Today, June 6, 2019, is the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. This was the turning point in World War II. We have no record of the number of former FFA members who were involved in D-Day, but we do know numerous FFA member were involved. This Friday Footnote (a day early by design) will feature some of those former FFA members involved in D-Day.
For those who need a little history refresher course, one of the greatest military operations in our history, D-Day started on June 6, 1944. American, British and Canadian forces, some 156,115 strong landed on five benches (codenamed - Utah, Omaha, Gold, June, and Sword) along a 50 mile stretch of France’s Normandy region. The goal was to liberate Western Europe which was under the control of the Germans. After landing they were going to liberate France, then Belgium and then advance on Germany.
The assault involved 6,939 naval craft, 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders. It is estimated that the Germans had planted 4 million land mines along the beaches and had heavily fortified bunkers along the coastline. The fighting was ferocious. The allies lost 4,413 people in the initial assault in Normandy and the losses totaled 226,000 by the end of August as the allied forces advanced inland. This action resulted in the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis. Less than a year later, May 7, 1945, the Germans surrendered. Note: The D in D-Day is a military term to designate the launch date for an operation; other than that is has no other meaning. (Reference 1)
Following are true stories of FFA members engaged in D-Day. Some survived and returned home. Others gave the ultimate sacrifice.
James Elbert Byrd. James enlisted in the Army in 1941. He served as an infantry scout with Patton’s 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division. Mr. Byrd fought in Africa to Sicily before participating in the D-Day Invasion. He fought in France and Belgium before becoming a casualty of the Battle of the Bulge. While in Belgium Mr. Byrd received one of his Bronze Stars for discovering and directing mortar and artillery against German headquarters and ammunition depot while under intense bombardment. He subsequently lost his leg as a result of injuries sustained during the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, Mr. Byrd returned to Tennessee and spent 35+ years teaching agriculture. James was a graduate of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Mr. Byrd began his agriculture teaching career at Kittrell School in 1954. At consolidation, Mr. Byrd moved to Riverdale High School in 1972 and retired from there in 1988. During his teaching career, he served as President of the Tennessee Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association.
Mr. Byrd with FFA members.
When he died in 2010 the family asked that memorials be made to the James E. Byrd Future Farmers of America Scholarship Fund at Regions Bank in Murfreesboro. (Reference 2)
John L. (Jack) McMullen. Jack was a graduate of Largo High School in Florida. He was a member of the FFA and showed cattle. He was captain of the football team, president of the Senior class and National Honor Society, and was a delegate to the National FFA Convention.
Jack was one of the first FFA members to engage the enemy in Normandy. He was a paratrooper in the famous 101st Airborne, known as the Screaming Eagles. He jumped into Normandy on June 6, 1944 - D-Day. Being a paratrooper was sort of like being a sitting duck on your way down. Later, he jumped into Holland in Operation Market Garden. He was also at Bastogne, where he received a battlefield commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. For his contributions in WWII, he was awarded the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and two Presidential Unit Citations.
After the war, Jack returned to the University of Florida and graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture. Jack began dairy farming in 1952 in Pinellas County, later moving his dairy to Hillsborough County. He farmed 650 acres and eventually was milking a herd of 500 cows. He was instrumental in the formation of the Tampa Independent Dairy Farmers Association and served as president for many years. He was president of the Florida Dairy Farmers Federation and Dairy Farmers Incorporated. He served on the boards of the National Milk Producers Federation, American Dairy Association National and American Dairy Association of Florida. He is a member of the Florida Dairy Hall of Fame.
There is a video interview of Mr. McMullen in the Library of Congress. He died in 2008 at the age of 84.(Reference 3)
Alfred Lowell Bussell. Al was an FFA officer at Kern County Union High School (Now Bakersfield High School) in California. He graduated from high school in 1942 and enlisted in the Army in May 1944. In the fall of 1944 In the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, his company was overrun by the enemy and Al was captured by the Germans. The battle for the Huertgen was the longest and bloodiest battle fought in Europe during World War II.
