Scroll of Honor – Herbert Gregg Easterling

January Sacrifices

It’s unlikely that Herbert Gregg Easterling would have graduated in 1944 even if he had stayed in school.  Easterling, of Florence, arrived on campus as an English major in 1940, a member of the Class of ’44.  The war eclipsed the Clemson careers of these young men as they were called to duty at the end of the 1942-43 academic year.  But by then, Easterling had already been overseas for six months.

The son of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Easterling, Herbert left Clemson in 1941.  He married Frances Smith of Florence and was soon in flight school, learning to fly multi-engine bombers for the Army Air Corps.  By December 1942, he was overseas and flying the famous B-17 Flying Fortress as a member of the 97th Bomb Group.

Easterling joined the group in Algeria where its mission was to support the Allies’ North Africa campaign by striking enemy airfields, harbor facilities and marshalling yards around the Mediterranean Sea.  The 97th supported the July 1943 invasion of Sicily and the invasion of Italy that September.

The 97th established its headquarters at Cerignola, Italy in December 1943 in order to fly long-range missions against targets in Northern Italy, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece.  It was on a mission to the shipping docks at Piraeus, the Aegean Sea port near Athens, Greece, that Easterling and his crew were killed.

On January 11, 1944, First Lieutenant Easterling’s aircraft was lost when it entered turbulent air.  The official accident report listed “prop wash” as the cause of the accident.  Easterling and his crew were reported as missing.  Their remains were later found, but it was impossible to separately identify the remains and so Easterling’s crew was buried together in an American Military Cemetery near Rome.

Sadly, the heartbreak of the war was not over for the Easterling family.  Twelve months later, in January 1945, the family received notice that another son, Sergeant Ben Easterling, a Wofford College alumnus, had been killed in action in France.

Herbert and Ben were remembered in a joint memorial service in August 1949 when Ben’s remains were returned to Florence.  The brothers were survived by their parents, three sisters and a brother.  For more information on Herbert Gregg Easterling see:

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Scroll of Honor – Bill Dillard

Winter War

Written by: Kelly Durham

When we think about winter combat in World War II, most of us recall the Battle of the Bulge and the heroic stand of American forces in surrounded Bastogne.  But before that action, American and Allied forces were already locked in a miserable battle against the Germans, the terrain and the weather in the Hürtgen Forest.  Approximately fifty miles square, the Hürtgen Forest lies just east of the Belgian-German border and beginning in September 1944 was the site of the American Army’s longest-running battle on German territory.  Bill Dillard of Six Mile was in the thick of the fight.

William C. Dillard had enrolled at Clemson as a pre-med major.  Following his graduation in May 1943, instead of proceeding to medical school, Dillard, like the rest of his classmates, was ordered to active duty.  After completing Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia that December, Dillard was commissioned as a second lieutenant.  By August of the following year, Dillard, now married, shipped overseas. He was assigned to Company B of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, 3rd Armored Division.  The 3rd Armored Division had led First Army’s breakout from the hedgerows of Normandy, had crossed the Seine River in late August and on September 12 crossed the border into Germany.  There, it came face-to-face with the fixed fortifications of the Siegfried Line—and its very determined German defenders.

The Hürtgen Forest was a rugged, heavily forested area crossed by poor, winding roads and favorable for the defense.  The Germans made good use of the natural cover and concealment provided by the forest and utilized pillboxes and other fortifications to hold off the advancing Americans.  In addition, rainy, then snowy weather helped to minimize the Allies great airpower advantage.

On December 12, while attacking near Stolberg, Germany, Dillard’s company was hit by “severe artillery, mortar and small arms fire.” An artillery smoke screen further hindered the unit’s movement.  According to Dillard’s Bronze Star citation, “With total disregard for his own personal safety, in the face of heavy enemy fire, Lt. Dillard continuously exposed himself and made his way from squad to squad, personally directing his men to covered positions and giving them encouragement which minimized the amount of confusion.”  Dillard was wounded during the attack and evacuated to a field hospital where he died the following day.  He was twenty-one years old.

