault on Crucifix Hill in Aachen, Germany. Capt. Brown, a career non- commissioned officer, personally led the attack on German positions, killing over one hundred Germans and being wounded three times during the battle. Capt. Brown was the first Georgian ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor, along with eight Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars. At the end of the war, Captain Brown was the oldest company commander in the United States Army and first in length of service. Paratrooper Kelso Horne was pictured on the cover of Life during the invasion of Normandy. Lt. Horne, a member of the famed 82nd Airborne Division and one of the oldest paratroopers in the U.S. Army, parachuted behind German lines near St. Mere Eglise in the night time hours before the amphibious invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Ensign Shelton Sutton, Jr., a native of Brewton and a former center for Georgia Tech, was killed while serving aboard the U.S.S. Juneau, along with the famous Sullivan brothers. Nearly two years later in 1944, the U.S. Navy commissioned the U.S.S. Sutton in his memory. His teammate Aviator Wex Jordan, an all-Southeastern guard for Georgia Tech in 1941 and Tech’s Most Valuable Player, was killed in an air accident while training in San Diego on Veteran’s Day in 1943.
Like the fictional Captain John Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Dublin and Laurens County teachers left the classroom to fight for their country. Robert Colter, Jr., who had been teaching Vocational-Agricultural classes at Cadwell High School was killed on February 20, 1945 in Germany. Captain Henry Will Jones, the Vocational - Agricultural teacher and football coach at Dexter High School and a paratrooper, was killed at Peleliu Island in the South Pacific in October 18, 1944. In recognition of his exemplary valor, Capt. Jones was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Lt. Lucian Bob Shuler, a former Cadwell High School basketball coach, was an ace, having shot down seven Japanese planes in combat. Captain Shuler was awarded eleven Distinguished Flying Crosses and twelve Air Medals. Cpt. William A. Kelley, a former Dublin High School coach, was flying the “Dauntless Dotty” when it crashed into the sea on June 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress was the first B-29 to bomb Tokyo. Kelley and his crew, who flew in a bomber named “The Lucky Irish,” were the first crew in the Pacific to complete 30 missions. They were returning home to headline the 7th War Bond Drive when the accident occurred. Randall Robertson and James Hutchinson, both only a year or so out of Dublin High School, were killed several weeks apart on the same beach on Iwo Jima in 1945.
Hubert Wilkes and Jack Thigpen survived the fatal attack on the “U.S.S. Yorktown” at the Battle of Midway. John L. Tyre volunteered for six months hazardous duty in southeast Asia in an outfit dubbed “Merrill’s Marauders.” The Marauders, the first ground soldiers to see action in World War II, fought through jungles filled with Japanese soldiers, unbearable heat and slithering snakes. Only one out six managed to make it all way through the war.
Lt. Colonel James D. Barnett, Col. Charles Lifsey, Col. George T. Powers, III, and Lt. Colonel J.R. Laney, former residents of Dublin and graduates of West Point, were cited for their actions in India and Europe. Laney was a member of the three-man crew of the Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster, the world’s fastest transcontinental plane, when it crashed into a Washington, D.C. suburb in December 1945. Lt. Col. Laney survived the crash to complete a distinguished thirty year career in the Army.
James Adams, Morton C. Mason, Wilkins Smith, Russell M. Daley, Gerald Anderson, Marshall Jones, Robert L. Horton, Loyest B. Chance, Needham Toler, William L. Padgett, Joseph E. Joiner, W.B. Tarpley, Owen Collins, Loy Jones, Thurston Veal, James B. Bryan, James T. Daniel, Cecil Wilkes and others were surviving in P.O.W. camps in Germany, while Alton Watson, James W. Dominy, and Alton Jordan were held prisoner by the Japanese. Lt. Peter Fred Larsen, a prisoner of the Japanese army, was killed by American planes when being transported to the Japanese mainland in an unmarked freighter. Future Dubliner Tommy Birdsong was digging coal in a Japanese coal mine when an atomic bomb near Nagasaki was dropped. Earlier he survived the infamous "Bataan Death March." Other future Dubliners who survived the Bataan Death March were William Wallace, A. Deas Coburn, and Felix Powell.
Commander Robert Braddy, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, was awarded the Navy Cross, our nation’s second highest honor for naval heroism, for his actions in North Africa in November of 1942. Rear Admiral Braddy retired from the service in 1951. Captain William C. Thompson was awarded a Silver Star, two Gold Stars, a Navy Cross and a Bronze Star for his outstanding naval submarine service. Captain Thompson was the executive officer aboard the submarine Bowfin, which was credited with sinking the second highest Japanese tonnage on a single war patrol. Thompson was aboard the U.S.S. Sealion when it was struck by Japanese planes at Cavite, Philippines. The submarine was the first American submarine to be lost in World War II. Both men are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Captain Thompson’s first cousin, Sgt. Lester Porter of Dublin, led the first invading forces over the Danube River in nearly two millennia. Marine Corporal James W. Bedingfield, of Cadwell, was awarded a Silver Star by Admiral Chester Nimitz for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the Japanese at Namur Island, Kwajalein Atoll, on February 6, 1944. His kinsman, Capt. Walter H. Bedingfield, was awarded a Silver Star for heroism in setting up a field hospital in advance of American lines at Normandy on D-Day. T. Sgt. Thurman W. Wyatt was awarded a Silver Star for heroism when he assumed command of his tank platoon following the wounding of the commander and guided it to safety. Tech. Sgt. Luther Word was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for heroism, just prior to his being killed in action. Lt. Paul Jimmy Scarboro was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry as a pilot of a Super Fortress in the Pacific Ocean. Sgt. Frank Zetterower was awarded the Silver Star for heroism when he was killed in action while trying to rescue wounded soldiers.
