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Yalobusha Historical Society Minutes – March 19, 2009

Robert Owen “Red” Riddick

  The Yalobusha Historical Society held its monthly meeting March 19 in its headquarters, the Presbyterian Church in Coffeeville. There were 49 members and guests present, representing seven counties.

  John Moorman, Vice-president and Chaplain, opened the meeting with prayer. He welcomed everyone, especially the speaker and the visitors. John told of the recent death of one of the Society’s most devoted (and loved) members, Lenora Howe Fly, who loved the Society dearly. She will truly be missed. Pat Brooks, Treasurer, reported that several donations have been received in Lenora’s memory, and also for Jewel Kilgore Wilbourn. Condolences are extended to the families of these two ladies, and gratitude is expressed to the ones who sent donations. The Society’s address is: YHS, Box 258, Coffeeville, MS 38922. Membership dues will be increased from $15.00 to $20.00 on April 1, and covers the calendar year. Copies of Chris Morgan’s book “Yalobusha Bound” are still available at the cost of $69.00, shipped.

  Program Chairman Opal Wright introduced the day’s speaker, Robert Owen “Red” Riddick, of Batesville and Birmingham, AL. Red has been asked to provide a little background information to use in his introduction. His reply was “Aww, just tell ’em Ol’ Red Riddick is gonna talk.” Indeed, Red needed no introduction to most of those present, as he is a ‘hometown boy” and his family was one of the best-known (and well thought of) in the community. His father, “Mr. Henry,” was a long-time pharmacist at J. H. Bates Drugstore, his mother and sister, “Miss Eleanor” and Janie Young Riddick, worked next door at The Bank of Coffeeville. His father’s sister, “Miss Lummie,” was a teacher at Coffeeville School for many years. His brother, Billy, was a rural mail carrier. Billy’s wife, Dot, was a long-time member of the Society, and served as Treasurer for many years. Red’s sister, Virginia (McCormick) worked at the County Health Dept. All the Riddicks were active in the Presbyterian Church, the very building we are meeting in.

  Red graduated from Coffeeville High School in 1939. He married Aileen Taylor of Batesville, and they had two sons, Taylor and Owen. They lived in Coffeeville, but after Aileen’s death a few years ago, Red moved to Batesville. After his military service, Red worked for J. H. Oliver Hardware in Grenada, retiring after 38 years employment there. Two ladies who worked in the office during that time were present at this meeting: Nan Cottingham of Grenada and Mary Ellen Landreth Jones, of Hazlehurst. (This writer’s husband, Lorenza Miller, worked with Red for 22 years )

Red’s program was based on his World War Two military service. He brought along pictures, maps and military history books to display. As we all know, WW2 began on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The U. S. declared war on Japan, and also on Germany, who was already at war with England. Red’s focus was on his time in heavy combat during the summer of 1944, in the Normandy Invasion. He held the audience spellbound as he vividly described the day-to-day activities of his unit. One could almost feel the rush of adrenalin among the troops, and hear and smell the rifle and artillery fire blazing around them.

Red, not wanting to wait until the Draft called him, enlisted in the Army in early 1942, at the age of 20. He spoke of the various camps he was sent to, leading up to the voyage across the Atlantic in 1944. He compared the war to a game – a very serious war game, that is. In a sports game, each side has a coach, assistant coaches, players and back-up players, or replacements. The Army team has officers, soldiers and back-up troops, or replacements. Red said he was one of the latter, replacing men who had been killed or wounded. Now, the Germans already had a team, Red said, and invited the U. S. to ‘play.’ The battle between the two teams had raged for three years before the ‘big game’ in June of 1944, “D-Day.” This was the Normandy Invasion, and Red was one of the ‘players’ in that crucial contest. (and his team came out the winner!)

  Red was in camp in Alabama when he got orders to report to Camp Miles Standish in Boston, Massachusetts on April 18, 1944. He rode a train to this camp, and on May 3, along with 3,000 other troops, boarded an English ship, “The Sentinel,” I believe, and joined a convoy of 52 ships being sent to England. The fleet was protected by many destroyers, but lost two ships on the way over. Red’s account of the trip brought chuckles from the audience. He said he thought he would be smart, and chose a hammock on the bottom. He realized he had made a great mistake when the men above started getting seasick! Red found himself a bunk on top, and fortunately, was one of the few who did not become seasick. The food served on the ship was British – mutton, rhubarb and other unfamiliar foods. One particular dish that Red remembers vividly was a huge bowl of hot milk, with a mackerel in it – the head sticking out one side over the bowl, the tail out the other. And so, Red said, EVERYBODY got sick! It was at this time that Red made friends with a young man from Tennessee – Billy Hannah. They remained together throughout the summer of 1944.

