Memorial Day: Time to remember

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 30, 2005

This Memorial Day, Helen Partridge of Demopolis will be honoring not one, but two veterans. The twice-widowed woman lost her first husband in World War II, and many years later married another veteran.

“I met my first husband, Robert Lamar Williams, when he was taking flight instruction in Tuscaloosa,” Partridge explained. Williams had just graduated from West Point and Partridge was a junior at the University of Alabama.

On Oct. 12, 1940, after Williams completed flight school, the couple were married and moved to Montgomery where Williams was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base. During that time, he received his flight wings.

“Of course, it wasn’t the Air Force then,” Partridge explained, noting the pre-war name for what is now the Air Force was the Army Air Corps.

In March 1941, the couple moved to McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

“It was just under construction then,” Partridge said. “It didn’t have any paved roads and only had two hangars.”

During that time, Partridge gave birth to their first and only child, Robert Lamar Williams Jr.

Then Pearl Harbor happened.

“There were three families on the base that had babies and the night before Pearl Harbor a practical nurse kept them so the families could go out,” Partridge said. She said the couples went out to dinner and took in a little dancing before coming home and sleeping in the next morning.

“We got up and read in the paper where Pearl Harbor had been bombed,” she said. “We received a call that said Bob had been put on alert. A few hours later they called and said he had temporary orders to leave for Savannah Air Force Base.”

Though families were not to follow, Partridge said her husband later called her from Savannah and said they were flying patrols over the waters off the Eastern coast and he felt they might be a while.

“He said he didn’t see why we couldn’t come up there and at least spend what time we could together,” she said. “So I gave up our rental house, packed up the baby and our things and drove to Savannah.”

But things were not to work out the way the young couple planned.

“When I arrived at the Air Force Base in Savannah they wouldn’t let me on base because I didn’t have clearance. Security was tight because of the war,” she said. “I asked them to let me use the phone and I called Bob. He said they had just been ordered back to Tampa.”

Williams received special permission to drive his family back to Tampa instead of taking the train with the other soldiers, but not long after returning to Tampa, he received orders that his troop was headed out again.

“The first week of January (1942), they left for an unknown location for extended field duty,” she said. Williams had a stopover where he picked up a new B17 bomber, “one of the first ones with a tailgun. The ones before that did not have tailguns,” she said.

The crew was leaving from Tampa, which Partridge said was a jumping off point for tours in the Pacific. She didn’t know where he was headed, but actually learned of his destination later from a magazine article.

“He joined the 19th bomber group and he let the crew name his plane,” she said. “They named it ‘Charlotte the Harlot,” from some song that was popular back then. Chuckling as she remembered, Partridge said she later read an article in Cosmopolitan ladies magazine about the bomber group and their plane.

“That’s how I found out where he was,” she said. Where he was turned out to be an internal location in Australia, which was apparently a launching spot for flights to the Guata Canal, where the Japanese were launching their attacks from.

Then, on a stormy night in September 1942, Williams went out on a mission and did not return.

“Nine planes went out that night, three failed to return,” Partridge said. “They found and rescued the crews of two of the planes, but Bob’s plane was never found.”

Partridge said a young man by the name of John Carpenter, who later became Commanding Officer of the training school at Maxwell AFB, flew to Tuscaloosa where Partridge had been staying with her family to tell her the news.

Robert Jr. was just over a year old, and had not seen his father since he was six months old.

Still young, but undaunted, the now single mother moved back with her parents permanently and decided to go back to school. After taking several business classes she was told of a new hospital, Northington Hospital, that was being built. She took a job at the new hospital in the medical supply office, eventually working her way up to chief clerk.

Circumstances led her to leave that job and return to school once again, where she earned a degree in Early Childhood Education.

Despite her success and the several years that had passed since Williams was listed as missing in action, Partridge said she found it hard to give up hope.

“I kept hoping he was going to come back,” she said. “They didn’t declare him dead until January 1946. Many of the others who were lost in the war were declared after a year or so, so I thought maybe they knew something they weren’t telling me.”

But sadly, following the end of the war, she received notice that the military had official declared her husband as killed in action. Because of his bravery and actions during the war, Williams received several commendations, all of which are neatly displayed in a shadow box on Partridge’s wall.

Pointing to each one, she described what they are and why he received them, beginning with the Silver Star.

“He got that for gallantry in battle,” she said. “During one of the bombing missions something happened to the oxygen in the tailgunner section and the gunner passed out. Bob flew down to a lower altitude so the boy could be revived, but he went on the make the bombing run where a lot of people would have turned back.”

Williams also received a Purple Heart.

Shortly after Partridge received word that her husband had been declared dead, a friend called and asked if she had begun dating again. The friend explained that her cousin, who was selling fertilizer, came to Tuscaloosa frequently on business and asked if Partridge might be interested.

“I told her ‘if you think I’d enjoy his company I might as well,'” Partridge said. The man’s name was Charles Steele Partridge Jr. and he had served in the military for many years after volunteering for the draft in 1940.

The couple hit if off, and on Aug. 18, 1946 they were married.

“Bob was five when we married, but Steele always treated him like he was his own son,” she said. Steele, who had been born and raised in Demopolis, moved his new family here and over the years the couple had three more children – Daisy Helen Richardson, Julia Anne Buckley and Charles Steele (Charlie) Partridge III.

Steele Partridge had initially volunteered for a year of service, but Pearl Harbor caught him as well.

“Just before his year was up, Pearl Harbor happened and he had to stay in,” she said. The young private used the extra time to his advantage, however, attending Officer Candidate School and earning the title of major.

Partridge worked his way into an administrative position with a medical unit and served until the war ended. He had gotten out of the military by the time he and Helen married, but that didn’t keep her from having to see another husband off to war.

“He had finished with the military and was not active, but was alerted for service in the Korean Conflict,” she said. Though he was administrative and was not directly involved in combat, Partridge said it did not stop the worry.

But this husband came home, and from his years of service had earned a Bronze Star.

“That was for his service in World War II,” she explained. “He served on a lot of islands in the Pacific.”

So after not one, but two husbands who dedicated their service to their country, how does Helen Partridge view Memorial Day.

“You reminisce, you think,” she said. “I always fly my flag, but it’s really not a celebration to me.”

She encouraged people to thank those who have served and are serving now.

“We need to thank our veterans,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see our young men being lost, but I think the United States does not appreciate the Armed Forces and what they do.”