Grainger Today Correspondent
RUTLEDGE – Ssgt. Ondis Brantley, now a spry 95-year-old veteran of World War II, was part of a 10-man crew flying a B-24 long-range bomber, one of more than 2,700 planes, from England across the English channel to the coast of Normandy, France D-Day, June 6, 1944. Their mission was to take out the German positions in France ahead of the allied ground force invasion. At his tail gunner position Brantley could see the allied ships spread out from about a half of a mile from the shores of France, for miles toward England. The weather was terrible for flying, and simply taking off from the airfields in England was an act of faith, since they had to climb 25,000 feet in the predawn dark through heavy clouds. They were carrying 2,000-pound bombs to knock out German pillboxes (small, fortified heavy artillery stations) along the coast in the landing area. They were also to bomb bridges, railroad stations, moving trains and tanks. Because of the bad weather, the Germans were not expecting the invasion at that time, and the German forces commander in France, the renown Erwin Rommel, had taken the opportunity of the unlikelihood of an attack to go home to Berlin for his wife’s birthday.
Recently students in Justin Combs’ history class, students in Ali Dixon’s government class and the students in Colonel William Lynn’s ROTC class had the privilege and honor of hearing World War II living history from Brantley, who happens to be Justin Combs’ uncle.
Brantley, who was born in Sharps Chapel in Union County and later moved to Grainger County, volunteered for military service at the age of 18, shortly after the United States entered World War II and two months before his draft number was to come up.
Brantley was inducted into the military at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. “I walked through there, and I could see tears running down men’s faces. I knew that they were probably married and had a family back home,” Brantley said. “This is when you thank God that you didn’t have a family or were married, because you are going into an unknown world. You don’t know when you are coming back, or if you are coming back.”
After he was inducted, Brantley went through six weeks of brutal infantry training and was transferred to several different bases stateside. He then trained as a gunner and was stationed in England as part of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Brantley spent six months flying long-range bombing missions before D-Day. Initially he was to be relieved after having flown 25 missions, however he said, “the rules changed, and they asked me to fly five more missions.” After those missions, he was asked to fly another five. During the missions, which would last all day, all they would have was a candy bar in their pocket to give them the energy to make it through the day. At the high altitudes where they would fly, they had to wear oxygen masks. It was so cold, 32 degrees below zero, that they had to have heated shoes and clothes. Ice would form on their oxygen masks.
Their mission was to destroy Germany’s manufacturing capabilities. He was with the same crew for the first 25 missions, and the men became like brothers. The famous actor, Jimmy Stewart, was their operations officer, which meant he worked with intelligence to choose targets and sometimes would choose to fly a mission. Of Stewart, Brantley said, “He was a regular guy, likable, always military.”
Brantley said his his worst day in combat was May 8, 1944. Their target was a German aircraft factory in Braunschweig, Germany. That day they lost 11 out of the 33 planes in their squadron. Major Stewart was the commanding officer and flying co-pilot on the lead plane. He lost many friends that day.
Brantley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. After he was discharged from the military, Brantley came back to Grainger County to marry his sweetheart, Agnes Long, and raise a family.
Students were obviously inspired by Mr. Brantley’s narrative of his military experience. One question that was asked was what advice he had for this generation. His response was that the country needed a strong military and strong borders.
“You stay out of war through strength. You don’t stay out of war through diplomacy,” he said. “I thank God every day for freedom. I, for one, appreciate the freedom we have. So many countries do not have the freedoms we have, but freedom is not free. That’s why we need leadership that will keep our nation strong.”
After a resounding round of applause, many of the students, especially the ROTC students, approached Brantley to thank him for his service, and for sharing his story with them. One student, whose birthday happened to be that day, went up to Brantley and said, “This was the best birthday present I have ever had.”
Patriotism was alive and well in that classroom that day.