Dillard was survived by his wife Wilma, his parents Mr. and Mrs. T. L. Dillard and his sister Eloise, then a student at Furman.  In addition to the Bronze Star, Dillard was awarded the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.  Dillard’s son Billy was born on January 18, 1945 and would follow in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Clemson University in 1965.

Three days after Dillard’s death, the Germans launched their last offensive which soon became known as the Battle of the Bulge.  That effectively ended the Hürtgen campaign as the Allies shifted every available unit north to blunt the German attack.

Historians consider the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest to be a rare German victory that late in the war as the Americans suffered nearly 140,000 casualties from weather, accidents, and enemy fire without seizing strategic objectives.

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Scroll of Honor – Robert Mixon

Ball Turret Gunner

It was the most isolated position on the crew.  Sure, the tail gunner was stuck at the very back of the fuselage beneath the tail section, but at least he could crawl back through the narrow tunnel and into the B-17’s waist when things calmed down.  Not so for the ball turret gunner.  Once he climbed into the cramped, hydraulically controlled turret in the belly of the airplane, the ball turret gunner was alone.  Sure, he had a great view, able to spin his turret in any direction, but he was also exposed to enemy fire coming from any point on the compass.

After closing his hatch and being lowered into position, hanging beneath the airplane at frigid altitudes of up to 25,000 feet, the ball turret gunner’s only contact with the rest of the aircraft’s crew was through the interphone.  There was no room to stretch out and relieve aching muscles, no “relief tube” for bodily functions, and should the Plexiglas bubble in which he sat be pierced by bullets or shrapnel, the gunner would have to battle frostbite as well as the enemy.

When Boeing designed the B-17, Army Air Corps planners envisioned a heavily-armed aircraft capable of its own defense against speedier, more maneuverable fighters.  To that end, the Flying Fortress, as the B-17 came to be known, bristled with machine guns, from nose to tail, dorsal to belly.

It was into the ball turret on the underbelly of B-17 Gremlin’s Buggy that Staff Sergeant Robert Mixon, Jr. climbed on a cold November morning in 1943.

Robert Mixon had entered Clemson College the fall semester of 1940.  There was trouble aplenty overseas, but the sentiment among most Americans was that the fight was Europe’s business, not ours.  Mixon was from the growing town of Yemassee which straddled the Beaufort and Hampton County line with a population of 684, up more than twenty-five percent from the 1930 census.  Hailing from a rural area, it seemed only natural that Mixon would study agriculture at Clemson.

Mixon remained at Clemson for two years, then joined the Army Air Forces.  By that time, the war that had seemed so far away had reached out and ensnared the United States.  The American military was mobilizing at an unprecedented pace and the first Americans into the fight against the Germans in Europe were the men of the Army Air Forces, particularly the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force.

Mixon was assigned to the 385th Bomb Group which arrived in England in June 1943 and established its headquarters at Great Ashfield, Suffolk, on England’s east coast.  The 385th earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for its participation in the long, hazardous Regensburg mission in August of that year.

On November 29, three hundred sixty B-17s, including Gremlin’s Buggy took off on the Eighth Air Force’s one-hundred-fortieth mission, its target the north German port of Bremen.  Lieutenant Richard Yoder was the pilot and leader of the ten-man crew which included  copilot Lieutenant Robert Payne, a bombardier, navigator, top turret gunner/flight engineer, radio operator, two waist gunners, the tail gunner and Mixon in the ball turret.  It was Mixon’s twenty-second combat mission.

Payne recalled that he left the flight deck and “went back to the bomb bay for a few minutes as we passed over France and all seemed well and in good spirits.”  The B-17s were scheduled to hit the target beginning at approximately 1430 hours, but unfavorable cloud conditions and the malfunction of radar bombing equipment caused more than two hundred of the aircraft to abort the mission.  Not so for Gremlin’s Buggy.  Yoder, Payne, Mixon and the crew pressed on through the perilous skies.

As the bomber formation approached the target, enemy anti-aircraft fire became more intense—and more accurate.  Payne remembered that Mixon, from his unique vantage point beneath the airplane, could see flak explosions getting closer. Mixon reported, “They are bursting right beneath us!”  “Then,” Payne said, “all went dead as we found we had gotten into a bit of trouble… it is very possible that the radio op(erator) and ball gunner had been killed.”  The five men in the front part of the airplane were able to bail out and were taken prisoner by the Germans.  Gremlin’s Buggy crashed near Fesenfeld, about fourteen miles south of Bremen. The radio operator and the four gunners in the aft section of the plane, including Mixon, were killed.