The ship landed in Liverpool on May 16.   Then, the troops went by train to an encampment on a sandy beach, but he doesn’t know the name of the camp. He remembers the tents that were in place, with sand floors and wooden walkways between the tents. They were then ordered to go to France on June 16. They ship anchored off the coast of France two days later. They were loaded on small boats, 30 men to a boat, and landed just like the troops in the initial invasion, but had to wade water in to shore. They did not get shot at like the troops who landed on the Normandy beaches, however.

  Red was one of a ‘package’ of 250 men, replacements for the men who had been killed or wounded in the ‘game’ so far. The Army had these packages lined up, one behind the other, and as one group advanced, another came in behind them. Red was assigned to an Infantry unit. Now, in sports, a football team is issued jerseys, helmets, shoulder pads, spiked shoes, etc. Red said his uniform consisted of an olive drab uniform, a field jacket, a cartridge pack, an M-1 rifle, and a steel helmet. Then there was the backpack, holding a blanket and shaving gear. He was given two bandoliers of ammunition for the M-1. He then walked for six days to be assigned to an outfit. This was all part of the Fourth Division, which had made the initial landing of D-Day. The plans called for the ships to sail to the deep-water harbor at the French city of Cherbourg on the other side of the English Channel. The Germans had huge defense positions with artillery that could shoot 15 miles. The objective was to destroy these positions. Red, however did not experience combat until June 25, 12 days after he landed. He said everything was taken from him except his M-1 rifle and his cartridge belt. The belt also contained a first-aid kit, canteen, and little patches for the clips for the rifle. There were only 16 men left in Red’s group, the others having been given other assignments. Red said a long, tall soldier,  a first sergeant, I believe, who hadn’t shaved since D-Day, stepped out of the bushes and told the men “Six of you follow me.” Red was the first to step up, and his buddy, 18-year old Billy Hannah, was one of the six. They were in Company A, 22nd Reg’t of the 4th Division.

The sergeant led them down through the bushes to a mortar position, and Red and Billy were dropped off there. It was about midnight, and they thought they were being smart to choose the first two-hour watch in the foxhole, but ended up staying all night, as nobody came to relieve them. German shells were going off all around, flying over their heads all night. They could tell when a man got hit, as they heard calls for a medic. This was Red’s first day in combat, in a rifle company that stayed several hundred yards behind the rifle company on the first line. During the day, the front line had attacked and captured a huge German defensive position, and covered about 50 miles, leading into the city. Red’s line then moved to the front, and secured the remaining miles to Cherbourg. The mission of his unit was to capture the airfield on the outskirts of the city. The Germans had all kinds of artillery, and the fire was intense on the advancing troops. At one point, Red hit the sandy ground, flat on his stomach, trying to escape the bullets. He had his rifle in his left hand and a shovel in the other. Ever so often, he fired his rifle, and kept on digging himself a hole. 

  Things quieted down somewhat, and then, he saw two men approaching. They would run 30 feet or so, then hit the ground. One would get up, run a piece, hit the ground, and the other, a General, would follow. The General was Theodore Roosevelt, son of “Teddy” and a cousin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was then President. Red said this was one of only two Generals he saw the whole time he was in combat. Seems that Gen. Roosevelt, the Assistant Commander of the 4th Division, had landed with the troops on D-Day, and had tried three times to be sent to the front, but was told that he was too important to lose. He finally told the Commander that if he didn’t give him permission, he would call his cousin, FDR, who, of course, was President at the time. So, he was allowed to go. The General stopped and talked to Red and the other men, and some time after that, Red got another surprise. He saw this fellow, a First Sergeant, strutting toward him. He kept looking at him, and when he got within 15 or 20 feet of him, he could tell that he looked familiar. Red yelled to him “Hey, I’m ol’ Red Riddick from Coffeeville – who are you?” the man answered “I’m Hardy Chapman from Coffeeville.” Now, Red knew the Chapman family, of course, and had visited their home in the Shiloh community. Hardy had twin sisters, Eva and Edith, and Red was one of the ‘boys’ courting them, or their sisters, Grace and Jenny Lou. The boys  would go out to see them late in the day, but they couldn’t go anywhere until they milked the cows. So, he volunteered to milk the cows while they got dressed, and off they would go. Red and the twins graduated together, and their class picture hangs on the wall in the church fellowship hall. Red saw Hardy several more times. He was First Sergeant in Company B, and was wounded in the War.

