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World War II stories


Of the 17 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II, almost 400,000 were Hoosiers, and 11,680 of those were killed in action.


Students and staff at Indiana University also felt the reverberations of war as student enrollment plummeted by 75 percent from 3,580 in 1940 to 830 in 1944, according to IU archives. School dances and homecoming activities were put on hold. Students rushed to graduate before they were called to service, and Hoosiers on the front lines and the home front shifted their focus to the war effort. These are just a few of their stories.

Spreading his wings

The sky was the limit for IU alumnus Charles DeBow when he became one of the first five African-Americans to earn his wings from the U.S. Air Force and become a Tuskegee pilot on March 6, 1942.

During WWII, DeBow caught the flying bug, put a hold on his IU education and was accepted into the Air Force — a resounding “Yes” after what seemed like a lifetime of “No”s.

DeBow flew 52 combat missions, commanded the 301st Fighter Squadron and glided into battle during the Italian and D-Day invasions, according to his 1986 obituary in The Indianapolis Star. He described the feeling of flying 2,000 feet in the air in the August 1942 issue of The American Magazine. “We’re in the air,” he said. “Out of this world. Free.”

When he looked below, he saw African Americans working in corn and cotton fields — the same fields their ancestors once worked in as slaves. “I feel a catch in my throat,” he said. “My people.”

DeBow had something to prove. People had told him African Americans become elevator operators, janitors, porters like his father, but never aviators. So DeBow let his flying do the talking, and the naysayers faded away below him.

DeBow later wrote that he flew for Uncle Sam, for Dad and Mom and “for the 12,000,000 Negroes in the United States.”

“We’ve got a double duty,” he said. “To our country and to our race.”

A tale of love and war

IU alumna Meg Shaw said she knew her husband was alive. She could just feel it.

And she was right. Her husband, Bob Dwyer, who graduated from IU with a degree in business in 1942, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a navigator. But when his B-17 plane was shot down over France, he was presumed dead.

In an Oct. 12, 1945, letter to her IU mentor Frank Beck, IU’s Student Religious Cabinet and Town Hall Club advisor, Meg wrote that Bob had been released from a German prison camp after 14 months. After he was freed, it took him two months to make it home. “I do enjoy writing good news,” she wrote. “And that I can do now that Bob is home.”

In her letter, Meg expressed wanting to visit Bloomington to celebrate her husband’s return, but, without a car, they had no way to get there from her in-laws’ home.

Meg and Bob were in Vermont when the war ended. The village fire truck rode through the streets with its siren wailing in celebration. They sat on the porch overlooking a lake and listened to the sirens, the cowbells and the radio. “It was hard to take it all in,” Meg wrote.

Meg died in 2014 at 95.

Down to a science

Former IU physics professor Lawrence M. Langer was about as close to the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, as you can get.

Langer began working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 1943, according to IU Archives. As group leader for the atomic bomb project, he supervised trial drops of dummy bombs at Saipan by the plane Enola Gay — the same plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The night before the Enola Gay trial, Langer worried something would go wrong, so he stayed on the plane and guarded the 10-foot-long bomb, eventually falling asleep on top of it.

After the bombing of Hiroshima, Langer headed back to IU and worked in the physics department until 1979.

Langer lived in Bloomington until his death in 2000.

Five bullets and a Purple Heart

IU graduate and Bloomington resident Gerry Kisters took five bullets while fighting in World War II and became the first soldier to receive both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, according to archives from the Monroe County Public Library.

The lieutenant was also awarded a Purple Heart for his efforts.

During the Tunisian campaign, Kisters took down an 88-caliber gun firing at Allied troops. He escaped without a scratch and joined the Sicilian campaign, during which he single-handedly destroyed two German machine gun nests with grenades. He also killed three Nazi soldiers, captured four more and caused another to “flee in terror.”

But this time, Kisters was shot five times in both legs and his right arm.

When asked what his plans after the war would be, Kisters had something a bit different from throwing grenades and crashing machine gun nests in mind.

“After this war, I’m coming back to Bloomington to take over the fur business so that my dad can retire,” Kisters said. “He deserves it.”

Fighting the war from home

While soldiers marched off to war abroad, men and women alike who stayed in Bloomington were also busy with the war effort.

Radio Corporation of America

RCA workers began manufacturing the Variable Time Fuze — glass tubes the size of a pint of milk that would explode at a set time. It was the glass shards that would do the damage by shooting out at targets, Monroe County librarian Christine Friesel says.

The first VT Fuze was fired at a Japanese plane on Jan. 5, 1943.

Friesel says people were shocked at the damage the tubes could do. Manufacturers described the VT Fuze as second only to the atomic bomb.

Behind the $800 million manufacturing project were women, who would use their often smaller hands to assemble the devices.

Bloomington Limestone Company THIS NEEDS MORE, OR WE COULD TRIM IT

The Bloomington Limestone Company converted its factories to the war effort in 1944.

The move took place in secret due to military secrecy requirements, Friesel says.

A year later, the company received the Army Navy “E” flag, which was awarded to companies they ranked “excellent” in efficiency in their contributions to the war effort.

Major J. C. Conniff, executive officer of the Cincinnati ordinance district, presented the flag to company leaders at a ceremony in front of 100 locals at the Bloomington High School Gym.

Indiana University Students

On Saturdays and Sundays in 1944, hundreds of IU students woke up before dawn hopped on buses and traveled 25 miles southwest of Bloomington to Crane Naval Ammunition Depot to refill and sort ammunition.

As war vessels completed missions, they dumped used shells into cargo vessels that made their way to the depot, which was established in 1941 to inspect, store, fix and ship ammunition and missiles.

Students were tasked with readying the ammunition to be shipped back onto the battlefield.