Over twelve thousand B-17s were built.  Thirty-five hundred were shot down over Europe.  Each aircraft carried a crew of eight to ten men, many of whom, like Robert Mixon, Jr., never came home.

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Scroll of Honor – Richard Hughes Johnson

One Day Short

His classmates held him in high regard.  His Taps profile stated:

He is a hard worker and we bespeak for him great success.

Richard Hughes Johnson was born the same year the first class of cadets enrolled in Clemson Agricultural College.  He moved into the barracks in 1911, just twenty-two years after Thomas Clemson’s will had established the college.  Johnson made an impact on the nascent campus, serving as vice president of the Clemson Agricultural Society, editor of the Clemson Agricultural Journal, member of the Calhoun Literary Society, and secretary-treasurer of the Agronomy Club.  He also served as president of the Union County Club and played on his class football team.

Johnson graduated from Clemson in 1915.  He must have impressed more than just his classmates, for on December 11, 1917, Johnson married Harriet Catherine Frazier of Walhalla, a recent graduate of Winthrop College.

Less than a week earlier, at Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia, the 7th Division had been activated as the United States continued to mobilize its forces to battle the German invaders in France.  In January 1918, the 7th Division, including Johnson’s 56th Infantry Regiment, sailed for France aboard the SS Leviathan.

The 56th Infantry Regiment’s first contact with the enemy came in October 1918, as it endured artillery shelling and later a chemical attack.  While probing toward Prény near the Moselle River, the regiment captured positions and drove German forces out of the region. As part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the 7th Division was ordered in early November to prepare for an assault on the Hindenberg Line, a series of fortified German defensive positions.  In preparation for the attack, the division launched a reconnaissance in force.

While leading his men in an attack near Metz, on November 10, First Lieutenant Johnson was struck down by German machine gun fire.  The following day, the attack was halted as news of the signing of the Armistice spread through the ranks.  Johnson had fallen one day short of victory.

Johnson’s comrades recognized the same strengths of character his classmates had noted three years before.  “He was ever willing, true, brave, and courageous, and had won for himself the admiration and esteem of everyone in the regiment,” wrote Major P. B. Parker.

Johnson received a Certificate of Heroism signed by General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, as well as a diploma from the French government.  He was survived by his widow, who went on to direct the 4-H Girls Clubs in the state and in 1945 became the first woman elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Johnson was buried at Bur Bois Rappes in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery.

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Scroll of Honor – John Coleman Carlisle

Deadly Foe

Written by: Kelly Durham

By the time John Coleman Carlisle of Newberry checked into the barracks, he probably knew already that his days on campus were numbered. Carlisle’s Clemson bore faint resemblance to the bustling college where just two years before one of the largest cadet corps in the country had marched across the green expanse of Bowman Field. By that fall of 1944, cadet gray had been largely replaced by Army khaki and green as activity on campus had switched from academic instruction to the training of Army engineers and pilots. As he walked the paths to his textile engineering classes, Carlisle would have encountered young Army officers on their way to military-oriented instruction in engineering, surveying and flying.

Upon completion of his freshman year, Carlisle enlisted in the Navy, undergoing basic training at Bainbridge, Maryland. His next assignment was aboard a ship in the Pacific theater of operations. By this point in World War II, American and Allied forces were tightening the noose around Japan. Victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa put America’s state-of-the-art heavy bomber, the B-29 Superfortress, within range of Japan’s home islands. But, when Carlisle became ill, he found himself at nearly the opposite end of the great Pacific Ocean, on the island of Samoa.

Located 1,800 miles northeast of New Zealand and 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, Samoa was a backwater. The only enemy action there had occurred shortly after Pearl Harbor, in early January 1942 when a Japanese submarine had surfaced and briefly shelled the US Naval Station at Tutuila.