Captain Alvin A. Warren, Jr., of Cadwell, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying 70 missions in the Indo-China Theater night and day through impassable mountain ranges and high clouds. Walter D. Warren, Jr. was a member of the famed Flying Tigers in China-Burma-India Theater. Flight officer Emil E. Tindol also received the same award, just days before he was killed in action while “flying the hump” - a term used for flying over the gigantic mountain ranges of India and Burma. For his battle wounds and other feats of courage and bravery, Lt. Clifford Jernigan was awarded the Purple Heart, an Air Medal and three Oak Leaf clusters in 1944. Lt. Garrett Jones was a highly decorated pilot who participated in the first daylight bombings of Germany. Calvert Hinton Arnold was promoted to Brigadier General in 1945. Lt. Col. Ezekiel W. Napier of Laurens County, a graduate of West Point, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and retired from the Air Force in 1959 as a Brigadier General. The "Pilot's Pilot," Bud Barron of Dublin, was credited with the second most number of air miles during the war, mainly by ferrying aircraft to and from the front lines. Barron has been inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. Dublin native Lt. William L. Sheftall, Jr. flew 74 missions in Italy and was awarded the Silver Star for heroism. Sidney Augustus Scott, the Chief Engineer of the SS Charles Morgan, was awarded the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service medal for his heroism in the landing of men and material on the beaches of Normandy just after D-Day.
PFC Wesley Hodges was a member of the 38th Mechanized Calvary Recon Squad, the first American squad to enter Paris on August 25, 1944. Seaman James T. Sutton survived the sinking of the “U.S.S. Frederick C. Davis,” the last American ship sunk by the German Navy. The 121st Infantry of the Georgia National Guard, which was headquartered in Dublin until 1938 and of which Company K and 3rd Battalion HQ Co. were located in Dublin, won a Presidential Unit Citation for its outstanding performance of their duty in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest during Thanksgiving 1944. Edward Towns was cited for his meritorious service to the submarine forces of the United States. Curtis Beall, after being voted by his classmates as the most outstanding senior at the University of Georgia in 1943, joined his brother Millard in the United States Marine Corps. Capt. John Barnett, a twenty-one-year-old Dubliner and twice a winner of the Bronze Star Medal for heroism, was credited with being the youngest executive officer in the United States Army in 1944. Lt. Arlie W. Claxton won the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943. These are only a few stories of the thousands of Laurens County's heroes of World War II. Charles Yarborough and Reuben Whitfield were among the sailors who witnessed Japanese officials sign the official surrender agreement aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
Major Herndon “Don” M. Cummings was a bomber pilot in the 477th Bomber Group. Though his unit was never saw active duty overseas, Major Cummings and his group were known as a group of units collectively called the “Tuskegee Airmen.” Cummings was incarcerated along with a hundred other fellow pilots for attempting to integrate an all-white officers club at Freeman Field in Indiana in 1945. Through the efforts of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and the actions of a newly sworn President Harry Truman, the pilots were freed and later exonerated of all charges against them. Cummings remained in the reserves for twenty years after his retirement from active duty. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush and was an honored guest at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Two other Tuskegee Airman who were raised in Laurens County were Col. Marion Rodgers and Col. John Whitehead. Col. Rodgers was a squadron commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron after the war. Col. Whitehead was the first African American test pilot in the Air Force and was one of the few Tuskegee Airmen to fly in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Laurens Countians supported the war effort on the home front. A State Guard unit was formed by over-age and under-age men. Everyone from school children to grandmothers did their part. Many Laurens Countians commuted to Warner Robins and Macon to work for the war effort. Laurens Countians opened their homes to soldiers from Camp Wheeler, near Macon and British R.A.F. cadets from Cochran Field in Macon. Angelo Catechis bought war bonds with his life's savings to help rescue his family in Greece. The women of Laurens County worked diligently on the home front. The women made bandages, surgical dressings and sponges by the scores of thousands, along with knitted garments. Carolyn Hall, blind since birth, was one of the most proficient knitters in the community. Laurens Countians contributed hundred of hours of time to the Red Cross, U.S.O. and numerous Civilian Defense programs. Bessye Parker Devereaux was the first woman in the Charleston, S.C. shipyards to be awarded the Outstanding Worksmanship Award by President Roosevelt. In the summer of 1944, the U.S. government honored the citizens and Laurens County for their contributions to the war effort by naming one of the reconditioned "Liberty Ships" the "U.S.S. Laurens."
When the final tallies were counted, one hundred and three Laurens Countians lost their lives during the deadliest war in the history of the world. Many, many more were wounded. Life here would never be the same. In an ironic way, the war changed everything for the better. Economic opportunities, with the establishment of the U.S. Naval Hospital and J.P. Stevens and the influx of thousands of new residents, catapulted the county into an economic boom which still continues day.