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Marengo County & D-Day: Giving It All

Folks my age can remember individuals and events from the great World War II, and today I’m thinking about two men connected to my cousin, Baby Fab Little, and both of them gave their all … their lives … for America in 1944.

The first one was Fab’s uncle on her mama’s side, Captain James Nettles, who graduated from law school at Alabama, and joined an elite bunch as a Marine Fighter pilot. He was highly decorated and successful in dog fights with the Japanese in the Pacific, and as fate would have it, was instructing student pilots in Florida in 1944, and was lost at sea in the Atlantic. Although I felt as though I always knew him, I can’t really recall meeting him face to face before he deployed.

Now, there was another dashing young man who also graduated at Alabama, joined the 101st Airborne Division, and married my and Fab’s cousin, Bea Ballow, who lived with her mama right next to where we lived in the ‘40s. Claude Wallace Jr., as I have written before, inspired me to make my first parachute jump during the Second World War. It was off the second story back steps of the Little house down the street from us. My parachute was a paper bag with string tied to it, but, as I did with several hundred military jumps many years later, I walked away from it.

On D Day, minus one 1944, First Lieutenant Wallace led part of his platoon of I Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment onto one of hundreds of waiting C47 transport planes in preparation for jumping behind the lines in France in order to disrupt German communications and reinforcements before the greatest armada of ships ever assembled disembarked American, English and Canadian troops onto the beaches at Normandy.

As the propeller driven aircraft and gliders slowly circled over England, and then headed across the English Channel, Lieutenant Wallace was wishing he could try to relax a little, and not worry about anything other than getting out of that plane before daybreak in some strange place, but he was a platoon leader, and in addition he was the jumpmaster for his stick of paratroopers. With that came added weight on his shoulders.

After what seemed like an eternity of criss-cross flying, the pilot flipped on the red light, indicating the drop zone would be in sight soon. Claude unbuckled, stood up, walked to the open door to check, and then turning toward the rear of the aircraft gave the command to “stand up,” at which time the men unbuckled, and struggled to their feet under a hundred pounds of equipment and parachute and weapons, and with the added burden of staying steady in the rocking plane.

Next came the command of “hook up,” which required another balancing act as the troops attached their parachute static line to the anchor line cable. Wallace shouted to “check equipment” and “sound off for equipment check.” By that time, the Germans were awake, and tracer bullets were zinging all around, and even into the aircraft.

Finally, at the green light, Wallace led his men into the night to face unknown dangers, but they went, they fought, and they carried the day.

Claude survived the invasion of France, as well as the drop into Holland during Operation Market Garden, but then in December 1944, his unit was ordered to truck into Belgium to the little town of Bastogne that was surrounded by thousands of German soldiers. He had just been promoted to Captain, and was company commander of I Company. The record reads that Captain Wallace sent his men to the rear, and he stayed back to be sure his men were safe resulting in the death of this former Boy Scout Master, husband and leader of men.

The earthly bodies of Captains Nettles and Wallace were never recovered, but their spirits remain not only with their families, but those spirits speak to any of their mates still living, and to anybody of any age who reads about this fighter pilot and this paratrooper, who did not shrink from giving their all 75 years ago in days gone bye.

— Tom Boggs is a columnist for the Demopolis Times and a native of Marengo County. His column,“Days Gone Bye,” appears weekly.