From a distance of nearly three-quarters of a century, it’s easy to forget how different life was in 1945. Radio—AM radio at that—was the only instant mass medium. People still wrote letters, drank Coca-Cola from glass bottles, and went to the movies every week, but the war was changing things, in part by accelerating discovery in many fields, from communications and aviation to medicine.

One of the more frightening diseases of the day was poliomyelitis–polio for short–which was considered primarily a childhood disease, with most cases occurring in children from six months to four years of age. Polio in these younger children generally resulted in mild symptoms—only one case in a thousand resulted in paralysis. And once afflicted, an individual developed an immunity to the disease. With steadily improving community sanitation, such as better sewage disposal and clean water supplies in developed countries, fewer infants and young children were exposed to the disease—and so fewer developed an immunity to the virus. As a result, many were not exposed to the virus until late childhood or early adult life—when one case in seventy-

five resulted in paralysis. The most notable example was President Franklin Roosevelt, who had contracted polio at the age of thirty-nine.

Major US polio epidemics began to be recorded in 1894, when one hundred twenty-six cases occurred in Vermont. Eighteen of the afflicted died. In 1907, twenty-five hundred cases of polio were reported in New York City. In 1916, there were 27,000 cases in the United States, six thousand of which ended in death. Each summer a polio outbreak occurred in some region of the United States, with the epidemics becoming more serious in the 1940s. Theaters and swimming pools closed and many people avoided public gatherings for fear of infection.

Ironically, in a post-war report by the US Army Medical Department, the rate of polio in the Army was comparable to that found in the population at large—despite living conditions, especially in combat zones, where sanitation was often primitive. The low incidence of polio among troops indicated that the disease did not behave like measles or mumps, which frequently appeared in epidemic form among batches of new recruits.

Polio occurred less frequently in Europe than in the Middle East or China-Burma-India areas of operations. It was rare in the Southwest Pacific theater, except for in the Philippines, and only ten cases were reported in the South and Central Pacific in 1945. But one of those cases was John Carlisle—who at eighteen was in the vulnerable age group. Carlisle died from polio on October 31, 1945 at Samoa. He was survived by his parents, his brother, aunts and uncles.

The Germans and Japanese were not the only deadly foes that would go down to defeat. With the introduction of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in the early 1950s, cases of the disease began to plummet. Efforts by organizations like Rotary International, the World Health Organization, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been effective in battling polio. The last case of polio in the United States occurred in 1979. In 2015, there were only seventy-five cases worldwide, a reduction of 99.9% since the 1980s. Today, polio exists only in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

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Scroll of Honor – Steele Roy Patterson

After the Battle

Written by: Kelly Durham

Steele Roy Patterson of Seneca was a busy cadet, engaged in a variety of pursuits. He was a cadet first lieutenant his senior year, assigned to Company L in 3rd Battalion.  He had completed ROTC Camp that summer along with many of the other boys from his class and was back on campus juggling his electrical engineering studies with a full complement of extracurricular activities including his military duties.

Patterson was a member of the Central Dance Association which planned all the big hops for the cadets and their dates, many of whom traveled to the tiny community and stayed with faculty families for dance weekends.  He was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Tiger Brotherhood, Sigma Epsilon social fraternity, and a reporter for The Tiger.  He must have been well-respected by his classmates, for they had elected Patterson to represent them on the Senior Council, the class’s governing body.

Patterson graduated in the spring of 1934 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Infantry.  That same year, he put in a transfer for the Army Air Corps.  Promotions, at first, were slow, reflecting the pace of America’s peacetime Army of the era.  Patterson was promoted to first lieutenant in September 1940.  Then things began to happen more quickly.  As Americans and their political leaders awakened to the dangers of the war in Europe, the country began to build its military forces, implementing a draft and expanding training regimens and facilities.  In October 1941, Patterson was promoted to captain.  Mobilization accelerated after the attack on Pearl Harbor and on March 1, 1942, Patterson was promoted again, this time to major.

Patterson soon shipped overseas, possibly in support of Operation Torch, the November 1942 invasion of North Africa by Allied forces.  He flew numerous missions in the Middle East and Egypt according to a newspaper report.

