Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bonnie and Clyde and the Tank Battalion

Bonnie and Clyde's death car
   The pistols used by Bonnie and Clyde are up for auction and expected to fetch quite a price. Which reminds me of a story. Two, actually.
    Lieutenant Jim Flowers of the 712th Tank Battalion lost both of his legs in the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy, and spent three years in hospitals. He was married and had a daughter when he went into the service, and at about midpoint in his recuperation, he spent a couple of days in a hospital at Love Field in Dallas before being transferred to Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich.
When he arrived at Love Field, someone from the hospital sent for Jim's family, as they lived in Dallas. However, his wife and daughter were at the movies.
   Someone, it may have been Jim's mother, or maybe it was Jeanette's mother, asked the manager of the theater to interrupt the film so that Jim's wife and daughter could be brought to the hospital to see him. The manager refused.
     Jim's family was on friendly terms with the sheriff, and when he intervened, the theater manager interrupted the movie, and as Jim put it, I'm quoting from memory here, "My wife and daughter and sister and loudmouth neighbor came to see me. Imagine asking, 'Did you kill any Germans?'" And then, as was his manner, he said he was really pleased that they had come to see him, even the neighbor.
    Actually it was Jeanette who told me about the movie being interrupted, and when she mentioned the sheriff she also said his name, which was Smoot Schmid.
    As seems to be a habit with me, I thought nothing of it until years later, when I was listening to the tape of one of my conversations with Jim and Jeanette Flowers, and I thought, "Smoot Schmid, what an odd name." And when I googled it, up on my screen popped a picture of Dallas Sheriff Smoot Schmid standing in front of a table full of guns, and a story about Schmid's role in the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde (he was responsible for a failed ambush, before they were finally killed by a posse of Texas Rangers).
    But there is another connection between the battalion and the infamous bandits. At the first reunion I attended, in 1987, I met a young woman who was there with her mother. This was their second reunion; they attended the reunion the year before because it was in New Orleans, and they lived in Shreveport, La.
    The mother, Lillian Howell, was a widow whose husband, Richard Howell, was killed, I would later learn, on the battalion's first day in combat. The daughter, Wanda O'Kelley, grew up without a father. The two of them had such a good time at the New Orleans reunion in 1986, and even met some of the men who remembered Wanda's father, that they came to several reunions after that.
    At one of the reunions I conducted a brief interview with Lillian, and she mentioned that she grew up in Gibland, Louisiana. I imagine it was she who said that Gibland is where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. She said that she saw the car after the ambush -- they were not still in it, but the bullet-riddled car was still there.
    Here, from my archives, is the transcript of my interview with Lillian Howell, at the Orlando reunion of the battalion in 1993:

Orlando Reunion
Sept. 12, 1993

Lillian Howell
   I was 21 when Richard and I got married. I was older than him. I was 14 months older than him.
   He lived about 80 miles from me, in Montgomery, Louisiana. He was in the service, he was in a CC camp, and so he got stationed close to Arcadia, and that's where I met him. Of course, 80 miles from Gibland where we lived. But anyway, we got acquainted when he was in the service and stationed in Arcadia.
   We got married in 1940. Wanda was born in 1941. And then in '42, November the 30th of '42 is when he got drafted in service.
   Before that, there was a shell plant, an ammunition plant, over at (?), that's where he worked. And that plant's still operating there yet.
   He never should have been called. He got a bad deal. But he got called. He went in the armored, to Fort Benning, Georgia, I think is where he was stationed. And then he was stationed in South Carolina for a while, that camp in South Carolina, Fort Jackson.
   Then while he was stationed there, I paid him a visit. I stayed a couple of weeks there. I left Wanda behind, she was small, see, I had to travel on the bus, it was hard to travel with a child that small. So I didn't take her. She stayed with my mother.
   But he was shipped out. I was there when he was shipped out. And he sent me a telegram to come see him, that was just before he was shipped out.
   I guess were were together a couple of weeks before he was shipped out. I never did see him again. That was in, he didn't serve too long overseas because he was killed. I believe that was in February that I went to see him.
   Then it was on July the Third that he lost his life.
   I got a telegram when he got killed that he was missing in service. They didn't say he got killed, they reported him missing.
   Then, every once in a while they'd report that he was still missing, they never did declare him dead till a year was up. I wonder why they did that.
   After a year was up, the War Department wrote me a letter explaining that they had to pronounce him dead, since a year had gone by and nothing had shown up to indicate that he was living. But I don't understand it, when they knew that tank was shot. I don't think that was hardly fair.
   That was in Normandy, France. It happened not long after D-Day, I believe. The others all got out, but some of them was hurt. One of them was hurt real bad. It's a mighty bad experience.

Tell me about Bonnie and Clyde's car...

   Well, it was pretty riddled up when it stopped in front of the schoolhouse in Gibland. And all of us kids, we ran out there to see if we could see 'em, but we couldn't see inside. Best I can remember, it was just plum riddled up with shots. I must have been about 14 years old.
   The people thought they were desperadoes. They didn't rob any banks before they came. They stopped at Arcadia, and I think that's where the law discovered them. It's been so long, I can't remember all that much about it, but I remember the riddled up car. They say they're gonna put that car in the museum in Arcadia now. I don't believe it's the same car.

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