Maintenance Takes Kenneth Box with 371st Fighter Group from D-Day to Battle of the Bulge to War’s End
Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12. Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since.
Kenneth Box was ready to get out of Ward 10, Winn Parish, and take on the world in 1942. He was just as eager to get back to his familiar roots at home when World War II ended.
Box was born around Dodson on February 25, 1925, the son of James Wesley Box and Lela McFarland Box. His dad worked in the logging woods and while Box was young, the family moved to the Calvin area. That’s where he went to school. He didn’t think of himself as a scholar but did well enough with the books. “I got by.” But despite a good physique, he said, “I didn’t participate in sports of any kind.”
When the United States declared war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Box was just 16 and too young to fight for his country. But he felt the pull of duty more than he felt like following his father into the piney woods. “I never finished school,” he said. “When I turned 17 in February 1942, my folks gave their permission and I joined the Army Air Corps. This was the first big event of my life.
“I first went to Sheppard Field in Texas. I didn’t have a degree so I wouldn’t be flying any planes. They put me in maintenance. That’s where I’d begin my training. Then we went out to San Diego where we learned more about the maintenance of planes. Specialization? Yessiree. It was mostly fighter planes but we had to learn it all. And that’s where we were formed into units.”
Box’s 371st Fighter Group was activated July 1943 and was assigned to the European Front. They moved to the east coast for training. As Allied forces prepared for the invasion of Europe, Box perhaps experienced his next “big event” when the 371st shipped to England where it was attached to the 9th Air Force. Before the invasion, their P-47s flew over France, conducting fighter sweeps and escort missions and dive bombing targets like railroads, gun emplacements, vehicles and buildings.
“The fighter planes would go out every day,” Box recalls. “When they came back, our job was to make repairs, conduct complete maintenance, refuel them and reload ammunition so that the pilots could take them out the next day.”
The intensity of the air support increased with the invasion June 6, 1944, and with that came an increased workload for the maintenance units. The fighters provided an aerial barrage throughout Normandy Invasion and again in advance of the Allied breakthrough July 25, 1944, to prepare the way for the ground troops.
Box’s unit was stationed in England at the time of the initial assaults but as the Allied forces advanced, the unit followed to continue their maintenance support for the fighter planes. “We met the Germans and they whooped us at first. But then we began making advances. We moved all over northeast France. We were lucky. Our base was only hit one time and no one was killed. I was never wounded.”
Fighters from the unit supported offensives throughout the campaign, including the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium during the bitter winter of December 1944 and January 1945. “It was wintertime and it was cold,” he recalls. “We had tents. We did anything we could to keep warm, I tell you,” showing how they might have built a fire in a drum to huddle around.
“But a lot of those Army boys who were out on the road and on the move again, they had no way to keep warm. I don’t know how they made it.” Asked about food for the ground units, Box seemed noncommittal. He worked on fighter planes. At least he didn’t have to canned rations. “A squadron was in charge of cooking. At least it was hot.”
Once the Allies crossed the Rhine River into Germany, Box added a new country to his travel list. As in France, the 371st base moved from place to place. “I saw Gen. Patton. He liked to go around the air bases. He wasn’t a very big fellow. I guess I didn’t think much of him, one way or the other. But he was a general and I didn’t see any of the others.”
When the War in Europe ended in early May 1945, Box and his unit were stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. But the war wasn’t over quite yet for young Kenneth Box. “After a year of intensive fighting, suddenly there were no more planes to repair. But we still had routine maintenance of the aircraft. We also began working with the locals, training them how to make the transition from wartime to peacetime. That took six or seven month. We headed back to the United State in October.”
Because he was with the Air Corps, Box flew back to home, landing in New York. Over the 18 months that Box had been in Europe, he’d gotten especially close to a group of 10 or 12 men. But after their return home, they didn’t keep in touch. “I don’t know what any of them did or if they’re still alive,” he observed.
“It seemed like it took us a long time to get there but we finally got to Mississippi and that’s where I received an honorable discharge. I came straight home by bus, going through Ruston to Jonesboro. I spent the night there and the next day I was back in Ward 10. Then I took a little time off.”
When he decided it was time to earn a living, he went into the logging woods, as his father before him. But it didn’t take Box long to realize that there was a better way to make a living while still working with wood. He went into the carpentry business. “I worked as a carpenter for 40 years, working with contractors on houses, mostly here in Winn Parish. I helped build lots of houses in that time.”
Kenneth Box and Ava Brewton had gone to school together at Calvin but had paid little attention to each other. After his return, they met at Antioch Bibleway Church. “It was a little old wooden church house back then,” they recall. “We knew each other for about three years, then we got married in 1947.”
They have three daughters, three grandchildren and five great grandchildren.