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Lee Hamilton Adkins

Damon Erskin Adkins

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial

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Lee Hamilton Adkins
1915-1942

Damon Erskin Adkins
1923-1944

"All for one and one for all
My brother and my friend
What fun we have
The time we share
Brothers 'til the end."

—Author Unknown

Army Air Corps Second Lieutenant Lee Hamilton Adkins was born in Plum Orchard, Fayette County, West Virginia, on October 7, 1915. Lee was the son of Wilson and E. Victoria Bragg Adkins, who had three other sons: William Howard (called “Howard,” but sometimes “Bill,” born 1908), Selden W. (born 1913), and Lawrence E. (born c. 1918). Wilson and Victoria also had a daughter, Georgia M. (born 1910). Georgia’s daughter, Betty Heintzelman notes in a 2013 interview that the patriarch Wilson was a cement mason who was, ironically, allergic to cement dust. Wilson also worked at Mankin Lumber Company for many years. Lee Hamilton Adkins attended schools in Fayette County, spending his high school years at Oak Hill High School (1929-1933). Family history indicates that Lee, Selden, and Lawrence went on to attend West Virginia Institute of Technology at Montgomery.

Victoria Adkins died in 1921 from excessive bleeding during the birth of her second daughter; the baby also died—sad memories for a young family as Victoria was buried on Christmas day. Wilson later (1925) married Darlie M. Treadway, mother of Damon. Into this large blended family was born another son, Claude Burton. The 1930 U.S. Federal Census lists Wilson, Darlie, William H. (Howard), Georgia, Selden, Hamilton L. (Lee), Lawrence, Damon, and Claude all living in the same household in Oak Hill, Fayette County. Like his brothers before him, Damon was educated at Oak Hill High School, attending from 1937-1941. According to his niece Betty, he briefly attended Virginia Military Institute before the war intervened.

Lee enlisted as an aviation cadet in the fledgling Army Air Corps at Fort Hayes, Columbus, Ohio, on his twenty-sixth birthday. Registering for military service even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he took his training in aviation at Kelly and Randolph Fields, Texas. Betty Heintzelman recalls that his original plan was to go to OCS to become a pilot, but he became a navigator instead. This recollection is confirmed in a document that shows the U.S. Army Air Corps Training Center at Mather Field, California, awarded him a diploma on April 1, 1942, for “satisfactorily completing the course of instruction prescribed for Aerial Navigators.”
diploma
Navigator diploma for Lee H. Adkins

Lee would eventually be assigned to the 353rd Bomber Squadron, 301st Bomber Group, Heavy. U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 show that he had completed two years of college; had been an automobile mechanic or repairman at some point in his civilian life; and was single, without dependents. A great deal of what we know about 2nd Lt. Lee H. Adkins was documented by his half brother, Claude B. Adkins (1926-2005), who stated on the World War II Memorial registry that Lee was in the first bomber group to go to Europe. Lee spent some time in England and participated in raids over France.

However, much of the late 1942 action was taking place in North Africa. Launching Operation Torch, Allies landed in Algeria, Oran, and Casablanca on November 8. They then moved into Tunisia, beginning on November 10. C. Peter Chen, in the online World War II Database, writes: “Upon the successful landings in French-controlled North Africa, the Allied forces immediately embarked on a dash for the lightly defended Tunisia before Axis forcers could react…. The attack force was small…; it was considered a sufficient force, however, as Axis presence in Tunisia was negligible at this time, and the Allies would have surprise.” Ground fighting continued throughout the month of November. Chen goes on to say: “In the meantime, as the Allies were just preparing airfields in newly captured territory, the Axis had local air superiority. Many attack columns were strafed by Axis aircraft throughout mid November.” On November 28, according to Chen, the “British 11th Brigade, supported by tanks of the US Armored Division, assaulted Djedeida unsuccessfully, losing 19 tanks in the process.” (Source: “Advance into Tunisia: 10 Nov 1942 – 25 Dec 1942,” accessed September 5, 2012, http://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=223.) (See also “1942 World War II Timeline,” World War II History Info, accessed February 15, 2013, http://www.worldwar2history.info/1942.html.)

