Wartime Memories|Luck followed Elmo Allen from Vicksburg to the danger zone

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 13, 2009

This is the final in a two-part series based on his memories.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

“I got ignorance and patriotism confused,” Elmo Allen said. When the United States entered World War II, he joined the Navy “along with the rest of the world,” but it was for six years, not four. When the war broke out, a bunch of us met at Central Smoke House and went to Jackson to join. We stood in a line that stretched over a block. There were lines for the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines. When we got to the head of the line, we found out we were in the wrong one, and we had to go back and start all over.”

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He was given a quick medical exam and told to go home and wait. He reported to New Orleans and was sworn in Jan. 25, 1942, sent to San Diego for three weeks of boot camp and qualified for radio school. He and hundreds more were temporarily housed in the San Diego Zoo as the Navy had run out of barracks space. They were in what had been the snake house, and there were rumors of escaped reptiles. A new recruit would go to sleep only to wake up terrified — but it was just a rope being slowly pulled across his legs.

Once Elmo completed radio school, he was scheduled to be put aboard the USS Yorktown, but it was sunk at Midway, so he was instead put aboard the USS Copahee. He helped train pilots at Pearl Harbor, New Caledonia and Guadalcanal.

Aircraft carriers were the main targets in the war in the Pacific. Many were sunk, and for a while the Copahee was the only one operating in the Pacific. Elmo recalls many sad sights, and he said, “I suppose that is why, at our reunions, we always talk about and seemingly remember the good times and the wild and crazy things we did.”

While in San Diego, orders came for Elmo to be transferred to a destroyer in the Atlantic, but he was ashore at the time and missed the transfer. It was another lucky day for him, for another radioman went in his place, and a year later the ship was lost, including his replacement.

Elmo was transferred to a new destroyer-escort, the USS Edgar G. Chase, which patrolled off the Florida Coast. On June 12, 1943, they attacked a German submarine for 20 hours. At that time, a sub usually had to surface after 12 hours. When the wreckage came to the top, the American crew thought they had scored. The boat was the U-190, and later they found it had escaped.

“Many years later, I was able to locate a German submarine sailer who had served on the U-190,” Elmo said. “It is rather ironic that we spent 20 hours trying to kill each other and today we are good friends. He is Rudi Rauch who married an English girl and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. We talk with each other two or three times a year. Today we can laugh about what happened one day way back in June 1943.”

They call themselves “shipmates forever.”

There were harrowing times, being on a destroyer escort, and there were numerous narrow escapes. While other ships and convoys went down, Elmo recalls that, “Good luck seemed to follow us wherever we went.”

He was in the North African port of Mers-el-Kebir when word came that Germany had surrendered, and Elmo read a copy of it over the PA system. The port was full of ships of all kinds, from many nations, he said, “and very soon all the guns were being fired into the air and it became very dangerous to be on the main deck because ‘what goes up must come down.’ Naturally all of us who could be spared went ashore and did some big-time celebrating. He’ll never forget the man, who later starred in Broadway shows, standing on the table singing “The Marsailles.” And no serviceman was allowed to spend a dime — all were treated.

Before he could be reassigned, Elmo was given his second leave and began hitchhiking to Vicksburg from Charleston. He was passing through Livingston, Ala., when he stopped at a small cafe for a beer.

“I was sitting there at the bar, enjoying my beer, listening to the radio when suddenly there was an announcement — ‘Japan has surrendered — the war is over.’ A very large woman grabbed me from behind, jerked my 165 pounds off the stool and started screaming and dancing me all over the place. This went on for several minutes until an announcement was made over the radio that Japan had not surrendered, that the previous announcement was in error. The woman released me, and I finished my beer and got out of there.”

Elmo said, “She damned near killed me. My skivvy shirt tail came out. She just about stripped me. She was jumping up and down, shouting, ‘The war is over, the war is over.’ I thought, ‘God, I’ve been through the war, and now I’m gonna get killed in Livingston, Ala.’”