In April 1943, Patterson returned to the States, was promoted to lieutenant colonel and named commander of the 465th Squadron of the 415th Bombardment Group.  The 465th’s mission was to train pilots and aircrew for the costly daylight bombing campaign underway against Nazi-occupied Europe.

On October 6, 1944, Lt. Col. Patterson was assigned as the copilot of a B-25 medium bomber piloted by Lt. Col. Horace Craig.  During their preflight checks, both Craig and Patterson reported satisfactory conditions.  The flight took off from the Army airfield at Orlando, Florida. When the aircraft’s speed surpassed seventy miles per hour, the nose wheel became airborne. According to the official accident report, the airplane’s left engine then lost power causing the plane to yaw to the left.  The plane continued to climb, but Craig was only able to straighten its flight path with extreme effort.  He guided the plane into two trees in an attempt to dissipate its momentum.  The aircraft crashed and began to burn.  Craig, Patterson and their three crew members managed to escape through a hole in the roof of the fuselage, but all were suffering from burns, cuts, and abrasions.

Patterson’s injuries proved fatal.  He died on October 13.

Lieutenant Colonel Steele Roy Patterson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery and was survived by his wife and two daughters, his parents, three brothers and two sisters.

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Scroll of Honor – John Harold Lightsey ’40

A Speck in the Ocean
Written by: Kelly Durham

It’s just a speck on the map, a tiny dot of green contrasting with the blue expanse of the vast Pacific Ocean, but in 1944, the little island of Angaur’s location, north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines, made it valuable real estate.  General Douglas MacArthur had promised to return to the Philippines and had convinced President Roosevelt to support his campaign for recapturing the islands from which he had so ignominiously been driven two and a half years earlier.  MacArthur believed Angaur was an ideal site for the construction of an airfield from which land-based aircraft would be able to reach Japanese targets in the Philippines.

A sparsely-inhabited island in the Palau chain, Angaur is only three square miles in size, yet it was garrisoned by committed Japanese defenders.

While the 1st Marine Division attacked the neighboring and larger island of Peleliu, the Army’s 81st Infantry Division was ordered to capture Angaur.  Among the officers of the 81st’s 322nd Regiment was Captain John Harold Lightsey, Clemson College Class of 1940.

Lightsey of Fairfax, had graduated from Clemson with a degree in agronomy and had been a member of the Animal Husbandry Club, the Literary Society and the Tiger newspaper staff.  He had also served as vice-president of Kappa Alpha Sigma, the local chapter of the American Society of Agronomy.  Lightsey remained a cadet private throughout his four years at Clemson.

Following graduation, Lightsey worked at the college for several months before securing employment as an agronomist with the Dixie Guano Company in Laurinburg, North Carolina.  He was called to Army service in September 1941.

September 1944 found Lightsey waiting anxiously as the battleship Tennessee, accompanied by four cruisers and dozens of aircraft from the carrier Wasp, bombarded Angaur.  After a delay caused by a shortage of landing craft, the 322nd Regimental Combat Team, including Captain Lightsey’s Company G, finally landed on Beach Red on the island’s northern side on September 17.  At the same time, the 321st RCT landed on Beach Blue to the east side of the island.  Although each RCT was counterattacked during the night, the American forces were able to link up the next day.  By September 20, the Americans had forced the Japanese back to a position known as “The Bowl,” a hill into which the defenders had constructed fortified caves and from which they intended to make their last stand.  Lightsey was wounded in this fighting.

For a week, the 322nd repeatedly attacked the Bowl, but the Japanese hung on ferociously, firing back with artillery, mortars, machine guns and hand grenades. The defenders were gradually worn down by hunger, thirst and the relentless American shellfire and bombing.  By the September 25, the Americans had penetrated the Bowl, but rather than continue to fight for every foot of bloody ground, the attackers called forward unconventional weapons: bulldozers.  American combat engineers used the clanking machines to seal shut the entrances – and exits – to the caves.  The battle dwindled to a series of small scale skirmishes, sniping, ambushing and booby-trapping.  The last day of fighting was October 22.  The Americans had finally taken the island, but – rare for the Pacific campaign – had suffered more casualties than they had inflicted.  Among these was Captain John Lightsey who died on September 28.

