Forward written by Museum volunteer, Albert S. Pela, Jr.
My dad (Albert S. Pela, Sr.) deployed in Feb. ’44 to Thorpe Abbotts UK, home to the 100th BG, 350th squadron. His routine pilot was – Giles; occasionally other pilots flew mission lead aircraft. As a tail gunner, his original tour was 25 missions, but then thanks to Doolittle, it was extended to 30 and finally 35. In Sept. of ’44, on mission 34 his luck ran out and he became, as he would tell us, “an uninvited guest of the Luftwaffe” (POW) but that’s a story for another time.
This historical period was challenging for the nation as a whole. My family was lucky compared to others, but had some sacrifice as did all. To illustrate some of these challenges, offered below is a very personal letter my Mom sent to all her grandchildren before she left us. Hopefully, it offers context and historical depth by highlighting my parents’ wartime romance and marriage.
It’s a joint effort, especially in times of stress, to promote domestic tranquility. My folks, although being unique individual characters, worked diligently together to that end. They were 2 of the finest human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to know.
Letter written by Mary Agnes Lacour
Albert Sylvan Pela and Mary Agnes Lacour were married at the chapel of the Ardmore Army Air Base. Located in Gene Autry, Oklahoma. On December 15, 1943. Al was 20 and Mary was 19. In late February, 1944. Al & his crew flew their B-17 to England, where they were assigned to the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk. On September 11, 1944, Al’s crew began their 34th (and next-to-last) mission. As the formation approached their target – the oil refinery at Ruhland Germany – they were attacked by a large force of German fighters. The 100th BG was wiped out. Al and his crew bailed out safely and all were taken prisoner of war. Al and the other enlisted crewmen were sent to Stalag Luft 4, a German POW camp in central Poland. The first week of February, 1945, the Russian Army was within 40 miles of Luft 4. The Germans were terrified of the Russians, so they evacuated Luft 4 and began marching all 10,000 POWs west, hoping to link up with either the American or British forces before they could be overtaken by Russians. Al always said that the only time during the war that he expected to die was the first night the POWs had to sleep on the frozen ground out in the open. The winter of 1944-45 was the coldest in Germany in 50 years. Al said he was so surprised when he woke up the next morning that: “I stopped being a worrier right then and there”. Al’s group of POWs marched about 750 miles before they were liberated. Their only food was a 200 pound sack of potatoes that Al had “liberated” from a German farm one dark night in February. He also “liberated” an old farm wagon which the POWs pushed along the road so the guys who could no longer walk could stay with them. They had the potatoes under their packs on the wagon. On the morning of April 26, 1945, Al’s group of POWs was at the town Bitterfield, in central Germany. Al was looking for something to eat when he came upon a fellow “kriegie” (POW) smoking an American cigarette. Al asked where the cigarettes had come from and the POW said, “From the GI over there”. Al said, “I looked around and saw a dirty, scruffy, unshaved GI – and he was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen”. The “kriegies” had been liberated by the American Timberwolf Division.
The liberated POWs were flown to Camp Lucky Strike, a tent city set up near Le Harve, France. They were deloused and their “marching” clothes were burned. They were also able to bathe and shave for the first time since February. Al said that he got a real shock when he saw himself in a mirror. “My beard was red.” The average weight loss of the liberated troops was 50 pounds, so they were served six small meals a day for a gradual weight gain. There were so many ex-prisoners that transportation was hard to come by. Gen. Eisenhower finally asked Al’s group if they would be willing to double up on an available ship, which they did. Al finally got back to Victoria on June 28, 1945. Mary was glad to see him and they lived happily ever after for 45 more years.