He knew the war was almost over and hoped it would end while he was at home. He and his friend Charles O’Connor, also home on leave, were walking along Cherry Street when they saw Joe Marsicano, a neighbor from over on Main Street. He had a son, Joe Jr., 18, and had just received word that the boy had been killed in action. The two servicemen tried to console him, and the three sat on the curb crying.

When the war ended, Elmo was at Tolar’s Cafe where everyone there was “celebrating full blast, including me.”

Elmo’s mother told him that during the war the ladies in the area would gather on the porch in the afternoon, and the sight of a Western Union boy on his bicycle would cast a quietness over them, for often that was an omen, as the next of kin was notified by telegram when someone died in service. Twice, his mother was notified that Elmo’s brother  Tommy had been wounded. Another friend, Toots Dennis, a Marine, was home when his mother got word of his death — only Toots was there to take the message!

After the war ended, Elmo still had two years and three months left to serve. He had shore duty in San Diego for a year, then was on board the USS Compton during the Cold War. He was discharged Dec. 1, 1947, Radioman First Class. He came home, bought an Indian Chief motorcycle and later a Buick Super convertible and was “having the time of my life.” He worked for a civil engineering firm, Clarke and Flohr, helping survey the Vicksburg airport, making $1 an hour. He met Bertha “Bert” Nelson, a nursing student at the Vicksburg Hospital from Panana City. They married Jan. 29, 1949.

Soon, he was hired by the CAA (later called the FAA) and assigned to Air Traffic Control at Key West. He transferred to Dallas, was recalled by the Navy when the Korean War broke out and was discharged in January 1952.

In December 1953, Elmo came home for his father’s funeral, the day the tornado hit, Dec. 5. He and his wife worked at Mercy Hospital, and Elmo recalls taking the Rev. Aiken from Christ Church to the hospital, and helping carry several dead children from the wreckage. Along with hundreds of others, he dug in the rubble of collapsed stores searching for bodies or survivors.

He transferred to Muscle Shoals, Ala., Greenville, S.C., Augusta, Ga., and finally to Jackson where he spent six years at Hawkins Field with the FAA and 16 at Jackson International Airport. He later went back to work there for another year before retiring with 37 years of government service. He now works three days a week, “just for something to do.” Though Emo has owned several planes, he no longer pilots. His license is still valid, he said, but he hasn’t had a current physical.

He taught flight instruction and had two terrible aircraft crashes, both crop dusters that burned — but again he survived.

In 1973, Bert lost her life in a car accident. Elmo met Katherine Williams from Kosciusko, who owned a plane; they married. Elmo has three children by Bert. Linda and Laura have followed in her footsteps and are RNs. Larry, like his dad, is an air traffic controller.

Elmo recalls World War II as the worst and the best of times. He has many friends he made in those days, but also others were lost. Most of the boys in his neighborhood died, and Elmo said in all there were about 35 boys he knew from Vicksburg who were casualties.

Something he wanted was a memorial to all from Vicksburg and Warren County who lost their lives in the war. He tried to get the Veterans of Foreign Wars interested, and in 1985 they put him in charge of the project. He was a one-man committee who began making plans, gathering names, spending untold hours and 26 trips to Vicksburg to make sure the job was done. Finally, on a day in May 1986, with generals and elected officials present, the Army Band playing, and a flyover, the monument in the Rose Garden on Monroe Street was dedicated.

Nearby, a woman sat in front of the old library building, sobbing, and Elmo went to try to console her. It was Joe Marsicano’s mother; he was the 18-year-old boy who had died 41 years earlier, just before the war ended. She said her tears were of joy, for she had reached up and touched Joe’s name and had a feeling that she was actually touching him.

“We both had a good cry,” Elmo said.

Whenever Elmo comes to Vicksburg, he drives by the monument and reflects on the names of his friends carved there. He’s justifiably proud of his role and of the personal letter he received from President Ronald Reagan.

Though he has some friends still around who were in World War II, he says, he is “damned near the last of the Mohicans.”