TIFTON -- Wilbur Thomas Dickens has lived a lot of history in his 88 years and most of it is now on the pages of a notebook he compiled as a gift for his children and grandchildren.
Many of those pages concern World War II and his service in an engineer's regiment during the war.
"History goes on and we lose a lot of it," Dickens said. "The least I could do was preserve some of it to pass it on."
A copy of the notebook can be found in the Tifton-Tift County Public Library, the Moultrie Library and the Coastal Plains Regional Library.
Many young men were already serving in the military when war was declared after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Congress had enacted the Selective Service Act to increase the size of the military several months earlier and Dickens' brother Delma had already been serving a year.
A copy of a post card good friend Garland Anderson mailed Dickens is part of the history notebook. The post card was mailed on Dec. 5, 1941. The front of the card has a scene of a hula girl, a grass hut and the string of Hawaiian Islands, and a quote by Mark Twain that reads, "The Loveliest Fleet of Islands that lies anchored in any ocean."
"Hi Wilbur," Anderson wrote. "What about writing an old pal now and then. What is new and what are you doing now? Have you been drafted yet? Why not take a trip to Hawaii? Plenty of pretty girls for any young man. How is Delma and his army life. A merry Christmas to you all. Garland."
"With sadness in my heart I received the news that Garland Anderson was one of those victims at Hickam Field," Dickens wrote.
Dickens received the card several days after Anderson died.
After war was also declared against Germany and Italy, Dickens expected a citation from the local draft board to report for service. He received it on his 25th birthday, Dec. 29, 1941. From there, it was off for a year to various points in the United States --Ft. McPherson, Ft. Sill, Camp Forrest, Ft Dix, Ft. Camp Edwards, Ft. Bragg, Camp Bradford.
On Dec. 11, 1942, Dickens received word that he and the rest of Company A, 540th Engineers, were to leave Ft. Dix. They boarded a train in Trenton, N.J., bound for New York Harbor to embark on the ship Pascagoula for overseas duty with their outfit, which had been in North Africa since Nov. 8, 1942. That trip was treacherous and eventually aborted.
Dickens lets Floyd M. Bixler's words in his "My First Experience on the High Seas," tell the story of the ship almost sinking and the men not really understanding the danger they were in until it was over. Dickens uses a red pen to underline some of Bixler's lines and note in the margin "miracle" where he felt it was needed.
Three or four weeks later, the company boarded the U.S. St. Maria for the Atlantic crossing to Casablanca in north Africa. Then it was on to Italy and Germany.
Dickens' company laid beach roads for vehicles, unloaded supplies, vehicles and personnel from transports and established a firm beachhead. Part of Dickens' responsibilities was to transport officers in the jeeps he was assigned. He said he was fortunate not to have had to serve with his fellow infantrymen.
"There were 1,500 to 1,600 in my outfit and 78 were lost," Dickens said. "That's not at all like it was with the infantry.
"I was always thankful I wasn't in the Pacific and in the engineers instead of the field artillery."
But Dickens came close enough to battle.
"The closest I came was when a fighter plane hit my truck and totalled it," Dickens said. "That's the closest I came."
He wrote, "Oh! What a crash. Everything went blank with me; what had happened? I could hear people talking and my first thought was a shell must have hit my truck. Someone spoke and said a plane landed on you. I could not get out, but I could not feel any pain. I pleaded for no one to light a cigarette for I could smell gas and I was trapped in the truck. With help pulling on me and removing sacks of chains from back of the truck seat, I came out. I don't know if I was upside down or what position, for my face was covered with oil and I had little view to see."
Dickens has attended 13 Company A reunions held at various cities around the country.
"I missed the first one and the last one, but I made all the others," Dickens said.
Among Dickens' extensive collection of photographs and writings about the war, one item he collected during the war he attributes to his "nosiness."
While in Germany, he came upon a piston factory near the Nechar River that had already been abandoned. He seems to still have trouble coming to grips with taking this certain souvenir -- a Nazi flag and arm patch.
"I have to say that I didn't do the right thing, but I took it," Dickens said. "I just hope people don't get the wrong impression when they see me with a Nazi flag."
To contact city editor Angie Thompson, call 382-4321.
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