Lightsey was awarded the Silver Star for his role in leading Company G during  the attack.  He was survived by his wife of less than two years, the former Janie Phillips of Cordele, Georgia and their two-month-old daughter Janice.  In addition, Lightsey was survived by his parents, five sisters and three brothers, one of whom was serving not too far away on New Guinea.  A fourth brother, Lieutenant Ralph Lightsey had been killed in an airplane crash the previous year.

Construction of airfields began even before the battle died out.  Still, the airfields weren’t completed in time to support the initial landings in the Philippines causing some, like 5th Fleet commander Admiral William F. Halsey, to question the necessity of the attack on the Palau Islands.

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Scroll of Honor – John Adam Simpson

On the Way Over There

John Adam Simpson came to Clemson College in 1912 when both he and the school were still young.  “Simp” had grown up in Chester County, attending the public schools in Richburg.  He majored in agriculture and was a member of the Calhoun Literary Society, the YMCA, Agriculture Club, and the Clean Sleeve Club.  Simp graduated with the Class of 1915, but his time on campus had not come to an end.  Based on his reputation as “accurate, steady and dependable as well as willing and conscientious,” Simp was offered a graduate assistantship in botany.

Simp left Clemson in July 1916 taking a new position as the assistant to the director of the South Carolina Experiment Station.  Two years later, with the United States now committed to the war in Europe, he resigned his position to join the Army and was assigned to the 4th Battery, Field Artillery at Camp Jackson in Columbia. Private Simpson was assigned to headquarters as an observer and map maker.  Simpson and his unit left Camp Jackson on September 15 for their deployment overseas.

Ironically, Simpson and his comrades would be sailing to France to fight the Germans on a German ship.  The steamship Camilla Rickmers had been built at Bremerhaven, Germany in 1914.  When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the ship was seized by US Customs officials and turned over to the Navy.  The Navy fitted the ship out as an animal transport, renamed her Ticonderoga, and commissioned her at Boston on January 5, 1918 with Lieutenant Commander James J. Madison in command.

Ticonderoga loaded her Army cargo at Norfolk, Virginia and then sailed north to New York to join a convoy of ships bound for France.  On September 22, the transport, with Simpson onboard, cleared New York harbor and sailed east.  A week later, Ticonderoga developed engine trouble and began to fall behind the protective screen of the convoy.  At 0520 on September 30, Ticonderoga sighted the German submarine U-152 stalking her on the surface.  Lieutenant Commander Madison ordered his ship cleared for action.

U-152 attacked from five hundred yards away using its two 5.9 inch deck guns.  Its first shot struck Ticonderoga’s bridge.  By the sixth shot, the skillful German gunners had knocked Ticonderoga’s forward gun out of action.  Still the battle continued, as Ticonderoga’s aft gun engaged the raiders.  Almost every man aboard had been wounded, including Madison who had himself placed in a chair on the bridge from where he continued to maneuver his ship and direct his gunners.

After a two hour fight, with Ticonderoga now ablaze and many of her lifeboats holed by German shell fire, the order was given to abandon ship and at 0745, Ticonderoga slipped beneath the waves.  Of the 237 sailors and soldiers onboard, only twenty-four survived.  Two, including the ship’s executive officer, were picked up by U-152 and taken to Kiel, Germany as prisoners-of-war.  The rest, including the badly wounded Madison, survived four days in a boat before being rescued by a British steamer.  Lieutenant Commander Madison, who would lose his leg as the result of wounds, was awarded the Medal of Honor—and spent the remainder of his short life in the hospital, dying in 1922.

John Simpson was one of the men whose remains were never recovered.  Never married, Simpson was survived by his father John and mother Elizabeth.  He is memorialized on the Memorial Marker at Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris.

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Scroll of Honor – Rueben Lafayette Thomas, Jr. & Deckerd Jefferson Gray

Crew Mates

Written by: Kelly Durham ’80

The first shots fired by the Germans against the English in World War II came at sea on September 3, 1939—and they came by accident.  The young captain of the German submarine U-30 mistakenly identified the passenger liner Athenia as a British warship, firing two torpedoes and dispatching the vessel to the bottom of the North Atlantic.  One hundred seventeen passengers and crew were killed, including twenty-eight Americans.  Unwittingly, the German commander had violated the rules of submarine warfare by striking a liner without warning and without concern for the safety of its passengers and crew—a strategy that would soon be adopted by other belligerents.  This was the opening encounter of the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of the war running from that September evening until the defeat of Germany in May 1945.