Al and Mary’s Romance
Some blind dates don’t work out. This is the story of one that did. On July 19, 1942, I planned to play tennis with a lifelong friend named Bobby Newberry. He and his family had recently moved to Houston from Victoria, our mutual hometown. Shortly before Bobby was to pick me up, he called and said that 2 Aggies who had been High School classmates of his in Victoria had called between trains and wanted to know if he could find some girls to go with them to the amusement park in South Houston. Bobby had a crush on my best friend, Mary Jane, so I recruited her and a neighbor named Georgiana, whom we called George. When we picked up the Aggies, they were introduced as Al Pela and Johnny Schneider. Bobby latched onto Mary Jane and the rest of us sort of paired off according to our choice of rides. George and Johnny picked the roller coaster and the equally terrifying rocket thing. Al and I picked the Tilt-A-Whirl and Ferris wheel, which got stuck at the very top. Al could tell I was really scared of being so high, so he began talking about anything and everything to calm me down. By the time we finally got back on the ground, Al and I realized we enjoyed each other’s company. When we took the Aggies to their train, Al asked if he could write to me. And so he hid and I did and he did and I did, etc.
A&M was a military school so the cadets could only leave campus once a month. In August Al came to Houston and we went to a movie. My family spent many of our holidays with our relatives in Victoria, so we were both there for Labor Day and had several dates. His family car was available so we did our first smooching. Al’s October birthday fell on a week-end in 1942, so he asked if I could go to Victoria with him to celebrate it. I was allowed to go if I stayed with my Aunt Juju. On his birthday Al informed me that we were going to get married and have three sons and a daughter. He also added, “By the way, I love you, Little Gal.” (I weighed 95 pounds at the time. I’m not really sure that Al ever realized I got fat. He was still calling me Little Gal on the day he died, more than 48 years later). Anyhow, I thought he’d lost his cotton-picking mind, but I enjoyed the smooching so I figured I’d let him yak. We spent time together at Thanksgiving and Christmas and then went back to our letter writing and monthly dates.
In March, 1943, most of the class of ’45 resigned from A & M and joined the service. Al wound up in California as an Aviation Cadet and did fine until flight training began. He got airsick every time the training plane left the ground. He washed out of flight school in September and was immediately sent to Gunnery School in Las Vegas. In November he was assigned to a bomber crew. They picked up their B-17 in Seattle and flew to Ardmore Army Air Base, Oklahoma for overseas training. By then Al and I had decided we wanted to get married before he went overseas. If you’ve ever heard Nat King Cole’s “Too Young”, you know exactly what our parents kept saying to us. We listened politely and were married at the base chapel on December 15, 1943. I’m going to ramble some because I think this next info is crazy enough to be fun. Ardmore was actually 10 miles from the air base. It was really located in a little town that had recently been renamed Gene Autry in honor of a native son who had “done good”. You’ve probably never heard of Gene Autry but I know you’ve heard his son, “Rudolf, the Red- A Mighty 8th Love Story Nosed Reindeer”. I’ve always loved the looks on people’s faces when they find out we were married in Gene Autry, Oklahoma!!!!
Al’s crew and B-17 left for England in late February, 1944. They were assigned to the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbots, Norfolk. They flew their first mission on March 7, went to Berlin 4 times and flew 3 missions on D-Day. On September 11, 1944, they began their next to last mission – the 34th. Shortly before reaching the target, an oil refinery at Ruhland, Germany they were attacked by a large group of German fighters. The 100th BG was wiped out. All of Al’s crew became POWs. Al and the other Sergeants went to Stalag Luft 4, which was in Poland near the Baltic Sea. By January, 1945, the Russians were close enough that the POWs could hear their artillery. The Germans were terrified of the Russians, so they evacuated the prison camp. It was impossible to find daily food and shelter for 10,000 men, so the march west wasn’t a lot of fun for the POWs. The Germans eventually split the POWs into smaller groups. After marching for 750 miles across Germany, Al’s group was liberated by the Texas Timberwolf Division on April 26, 1945. This was at Bitterfeld, near Halle, Germany. On this same day, 25 miles away at Torgau, The American and Russian armies linked up for the first time.
