JACKSON – Small Mississippi towns such as Falkner sent the cream of their young men off for military service during World War II – either as draftees (courtesy of the county’s Selective Service board) or as volunteers for one branch or another.
Perhaps seven decades later we need to be reminded that in WWII 16 million Americans were placed under arms and fought on land and sea an unprecedented two-ocean war to defeat a massive military machine that the Axis powers – Germany and Japan – had methodically constructed to (God forbid) control every nation on our planet.
As I have on occasions told my readers, I fought for two years in that war as a gunnery officer aboard a Navy destroyer in the Pacific theater. Our primary mission as part of Task Force 58 was to guard the aircraft carriers from pesky Japanese aircraft or submarines as we slowly drove the Japanese back to their homeland. Finally, the A-bomb was the coup de’ gras.
Of course, while my experiences were confined to the war on the Eastern side of the globe, I’m fully aware that thousands of other American servicemen were engaged in a massive ground war to liberate Western Europe. So I am pleased to write about the experiences of an Army veteran who fought in Europe on the same land where ironically three decades before Americans and the allies had fought what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars.
This is the story of Thomas Berlin Cross (called Berlin) as told in a memoir by his son, Harold A. Cross. Now retired as a major general, Harold had a 40-year military career that included a 2004-2008 stint as Mississippi’s adjutant general.
Berlin, before being drafted into the Army at age 34, had grown cotton with his father on rented land in rural Tippah County. After returning from war, Berlin went back to growing cotton, but then as a farm owner. Harold writes that back in Falkner, his father never laid claim to being a war hero and was reluctant about talking about his war experience in Western Europe.
In short, however, the elder Cross’ military career was anything but dull. Though fundamentally an Army cook, he wasn’t your ordinary hash-slinger. If you ever heard of a combat cook that would more aptly describe his war service. As a staff sergeant attached to an Engineer company of the newly-formed 106th Division, in December 1944, he found himself caught up in the monumental Battle of the Bulge in the snow-packed Ardennes Forest. His company had arrived at Shonberg and Berlin had set up his field kitchen two days before German artillery began opening up and Panzer divisions on the move could be heard. Before long, Cross became converted from cook to infantryman with a bandolier strapped on when the captain in charge of their unit ordered all hands into battle gear. After a day or so engaging advance Nazi units, Cross’ Capt. William J. Hynes realized the company had been cut off from reinforcements and so a large contingent of survivors in the company was captured by the Germans.
That was Dec. 18, 1944. At first, they were loaded into World War I vintage boxcars in a rail yard. Tragically, British bombers came along and plastered the rail yard, killing a number of Americans. Berlin Cross was one of the fortunate who survived the bombing. Afterward, the Nazis hauled off the remaining Americans to a prison camp, Stalag IV-B, which for the next four months would be their frigid “home,” fed only starvation rations. In late April when word came that the German Army had surrendered and their prison guards fled Cross, a dozen or so of his comrades simply poured out of the compound into the surrounding countryside, a motley crew in skin and bones.
Berlin’s rural skills soon came in handy for the starving Americans when they came upon a farmhouse where they found chickens and a milk cow. He was the only soldier who could milk the cow and he also displayed the art of wringing a chicken’s neck for foodstuff. It was not until April 24 that they caught up with a U.S. Army unit and were taken to a special Army hospital that cared for former POWs.
It was then that Berlin Cross got word back to his anxious wife Juanita, and three young children back in Falkner, telling them he was alive and safe. A year or so after he finally got home in June 1946, Harold came along, the Cross’ fourth child.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.