As the British battled the Germans at sea and in France, Rueben Lafayette Thomas, Jr., and his fellow cadets of Clemson’s Class of 1940 were preparing for their June 3 commencement ceremonies.  Thomas, a textile engineering major from Spartanburg, soon found himself among the growing number of young men swapping their cadet uniforms for the uniform of the US Army.  Thomas volunteered for the Army’s aviation program, earning his wings and being assigned to fly multi-engine bombers.

Deckerd Jefferson Gray, a general sciences major from Ware Shoals, had been a member of the cadet corps as well.  A member of the Class of 1941, Gray stayed remained on campus only for his freshman year.  He too soon found himself in an Army Air Forces uniform.

Fate and the crucial Battle of the Atlantic were about to bring these two Clemson men together.

The British suffered severe losses of men, ships and goods to the German U-boat fleet during the first years of the war.  Numbering just fifty-seven at the war’s outbreak, the Germans’ U-boat fleet would add 1100 more boats by war’s end.  Once the United States was pulled into the conflict by the Pearl Harbor attack, U-boats quickly deployed to the waters off the American east coast.  There they found, initially at least, good hunting.

Beginning in January 1942, U-boats exacted a heavy toll on US and Allied merchant shipping transporting raw goods and finished products along the east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.  Over the first three months of the year, fifty-three ships were sunk.  Based on March losses, the US was on pace to lose more than two million tons of shipping for the year.  The “exchange rate,” defined as the ratio of merchant ships lost to U-boats sunk, would reach 89 to one for the year—a clearly unsustainable figure.  American leaders scrambled to train the men and to create the organizations and equipment needed to counter the increasing U-boat threat.

The Navy had responsibility foroperations beyond the coastline, but, according to a 1945 Army Air Forces report entitled The Antisubmarine Command, “the shock of Pearl Harbor found the Navy quite unable to carry on the offshore patrol necessary to the fulfillment of its mission.”  As a result, the burden for antisubmarine patrols fell mainly on the Army Air Forces whose units were neither trained nor equipped for this type of mission.

American strategists sought assistance from their British allies, whose survival as an island nation depended on defeating the U-boat menace which sought to encircle Great Britain and choke off its supply of food, petroleum and other vital goods.  US forces learned from their British allies that close coordination between sea and air forces along with continuous offensive action were necessary to defeat the U-boat threat.  As Army Air Forces and Navy units developed their command and control relationships and procedures, their coordinated attacks began to slowly push the U-boats out

of coastal waters.

The Army Air Forces’ 1st Bomber Command, including the 40th Bombardment Squadron, was given the task of protecting coastal shipping and attacking the U-boats.  As coordination between air and sea units improved, shipping losses in coastal waters began to slowly decrease.   Even as the U-boats gradually withdrew from the east coast and the Gulf, the Army established an Antisubmarine Command in November 1942.

The withdrawal of the U-boats from American waters did not mark victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, only a change of venue.  German submarines continued to achieve remarkable success, sinking one hundred forty-two Allied ships in November alone, almost all of these in the North Atlantic.  To help counter the continuing threat,   the 40th Bombardment Squadron was redesignated the 4th Antisubmarine Squadron and moved its headquarters to the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Gander, Newfoundland.  From there, the squadron flew antisubmarine patrols and convoy escort missions along North Atlantic shipping lanes.

By the spring of 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic had clearly swung in the Allies’ favor.  Sinkings were down and the Allies pressed their advantage by forming the 479th Antisubmarine Group.  The 4th Squadron moved its headquarters again, this time to the Royal Air Force base at Dunkeswell in southwestern England and began to hunt the hunters.