Al was held as a prisoner of war at Stalag 111A Luckenwalde in Germany. The camp was liberated April 22, 1945 and he returned to the U. S. in June, 1945. He was awarded two Bronze Stars, a POW Medal and a Mid-East African European Medal. After the war, his regiment was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for bravery during the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Huertgen Forest.
From early childhood, farming was his only vocational ambition. After the war, Al returned to Bakersfield and started his farming career. Al was named Kern County’s Outstanding Young Farmer in 1958, the first of a number of awards earned for excellence in farming, including, one year, Germain Seeds highest-yield corn acreage in the nation. Over time, Bussell converted a portion of his farm from conventional farming methods to a pick-your-own operation, the Al Bussell Ranch, which, until it closed, was one of the largest you-pick-farms in California.
Al died of cancer in 2004 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (Reference 4)
Emiel W. Owens. Emile was an African American and attended a small segregated rural school near Austin, Texas. When he enrolled at Prairie View A&M in 1940 with a major in agriculture he became involved with the New Farmers of America.
In 1943, he was drafted into the army, landing in England in August 1944. Ten days later he was on Omaha Beach. By November 3 Owens and his unit were supporting the 30th Infantry Division as it attacked German towns and cities leading into the Ruhr Pocket and the Huertgen Forest.
Emiel served in the 777th Field Artillery which was involved in actions from Omaha Beach to the occupation army in the Philippines. Like the rest of the U.S. Army at the time, the 777th was a segregated unit.
After the War Owens returned to Prairie View and finished his B.S. degree in agriculture. He then taught a veterans agriculture class in Leon County for a short amount of time before returning to Prairie View to earn a Master’s degree where he taught ornamental horticulture while working on his M.S. He then went to graduate school at Ohio State University, since universities in his home state were still closed to African Americans. He earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics in 1951, which led to a productive academic and consulting career. He died in 2008.
Emiel wrote a book about his life and military career that was published by the Texas A&M University Press. The title is Blood on German Snow: An African American Artilleryman in World War II and Beyond. He also wrote Peacocks of the Field: The Working Lives of Migrant Farm Workers. He lived with a family of migrant workers for a year and followed them up the East coast. (Reference 5)
Lucien Paul Laborde. In 1933 Lucien served as state President of the Louisiana Future Farmers of America and was the first recipient of the American Farmer Degree from Louisiana. After graduating from Marksville High School in 1933 he enrolled at LSU where he graduated with B.S. degrees in Agronomy and Animal Husbandry. While at LSU he was President of AGR Fraternity, student President of the College of Agriculture, and Commander of the Corps of Cadets.
He served in the U. S. Army infantry during World War II as an officer in the 115th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. He landed on Omaha Beach the morning of D-Day, also fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the crossing of the Rhine at Julich, Germany. He retired from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, having been decorated with the Bronze Star, the French Croix De Guerre, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the Distinguished Unit Citation Award.
He returned to Avoyelles Parish to establish Hamburg Mills Farm. He was a registered plant breeder and produced and marketed improved varieties of White Dutch and Red Clover, and developed a commercial cow-calf operation. He was a life member and past President of the Avoyelles Cattleman’s Association, a life member of the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, and President of the Louisiana Forage Council. He passed away in 2015 (Reference 6)
General James Hollingsworth. James entered Sanger High School (Texas) in the 10th grade, walking or riding his horse to class daily. He was very active in the Future Farmers of America serving as both vice president and president prior to graduation.
James attended Texas A&M University and majored in Dairy Science and Vocational Agriculture. He quickly found employment at the Texas A&M campus dairy that supported the school and the community with milk and cheese products. Given his earlier farm and FFA experience, he was soon promoted to laboratory technician and received a 25 cent pay raise. His average day began at 4 a.m. working at the A&M Dairy, followed by cadet drills, all-day classes, and concluded by returning for a final shift of work at the dairy. As a senior and member of the Corps of Cadets he served as a cadet captain on the battalion staff.
James graduated in May 1940 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and was commissioned as a reserve officer into the U.S. Army. He was called to active duty in July 1940.
