WWII vet had a walk in Germanic nature
Thomas E. Bickham has done some amazing things in his life, but none quite as unusual as taking a little stroll through nature in Germany in the middle of World War II.
A B-24 pilot in the 392nd Bomber Group, the longtime Plaquemine resident, former coach, and school administrator/board member flew over 20 missions into Germany in 1944. He and his crew made two trips over Berlin, Germany, and, on the second flight, caught so much flak from the Nazi antiaircraft guns they began to lose altitude on their return to England. “I was forced to look for a crash position and we were over some ideal flat plains lands, so I put the aircraft down,” explained Bickham.
The B-24 crew made a safe enough exit and began to walk. They ended up walking out of the axis country without encountering a single German or Allied soldier. It took them a two-day journey to reach Brussels. “When we heard noises that sounded like people or groups of people, we would run and hide in wooded areas,” explained Bickham.
When the bomber crew reached Brussels they ran into a group of Canadian Air Corps members. “They were about to fly to the same base we came from in England so we hitched a flight back,” said Bickham.
The WWII veteran said he and his crew walked into their squadron headquarters to report in and found out they were about to be recorded as Missing In Action. “That was serious. No one wanted information like that sent to their families. But we got everything straight immediately and stopped the telegrams. They asked how we got back to England and we told them we walked and hitched a ride. They laughed, but it was the truth,” commented Bickham.
Not long after Bickham had to ditch the B-24, he had a second incident. A few missions later their bomber got shot up again and lost it hydraulic system completely. Their tail gunner was killed as well. Bickham was forced to make an emergency landing, but did make it back to England. When they hit, they had no brakes and Bickham was forced to spin the plane to keep it from going into the woods and receiving enough more life-threatening damage.
THE HARDEST THING TO DO:
“Landing those planes, that was nothing. The hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life was to write a letter to the family of our gunner who was killed,” commented Bickham before becoming a bit silent. Suddenly he spoke about his wife of 62 years. “Audrey was the best looking gal I ever saw. I have been a lucky man, meeting her, having a great family, a rewarding job, and surviving that war,” he noted.
Bickham grew up in Homer, La. and was a standout football and basketball player for his high school. He was a two-time All-State football player and was a member of the Homer High team that beat Baton Rouge’s Istrouma High for the 1937 state championship. After graduation he attended Southwestern La. Institute in Lafayette. SLI eventually became USL and is known today as University of Louisiana Lafayette (ULL). “I was offered scholarships from most of the Southeastern Conference Schools as well as Michigan and SLI. I picked Lafayette,” said Bickham.
He excelled as a pulling guard and linebacker and was named to the LOOK magazine small college All-American team one season. “I was a pulling or running guard, which these days would be comparable to a blocking fullback. I wasn’t big, certainly by today’s standards for a guard, but I was in good shape and strong. At one time the Philadelphia Eagles wanted to sign me to a pro contract, but the war came,” explained Bickham.
BECOMING A PILOT:
The SLI student actually volunteered for the armed forces before finishing school. He tried to get into the U.S. Navy, but during his physical exam a doctor discovered something unusual about his heartbeat. He was denied entry. “I went to the Army Air Corps group to retake my physical. The doctor there asked me if I played football and I told him I had played three years in college and in high school before that. I missed only one game all those years because of injury. The doctor said I had an ‘athlete’s heart’ with sometimes an extra beat. I passed. I went on to take tests and interviews with the air corps. They found out I had twenty-ten vision and they gave me a choice because of my good eyesight. I could be a pilot or a navigator or a bombardier. I picked pilot,” said Bickham.
By the time the Plaquemine resident joined the D-Day Invasion already had occurred and Allied troops were working their way through France toward Germany. The U.S. Army Air Corps was loaded down with pilot trainees. No facilities or instructors were available when Bickham enlisted, so he returned to school and finished his football season and courses. Once he began his pilot training he moved across the country: Texas, Florida and Georgia twice, and then to training with his new bomber crew as a unit in Boston and New York.
Before departing for England Bickham united in marriage with Audrey Begue, who was originally from Donaldsonville. “She was something else...a real beauty. She was very athletic. She won the National Twirling Contest in both high school and college,” explained Bickham.
