Scroll of Honor – Burton Forrest Mitchell, Jr.

Unrewarded Valor

Everything at Clemson College changed in the spring of 1943.  Of course things had been changing for several months by then.  The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in December of ’41, then Hitler had declared war on the United States and Congress had returned the sentiment.  A lot of cadets left school to join up, most with the Army, but a number in the Navy and Marines as well.  By the spring of 1943, the War Department had decreed that graduating seniors would immediately enter service—and so would the rising juniors, who would forego their final year of college.

Perhaps Burton Forrest Mitchell, Jr. a member of the Class of 1946 from Mount Holly, North Carolina, decided to exercise what little control over his fate that he still possessed.  Mitchell, who had just completed his freshman year on campus, reported for active duty at Fort Jackson on September 2, 1943.  Following his basic training, Mitchell was assigned to the Army Air Forces and sent to Tyndall Air Field in Florida for aerial gunnery training.  He underwent additional training at Westover, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia before shipping overseas in October 1944.

Mitchell eventually landed in the 766th Bomber Squadron, Heavy, headquartered at Torretta Air Base outside of Foggia, Italy as part of the 15th Air Force.  The 15th flew missions against targets in Austria, Bavaria and the Balkans.

On January 20, 1945, Mitchell’s aircraft, a B-24J Liberator heavy bomber piloted by Second Lieutenant Joseph O’Neal of Beckley, West Virginia, was alerted for a bombing mission against the railroad marshaling yards at Linz, Austria, about 460 miles to the north.  As the rear turret gunner, Corporal Mitchell’s “desk” looked out from the rear of the aircraft.  Sitting in the tail of the aircraft, Mitchell was the farthest crew member from the flight deck from where the pilot and copilot flew the plane.

The weather aloft that morning was clear and cold at 23,000 feet.  Mitchell and his crewmates were wearing insulated, heated flight suits, boots, gloves, leather helmets and goggles to protect themselves in the unpressurized aircraft.  They were also breathing oxygen from the aircraft’s O2 tanks as the air at that altitude was too thin to support life.

The twenty-five bomber formation flew over the jagged peaks of the Alps and then homed in on Linz.  The North Main Marshalling Yard to the south of the city was covered with snow, but the anti-aircraft gunners defending the city were nonetheless alert.  With lightly scattered clouds, the fire from the flak gunners was described as “extremely intense, accurate and heavy.”

Armed with 100 pound general purpose bombs, the mission of the attack was to destroy enemy rolling stock and facilities in the railroad yard, to further disable the enemy’s ability to move troops and equipment to counter the Red Army in the east and the British and Americans in the west.  At approximately 1230 hours, Mitchell’s aircraft was struck in its open bomb bay by an anti-aircraft round.  The subsequent explosion split the aircraft in two.  The six men in the front portion of the aircraft never made it out.

The crew of Mitchell’s plane. Standing from left, pilot O’Neal, copilot Rothe, bombardier Koke, navigator Merritt—all of whom were killed. Kneeling from left, waist gunner Martin, waist gunner Keenan–who came to Mitchell’s assistance–nose gunner Rossini, ball gunner Nowosilski, Mitchell, and top gunner Ellis. Only Martin and Nowosilski survived.

The four gunners in the after half of the big bomber had a second chance.  Even though they were now riding a piece of aerial wreckage falling through the sky, they were still alive.  Right waist gunner Sergeant Donald Martin and ball gunner PFC Harry Nowosilski were able to don their parachutes and get clear of the fuselage.  Left waist gunner Francis Keenan of Chicago, realized that Mitchell, alone in the tail, had been badly burned in the explosion and he went to his crewmate’s aid.  He helped Mitchell clip on his parachute, which was too bulky to wear at his gunner’s position.  As the two men struggled to exit the chaos and confusion of the falling wreck, Mitchell is believed to have accidentally pulled his parachute’s ripcord.  As a result, his chute and Keenan’s became entangled and failed to deploy.  Keenan’s valor cost him his life.

The bodies of Mitchell, Keenan and the six men from the front half of the plane were recovered and buried by the Germans.  Martin and Nowosilski were captured and spent the final months of the conflict in Luftwaffe prisoner of war camps.

Twenty-one of the twenty-five aircraft over the target that day were damaged by anti-aircraft fire.  Two of these, including Mitchell’s, exploded before they could roll out of the formation on the bomb run.  Their explosions caused the other planes in the formation to take evasive action to avoid colliding with the fatally wounded aircraft.  As a result, the bombs were scattered over a comparatively large area at the extreme northern end of the marshalling yard.

Mitchell was awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart.  He was survived by his parents and sister.  After the war, his body was removed to the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold (Moselle), France.

