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Posted: February 8, 2013 11:13 p.m.

A Veteran's Story: Missing but not forgotten

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The pontoon bridge, upper right, was built by Williams and the 76th pontoniers over the Tarung River.

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At the end of World War II, the United States government was unable to retrieve and identify more than 79,000 Americans. Almost 70 years later, more than 73,000 are still missing.

Here are the stories of local families and their search for their loved one.

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Born and raised in Rockdale County, Johnny G. Williams served his country in time of war. 

As a member of the 76th Light Pontoon Engineering Company, SSgt. Williams constructed pontoon bridges across some of the most treacherous rivers in Burma to support logistics on the legendary Ledo Road. On Aug 19, 1944, SSgt. Williams took off at 0618 hours aboard a C-47-A cargo plane with six other men for a short flight from Shingbwiyang to Myitkyina, Burma. The seven men and the plane with its cargo of a jeep, a trailer, and tent equipment made a routine radio call fifteen minutes later then disappeared.

Ground personnel on the nearby fighter base at Tingkawk Sakan observed what may have been the subject aircraft with one engine on fire, but an extensive air search produced negative results. 

The descendants of SSgt. Johnny Williams are still awaiting his return. 

In spite of this, the family of SSgt. Williams have reason for optimism. One of his nephews, Aldren Sadler, Sr., Senior Pastor  of the Church of New Beginnings and a Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain, explained, “I recently gave a DNA sample and members of our family have been invited to attend a ‘family meeting’ in Memphis, Tenn. this April. That at least sounds encouraging.” 

The WWII generation of SSgt. Williams’ family has passed on and military records provide scant details of the crash, yet extensive Department of the Army wordage is used to describe the aftermath and limited search activities. Still, little is known concerning SSgt. Williams. Albeit, via his military records, researching the written history of the 76th Light Pontoon Engineering Company, and investigating conflicts fought in the CBI Theater (China-Burma-India) during his deployment, I discovered that SSgt. Williams was an important part of a very unique history. 

Williams joined the Army before the start of WWII. He trained at Ft. Benning, Ga. from March 1941 until April 1941 before assignment to the 300th Combat Engineers at Ft. Belvoir, Va. Williams was among the first African-Americans to train at the ERTC – Engineer Replacement Training Center. Segregated by race, the ‘white’ group contained 28 companies and the ‘colored’ group contained 12 companies. Each group had 229 men.

After four months of training with the engineers, Williams was sent to Ft. McClellan, Ala. for additional training. At the time, Ft. McClellan was one of the largest bases in the United States, training over 500,000 troops. Unfortunately, the paper trail on SSgt. Williams stops in Alabama until resurrected in Burma.

The China-Burma-India theater of operations during WWII has always taken a back-burner when compared to the extensive coverage of the European and Pacific battles. Under-appreciated and misunderstood, the CBI theater saw some of the most intense and heroic actions of WWII, especially in building and in support of the lifeline to China.

Working and fighting conditions were challenging, especially during the monsoon season from May to October. Rainfall averaged 120 inches in the valleys and 140 inches in the mountains. The celebrated ‘Burma Surgeon,’ Dr. Gordon Seagrave claimed this region to be the ancestral home of the leech: big ones on the ground, pink leeches in the elephant grass, and green ones on the trees. Soldiers wouldn’t realize leeches had attached to their bodies until the blood-suckers dropped off, gorged with human blood. After the leeches, soldiers became victims of typhus-carrying mites and the ever present malaria bearing mosquitoes.

In this hell of mud, jungle insects, rivers and gorges, strafing Japanese Zeroes and in-coming artillery, swamps and snakes and 115 degree temperatures, and yes, even an earthquake or two, SSgt. Williams and the 76th constructed pneumatic pontoon bridges across dangerous rivers like the Tarung, the Tanai and Tawang. More often than not, torrential downpours would wash away the bridges, only to be rebuilt the next morning by the pontoniers, often under menacing artillery fire from the Japanese.

Now the ‘fog of war’ intervenes. Commanding Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell’s Chinese troops and the legendary guerilla force known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders’ conducted a major campaign against the Japanese-held town of Myitkyina in early 1944 but were soon bogged down by a significant Japanese reinforcement. Stillwell needed more infantry and sent in the only American combat units available, the engineers.

Was SSgt. Williams part of this relief force? We don’t know. But the engineers turned the tide of battle with heavy losses: 127 killed and 291 wounded. Most likely SSgt. Williams was involved in the “Battle of the Bridges” maintaining the roads leading to battle. Bridges were lost over the Tarung, Lamung, the Tawang and Magwitang Rivers then rebuilt or repaired by the 76th pontoniers and other engineering groups.

As the Japanese moved out of Myitkyina, Chinese and American forces moved in, along with the engineers to begin road and bridge construction. 

On Aug 19, 1944 SSgt. Johnny Williams and the six other Americans took off from Shingbwiyang for Myitkyina in the ill-fated C-47-A cargo plane, destined to become addenda to the almost 80,000 Americans listed as ‘missing in action’ during WWII.

Pastor Sadler recalled, “My Aunt, Minnie Lee Williams, never gave up hope that her son would return. She’d take in people’s laundry but occasionally take out her son’s clothes and wash and iron them too, like he’d be coming home soon.”
SSgt. William’s father, Robert James Williams, owned and operated a shoe repair shop on Green Street in Olde Town. 
Sadler said, “He understood that his son would not be coming home, but Aunt Minnie just would not accept it. I hope my uncle really does come home one day. The family needs closure.”

Recovery teams, the United States Army, Congressman Hank Johnson, and the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Fort Knox, KY are working diligently in hopes that one day “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” means that another American warrior may indeed Rest in Peace.


Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

 

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