(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12. Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).
Leo Shelton grew up with a rural Winn heritage. Born in the Sardis community where he grew up and went to church, he attended school in Atlanta.
War was looming as he studied at NSU (then Louisiana Normal College) to be a teacher and PE coach. But he’d taught for only two weeks after receiving his BA degree in August 1942 when he was drafted into the Air Force.
Assigned to radio maintenance during basics at Camp Beauregard, he attended Radio School in Madison, WI, and was sent to several air bases across the country. “But I was mostly doing KP and guard duty,” he said.
Shelton was pushing one year in the Air Force before he got his first real taste of the “Air” part of it. He explained that he’d never been up in a plane during his young life when he was sent to a second Radio School run by TWA Airlines in Kansas City, MO. It was May 1943.
“We lived in a tent city. My first time ever in an airplane was one of my most shocking experiences in the Air Force. I had to go up with just the pilot and co-pilot when they were doing all kinds of different maneuvers. It was pretty scary.”
This Winn soldier spent most of 1944 at a permanent base in Memphis that served as an overseas depot for soldiers and supplies. The radio department worked around the clock in three different shifts.
It wasn’t until July 1945 that Shelton knew he’d be going overseas. After six weeks of training in Provo, UT, he flew from New York to Calcutta, India. (“Oh, what a place,” he remembers). Then he traveled a grueling 600 miles north through the Indian jungle on a narrow-gauge railroad train to Assam at the base of the Himalayas.
“This was where the soldiers were stationed who flew supplies over The Hump to soldiers in China,” he explained. “I never did fly. I was always in radio maintenance.
“We ran short on food several times. Once, when we were real short, the captain wanted us to go on a big game hunt. With high-powered rifles, we went from one village to the next, each time hearing that there was a big deer just ahead. Finally, just about dark, we spotted this huge deer. I mean huge. We shot him and it took three guys to get him on the vehicle. We ate some fine steaks for several days.
“The next thing I knew, I was called into the Lieutenant’s office. ‘Shelton,’ he said. ‘Do you realize that you were sent here by mistake? You’re supposed to be back in Calcutta.’ Well, I didn’t like the sound of that. I’d rather have stayed there but that didn’t make any difference. They said I could either go back on that same train or, if I could leave right then, I could fly back with the paymaster. I tell you, I grabbed my things and got on a big old B-25 and we flew. On the way, I saw the Taj Mahal. It was beautiful.”
Shelton was in Calcutta when the war ended…and beyond. In March 1946, he boarded a ship and sailed east to Seattle where he vividly recalls his first meal back on American soil as being “steak and ice cream.” He headed to Fort Bliss in El Paso for his discharge. He’d served three years and eight months.
Since he already had his BA degree, Shelton decided to take advantage of GI Bill benefits to get himself a degree in pharmacy, beginning at the University of Texas and completing his degree at Loyola in New Orleans in 1950.
“During my studies, I’d come home to visit. My folks had moved to Winnfield and in the fall of 1946, I joined First Baptist Church. It was also during this time that I met Dorothy Sowers. She was teaching at Atlanta. We got married June 3, 1948.”
The couple had three children, Steve, Becky and Mark, and eight grandchildren. The 90-year-old veteran added that he has no great grandchildren, “as of now.”