Window to Winn with Bob Holeman

By: Bob Holeman

(Writer’s note:  I conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12.  Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since.  The next pair of interviews you’ll see may have been the most touching for me.  They combine a love story with the heart-breaking reality of war that Americans may never realize.  These veterans will tell you why).

“I’ve heard people say they weren’t scared,” says Winnfield veteran Clomer Walton as he describes his recollections of the D-Day landing on Utah Beach in France.  “I don’t know where they were.  To hear all those guns going off.  Boats getting shot up all around you.  You had to be scared.”

His story has all the makings of a good book.  Intrigue, loyalty, combat, romance.  Walton, 91 now, was living in Sikes and about 21 at the time when the 4th Infantry drafted him.  Things got off on the wrong foot, Walton said, when “this guy who signed me up said he was writing me up for the Air Force.  But I came to find out it was the Army.”

He headed for Florida for basic training and over the next 11 months, he’d only have one day back home, partially because of the long distance and the slow train he was on that made a “milk run.”  Part of the training was on Dog Island, six miles out in the Gulf, where they practiced amphibious landings.  Then there was hand-to-hand combat training.  “We all thought we were going to the Pacific but we went the other way…and were glad of it.”

Walton continued, “I tell you what, you grow up fast in the service.  I’ve never been as sick as I was crossing the Atlantic.  Down in the galley one day, someone vomited on me.  I stayed up on the deck for the rest of the voyage.  They had to bring my food up to me.”

Then romance came his way.  “There was this boy from Oklahoma, his sister married an English fighter pilot and he was going to meet the in-laws.  I went with him.  We stayed around Portsmouth, the largest naval base in England.”  For entertainment one evening, they went to a pub where his friend wandered off to play the popular English sport of darts.  The American soldier sitting alone was soon approached by a group of young ladies in the Royal Air Force.  Young Walton smiled and they joined him.

Among them was a pretty lass, Audrey Sinfield who’d joined the RAF when she was 18.  They struck up a conversation and five days later, when he was called back to service, they were engaged.  “They next time I was in town, I came knocking on her door,” Walton began but was quickly coralled by his war bride Audrey.

“Wait,” she urged in their bedroom at Autumn Leaves.  “You’ve got to tell what happened next.  It’s a setory that has to be told or people will forget.”

Walton had talked lightly and freely about their whirlwind romance but when discussion turned to the events of June 6, 1944, the Tuesday following his romantic weekend, his words were slow, labored and emotional.  D-Day was a difficult time for this veteran…and for our country.  “Many didn’t return,” he sighed.

On that day, Walton was aboard LST-351.  “We hit a little sandbar offshore and when the ramp came down, we were supposed to get out.  The problem was that the water wasn’t that shallow and some of the little guys, with all their equipment on them, they just sank down.”

Walton wondered aloud how the Germans ashore had survived the continual bombing from Allied planes and warships to still mount the defense they did.  “We had eight big battleships behind us.  And I’ve never seen so many airplanes:  12, 14, 16 of them in row after row ahead of us, bombing.

This local veteran was one of the fortunate Americans to survive the assault.  As the troops worked inland, Walton found himself one day on a horse-drawn wagon with legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle.  “He came over on the same ship with us but I didn’t meet him until we were on that wagon.  We were looking at the bombs dropping ahead of us when we saw two B-17s on fire.  We only saw one man get out but his equipment got hung up on the plane and we saw him fall to the earth.  We didn’t want to be up there in those planes but they probably didn’t want to be down here on the ground, either.”

 As many as 5,000 Allied troops may have died on Normandy’s beaches that day.  “The first cemetery they built didn’t take long to fill,” he noted.  “We went across to Paris…the Americans and the Free French took Paris.  It got to be where you couldn’t tell who was who.  The French were wearing our uniforms and driving our trucks.”

From there, they advanced to Luxembourg “where we were under the command of George S. Patton, one of the finest gentlemen I ever met.  He stayed with his troops, not 15 or 20 miles back.  And he kept you moving.  We went on up to where the Germans had overtaken the 29th Division.  They left a bunch there that they had killed…just lined them up and shot them, though a few escaped into the woods.  We didn’t know how many captives they’d taken.  Snow was coming down bad and it was hard to travel.”

Patton pushed his troops on towards Bastogne where the Germans were trying to break back through the American and British lines.  If they had succeeded, it would have been disastrous for the Allies, Walton speculated.  “They had white uniforms to match the snow.  Fortunately, the sun broke through and our planes tore them up.”

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945.  He said the Americans had been sitting in place for a week and a half, waiting for the arrival of the Russian troops.

Finally, Walton’s story turned back to his romance.  During their year apart, heavily-censored letters were the couple’s only means of communication.  They were lucky to hear from each other once a month, longer during the campaign at Bastogne.  He got a furlough and returned to England.  He wasn’t able to alert Miss Sinfield he was coming and, around midnight, when he knocked on the door of her home about 40 miles north of London, he got the sad news from her parents that they might have passed each other on the highway.  Audrey was in London, visiting some friends.

After a night’s sleep, Walton took the bus to London and found his betrothed.  “That was Sunday.  We went back to her house.  On Wednesday, we got married…without a license.  But the preacher said he was going ahead to marry us.  The church stands on a high hill.  Its construction was begun in 1107.”  That wedding was June 13, 1945.

Clomer returned to the United States in October and was discharged in November that year.  But his bride had to remain in England until May 1946 due to her RAF obligations.  It was their longest separation.  When she crossed the Atlantic, she carried their 6-week-old daughter, Lucille (Sharbono), who Clomer had yet to see.

The newly released serviceman returned to north Louisiana and found a sawmill job at Rochelle.  “They’d bring in logs and dump them beside the railroad tracks.  We’d load them up and bring them to Tremont.  When they started building houses at Joyce, Audrey picked out one and we moved there.”  He worked at Tremont until 1963, then went on to Hunt.

The Waltons also have two sons, Sidney and Richard, as well as four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

(Readers please note that this is just Part 1 of a two-part story.  Next week, read about Audrey Walton who, as a member of the RAF was also a WWII veteran.  Her story is as riveting as her husband’s and comes from the perspective of another country).