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Scroll of Honor – John LeHecka

Final Flight

John LeHecka graduated from high school in Rock Hill in 1960 and enrolled that fall at Clemson College.  An agronomy major, John remained in school through his sophomore year before joining the Peace Corps. He spent two years serving in East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh.  That experience, recalled his friend John Fuller, imbued LaHecka with greater maturity and thoughtfulness.

Following his Peace Corps tour overseas, LaHecka returned to Clemson University in January 1965.  In addition to resuming his agronomy courses, he also enrolled in advanced Air Force ROTC.  John’s experiences overseas must have prepared him for new challenges, for as a senior, he served as a cadet lieutenant colonel and commandant of the Cadet Leadership School.  He also found time to compete with the fencing club under the direction of architecture professor Hal Cooledge.

LaHecka graduated in December 1967 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He reported for active duty and pilot training to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama on January 15, 1968.  John Fuller remembers meeting LaHecka when both were assigned to Hurlburt Field at Fort Walton Beach, Florida for Forward Air Controller (FAC) training.  Located near Pensacola, the area featured “beautiful white beaches, fresh oysters, and cold beer,” wrote Fuller.  “Our training program had about three weeks of content compressed into about three months.”

Upon leaving Florida, the training became more intense and more serious: Jungle Survival School at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.  The two lieutenants arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam on July 30, 1969 and were assigned to the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron at Pleiku Air Base in the Central Highlands.  Since neither officer had previous experience flying fighters, they were categorized as Class B FACs, meaning that, by prior agreement between the turf conscious Army and Air Force, they were not allowed to control airstrikes for American ground troops.  As a result, LaHecka and Fuller found themselves flying out-country interdiction missions along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail along the borders of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

LaHecka was trained in night missions flying the O-2, the military version of the Cessna Skymaster, a twin-engine piston-powered aircraft with one engine in the nose and a second in the rear of the fuselage. One advantage of the O-2 was that its side window could be opened in flight allowing the navigator to use a Starlight Scope to help identify targets in the inky blackness of the jungle night.

After four months in country, LeHecka and Fuller were selected to fly highly classified Prairie Fire missions.  Fuller remembered these as the unit’s “most demanding mission, even though it was always conducted in the day.”  Prairie Fire sent Special Forces Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) into Laos and Cambodia to conduct reconnaissance operations and find downed airmen.  LeHecka a

nd the other forward air controllers would coordinate fire support from Army Huey and Cobra helicopter gunships as well as Navy A-1 and Air Force F-4 fighters during the insertion and extraction of these LRRP teams.

On January 10, 1970, LeHecka and Fuller flew to Kontum, the base for the Special


Forces teams assignedto southern Laos.  LeHecka picked up Sergeant First Class Sam Zumbrun, a highly decorated former medic now conducting reconnaissance missions for Prairie Fire.  During their mission, LeHecka’s aircraft was struck by enemy small arms fire.  LeHecka was killed and the luckless Zumbrun was stuck in a sophisticated aircraft without the skills to pilot it.  Without a pilot, the plane crashed, killing Zumbrun.  Both LeHecka’s and Zumbrun’s remains were recovered.

First Lieutenant John LeHecka was buried in the Lutz Cemetery, Lutz, Florida.  He was survived by his wife, the former Charlotte Featherson.


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Scroll of Honor – J.B. Lawson, Jr.

The Last Christmas

It is fair to say that the Clemson experience of the Class of 1944 was unique.  These boys had arrived on campus in the late summer of 1940, when the United States was at peace.  They would leave Clemson College before graduation, their services required by a country engaged in a worldwide conflagration.

James B. Lawson, Jr. of Sandy Springs was a member of the Class of 1944 and the son of a member of the Anderson County legislative delegation. He was a mechanical engineering major and a member of the Anderson County Club.  With American military might expanding at a dizzying pace, the manpower requirements of the armed services grew and they took precedence over the plans of college students.  The War Department determined that Clemson’s rising senior cadets would forgo their final year of college and would be called to active duty upon the conclusion of the 1942-43 academic year.

That summer of 1943, Lawson and most of the other young men in his class traded in their cadet uniforms for the green fatigues of the Army.  Lawson first reported to Camp Croft near Spartanburg for basic training. Having demonstrated leadership aptitude, he was next ordered to infantry officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia.  Newly minted lieutenants were then sent to one of the many divisions being formed stateside for eventual deployment overseas.  Lawson landed with the 290th Infantry Regiment of the 75th Infantry Division, then training at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky.

By mid-October 1944, the Germans seemed to be reeling.  Allied Armies were tightening a vise onGermany from both the east and the west.  Rumors began to circulate that Lawson’s 290th Regiment was getting ready for deployment.  The rumors appeared to have basis when a detail was formed to prepare water tight containers for the storage of regimental records.  Soon after, the regiment began its journey by train.  It headed east.