On August 8, 1943, Thomas, now a captain, the pilot of a modified B-24 heavy bomber, and a veteran of over one hundred twenty-five operational missions including eight hundred hours of combat time, took off on a patrol mission over the Bay of Biscay.  The body of water separated western France from northern Spain and included the heavily fortified German U-boat base at Brest.  The B-24D Liberator bombers flown by the 4th Squadron were modified with a special radar to help the crew locate—and attack—U-boats.  The radar operator assigned to this flight was Technical Sergeant Deckerd Gray.

Between 1159 and 1225 hours, Thomas’s aircraft radioed that it was under attack from enemy fighter planes.  No additional transmissions were received and the aircraft was listed as “overdue” at 1920 hours.  Over the next day and a half, search aircraft failed to find any signs of the aircraft or its crew.

Thomas, Gray and the eight other members of the crew were listed as missing.  Gray was awarded the Air Medal with oak leaf clusters.  Thomas was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oak leaf clusters.  The official history of the 4th Antisubmarine Squadron noted that “This was an old crew.  Capt. Thomas had been in the thick of the antisubmarine warfare since Dec. 7, 1941… It was impossible to replace him…”

Both Gray and Thomas are memorialized at the Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England.

For more information on Deckerd Jefferson Gray visit:

For more information about Rueben Lafayette Thomas, Jr. see:

For additional information about Clemson University’s Scroll of Honor visit:

Additional resources: (Dixie Arrow photo)

Twenty Million Tons Under the Sea: The Daring Capture of the U-505

by Daniel V. Gallery, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.)




Scroll of Honor – Roy Donald Bratton

Fighter Pilot

For a kid born during World War II, it must have seemed like the ultimate goal: becoming a fighter pilot!  The fighter aces of that war had been heroes, their names familiar to a whole generation of boys growing up in the 1950s.  And now, Roy Bratton was following in their footsteps.

Roy Donald Bratton grew up in the Union County crossroads town of Adamsburg and attended Lockhart High School.  A football, basketball and baseball letterman, Roy continued to be active in athletics when he arrived at Clemson in the fall of 1962.  He worked as a manager of the football team and was a member of the weightlifting club.  A mechanical engineering major, Roy was selected for membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and served as president of the Union County Club.  He also excelled as an Air Force ROTC cadet.

“Roy was our squadron commander in Air Force ROTC at Clemson 1965-66. He was not fake or flashy, just quiet and very human,” remembered Larry Lott, who like Roy would go on to serve in Vietnam.  “He was about the nicest person you could know, always ready to help and easy to be around,” classmate James Stepp recalled.  “The things about Roy I most remember are his grin – it was kinda a wiry crooked grin… and the fact that he was such a nice and likeable person.”

“Roy was a happy and upbeat guy who always had a joke,” said classmate Harold Allen, a description amplified by Allen Hobbs who lived down the hall from Roy.  “I remember Roy as being a very cheerful guy who was always upbeat and greeted everyone with a smile…he had lots of friends at Clemson.”

Following graduation in the Class of 1966, Roy reported for active duty in February 1967.  After a year of flight training, he earned his wings and was soon on his way to Vietnam. By now a first lieutenant, Roy was assigned to the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Da Nang Air Base.  The 421st flew the F-4D Phantom fighter in ground support missions—missions that put the pilots and their aircraft in harm’s way.

Roy Bratton continued to excel as an Air Force pilot. For a mission on May 10, 1969, He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for making repeated, dangerous low level bombing and strafing runs that led to the rescue of a reconnaissance team.  A second award of the DFC was made for a June 21 mission in which Roy attacked a “vital military supply link in an extremely heavily defended area.”  The success of this mission destroyed the target and denied its use to the enemy.

On August 4, while flying a support mission for ground operations, Roy’s aircraft was shot down in Quang Nam Province.  His body was recovered and buried in the cemetery of the Philippi Baptist Church in Union.  First Lieutenant Roy Donald Bratton was survived by his mother Sadie Adams Bratton and his sister, Mrs. Ruth Sweatt.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster; Purple Heart; Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm, and the  Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.  He is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on Panel 20W, Line 94; His name is also listed on the Vietnam Conflict Memorial to Union County natives in Union.

For more information about First Lieutenant Roy Donald Bratton see:

For additional information about Clemson University’s Scroll of Honor visit:

Written by: Kelly Durham