S: One American Soldier
BC: Created in loving memory of James Weldon Mellody and in tribute to Robert Mourand and the French people of Elisabethville who, with great courage, welcomed and honored an American soldier on that fateful day in June, 1944. Je vous remercie de tout coeur. | If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall your are? -T.S. Eliot
FC: James Weldon Mellody: The Story of One American Soldier
1: Prelude On February 7, 2011, Jim Mellody read a letter that would shed light on the history of one American soldier's journey from Texas across the Atlantic and in to war-torn Europe. The POW, Jim's father, would survive ten months in a German camp and come home a man that would be indelibly changed by his experiences. For thirty years, this American soldier spoke little about what he had seen and done in WWII. The grandson of a Frenchman would help the soldier's family discover a piece of his history and character of courage about which the soldier himself could never tell. The following is Weldon Mellody's story, as his family knows it. | "Most of us have far more courage than we ever dreamed we possessed." - Dale Carnegie
2: Staff Sgt. James Weldon Mellody was born April 4, 1921, on a farm 7 miles south of Royse City, Texas. He was the oldest son of Harry & Mary Mellody. | The Mellody Family Harry, Weldon, Edwin and Mary circa 1947
3: Staff Sgt. James W Mellody Tag # 18178493 9th Air Corp, 397th Group - Bridge Busters 597th Squadron B-26 Medium Bomber | "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." -Franklin D. Roosevelt
4: Weldon turned 21 in April 1942, while attending college at Texas Tech. He left Lubbock for Dallas and enlisted in the Army-Air Corps on October 6, 1942. After training state-side, he arrived at Glasgow, Scotland on April 4, 1944, Weldon's 23rd birthday. Stationed at Rivenhall Airfield, Essex County near Colchester, England, Weldon was an engineer and served as the waist gunner and backup navigator on a B-26 Medium Bomber. The B-26 was named appropriately, Spare Parts. "They would fix and patch planes with anything they could find to get them back in the air," laughed Weldon. | "Planes were lined up so thick, I was amazed everyone was able to get off the ground without running into each other." -Weldon
5: "All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope." - Winston Churchill | Turner & Weldon | Weldon was a big guy, over 6'1" and 192 lbs. The guys began calling him "Big Tex."
6: The mission of the 397th was to prepare for the Normandy Invasion by attacking V-weapon sites, bridges, coastal defenses, marshaling yards and airfields. | "Today we are crushed by the sheer weight of the mechanized forces hurled against us, but we can still look to the future in which even greater mechanized forces will bring us victory. Therein lies the destiny of the world." - Charles de Gaulle | Weldon's last mission was the successful bombing of the Massions L Fitte Bridge
7: The 397th Group was known as the "Bridge Busters," and their crews were in the air bombing strategic bridges twice on D-Day. Weldon flew 26 and 1/2 missions. On June 24, 1944, during a successful bombing mission over Paris, his plane was crippled from enemy flack. The crew was forced to parachute into German-occupied France. Weldon disliked parachute training, and he certainly wasn't looking forward to the jump. Before he would take that fateful leap, he would demand his pencil back. Here's the story of the infamous pencil... A mantra of his, "always be prepared," Weldon dressed for the flight that would be his last and made sure a mechanical pencil was in his pocket. During the mission, Weldon loaned his pencil to the navigator who had forgotten his. As the pilot prepared the crew to jump, the navigator came from the nose of the plane. Weldon asked him, "Where's my damn pencil?" At Weldon's adamant insistence, the crew member went back to get the pencil. Weldon tucked the pencil away in his shirt pocket and prepared to jump. This was the start of a life-long habit of always having a pen or pencil in his shirt pocket. It was his good luck charm, his comfort amid turmoil. Decades later, when asked why he insisted the navigator go back and retrieve the pencil, Weldon simply replied, "You know, I've thought about that a lot since that day, and I still can't explain it."
