WWII Vet: Thomas Taylor

Thomas Taylor, then and in 2012

(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).

By Bob Holeman

It can be a little confusing when your name could be either a first or last name. It’s even tougher when both names are like that. Thomas Lewis Taylor had dealt with three for all of his 87 years.

To his family, he’s Lewis. He generally goes by Thomas L. Taylor. But to the U.S. Army back in World War II, he was simply Taylor.

Born July 5, 1924, in the small Winn community of Henton (Urania Camp), Taylor began his education in the one-room Henton School. Alice Henton was his first teacher and she had five or six classes, he recalls. When his father inherited some land around Shady Grove, not far from Flat Creek, they moved and built a home there. He began riding a school bus to attend Sikes High School.

It was a big school back then, he said, with maybe 500 students in its 11 grades and had some good sports teams. “But we didn’t have the transportation to compete with other schools,” he said, “so mostly we played each other.” He liked baseball best. Asked about his grades, Taylor confessed that “we missed a lot of school. Dad grew cotton as a cash crop and we had cows and horses as well. School wasn’t as important as farming was then.”

When the United States entered World War II, Taylor was still in high school. But his family was impacted by Pearl Harbor. “I had a first cousin, Harvey Taylor, who was injured at Pearl Harbor. It was a pretty serious head injury. He returned home but died a couple of years later. After that, I knew I had to go to war.”

Sure enough, as soon as he graduated in the Sikes Class of ’43, Taylor joined the Army. “They were glad to get some of us who had a little bit of education.” He went to Fort Sill in Lawton, OK, for basic training and still recalls looking over the old haunts of Apache Indian chief Geronimo. It was at Fort Sill that he also received some specialized training with the 105mm howitzer.

Taylor’s unit then headed to the San Francisco Bay area where they stayed until being shipped out for Pacific action. “This was the first big city I’d ever seen,” he said. “Those skyscrapers were something else to a country boy.” When the soldiers were loaded onto a ship and headed out to sea, “they didn’t tell us where we were going. We ended up in New Guinea and we waited.”

The Winn local did not like New Guinea at all. “Those people looked about wild. The women wore grass skirts.” (Fortunately, the men were friendly to the Allied soldiers. He described some of the brutal treatment meted out by the natives against Japanese invaders). Taylor stayed in New Guinea for a couple of months, working and unloading ships.

“We were finally attached to the 24th Division as a replacement unit. We sailed to Leyte Island in the Philippines. I got to watch McArthur step out on the beach from a long way off. You know, ‘I shall return.’ But that was after we’d cleared out the island for him. In the 24th Division, 52nd Field Artillery Artillery, I was a cannoneer to start with, then a gunner on a 105. I shot a lot of rounds on that. It’s not a big gun but had a range of nearly 7 miles. But most of the time, we were shooting almost on the level so it didn’t go that far.”

He said he saw a lot of action during his time and managed to come through “without a scratch. There are a lot of islands in the Philippines and since we were attached to an infantry unit, we followed close to them as they went from island to island, clearing out the Japanese. Sometimes they’d break through our lines and someone had to stop them. We took several more islands, then Mindanao. We got a few of days of R&R there, then they told us to get prepared for the invasion of Japan. But the war ended before that happened.”

So instead of participating in the invasion of Japan, Taylor was part of the occupational forces that landed there following the end of hostilities. He was assigned to duty in Fukuoka in southern Japan where American troops managed groups of Japanese who began the task of cleaning up the area. “It was kind of funny…when I first landed, I ran into my cousin and best friend, Harold Thornton. He was operating some heavy equipment, filling in holes.”

Six months into the occupation, Taylor had accumulated enough points to come home. Perhaps due to the anticipation, the long voyage back to the United States “seemed like forever,” he mused. “It probably took 10 to 15 days.” He made it, though, and once discharged came directly back to north Louisiana.

“Me and another boy who’d been in the Marines, Alton Boyett, got a job cutting pulpwood. But it didn’t take us long to figure out that it was easier in the Army so we both re-enlisted…in the same unit I’d served in Japan. I had a pretty good job, breaking down rations for distribution to the troops. I started early and was finished by mid-morning. Then I’d have the rest of the day off.”

This life of ease didn’t last long. “Korea broke out,” he explained. “It wasn’t a war, they said. They called it a Police Action. In fact, I didn’t have anything but a .45 when we flew in and you could hear bullets hitting the airplane. Since we were already in Japan, we were the first ones there. I didn’t like it a bit. They called it ‘Police Duty’ but they sure missed that one.”
Taylor was an ammunition supply sergeant. The good luck that had held him safely through his first war ran out in Korea. He was traveling in an ammunition truck when it hit a landmine. “When the truck was blown up, I got my eardrum burst.” He was shipped back to El Paso for hospitalization and treatment.

“Even with my bad hearing, the Army wasn’t ready to give up on me. It’s hard to find someone you can depend on. They wanted me to stay on as a desk sergeant. But I was trained for combat.” So he left military service and returned to Winn. The veteran had a bronze star for his service in both World War II and Korea. And now, a “DV” designation on his license plate.

Life would be different. “I’d always had a squirrel dog. But now when he treed a squirrel, I couldn’t find him because I couldn’t tell where the barking was coming from.” He said he received a little pension from the Army then got a call from Jim Anderson for a job selling used cars in Olla. “I did that for him for a while, then ran it after he died. I sold cars until I retired.”

The romance in Taylor’s story began when he was home between the wars. “One day, I took my grandmother, Dottie Hatten, to a homecoming at the Pine Hill Church cemetery.”

His wife, Mollie Kees Taylor, takes over the story at this point. “I was pretty young at that time. I was sitting there in a car with a friend, Gloria Jo Holmes, when they drove up. I said, ‘See that boy in the colored shirt over there? I’m going to marry him. He’s good looking.’ Well, she rolled down the window and hollered, ‘Hey, someone over here wants to meet you.’ I shrank down in my seat to hide. Another time, he came by our house with my brother, Floyd. He joked later that I was reading a ‘Funny Book.’ The book was ‘funny’ because I was holding it upside down while I was pretending to read it. I’d peek around the pages once in a while to look across the room at Lewis. My brother warned me, ‘leave him alone…he’s a heartbreaker’.”

She didn’t heed the caution. The two corresponded when he went to Japan and then Korea. They married Sept. 14, 1952. Initially, they lived with his parents until he got the good job in Olla and they moved there. The couple would have five sons and two daughters. They now have 12 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. When their home in Olla was destroyed by fire, they were able to move into the camp home that they’d previously built on family property near his childhood home.