Over several summer Sundays I had the chance to sit and talk with Louis Tindle Dees.
I would gather my laptop, a Sun Drop, and a spot of candy for later. I loaded it in the back of my Honda Civic and drove up a long driveway leading to his rustic farm house. I normally found him enthralled in a thick book about Winston Churchill, watching the latest news, or working an intricate puzzle with pieces too numerous for me to even attempt at age 29.
He had just turned 92 years old.
I thought of myself as the Sunday historian and talking to Louis was like interviewing a celebrity. I had first met him when he came to my office for automobile insurance. As an insurance agency owner, I should have completed his transaction quickly and moved on to the next new policy. I’m thankful the historian beat out the salesman that day. We talked for almost two hours in my office.
Louis was born October 10th of 1924 in Atlanta, TX. He had two brothers and three sisters before Louis was born as number six. His parents went on to give him two more brothers and a sister after. Nine in total. His mother was a full-blooded member of the Choctaw nation and his father Fred worked in the oil industry as general labor in Arkansas. He didn’t stay in his birthplace for long. Oil field employment, ironically, kept workers laid off. With no apparent aspirations beyond this manual labor, his father’s itinerant jobs kept the family moving.
He described his family as poor. They had plenty to eat, but little in the way of material items like clothes and shoes. He said the family did not recognize poverty because the situation was the same for their neighbors. It wasn’t long before Lou’s family moved to a rural community outside of Texarkana, Arkansas where more paucity awaited.
That situation changed, unfortunately, through tragedy. Louis was very young but an accident changed his family’s path forever. His oldest sister, Geneva, was killed in an industrial accident at age 18. At this point, Louis’ family lived on land owned by his grandfather. The large tracts of land that he swore he would never sell had been leased to oil companies to use for drilling. In a situation that would make any liability adjuster panic, the workers allowed Geneva and her sisters to play with the high-powered pressure hoses that softened the ground before drilling took place. That afternoon, the hose came loose from a high pressure water hose and struck Geneva in the stomach with a shot of water. It ruptured her stomach wall immediately. She went to the hospital in Texarkana, a trip which took at least two hours. She died shortly after she reached the distant medical facility. The drilling company provided a settlement of $3500 for Geneva’s life. Louis doesn’t remember much about her but does remember the immediate change in his family. He said the tragedy brought education and opportunity that had not been present before.
The family relocated to Texarkana when Lou was 12 and he described life as being “vastly different”. One of the largest differences was living in a house with running water for the first time. He also received a special purchase from the Montgomery Ward catalogue: a bicycle. This allowed him to start earning his own income and pay his own way. He carried that attitude with him for the rest of his life. He was thrilled with his purchase and then saddened when the bike was stolen in the same year. He lost his job delivering papers because of that and missed collecting a bi-weekly dollar for his trouble.
At this time, Texas education only went up to 11 grades so Louis graduated high school at age 16 in 1941. Much to the chagrin of Mary Nell, his younger sister, the school board added grade 12 for her class. She was stuck having to go for an extra year. At this time, Louis was 16 and driving a Model-A Ford with the seats removed from the back to deliver groceries for his job at Thomas Grocery store in Texarkana. The store delivered hay, chicken feed, hulls, and meal. He never had his driver’s license because no one had ever asked to see it. While making these illegal deliveries, he always thought about soaring high above the clouds as a pilot. He longed to join the Air Force and fight the Nazi war machine that had been devastating Europe.
At age 12 his family had also bought another Montgomery Ward item: a floor model “Silvertone” radio. The Dees family listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday Night. Lou enjoyed the music but also took special note of the war in Europe and the countries affected by the spread of Adolf Hitler’s influence and the rise of the Reich. It was especially FDR’s rally to “help the people” that grabbed his attention.
Louis was ready to do just that. With the ink barely dry on his high school diploma, he attempted to enlist in the aviation corps after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Unfortunately he was declined. He did not lack the mental or physical requirements to be a pilot but Cadets required two years of college. Louis only had a high school diploma. Instead he enlisted in the Air Force.
This was part of our interview where I stopped and asked him why he never decided to gain the two years of college and then complete his original plan to join the Cadets. He said college in his family appeared out of reach and simply was, “never discussed.” It felt like an odd changing of the times. Because today everyone seems to grab two years of college and then spend the next ten years avoiding paying their student loans. Someone as smart and responsible as Louis could have had a degree in any field he set his mind to. But once he was given that initial “No”, he didn’t revisit it.
So at age 18, Louis enlisted in the Air Force. His Birthday was October 10th , and he was sworn in on November 4th 1942 at Fort Humbug Shreveport LA. Louis described the training as,
“You grow up fast, or you get kicked out… Take orders or hit the bricks.”
