Window to Winn with Bob Holeman – Navy Radio Operator Proves Good Wartime Post for Franklin Parish Boy Who Turned Preacher

(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans as a lead-up to Veterans Day 2011. Virturally all of those 34 American heroes have passed away during the decade following these interviews).

When Gen. Douglas McArthur and his forces were driven from the Philippines by the Japanese during World War II, he vowed, “I shall return.” And when he did return, news film footage showed him boldly stepping ashore through the shallow waves to the beachhead.

But one young Navy radio operator from Franklin Parish knew a lot about farming and could realize when some wool-pulling was being done by the military’s media. The general with his corncob pipe faced no danger in his actions. “I’d been delivering mail to men on that same beachhead for three weeks,” declared Navy radio operator James Simons, now of Winn Parish.

The United States had declared war on Japan in 1941 but Simons’ service call would be deferred until he graduated from Crowville High School. That call came in 1943 and he reported to Fort Humbug in Shreveport. Since he was a graduate, he got to choose his branch of service and named the Navy. Life was suddenly on the fast track for this rural boy. Never on a train for long before in his life, he now found himself on a train bound for San Diego for basic training. Of all the possible training stations there, he was sent to Radio School due to being a graduate with typing skills.

Following his early training, Simons was sent north to San Francisco where he was assigned to the Philippines Sea Frontier, a commando operation to secure beachheads. From there they moved on to Fort Pendleton where training included hand-to-hand combat. It was July 4 when they went into town, only to return to grab their gear and get aboard another troop train. He received six immunization shots (including the Black Plague) and the next morning got six more.

Again in the San Francisco area on Treasure Island, Simons and his fellow seamen got word that there had been some confusion and they were supposed to have been in New Guinea two weeks earlier. “In effect, we hitched a ride on, the USS Mizar, a refrigerated provisions ship modified to also carry troops and headed to New Guinea. It was a fortuitous choice. “They pulled me aside and said they needed someone up in the radio shack there. I quickly learned I never had to fight that chow line. We just sent down for steak and eggs and whatever we wanted. When we reached New Guinea, I never had to chip paint or any of that kind of work.” We saw action all along our way. When we arrived, McArthur was there, preparing for the invasion of the Philippines.

“When we were there, the New Guinea bush was still in the Stone Age. I came into my tent one time, with nothing more than a flashlight. I thought I saw something and popped my light on a native, standing in the corner, grinning, with a bolo knife on his hip.” The intruder slipped out with no incident, other than a lasting impression for Simons.

“At the time, the capital, Manila, was very much in the hands of the Japanese,” said the Navy veteran. “We went ashore in Tacloban Leyte, on one of the major islands in the Philippines. Army Ranger units were securing those beaches. We brought equipment into Quonset Huts and got generators to set up power. There we were the communications center for the entire South Pacific. The Navy’s No. 2 admiral was there and you had to have top clearance to get into certain buildings.”

It was about five months after their arrival at Tacloban Leyte that Germany surrendered and the full force of America’s military strength was now focused on Japan. Simons knew Morse code and could both code and decode messages. “It was the beginning of all the electronic equipment that we have today. The fighting was so intense that when President Roosevelt died, his son John, who was over there, could not return home for the funeral.”

Simons noted that at one point in 1945, about 10 days prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his name had been posted to a duty roster for a small mine sweep vessel—a mission from which he expected to not return. The minimally manned vessel was being sent to help clear mines from the Tokyo Harbor to permit US ships to enter. He borrowed a jeep from the motor pool and went over to the Army Hospital on Leyete where his cousin, Mabel Fussell, was serving as a nurse. Simons told her that if he did not return, to explain to his family what had happened. When he returned to his unit about three hours later, he saw that his name had been removed from the radioman position on the mine sweep vessel. At that point, he began to think that there was a higher purpose for his life.

The major turning point in that area of the war came with the destruction of the Japanese fleet in the Manila Bay, he said. Later, he was sent to Manila where “I fully expected to be given a leave to return to the States for a visit. As it was, I had earned enough points to muster out. I actually enrolled at the University of Manila but never attended classes.”

After the Navy, Simons returned to Franklin Parish and farming. Then, in his 30s, he went on to Clark Junior College in Newton, MS, and began preaching. He finished his studies at Louisiana College in Pineville. He also returned to the girl he’d known back home. He and Audie Ulmer were actually engaged before Simons went off to war “but I didn’t know if I’d be coming back, so we decided to wait until I returned to get married.” Audie went on to work in Jackson, MS, at a large wholesale drug firm in support of the war effort while she was waiting for him. He returned for her and marry they did in 1946.

They had two children, son Wendell (deceased) and daughter Hedy Pinkerton. Simons continues to preach, serving as pastor of the small Sharon Baptist Church in Winn Parish.