His military service spanned nearly four decades, beginning with seven major campaigns from North Africa in 1942 to the fall and occupation of Berlin in 1945. During his career, he rose from a Second Lieutenant to a Lieutenant General. He was decorated for heroism many times and wounded five times.
He was wounded twice in Belgium. While in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he left the hospital without being released, was recorded AWOL (Absence Without Leave), hitchhiked from Paris to Liege, Belgium to rejoin his unit in the fight.
On one occasion Hollingsworth lined up thirty-four (34) tanks and gave a rarely used command in modern warfare, “CHARGE!” Overwhelmed by the onslaught, the Germans broke and ran, abandoning all their weapons and equipment.
His career of service continued after WWII with command positions in South Korea, Vietnam, and the United States. Once he retired from the U.S Army he served as a private consultant to the national defense industry as well as a mentor to cadets at Texas A&M University.
Who would have thought that the President of the Sanger High School FFA in North Texas who grew up working with cotton, corn, wheat, and cattle would become the most decorated military hero in the history of Texas A&M? Hollingsworth died in 2010 and is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. (Reference 7)
Statue of Hollingsworth at Texas A&M
Lester Miller. Lester was teaching agriculture at Centenary High School in South Carolina when he was called to active duty in 1942. He was in the 79th Infantry Division that landed on Utah Beach in Normandy in June of 1944. His unit fought across France and Belgium and was involved in heavy house-to-house fighting. He was killed in September of 1944. He received several citations for his bravery. First Lieutenant Miller was an agricultural education graduate from Clemson (1939) and had been active in the 4-H, FFA and Grange in high school. (Reference 8)
Lester Dale Bonawitz. Lester was in the first wave of troops to land at Normandy on June 6. He was 21 years old and was a tank mechanic. He was killed in action on June 22 in France. He was a veteran of the African, Tunisian and Sicilian campaigns. He had been an active member of the Hardin (MT) High School FFA Chapter. He had two brothers in the war who survived. (Reference 9)
Jason Cornelius Hardee. Jason was from Loris, South Carolina and was active in the FFA at Loris High School and at Clemson. He graduated from Clemson in 1940 with a degree in Agronomy. He died of wounds sustained at Normandy during the liberation of France. He was a Captain in the Army at age 23 – one of the youngest men in the Army with that rank. He received the Silver Star and Purple Heart. Make sure you read the last line in the newspaper clipping about him. (Reference 10)
Phil Fravel, Agricultural Education professor at Clemson has compiled a list of Clemson Ag Ed graduates who were killed in World War II. It is attached.
Seventy-five years ago today some of our FFA brethren lost their lives on the bloody beaches of Normandy or would soon lose their lives as they advanced into occupied enemy territory. Their lives were cut short. They did not have the chance to finish their life stories.
We see in this Footnote that those who survived D-Day went on to make major contributions as educators, agriculturalists and in the military. The information about those who lost their lives is woefully brief. What would they have accomplished if they had lived?
One should pause and thank those who were facing flying bullets 75 years ago today, but one should also think about what their own life story will say. We have the chance to write that story.
One of my favorite poets is Edgar Guest. His poem “Today” is worth considering.
TODAY is mine. Tomorrow may not come.
Next week, next year, I may not live to see;
This hour I have. It is enough for me
To make by smiles, or mar by being glum.
And so I strive to live this one day well,
To tread the path of right as best I may,
To speak the kind words that I have to say;
Tomorrow I may be an empty shell.
One day is all God gives to us to plan,
And so I strive to live it as my life,
To bear with patience what I find of strife,
To do my share to cheer my fellow man;
To do today what I can do to aid,
To let none pass whom words of mine might cheer,
Tomorrow they may not be toiling here,
Tomorrow in the ground I may be laid.
- Roos, Dave (2019). D-Day: Facts on the Epic 1944 Invasion that Changed the Course of WWII.https://www.history.com/news/d-day-normandy-wwii-facts
- Blood on German Snow and biography at the end of his dissertation.
- Fravel, Phil (n.d). Clemson Ag Ed Graduates, WW II Service, Killed.