8: Weldon's first stop from the air was a tree. Tangled and surrounded by German soldiers, he always said his first thought was, "Well, Mellody, this is it." As he recounted the story many years later with a group of his grandson's college-aged friends, he told them of a Frenchman who offered him a cigarette. The German soldiers nodded an OK, so Weldon accepted. | "We all make an impact on the lives around us - which means we all have the ability to change the world." - Nate St. Pierre
9: Elisabethville, France - June 24, 1944 Robert Mourand salutes an American Soldier who is captured by German soldiers after parachuting from his crippled plane. "Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." -Franklin D. Roosevelt
10: My grand-parents on both sides were living in Elisabethville during WWII. Elisabethville is a neighborhood of Aubergenville and is located 25 miles west of Paris. In 1944, the French living in Aubergenville saw allied airplanes flying in the direction of Paris. They were perfectly aligned, all flying at the same altitude. A short while afterwards, they saw the same airplanes flying in the opposite direction (towards the UK). They were in a complete mess, all flying at different altitudes etc. Two were on fire... then they saw a parachute popping out of one of the two bombers on fire... the French realized that the parachute was going to land close to the center of city. Dozens of French civilians rushed to greet the allied serviceman. My grand parents rushed out of the garden; my 8 year old Dad wanted to follow them. However, my grand pa said: "You stay at home; it could be dangerous". My Dad stayed in his garden watching the parachute falling towards Aubergenville-Elisabethville railway station and he was petrified at the idea he could become an orphan... When the French arrived on the scene, the American was in a tree close to the railway station... and six Germans were waiting for him. He threw his knife, pistol and helmet to the ground. A German soldier picked up the weapons as Weldon pulled a comb from his pocket and combed his hair.. Apparently, he was scared to get down from the tree. The French first thought he was scared because of the Nazi soldiers but they quickly realized that he was instead scared of the French! At first, the French couldn't figure out why he was scared of them. The most likely explanation is that the American was worried about possible resentment because of the allied bombings. However, in Aubergenville, there was absolutely no resentment whatsoever against the allies. The French were on the contrary excited to see their first American and they were hoping to see many more very soon! A French guy rushed out of a coffee shop with a glass of wine and offered the glass to the American and said in English with a strong French accent: "The people is with you". The Germans abruptly pushed away the Frenchman and the American couldn't drink the liquor. However, he got the message, smiled and immediately relaxed. The Germans on the contrary were extremely nervous and annoyed by the growing crowd. | The story as it was told to me by my grand-father and my father. - Philippe Mourand
11: The American got off from the tree and surrendered to the Germans. The Germans and the American crossed the railway and then entered Place de l'Etoile. The French were following behind the soldiers. As they were about to leave the Place de l'Etoile, a French civilian was facing the soldiers and made a military salute to cheer up the American and simultaneously tease the Germans. Somebody took a photo at the very moment. Further on the way to the Standortkommandantur, a French guy who was perfectly fluent in English asked the permission to speak to the POW. The Germans abruptly told him it was verboten; however, strangely enough, they let him offer a cigarette to the American. At some point, the American figured out that he didn't really need the close protection of the Wehrmacht. He decided to walk faster. He was taller than the Germans and the Germans had a hard time following him and had to run... and the French civilians were running joyfully behind the Germans soldiers. At each intersection, the American would turn around and nod his head to ask the Germans which direction to follow and depending of the circumstances, they would bark (in German) "RECHTS!", "LINKS!" or "GERADE AUS!" (RIGHT! LEFT! or STRAIGHT AWAY!) “I heard this story so many times when I was a child and I was always told he was very tall and that the Germans and the French looked like dwarfs in comparison. I was always wondering what happened to the tall American and hoping that he finally came back in one piece to the US... This American became kind of legend in Elisabethville. Try to picture that: the French endured German occupation for four years and then suddenly a tall, strong American falls from the sky and stands proudly unimpressed by the Germans.” Following is the rest of his story...
12: Weldon was driven through Paris in a taxi to the French Bastille. "I saw Paris from the back of a taxi," quipped Weldon, "the Eiffel Tower and other sites." | Meanwhile on the Home Front... J.W. Bratton, Weldon's cousin who was based at Rivenhall, tried to write Weldon's parents, Mary & Harry to tell them about their son being shot down. The letter came back with the entire contents cut out. The censor said it might be better to rewrite the letter and not write anything about being shot down or where. J.W. revised: "I'm doing OK, but I can't say about Weldon." The Mellody's later received a telegraph that confirmed their son was a Prisoner of War. This was the news they would live with for the next year.