Even in 2016, he remembered the obstacle course in particular was a challenge. It consisted of running, hiking, and endurance testing. Firearms training in the Air Force consisted of rifle and pistol training. Many enlisted men only had rifles, M-1 carbines, and only officers carried the pistol. Louis was initially keen to be a pilot, but his lack of experience and training in an officer school or college still put an end to that dream. For now.
Despite his lack of college, his intelligence was obvious. As a result, Louis put his rifle aside to become a war clerk and became more familiar with a typewriter for the rest of the war. Louis fought his battles with a worn Underwood model typewriter as his weapon. He was surprised to see it was the same model he had learned to type on in high school.
For 8 weeks he was taught the typing techniques and procedures for Air Force forms and office/clerical training. He graduated as a Private First Class (PFC). During his training he and his friends would often hitch a ride to nearby towns and take in a USO show. He said hitch-hiking soldiers were a common sight at that time in America. At one show he saw Bob Hope perform stand-up. He also said there were plenty of good looking girls waiting to dance with the men in uniform.
After being transported to fill temporary office vacancies in the states, Louis was shipped out to Guam in 1945. In Guam, Louis did the paperwork for the B-29 bomber squadron. These flying behemoths were the largest in the arsenal at the time. Louis and his team had mountains of paperwork. Their work consisted of daily rosters, schedules, financial records for the officers, and more. When I asked him about his experience in the service, he told me a quote he and his coworkers had from the service:
“Shoot the bull, pass the buck; six pages per shot.”
That meant for every bullet fired in WW2, he felt like he had to fill out about six pages of paperwork.
As a PFC, Louis earned 21 dollars per month and was paid in cash. There was a finance officer who handled saving the money because there was no method to transfer it to an account in the states. The officer had a vault in the squadron base to store any savings the soldiers wanted to keep. So it earned no interest and was pretty exposed to the elements.
Workdays in Guam were generally 6 hours long. The rest of the time they were left to their own devices. Louis described his downtime as being filled with card games. The privates often gambled and drank the cheap beer they could afford. He said only the Officers could afford the liquor. So far handguns and liquor seemed to be the defining difference between the Privates and their superiors.
In Guam, the soldiers built rough structures to play horseshoes and other outdoor games. Just like the days of his early childhood there was no indoor plumbing. Like soldiers of many wars past, the men dug a latrine dug from a large trench. To some, paperwork is a mind numbing chore. We dread it; avoid it, or try to pay others to do it. Louis Dees did paperwork in Guam in WW2 under the threat of being stabbed by stranded Japanese soldiers desperately searching for a crumb of food. The Japanese Army had occupied Guam in the beginning of the War but the US cleared them out relatively quickly. Some of the Imperial Army’s soldiers were left behind in the rush. Louis said he had witnessed Japanese stragglers from the previous regime. His impression of them was that they were physically smaller, dirty, and had been living in caves in horrible conditions, trying to survive by stealing food wherever they could.
I asked him if he felt any sympathy for their plight and he said, “No.” The men had heard stories of the stragglers slitting the throats of other soldiers for rations. They weren’t considered to be a major threat, but men didn’t wander off alone in the jungle for fear of one possibly sneaking upon them. I asked him what he thought of the camps FDR established in the states for those with Japanese ancestry. He described the concentration camps in the states as a, “fear-based reaction” and a mistake in America.
Louis was still in Guam when he heard about the US dropping the pair of A-bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He described the reaction as universally positive among the group; almost celebratory. To them, the bombs meant going home. Even as a nonagenarian, Louis remained certain the bombs saved a million lives. He told me he felt an invasion of Japan would have been a massacre of American soldiers, much worse than Normandy. Truman made the decision and Louis agreed 100%. Louis said:
“WW2 defined airpower and I’m glad for that. War power was equally important to ground or air power. In some cases more. Like I said, we could have destroyed Japan with airpower if we wanted to. But that alone, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted Japan to survive as a nation, I think. They had their own culture, their own thinking, true some of it was bad, but they were also a civilized nation in a lot of ways.”
“Trying to take an island like Japan would have been a slaughter. The Japanese were so ingrained with their culture of military traditions. They would have fought to the last man.”
The advent of the atomic bomb allowed Louis to go home but the ramifications would continue to echo throughout his life. Nuclear energy and the age of the atom would become far more important than Louis ever imagined in his next stages, after he returned home from the war.
Louis Tindle Dees is the subject of Jay Sandlin’s upcoming Master’s Thesis, these articles are a preview for a full-length book coming out about this man late this year or early next. He passed away in December 2016, he was 92 years old.