By Lara Newcomer, historian, and William McWhorter, THC Military Historian
In May 2011, THC Military Historian William McWhorter and Lara Newcomer, a contracted historian for our Texas in World War II initiative, had the opportunity of a lifetime for an oral historian: the chance to interview four living World War II veterans, all brothers, during one day. As part of the THC’s Texas in World War II Initiative, McWhorter and Newcomer interviewed the Fitter brothers, who were born in Altus, Oklahoma—Phillip, in 1919; Frank, in 1922; Jean, in 1924; and Sy, in 1926.
Phil, the oldest brother, had attended Altus Junior College for two years in the late 1930s, when he heard about the Civilian Pilot Training program. Being a pilot interested him, so he jumped at the chance to get a private pilot’s license. He entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941. When the U.S. formally entered World War II, Phil became a flight instructor and was ordered to Pecos Army Air Field (AAF) in Reeves County in August 1942. According to Phil, at the beginning the runways at Pecos AAF were just dirt. So much dust was stirred up on takeoff that it was difficult to see, so the instructors would perform takeoffs and then allow the students to fly once they were past the dust. When paving was put in, they managed to get 400 airplanes in and out for training every day. Phil served at Pecos until the base closed in 1945, during which time he met and married the sister of the post’s meteorologist. Ultimately, he would go on to have a long career with the U.S. Air Force, including service in a combat zone during Vietnam, retiring in 1968 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Frank Fitter took a slightly different path than his older brother, Phil. In 1940, Frank was a senior in high school and joined the Oklahoma National Guard 45th Infantry Division—the Thunderbirds. Not long after graduation, his unit was federalized and went on active duty. The Thunderbirds trained at Camp Barkeley in Abilene, where Frank remembered, “how nice it was to have running water.” During his time at Camp Barkeley, Frank noticed how differently officers and enlisted men lived and made up his mind to become an officer. Having lived through the Great Depression, Frank knew that money was important, so when he found out that parachute troops got an extra $100 a month, he decided that parachuting looked like fun. Frank was chosen for the newly forming 101st Airborne Division. After jump school, Frank was sent to Camp McCall, North Carolina, and later to England. In England, the division practiced night jumps. His unit knew they were training for something big—especially when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to have a meal with them, and later Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower came to inspect troops and watch a practice jump.
On June 5, 1944, Frank was jumpmaster on the lead plane flying into France. During his interview, he provided details you don’t normally find in textbooks. Before the mission, their hair was cut short so that medics wouldn’t have to waste time shaving their heads in case of an injury. If you didn’t have the right body position when you jumped, the parachute opening would violently jar your body. Frank spoke about watching a nearby plane disintegrating when it was hit by flak and the feeling of his own plane being shoved sideways by the force of the blast. Once over the drop zone, Frank was the last one in his plane to jump, and when he landed he didn’t see anyone else. One of the more poignant moments of the interview was when he described walking past a line of dead German soldiers. He said, “You know, it’s hard to get a feeling, a real bad feeling, since all they were doing to us over there and all—but you still felt real bad for them.” When discussing later events in 1944, he spoke about protecting the bridge at Arnhem, Netherlands, and the hospitality of the Dutch who had been under German occupation for four years. Before the war was over, Frank would fight in the Battle of the Bulge and be stationed at Berchtesgaden on occupation, where he saw Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. After World War II, he served in the Korean War, and ultimately made his career as a geologist.
Jean Fitter was born in 1924. He was 17 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Jean wanted to join the Marines once he finished high school, but his mother refused to sign the papers. So he went to Colorado State University. Older brother Phil told their mother she should sign Jean’s papers for the U.S. Army Air Corps because he’d eventually be drafted when he turned 19, and there was no way to know which service he’d be drafted into. Jean decided to fly because of his oldest brother Phil’s advice. He went to basic training at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, and then to Lackland Field in San Antonio. After that, he went to Curtis Field outside of Brady, where he learned to fly. Later, Jean would learn to pilot multi-engine aircraft, and was deployed overseas in July 1944 to Italy. After arriving in Naples, he was sent forward and assigned to the 742nd bomb squadron of the 455th bomb group as a B-24 co-pilot. On his last mission as co-pilot, his plane lost an engine, but his crew managed to make it to Italy and belly land on a beach near Pescara. Once he started piloting, his bomber’s first assignment was to attack the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, the main oil supply for Germany at that point in the war. The value of the target was evident in the nearly 500 anti-aircraft guns around the oilfields. Jean would go on to fly 35 missions in Europe. He regrets not writing his parents more often when he was overseas, but says his homecoming was wonderful, and the fact that all four of them came home from the war was really a blessing.
Sylvester, known as Sy, was born in 1926. Just before he turned 18, he read sea stories in the Saturday Evening Post, thought it looked like high adventure, and decided to join the Merchant Marine. He completed seamanship training at Catalina Island, California. His first official assignment was on the Liberty Ship, Henry L. Abbott. The ship loaded lumber in Oregon and Washington and took it to Honolulu. Once the lumber was unloaded, they loaded up trucks and small landing boats, and convoyed with other ships to Saipan and Tinian. However, Sy’s ship did not return with a convoy. He said in his interview, “They weren’t too worried about losing an old Liberty Ship, but they didn’t want to lose the cargo we had on it.” Sy served through the end of World War II and, ironically, was in the Pacific on V-E Day and in the Atlantic on V-J Day. Sy says the best thing about the Merchant Marine was that he went more places and did more things in that two-year period than he did the rest of his life. He said, “Well, it was an interesting time, but it wasn’t all fun and games. It was pretty serious business, that war. I didn’t realize it at the time—when you’re 18 years old, you know, you’re invincible, nothing’s going to hurt you.” When the war was over, he wanted to go to college, but the Merchant Marine didn’t participate in the G.I. Bill program, partly because many of the Merchant Marines were not U.S. citizens. In order to collect the benefits to pay for college, Sy joined the U.S. Army for 18 months and then went to college on the G.I. Bill.
Oldest brother Phil made wine as a hobby, so before they all went off to war, the brothers decided to bury a bottle of the wine so they could dig it up and drink it when they were together again. It was 1947 before Phil, Frank, Jean, and Sy would see each other again. Unfortunately, their celebration was cut short because when they dug up the bottle, it had broken and there was no wine left. They did, however, have each other, as well as the bond of service during wartime. Even though these men share the same family name and fought in the same war, their experiences were unique. When woven together, their oral histories give a unique depth to the story of World War II.
Although the THC’s Texas in World War II oral history training workshop series will conclude in spring 2014, a new oral history training workshop series titled “When the Lone Star State Met the Iron Curtain: Recollections of Texas in the Cold War” launched this summer. The inaugural workshop was held on August 24 at a privately-owned, decommissioned 1960s era Atlas F Missile Silo Complex. Consisting of 12 workshops across the state over the next year, the new workshop series will hopefully mirror the success of the THC’s World War II series of more than 60 workshops, as well as honor Texas’ veterans and home front Cold War stories.
If you like this post, please subscribe to our blog.