It is likely that Lee Adkins was supplying air support for the action described above, as he had been deployed to Carthage, Tunisia, after his time in England. It was in Tunisia where he was shot down on his sixth mission and reported missing (later declared killed in action) on November 28, 1942.

Tablets of the Missing
Tablets of the Missing,
North Africa American Cemetery.
Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission
Memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia, Second Lieutenant Lee Hamilton Adkins received the Air Medal and the Purple Heart for his actions.

Despite the sacrifice of Lee Adkins, four more Adkins brothers—Damon, Selden, Claude, and Howard—would go on to serve in Europe and Africa, with Damon also losing his life in the conflict. Though some sources report this differently, Claude (the youngest), Betty Heintzelman recalls, was a tail gunner. (Their brother Lawrence had entered Bible college in Anderson, Indiana, and became a conscientious objector.)

Second Lieutenant Damon E. Adkins followed the lead of his brother Lee and entered the Army Air Corps in February 1943, receiving his commission at Napier Field, Dothan, Alabama, on November 3. Entering the European Theatre, he became part of the 87th Fighter Squadron, 79th Fighter Group. The exact circumstances of his final days are unclear. On the World War II Memorial website, his brother Claude noted that Damon made four missions to Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944) and was killed in action four days later. Other sources, however, indicate he was killed instantly when his plane slammed into a mountain in Italy on June 10, 1944, while performing a strafing mission on German supply trucks. What is certain is that he had fifty-four missions to his credit. The Army Air Corps Living History Group website describes strafing missions throughout the Italian campaign and says of Lt. Adkins’ squadron: “Participated in the drive on Rome, Mar-June 1944, and converted to P-47’s during that time [this statement is consistent with Lt. Adkins’ citations].” (Source: Army Air Corps World War II 1941-1945, Living History Group, “79th Fighter Group,” accessed September 5, 2012, http://www.armyaircorps.us/79th_Fighter_Group.cfm.) There is no mention of participation in the Normandy invasion.

Damon’s July 24, 1944, citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross reads:

For extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as pilot of a P-47 type aircraft. On 15 May 1944, upon the completion of a successful attack upon a road bridge near Aquapendente, Italy, fifteen ME-109’s attacked his formation. During the ensuing battle, Lieutenant Adkins observed an ME-109 closing in on the rear of his leader. Immediately flying to the aid of his comrade, Lieutenant Adkins skillfully maneuvered his aircraft into position and shot down the hostile plane thereby saving his leader from destruction. Immediately thereafter his leader’s guns jammed when he attempted to drive off another enemy fighter. Again turning to his leader’s aid, Lieutenant Adkins probably destroyed the ME-109 before breaking off combat to return and cover his defenseless comrade. His selfless devotion to duty and outstanding proficiency in combat reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.
citation
2nd Lt. Damon Adkins's Distinguished Flying Cross citation

Lt. J. T. Boone, who was in the same squadron as Damon, wrote in a letter, presumably to Damon’s mother:

You probably know of the great success he enjoyed while with us. He had a confirmed victory on an ME 109 and probably on another. He was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal. His promotion to First Lt. was also pending, but it came a few days late.

It was on the show [sic] when he had his accident, so I’ll give you as much dope about it as possible. It was his fifty fourth mission and he was flying an element leader of the lead section. We had done the primary job of the mission and were returning home when the flight leader saw some enemy trucks on a mountain road. He called for a straff job so down we went. Damon was a wizard at straffing [sic]. He had probably destroyed as many as any man in the outfit. The first two men made their passes at a very large van, but didn’t get very good results. Damon then made a pass from a valley to the mountains. As he fired the truck exploded and he flew through the blast and crashed against the mountain side. His speed I judge was 330+ so it ended very quickly.

In August 1944, H. H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, communicated the following to Darlie Adkins:

With keen regret I have learned of the untimely death of your son, Second Lieutenant Damon Erskin Adkins, which occurred on June 10, 1944, while he was in action over Italy.

It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Adkins accomplished his cadetship in a fine manner at Napier Field, where he graduated as a pilot. He was a persevering, resourceful flyer whose sterling character and excellent performance of duty won firm friends for him, and he is greatly missed by the officers and men in his group.

