A Repository of Local Heroes from the Greatest Generation
Contributed by Dr. John Massey Davis, Program Coordinator (25 October 2006)
The Atlanta World War II Round Table was organized in 1986 to hear and record the war experiences of World War II and to pass on to posterity the knowledge of World War II and the price – human and material – that was paid by our nation for the preservation of freedom in the United States and the world.
The format for the organization was to meet monthly over lunch and ask a member or guest speaker to prepare a 30-35 minute presentation on their experiences during World War II. The presentations were to include experiences on the front lines, behind the front lines and on the home front.
The original group of twenty some members met a restaurant called the 57th Fighter Wing, whose design was a French farm house filled with World War II artifacts. As word spread, more veterans and people interested in World War II joined in the monthly fellowship meetings. The organization has continued to grow with over 250 members on the roll call and an average attendance each month of 100.
In 2006, the organization celebrated its twentieth anniversary. During this time the membership has heard and recorded over two hundred experiences from individuals who were active participants during World War II. These experiences have been recorded on DVD’s and submitted to the Atlanta History Center’s Library where they will be available for future generations of Americans.
The uniqueness of the organization, which meets on the third Thursday of each month, September through June, is the diversity of its membership. There are retired Army Generals, Navy Captains, Air Force Pilots, Master Sergeants, Navy Chiefs, and most importantly, the Buck Privates, the Navy Seamen and Air Force enlisted men and women who were and are the backbone of all military branches. Each month, these individuals meet to share their personal stories. They are no longer separated by rank or seniority since all are “seniors”. They meet as friends and comrades with a common story to share and remember.
Our speakers have included Pearl Harbor Survivors and one (Jim Starnes) served as Officer of The Deck aboard the battleship Missouri at the time of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945.
We have had speakers who fought at Anzio, Midway, Luzon, Leyte Gulf, China, Egypt, France, Germany and one person who entered Hiroshima shortly after the first atomic bomb was dropped. In fact, another of our members, Denis Payne, was an RAF fighter pilot who flew combat missions during the battle at Dunkirk and throughout the “Battle of Briton”. Later, Denis was transferred to the U.S. to assist in the training of our fighter pilots.
Other speakers were the liberators of concentration camps such as Matthew Nesbitt at Bergen-Belsen and Harry Davis at Dachau while several speakers were POW’s in German and Japanese camps. Bert Schwarz was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Japanese “Hell Ship”. We have had speakers who were survivors of the Holocaust and even a former German army officer, A. Von Schmeling, who later served as a German Consul in Atlanta. The Atlanta metropolitan area is a repository of WWII heroes. General Louis W. Truman (USA Retired) was aide to General Short, the Army Commander at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He recalled first hand the events leading up the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Mack Abbott was a young Marine private at Pearl Harbor on December 7th and may have fired the first shot in retaliation at the Japanese planes attacking his base. General Ray Davis (USMC Retired) served as a combat Marine in WWII and was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Korean War. Master Sergeant Carl Beck (USA retired) trained at Camp Toccoa in North Georgia and served with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, parachuting into Normandy on D-Day and again on the 50th and 60th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 invasion.
Theodore “Dutch” J. Van Kirk was the navigator on the “Enola Gay” when it dropped the bomb at Hiroshima, Japan. Christa Karoline Peterson was a young child inside Germany during WWII who experienced the bombing and fighting surrounding her village. In August 1941, Lt. Colonel Charles Dryden (USAF Retired) was selected for aviation cadet training at Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama. He was in the second class of Black pilots to graduate in the history of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Private Fred King landed on the beaches of Anzio where the German army surrounded the troops and Fred found himself trapped under a German Panzer tank for several hours during heavy bombardment. Neal Harris, D.D.S., was a fighter pilot over Germany when he was shot down, injured and ultimately captured and imprisoned as a POW. Bill Owens served on the U.S.S. Nevada at Normandy and at Iwo Jima and fought off Kamikaze suicide fighters during several attacks. Doug Wilmer was an Airborne Glider Pilot who flew a glider during the Market Garden Mission. General Harold Dye was an artillery officer who served not only during WWII but also during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Robert L. (Bob) Jones was a C-47 pilot with the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron in the China/Burma/India Theater. Calvin P. Stephenson, Sr. was a Marine private who served in the Pacific fighting the Japanese and then was ultimately sent to China to repatriate the Japanese and gather their weapons, all the while facing the resistance of the Communist Chinese invasion.
Several members of the Atlanta World War II Round Table are women who served during those war years. Kay Secrist is a charter member of the organization and worked as a teenager at the ultra secret Oak Ridge laboratory during the development of the first atomic bomb. Ann Villwock served in the Navy as a WAVE at several duty stations. Mary G. Rice was long time secretary to General Jimmy Doolittle. Helen K. Denton was a WAC typist for Eisenhower’s invasion plans. Katherine Reibman was also a WAC who served in various roles during her tenure. Patricia A. Nagle’s father was an officer in the Navy at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics on that day. Mary Lou Austin was a USO volunteer in Georgia during the war. Marion S. Hodgson was one of the few female pilots of World War II who flew the fighters and bombers from the factories to the Army airfields across the nation. Pola Arbiser was a Jewish child living in Europe where a non-Jewish family hid her during the German occupation.
Janice M. Benario worked on the “Ultra” which was instrumental in breaking the German code that became the ally’s secret weapon in the battle of the Atlantic.
A few of the more unusual experiences of our members are those of Richard Sagar who reported on the Punjabi Infantry Regiment and Royal Australian Air Force. Dean Spratlin reported on WWII submarine patrols in the Pacific and Dr. Joseph Girardeau reported on combat medical care in the Korean War. We had Werner Schmidt talk about the war in Poland, France, Russia and Africa as seen through the eyes of a German soldier. George Sossenko joined the Free French Allies as a sixteen-year-old Frenchman and fought with the Allies in Egypt, Libya, Italy and Southern France.
During the past twenty years the Atlanta World War II Round Table has recorded the experiences of seventy-five Army, twenty-seven Navy, forty-eight Air Force, eight Marine and forty-four military related stories.
Although many of our World War II veterans are now entering their eightieth year of life or in some cases nearing their nineties, the membership of the organization continues to grow due to the younger people of Atlanta who have a special interest in the history of World War II. At last count we had 296 registered members. Our members continue to make presentations before school and college groups, participate in parades and exhibitions and most importantly encourage and demonstrate pride in our country and its armed forces.