The airfield was captured, and the fighting continued. Red told about the hedgerows around the small fields, formed when the farmers cleared the land of rocks and stacked them around the edge of the field. Eventually, the hedgerows became overgrown with weeds and bushes, and were usually four or five feet high. These hedgerows were used by the Germans to their advantage. They would dig a hole, put artillery in place, and shoot at the advancing troops.. Red spoke of two scouts who were sent out to investigate a German pillbox, which had a white flag flying over it. This was a trick, however, and the scouts were shot and killed. The Germans started shooting with everything they had. The Americans were behind other hedgerows, but the Germans would pick them off if they showed themselves. Red said he lay behind another hedgerow, as the shells flew over him, so he crawled down to the end of the hedgerow, out into an oat field, where he couldn’t be seen. Then he heard it – the sound of a huge tank, heading right toward him. He crawled back, jumped back over the hedgerow just in time, but the tank took a direct hit and was blown to pieces, on the other side of he hedgerow where he lay.

 About this time, Red saw his squad leader jump over the hedgerow, running back to another hedgerow. The other gunner dropped his gun and ran, too. So, Red said, he was left behind, but not for long. He dropped his gun and took off running, too. He said it might sound bad to say he ran, but he learned to do what the seasoned troops did, and if they were running, he was right there with them. But, when he got behind the hedgerow, the other men were not there. Red did get reunited with his squad, though, and they never knew he was gone, he said.

The German pillbox was captured, and 470 Germans surrendered. The unit’s mission was accomplished with the capture of Cherbourg. The troops reorganized, and the plan was to attack toward the southern end of the peninsula on which Cherbourg is located. Now, the squad leader and gunner who ran, and Red followed, were nowhere to be found, so Red was made squad leader. Here is what Red said about that: “Now, here I am, two days into combat, and I’m gonna be squad leader – they didn’t know I RAN the day before!” (Red’s rank went from Sergeant to Lieutenant. The transition is called a “battlefield commission) Red’s buddy, Billy Hannah, moved up behind him and was made gunner. This was in July, and they were still in hedgerow country, and the weather was still very hot when they started south. The hedgerows were still a problem, as tanks could not cross over them. But an inventive English sergeant solved the problem. He put together some steel bars and plates, had them welded to the front of a tank, and when it came to a hedgerow, the tank was put in second gear, and just plowed right through.

  The fighting was tough, the lines moved slowly, and many men were lost. So it was decided to ‘make an end run,’ (as in a football game) and try something that had never been done before – bring in 3,000 planes to drop bombs ahead of the lines. This was on July 25, and was called “the Saint Lo breakthrough.” Unfortunately, some of the bombs were dropped too close to the front line, and 816 men in the 30th Division were killed. Red’s Regiment was detached to join the Second Armored Division. The men were trained to fight from tanks and continue the action on the ground. Red described how they fought from hill to hill, creek to creek, etc. until September. There were still other battles to be fought and won, but Red ran out of time. He said that after the War, he was asked if he saw General Patton, and he said he did. Also, did he go in on D-Day – he did not. And then this question “Did you take part in the Battle of the Bulge?” (it was in January of 1945) and his answer was “No, II was lying up between two white sheets and there were two pretty girls, one sitting on each side of my hospital bed” Then, almost casually, he said “I got wounded.”  He even remembered the names of those two pretty nurses. (Red did go back into combat some time later)

  Red didn’t have time to tell of his experience the rest of the War, but as you can see, he had a lot to tell about that summer of 1944, and it is probable that the rest of his service time was just as dangerous and exciting. The Society is deeply grateful to Red for sharing his story, and we hope he can come back and tell us, as the late Paul Harvey would say, ‘the rest of the story.’ (Red got a standing ovation from the audience)

 The April 16 program will be brought by Dr. Harry Owens, of Oxford, a retired history professor at Ole Miss. His subject will be “Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.” The public is invited to all Society meetings.

ATTENDING: Pat Brooks, Betty R. Miller, Nan Cottingham, Mary Ellen Landreth Jones, Yola Bailey, Joyce Williams, “Red” Riddick, Julia Fernandez, B. B. Billingsly, Opal Wright, Tom and Alma Moorman, Billie Rotenberry, Bobby and Marie Pittman, Frances S. Johnson, Maxine Johnson, Carl Vick, John Moorman, Bill and Nanette Sissell, Pauline L. Hughes, Ruth F. Richmond, Bobby and Bobbie Hutchins, Dave Hovey, Hugh Bill McGuire, Marge Kilgore, Billie L. Shaw, Jean Scobey, David Scobey, Ida Mae Jones, Sarah H. Williams, Alice G. Landreth, Kathryn French, Kay F. Rodick, Nell Cox, Cynthia Dodge, Frances Stewart, Marie Hardy, Lois Mitchell, Bill Benoist, Thelma Rae Harbour, Lena Jones, Mary Sue Stevens, Janie Womble, James Person, Jean Bailey Kirk and her granddaughter.


Betty R. Miller

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