I hope the memory that your son zealously served our cause and courageously made the supreme sacrifice for it will help to relieve the grief caused by his passing.

My heartfelt sympathy is offered to you and other members of the family.

Florence American Cemetery
Florence American Cemetery.
Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission
In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Second Lieutenant Damon E. Adkins was awarded the Air Medal and a Purple Heart for his actions. Damon is buried in the Florence American Cemetery at Via Cassia, Italy (Plot F, Row 8, Grave 34).

While Census data, military records, and the like can provide the basic outline of a veteran’s life, nothing speaks to the character of the man so much as a family member who can remember him. Lee and Damon’s niece Betty Heintzelman spoke of her many memories, recalling that she was just ten years old when she learned of Lee’s death.

In fact, Betty is a virtual treasure-trove of stories about the war, so in an interview, she was able to put the stories of the Adkins family’s service into a clear historical perspective. She recalls that her grandfather (Wilson Adkins) had bought a farm at Crooked Run believing that his many sons could help him with the numerous chores that come with a farm, “but then the war came along.” Betty says the last time she saw Lee was on her tenth birthday; then her mother and stepfather moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana. But she distinctly remembers getting the telegram that announced Lee’s death—it was delivered to her home (“Nobody had phones back then…”), and Betty had the somber duty of taking the message to her mother at work.

Amid her tales of blackouts and rationing, Betty weaves the legacy of the Adkins family. She can recite what became of all the Adkins sons, not just Lee and Damon. Howard, she says, married a woman named Margaret during the war, and at some point, Margaret was able to meet him for a three-day pass, but later he would become part of the “big invasion of Europe” (presumably Normandy). After the war, Howard and Margaret adopted their daughter Victoria (Vicky), the namesake of his mother. Though Howard had quit school and gone to work at the age of twelve (after the death of his mother), in his post-war life he was a self-taught but much-sought-after finish carpenter.

Selden was in London for a time, and in one of the many coincidences of the war, unexpectedly ran into Claude when both were stationed in England. Selden finished college at the top of his class and became a woodworking/shop teacher. He married Tinnia Wright, a school nurse, and they had three children: David, Susan, and Mark.

Lawrence was about three years old when his mother (Victoria Bragg Adkins) died, and he was sent to Sandstone to live with his Grandmother Bragg. He returned to Oak Hill after Wilson married Darlie. As noted earlier, he became a conscientious objector for the duration of the war.

Claude started to college but then attended barber school to learn a trade. After Wilson’s death, Claude and Darlie moved to Florida. At some point, Claude was employed by CSX, but he retired as CEO of Railroad Engineering, Inc., in Lakeland. Numerous correspondences during his lifetime indicate that Claude was determined to preserve the legacy of his brothers. One of Betty’s most poignant memories is that a member of Damon’s squadron retrieved a piece of his downed plane and had it made into a ring for Claude and a bracelet for her. Claude’s 2005 obituary lists the following nieces and nephews as survivors: David and Mark Adkins, Susan Bossert, Betty Heintzelman, Anna Rekas, Jean Bain, and Victoria Roger.

Betty Heintzelman sums up the family’s contributions thus:

The Adkins family was unique because they had five sons in WWII all at the same time and unfortunately, two of them were killed…. A recognition ceremony was held at some time at Oak Hill at the football field with my very shy Grandfather Wilson and Grandmother Darlie up on a reviewing stand being honored for their sacrifice. Also, they were the only ones that had one of the little flags with five stars (two of them silver colored) hanging in their window designating their sons in service…. Everyone who had anyone in service got these little flags with stars on them for the number of people from that home that were serving in the war.

The Adkins brothers who were lucky enough to return home went on to lead interesting and productive lives. One can only speculate the contributions that might have been made by Lee and Damon if their lives had not been cut short.

Source: Family information provided by niece Betty Heintzelman (daughter of Georgia) and nephew Mark Adkins (son of Selden). Prior to his death, Claude Adkins corresponded with the Veterans Memorial Project at West Virginia Archives and History verifying some of the information regarding his brothers. Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure

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