13: Prisoner of War Weldon was moved to Frankfurt for interrogation. A friend from his home-town had been shot down two weeks earlier, so Weldon asked the German interrogator if Marshall Ray Pullen had been through. The interrogator left the room and a few minutes later a big, blonde German woman came back with a file. Weldon found that Pullen had indeed been through, his whole crew was intact and well. The German then said, "I've helped you, now you need to help me." He laid out blue prints of the plane the American's were flying, Weldon replied "It looks like you already know more than I do." Weldon was in Frankfurt for two or three days, then was sent to Stalag IV, somewhere near Belgrade and the Baltic Sea. POW Tag # 2722 | "A man does what he must - in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures - and that is the basis of all human morality." - Winston Churchill
14: In Weldon's words, "The prison camp was quite tolerable." The guards were German soldiers, not Gestapo. At the camp, each soldier had an assignment. Weldon claimed he was the resident barber of the prison camp. One German soldier was from Wisconsin, USA; he and his family had traveled to Germany to visit family and were not allowed to leave. The man was drafted and made to serve in the German army. Weldon had the impression that some of the German soldiers were forced into military duty. This made them somewhat sympathetic to the POWs. Weldon even told that some of the German soldiers would trade items, such as wire (POWs used these in order to make radios) in exchange for cigarettes and other things. The prisoners were able to rig up radios and had war news 20 to 30 minutes after it happened. Life was tolerable until February 6 of 1945 - the coldest winter in the history of Europe.
15: "More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginning of all wars -- yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments." - Franklin D. Roosevelt | As the Russians closed in from the east, the Germans broke camp and began marching the POW's west, then south trying to get to Munich, while American troops were coming up from the southwest. Rations were slim for all, Germans soldiers included. A jar of water and a slice of bread were the sole staples each day. At one point, the POW’s were marshaled into a barn at Magdenburg. There were lots of different POW’s from lots of different places... (Another story that began, but didn’t have an ending.) Nonetheless, this barn interested Weldon as it reminded him of home, “I don’t know why, I’d never taken anything that wasn’t mine, but I picked up 4 or 5 chisels and a couple of pieces of leather harnesses and such.” The items were still in the barn at the family farm when the contents were auctioned in the spring of 1987. During the march, Weldon’s birthday rolled around and he still had his watch. He decided the watch "wasn’t doing him any good" so he traded it for 2 loafs of black bread and a 2-pound can of jam. They splurged and ate the first loaf with jam on his birthday. The next loaf they made last longer by eating the bread between kolarobe turnip. They would thinly slice the turnip, then put the bread in the middle and have a turnip sandwich. Exactly how the POW’s were liberated is unclear, Weldon evaded some questions, but 86 days and 488 miles later, the POW’s were liberated close to Halle, Germany on April 26, 1945. Weldon said they had been seeing American troops for 2 or 3 days and several POW’s would try to sneak away, but would come back and say, “Don’t go out there.” He was a prisoner of war for 305 days.
16: Liberation After the POW’s were picked up by the American troops, they were flown to a base in La Havre, France. Weldon weighed 127 pounds in full dress, with army boots and big wool overcoat. In La Harve the ex-POW’s were fed five times a day. They received three big meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then were sent back between meals for some type of thick eggnog drink to “fatten ‘um up.” On June 11, 1945, Weldon was deemed strong enough to travel so he boarded a US Navy ship at La Havre that would take him back to the USA. Weldon always said, "If you worked on the ship crew you got three meals a days, if you didn’t work you got two." Weldon decided he had missed enough meals to know he would gladly work for three squares a day. When they arrived at Camp Patrick Henry in Newport News, Virginia Weldon weighed 160. “Life was getting better.” He left Virginia on a train headed for Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. When Weldon arrived at the base in San Antonio, he heard someone holler “Heeey, Mellody!” He turned to see Joe Bailey Canup, a family friend, who had enlisted and was working at San Antonio. “It sure was good to see someone from home.”
17: Not sure what his path would be, Weldon didn’t call to tell he was headed home, but Joe Bailey had called his wife Fay. Weldon was back in Texas, and in the world of small Texas towns, word traveled fast. Weldon boarded a bus in San Antonio and headed north. From Dallas he hitch-hiked to Royse City arriving on Main Street sometime close to the 4th of July 1945. Aunt Ola and Uncle Tipton owned a barbershop in town, they closed up shop and drove him home. Weldon remembers, "Dad was riding the tractor and Mama was hoeing in the cotton field. She threw down the hoe where she stood and never went back into the field again. Weldon’s first meal home was fried chicken, cream potatoes, black-eyed peas, sliced tomatoes and strawberry shortcake. “It sure was good.” That Saturday everyone went to town and Wendell Wesberry was at Bennie and Fonie’s Café. Weldon went in to say hello, then left. Before he could get far, Wendell called him back into the Café saying, “I just got in trouble for not introducing you to the waitress.” That waitress was Wanda Jean Spearman. She was 16 years old and Weldon was 24, Weldon decided to stay and order a burger. “It was love at first bite,” he always said. The local newspaper repeatedly contacted Weldon, trying to get a story from him about the war. Weldon told the reporter, “The war is over; I came home to forget.” Weldon was home for 90 days then was sent back to Santa Monica, California to finish his service. Military discipline was pretty much non-existent and food was plentiful. The officers knew the men had been through so much so they just asked that they salute when saluted to. The soldiers were being organized into regiments to be sent back to Europe on peacekeeping missions. As the military began to count points Weldon had 85, enough to keep him in the states. Back up to his original 192 pounds on October 13, 1945, Weldon was Honorably Discharged and returned home to stay.