The first assignment for Bickham and his crew was to bomb bridges over the Rhine River. They were among several “green” crews who took off on the mission. Three were shot down before they even reached their mission destination. “We were surrounded by German fighters, sixty-five, maybe seventy of them,” said Bickham, who added, “the Germans still had an air force flying, although they suffered a lot of losses over the months before.”
Bickham and his crew missed their main target, due to the assault by the German fighters, but decided to attempt to do some damage. They dropped down below 7,000 feet and dropped their bombs on locations along the river. “It ended up we were extremely lucky. We hit 35 percent of the bomb targets in that area of the river set up for future bombing. We ended up being decorated with three air medals,” said the former pilot.
“My son, Tommy, Jr. once asked me what was the toughest mission I went on and when I was most frightened. He expected I would say the two in which I had to crash land the planes, but I told him it was the second mission. After that first one and seeing all those enemy fighters all around us it was tough to get back in the bomber.”
Bickham did and so did his crew. They flew missions deep into Germany aiming for factories, fuel depots, and supply locations. He remembers one mission was to knock out a ball bearing plant in Germany so it would limit the production of armored vehicles.
“On one of those missions I recognized a voice on the radio. It was the movie actor Jimmy Stewart. He was a bomber pilot during the war and he became an Air Force general in later years,” noted Bickham.
Eventually the European theater portion of WWII ended and Bickham returned to the states. He flew a bomber back, going the route over Iceland and then Greenland. Running low on fuel, Bickham ended up having to land the aircraft at a military field in Bangor, Maine. He was told the field was closed, but reasoned it was land the plane without permission or crash land it somewhere and endanger a two-million dollar aircraft. “After we landed a colonel put me under arrest for defying his orders not to land at the field. The next morning everything was cleared up.
Sometimes things happened a little backwards during the war, but common sense ruled out,” noted the WWII pilot.
Once back in the states, Bickham was relieved of combat duty and assigned to cargo plane flying in the Pacific theater. He went to South Dakota en route to the Pacific Ocean and the U.S. dropped its first of two atom bombs on Japan.
“We knew that was the beginning of the end,” said Bickham.
The military ended up giving him a choice of three air bases in the south or to join the Air Corps Second Command football team.
“I had enough football, so I finished out my duty and went back to school under the G.I. Bill,” said Bickham.
The Plaquemine resident then began a long career in education. He taught and coached at Franklin High, Lafayette High, and eventually worked as a football assistant at McNeese State in Lake Charles.
A job opening came at Plaquemine High through Bickham’s established contacts at McNeese. Sam “Prof” Distefano and Toby Orillion had moved up from the PHS staff to the main Iberville Parish School Board office as supervisors and Bickham was hired to coach football and boxing. He served as head coach in both sports for a few years, mentoring former Louisiana Lt. Governor Bobby Freeman in boxing. Bickham also hired the legendary Racer Holstead as the boys’ basketball coach at PHS. Bickham had coached Holstead at McNeese. Holstead went on to lead PHS to a state championship in basketball in the early 1960s and eventually had a long career as a prep football coach, becoming one of state’s top all-time winning mentors. “Racer had never coached basketball before, so the first thing I gave him was a rulebook. He figured it out,”
The former WWII pilot coached from 1949 to 1954 at PHS and then moved on to the school board office as a supervisor. He went on to become a school board member for 21 more years of service to the public school system in Iberville.
WHAT IT TOOK TO WIN:
When asked about the severity of WWII and the doubts and fears the country faced at the beginning of the war, Bickham pointed to the spirit of Americans to band together and be productive.
“At first no one thought we could build up a military force of weapons and machines. There was great concern in the country that we could not get ready for a war across two different oceans. But we did. We built up the nation’s industry and got prepared. And, you know, women had a lot to do with it. They joined the work force and made it happen. Our country’s women went to work in the factories and mills. They were just as much a part of winning the war as any of the troops. It was a fearful time, but we as a nation pulled together and won a very important war,” explained Bickham, one of many Iberville Parish military veterans who are being honored by the Veterans Memorial to be dedicated next week in Plaquemine.