Boys of Company B uncork prized bourbon

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Members of Company B, 106th Engineers Association stand together at their 64th anniversary celebration Monday afternoon. They are, from left, Howard Findley, Charles Gastrell, Grover Sanders, Vincent “Woozie” Bonelli, Charles “Mac” McClelland, Dick Jacobson, Ed Clark, Ed Pugh and Trellis Green. (Brian LodenThe Vicksburg Post)

[11/30/04]The first guardsmen to leave Vicksburg for World War II decided Monday not to wait until only two survived to open a bottle they’d been saving until then.

Nine of the 75 members of the Mississippi National Guard’s Company B, 106th Engineer Combat Battalion, gathered to celebrate the 64th anniversary of their departure for what became, in most cases, at least five to six years of active duty including all of World War II.

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Ed Clark, 85, a member of the unit, had placed a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon in a wooden box 20 years ago. Inscribed brass plates on the box’s top mark the bottle as the company’s “Last Man Bottle,” have the company’s battle cry, “Company B, by God!” and dedicate the bottle “To our comrades that has gone before us.”

Talk since then among company alumni, who have gathered regularly including at annual meetings, has been that the last two surviving members of the company were to drink a toast of bourbon, as company members had done at their first annual banquet, in 1939.

“By the time they get down to the last two, they’re not going to be able to pick up a glass,” Clark said.

So the men decided to open the bottle Monday, with nine of the 21 surviving members plus wives and guests in attendance at Maxwell’s Restaurant. Those who partook, took only a taste and 90 percent of the bottle remains for future gatherings.

“We waited until after the meal,” Clark said. “None of us needed this on an empty stomach.”

Most of the company’s members were either students at the former Carr Central High School or employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ then-new Waterways Experiment Station when they joined the Mississippi National Guard.

Some of the younger members lied about their age to get in since they were not yet the required minimum age of 18.

“We were signing up mainly because our cohorts were, and the money came in handy,” said Charles “Mac” McClelland of Jackson, who was a 10th-grader when he joined in 1939.

It was around then that war was beginning to break out in Europe and top U.S. military officials were beginning to make preparations for war.

The company met Tuesday nights for two hours at their armory, the former Main Street School on the site of the current Municipal Auditorium. All but three of them were enlisted men, and they were paid $1 a week, in quarterly checks of $13.

Some who fudged about their ages were found out after they had joined, but Army officers sometimes looked the other way. The Army’s plan then was to build up its strength to 1.5 million men from a much smaller peacetime force.

Congress approved the Selective Service and Training Act, the first peacetime draft in the country’s history, in the fall of 1940. The U.S. entered the war after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I knew I’d be drafted, and I’d rather serve with my buddies,” McClelland said.

The company was begun in 1934, with Capt. C.R. Warndorf of WES its instigator and top officer. In the fall of 1940, with war approaching, it was federalized, into the 31st Infantry “Dixie” Division, which also included guardsmen from Alabama and Florida.

The company boarded a train at the former Cherry Street Depot on Nov. 25, 1940, for Camp Blanding, Fla., which was just being built as the Army was rapidly expanding its training capacity.

As some of the Army’s more-experienced soldiers at the time, the members of Company B were separated into training “cadres,” each of which formed the nucleus of and helped train a new unit of recruits or draftees. The cadres were sent to locations across the country

Vincent “Woozie” Bonelli of Vicksburg, who worked at WES before and after the war, commented Monday on some of the regional differences Company B members found when placed in charge of training recruits from elsewhere in the country.

“We had to show them how to use an ax,” Bonelli said of some of the trainees from larger cities. “We trained them, and they made good troops.”

Former members of Company B served in all theaters of the war, including Europe, Asia, the South Pacific and North Africa.

Seven members of the company died during the war, and a monument to them is in a downtown Vicksburg rose garden.

Of the members who survived, several stayed in the military after the war, with three rising to the rank of brigadier general and several others to colonel and lieutenant colonel, said the chairman of the Company B alumni group, Ed Pugh of Jackson.

Many transferred to other units, including to the Army Air Corps.

“We used to have a rifle on one shoulder and a shovel on the other,” said Charles Gastrell, who left Company B in 1942 for the Air Corps, where he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying over 600 hours over the Himalayan Mountains in the theater of the war that included India, China and Burma. “The Air Force was a better life.”

Gastrell retired as a major after 31 years of service, much of which was in Washington, D.C., and returned to Vicksburg.

Dick Jacobson of Vicksburg also left the company in 1942, to go to the Army’s Officer Candidate School for engineers at Fort Belvoir, Va. He said he became a captain and a military-intelligence supervisor, interpreting aerial photographs among other intelligence, and was at Normandy about two weeks after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. He returned to Vicksburg and worked at the LeTourneau and Southwest Potash companies before his retirement.

When the war ended with Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, only about four men from Vicksburg remained in Company B.