18: Weldon and Wanda were married on June 14, 1946. The pair set off to Texas Tech in Lubbock for Weldon to finish the education he had started before October of 1942. They had 5 children: Kay, Deborah, Jim, Cathy & Nancy Nine grandchildren: Deana, James, Lisa, Cam, Nikki, Mellody, Candon, Casey and Mitch and to date 12 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great grandchildren | From left: Cathy, Nancy, Kay, Jim & Deb
19: Clockwise: Kay w/sisters, James, Deana, Lisa & families, Deb & Gregg, Jim & family, Cathy & boys, Nancy & family Center: Weldon - pen in pocket 1996
20: "At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria and the coral islands of the Pacific. They answered the call and they faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front; they won the war. They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive American generation, the Baby Boomers. A grateful nation made it possible for more of them to attend college than any society had ever educated, anywhere. As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain for the most part, exceptionally modest. They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases they have never told before, because in a deep sense they didn't think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too." -Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation | Weldon playing with younger brother Edwin circa 1945 Weldon at granddaughter's wedding, August 2002
21: Gampy-isms By Casey Mellody Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing is ever wholly lost. That which is excellent remains forever a part of the universe.” James Weldon Mellody lived a lifetime of excellence. A beloved husband, father, and grandfather, a respected soldier and survivor, a man with strong, unwavering (some might even say obstinate) beliefs, a hard worker and a wise man, he will remain in our hearts forever. For some of us, Gampy will remain in our minds, too. He will be that voice in our conscience speaking his mind and sharing his wisdom. Gampy rarely felt a lack for words during his lifetime, and he leaves with us dozens of sayings, some wise, some funny, but all memorable. Sayings that we shall deem “Gampy-isms,” and mostly they started with him saying, “Well, it’s like I always tell ya...” Gampy had much to say about many things, but the number one thing he taught all of us—it was because he lived his own life by the same standard—was, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” He taught us about character. He said, “If you act as good as you look, then you’ll do just fine.” “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” “If you get in trouble at school, you’ll be in twice the trouble at home.” He said, “Your word is your bond.” “I just call a spade a spade,” and “If you say it, do it.” Gampy taught most of us how to drive. He said, “Stay on the right side of the road and right side up.” “Wanda Jean, you can only go as fast as the car in front of you.” And, “if you’re in that big of a hurry, we should’ve left fifteen minutes earlier.” About money, he said we should save it. He’d say, “It’s not what you make, it’s what you save,” “Pay yourself first,” and “If you’re going do something for the rest of your life, it might as well be something you love.” Gampy loved all of his grandkids very much. He said, “He’d toe the line if he could just find it.” He said, “You’re the runt of the bunch but the pick of the litter.” He said we’d be “the bestest with the mostest.” He told us to “be good, but only if we wanted to.” I guess that’s the blessing of being a grandfather. Hellos and goodbyes were always interesting. One would walk in the door and hear, “Well I’ll be damned.” When you asked, “How’re you doin?” you would always get a variety of answers, one being, “Well I’m still vertical.” You could ask, “Whatcha been up to?” and he’d say, “Oh, about 6’1” but shorter recently.” Or how about, “Hey, Gampy whatcha doin’” “I’m reading the obituaries, and it’s a good day ‘cause I’m not in ‘em.” Well, Gamp you finally made the papers, and it was still a good day. Like everything else, Gampy made goodbyes funny. If you said, “I’ll see ya later” he would thank you for the warning. But his most famous goodbye line was “I’m glad you got to see me.” And the truth is: Gampy, we’re glad we got to see you, too.