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December 17, 2022

World War II: stories of holiday ordeals, also of goodwill

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Loren Wright''This is a story about a Christmas (when) I really didn’t know what I was doing.''

That’s what a private in the Army infantry from southern Indiana wrote in his diary about Christmas Day of 1944, when, as a POW during World War II, he was forced into a boxcar by German soldiers. Scott Thompson, who had grown up on a farm near Evansville and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, was taken to a stalag in eastern Germany where he spent the rest of the holiday season.

He survived the ordeal and shared his account decades later with Ron May, a World War II historian, chaplain and the author of a three-volume set of books, ''Our Service Our Stories'', that feature interviews with Hoosier military veterans. In addition to interviewing Scott Thompson, who died in 2016 at age 92 after a career as a social studies teacher, Ron talked with Loren Wright, a native of Owen County who, also as an Army infantry soldier, was aboard a transport ship crossing the English Channel on Christmas Eve of 1944 when its “sister ship”, the SS Leopoldville, was sunk by a German U-boat. About half of Loren Wright’s regiment were among the 802 soldiers who perished in the frigid water.

''Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have been somber for me ever since,'' Loren Wright told Ron decades later. To share some accounts of what Hoosiers endured during the holiday seasons of World War II, Ron will be Nelson’s studio guest. He has been a ''Hoosier History Live'' guest on several previous shows, most recently on a program last May about children and teenagers who confronted special challenges during World War II.

Ron MayDespite the somber and even harrowing ordeals endured by Scott Thompson and Loren Wright (who died in 2017), some of the stories that Ron will share involve goodwill and forgiveness. One of those involves Giles McCoy, who was the long-time president of the USS Indianapolis Survivors’ Association and a key advocate in the creation of the USS Indianapolis Memorial that was dedicated in 1992.

At an event nearly 50 years after World War II, McCoy planned to confront the Japanese commander of the submarine that torpedoed the USS Indianapolis, which was returning from a top-secret mission when it was attacked; McCoy was among those who managed to survive in shark-infested waters. He told his story about an unexpected reconciliation with the Japanese commander to our guest Ron May, who participated as a Navy Reserve chaplain in several of the memorial services held during reunions of the survivors.

USS LeopoldvilleAll of the veterans whom Ron will discuss have died since he interviewed them. That’s also the case with most of the World War II veterans who have accompanied Ron on previous Hoosier History Live shows.

Also during this new show, Ron will share the stories of:

  • Paul Maves, a bombardier in the Army Air Force whose squadron was decimated during a mission to the Ardennes in Belgium in December 1944. ''That was a very subdued Christmas Eve service,'' Paul told Ron May, referring to a holiday service that was supposed to feature Christmas carols by the servicemen. (So many men were killed in enemy fire that a choir could not be organized.) After the war, Paul became a civil engineer in Indianapolis.

  • Robert Donnelly, a pilot in the Army Air Force who, while in Tokyo after the Japanese surrender, met a Japanese combat pilot and struck up an unlikely friendship with him. “One day I hated him, and the next day I loved him,” Donnelly recalled.

  • Herman Starkis, a Marine who also was in Japan after the surrender. In Nagasaki, one of the two cities where the U.S. dropped atomic bombs, he found himself the recipient of acts of kindness by the Japanese.

  • USS Indianapolis Memorial

    Roadtrip: Vintage Italian Creche at Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral

    Nativity SceneGuest Roadtripper and retired librarian Georgia Cravey tells us about an opulent and unusual nativity display at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral at 1347 N Meridian St. in downtown Indianapolis. “This is not your grandmother’s nativity display!”  

    And according to Joseph Vitale, ''unofficial'' church historian, the display was purchased in Italy in the early 1920’s by the cathedral rector, Father Elmer Ritter. The figures are life sized and are of hand carved and painted wood, typical of Italian creches of the era. The Holy Family wears first century Middle Eastern clothing, while the shepherds are dressed as peasants of the eighteenth century. But, it’s a more realistic nativity scene. The figures show that they may be a little tired and weary from travel, and the animals show more of an interest in eating food than in paying homage to the Holy Family.

    Because the cheche displays Black King Caspar and his Black page and camel driver, as well as “foreigners” and peasants,  the nativity scene made a social statement about equality at its initial exhibition at the church in the 1920s. At the time, the Ku Klux Klan dominated Indiana.  

    Georgia Carvey and Joseph Vitale

    To visit the Creche during the holiday season, you must go to the Rectory at 1347 N. Meridian St. and ring the buzzer during normal business hours and ask for admittance. Please be respectful of this magnificent historic building and property! You may also attend Mass as published on the church’s website Home. Be aware that Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus do not appear until Mass on Christmas Eve! Also, the church is completely closed the week after Christmas, and then the last opportunity you have to see the Creche this season is January 2nd through Jan. 6th, 2023

    Year-end note

    Holiday gifting to Hoosier History Live!

    Christmas TreeConsider supporting independent journalism this holiday season. Hoosier History Live provides a fresh voice, and is not beholden to larger organizations who might wish to dictate our content. We do our own fundraising and we make our own editorial decisions.

    Think about visiting our yellow button to show financial support for us! If you prefer the paper method, you may make out a check to "Hoosier History Live'' and mail it to Hoosier History Live, P.O. Box 44393, Indianapolis, IN 46244. We will list you on our website and enewsletter unless you wish to remain anonymous. You also may memorialize a loved one if you wish; just make a note with either your online contribution or on your paper check.

    And many warm holiday wishes from those of us who work so hard to create this show each week.


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