The ex-POWs were taken to Camp Lucky Strike at Le Harve, France to await transport home. They were first de-loused and then could bathe and shave for the first time sine January. When Al had hair, it was almost black, so imagine his surprise when he discovered that his beard had grown in red!!! He finally got home on June 28, 1945. Al was discharged in October, 1945, a month too late for the fall semester at A & M. So we both got jobs at Foster Field, which was being closed. All the BOQS were being dismantled and shipped from Victoria to College Station to become student apartments. (We eventually lived in good ole B-4-A0. In January, 1946, Al re-enrolled at A & M and we began the 3 most delicious years of our lives. All of the guys were on the GI Bill, so we were poor as church mice but we had great fun and made lifelong friends. (I was amazed and truly touched when I was in Dallas after Katrina. Many of those old friends tracked me down via the Internet to see if I was OK. Then thy all offered any help or shelter I might need. Gig ‘Em, Aggies)
(Norbert O. DePaw – (my Dad’s crew member)
Katherine Weiss – Maid of Honor
Mary Agnes LaCour Pela – Bride
Albert S. Pela, Sr. – Groom
Andy Leuthold (Shorty) – as you might have guessed (my Dad’s ball turret gunner)
Phillip Michael Reed – Best Man….KIA Spring of ’44. My parents always felt they had the chance to live a good and happy life but Phillip Michael never did. So they told us, the least they could do was promote his memory. My brother is named Phillip Michael.)
Fours years and 1 month after our marriage, our first son was born. My labor was SLOW, so the doctor had me walk around the hospital. The Aggies were taking finals, so Al, the uncles, the cousin and assorted buddies would take turns walking with me between exams. There were so many of them that the nurses finally asked, “Which one is the Daddy?” By suppertime, the doctor was sure I was going to poke around for another couple of hours, so he sent my merry little band of escorts off to eat. I then proceeded to to get to work and Albert Sylvan Pela, Jr. was born at 6:26 PM on January 13, 1948. When he got home to good ole B-4-A, the 2 younger uncles, Eddy and Bubba, were thrilled to be allowed to change their nephew’s 1st “at home diaper.” They weren’t fast enough and when Al, Jr. spritzed himself in the face, they both came unglued. But they never made that mistake again.
Al graduated with honors in Entomology and after graduate school he went to work for the USDA for the tidy sum of $3,300 per annum. Because of graduate school and his POW status, that was $1,000 more than usual, so we thought we were rich. Over the years we added two more sons and a daughter to our family just as Al said we would. We lived in West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and finally Brownsville, Texas, which richly deserves its nickname of “the armpit of the universe”.
We never had a perfect marriage because there is no such thing, but it was never boring. Al’s German stubbornness and my Irish temper made sure of that. One of the best fights we ever had came about because Al loved cherry pie. One week pie cherries were on sale, so I bought 5 cans. Al always helped me unload the groceries and when he saw the cherries he decided to get pompous and lecture me on being extravagant. The damn cherries had been .20 a can and I knew for dad-blamed sure we could afford them because Al had stuck me with the job of managing our finances – “I have to be out of town so much when the bills are due”. What a crock!!! The real reason was that he was clueless about how to stick to a budget. You can push an Irishwoman just so far and then she enters the fray with all flags flying. Al finally had to use the red roses ploy to get me off my high horse. For the rest of his life Al always gave me a special “I can really be a jerk” hug whenever I made a cherry pie. He even got me a cherry pitter so I could use fresh cherries for pies and cobblers.
(Wedding gown, ivory brocade with lace trim and train worn by Mary Lacour on Dec. 15,1943, the day she married Albert Sylvan Pela in the chapel of the Ardmore Army Air Base in Gene Autry, OK.
She had purchased the gown in Houston, TX prior to her marriage.)
We were barely 20 and 19 when we married, but we meant the vows we made to each other and had almost 47 years together. There were times when we could have killed each other, but we never once ever thought of divorce.
Birds do it Bees do it Even educated fleas do it Let’s do it Let’s fall in love. -Cole Porter
P.S. Our mothers eventually got around to telling us that Al and I had actually had our first blind date in his sand pile when has 18 months old and I was a year old. We were told that we babbled to each other a lot, drooled a lot, and threw gobs of sand around. That’s about as romantic as our second date was 17 years later. Very sedate.