A four-day layover at Camp Shanks, New York allowed time for final checks of clothing and equipment.  More than a million men passed through the camp, situated at the juncture of the Erie Railroad and the Hudson River, on the way to Europe.  From Camp Shanks, the troops rode the train forty-five min

utes to Weehawken, New Jersey where they boarded the ferry to Staten Island and its piers.  Five thousand soldiers squeezed aboard the US Army Transport Brazil for a ten-day voyage to Great Britain, arriving at Swansea, Wales on November 1.  From there, it was another train ride to Porthcawl, every mile bringing Lawson and his regiment closer to Europe and the enemy.  After five weeks of combat training in Wales, the regiment arrived at Southampton, England.  It crossed the English Channel landing at Le Havre, France on December 13 and 14.

And then things got really interesting.  Two days later, the Germans launched their greatwinter offensive.  Their plan was to mass tanks against the relatively thinly defended American First Army in Belgium, breakthrough Allied lines, divide British and American forces, capture the port of Antwerp, and force the Western Allies to consider a negotiated peace.

With the battle raging and the Germans on the offensive, the 290th on December 19 left its assembly area and began a two-day journey by box car through bitter weather across northern France and Belgium.  The regiment arrived at Hasselt, Belgium on December 20 and immediately established its command post—right below the flight path of German buzz bombs heading toward Antwerp.

With German forces threatening to break through the bulge, the 290th decamped from Hasselt shortly after midnight on December 22 heading for the threatened lines of the US First Army.  Elements of the regiment were quickly moved into front line positions.  3rd Battalion was ordered to occupy the town of Hotton (about 22 miles northwest of Bastogne)—and hold it at all costs. On the evening of the 24th, Allied forces reclaimed the initiative and the 290th ordered its battalions to attack.

Hill 87 at La Roumière was the objective of Lawson’s platoon.  The hill, surrounded by woods, dominated the roads leading to Hotton as well as the Ourthe River which flowed through the town.  Lawson’s platoon attacked three times.  In one of these attacks, the brave lieutenant was mortally wounded.  Lawson’s parents and his fiancée, Miss Van Siclen a former student at Anderson College, received word in mid-January that he was missing in action.  Not until February 5 did they learn that he had been killed on December 25, the last Christmas of the war.

Lieutenant James B. Lawson, Jr. was survived by his parents and his three sisters.  He is buried at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church Cemetery.

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Scroll of Honor – Rufus Randolph McLeod, Jr.

Rufus Randolph McLeod, Jr.

How the world changed in those four years.  When Rufus Randolph McLeod, Jr. arrived on the Clemson campus in the late summer of 1938, no one could have imagined what lay in wait for the boys of the Class of 1941.

“Black Dog” McLeod was a general science major from Hartsville, where his father served as the postmaster, a political appointment in those days.  McLeod demonstrated leadership ability and a military aptitude.  He was a member of Scabbard and Blade, the military honor society, and the Calhoun Literary Society.  As a junior, he was selected as a graduation marshal.  Following the completion of ROTC training at Fort McClellan, Alabama in the summer of 1940, McLeod returned to campus as a cadet lieutenant colonel and commander of the First Battalion, First Regiment of the Cadet Brigade.

By the time McLeod and his classmates graduated in the spring of 1941, the world situation had deteriorated.  In March, Congress had passed and President Roosevelt had signedinto law the Lend-Lease Act allowing the United States to provide material aid to Great Britain, which was struggling to defend and feed its people against assaults from the German air force and submarine fleet.

McLeod, upon receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, was ordered to Camp Croft at Spartanburg.  He volunteered for flight training and was sent to Texas, where he studied and flew at Hicks, Goodfellow and Foster Fields before earning his wings in April 1942.

McLeod was next assigned to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. and was promoted to first lieutenant.  In August, he married Margie Conwell of Atlanta. Soon thereafter, McLeod was alerted for overseas deployment.

Despite the sneak attack by the Japanese that had thrust the war upon the United States, Roosevelt and his military advisors, in consultation with their British allies, had adopted a “Germany First” strategy.   Yet by the autumn of 1942, no US ground forces had yet attacked the Germans.  That was about to change.

Operation Torch, a joint British-US invasion of French North Africa, was launched on

November 8, 1942.  Now assigned as a pilot in the 60th Fighter Squadron, McLeod was soon flying from captured airfields in Tunisia.  On December 6, 1942, McLeod was part of a fighter escort mission that had flown to Telergma airfield in Algeria.  Upon returning to his base, McLeod’s P-40 Warhawk crashed, killing him.  He was the first pilot from the squadron to be killed.

First Lieutenant Rufus Randolph McLeod, Jr. was awarded the Purple Heart and was buried at the North African American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.  He was survived by his wife, his parents and three sisters.

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