Don Loftin grew up in Sour Lake, just west of Beaumont on the edge of the Big Thicket. With the consent of his parents, he joined the U.S. Army in 1944 at 17. Without a choice as to which branch of the service he preferred, he wound up in the infantry, serving as a scout. After leaving Europe, he finished the war in occupied Japan.

Photo by Shane Loftin

Lacy Lakeview resident Don H. Loftin, 91, is the baby of a family of five siblings who grew up in Sour Lake, on the edge of the Big Thicket, also known as the “birthplace” of Texaco. Born in Batson, he moved at age 6 with the family to Sour Lake near the oil fields, where his dad was a lease pumper for Gulf Oil.

Loftin would remain there with his family until he joined the service during World War II.

Growing up during the Great Depression was hard on everyone, but the Loftins managed with the help of their mother, a garden filled with vegetables and a father who earned $4 a day. “We had two cows,” Loftin said. “We had our own milk and churned butter.”

He attended school in Sour Lake for 11 years and met his future wife in the first grade. He and Etoile Marie

Boswell, classmates for the duration, finished high school together. It wasn’t until high school that the two began to get serious about one another; they would eventually marry after the war.

In 1939, as the family — and the country — was recovering from the Depression, war was breaking out in Europe. Loftin remembers it well: “I was scared. I thought we surely were going to war,” he said.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, his fears came true when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. His oldest brother, Leonard, joined the Army in 1942. Another brother, James, enlisted in the Army Air Corps a few months later and became a pilot.

Loftin was 17 when he graduated, and many of his friends were going into the service. He and three close buddies decided to join the Marines, but because of his age, Loftin would need to have parental consent to enlist. He was sent home. As it turned out, he wouldn’t become a Marine. One of his friends who did wound up being shot on Iwo Jima, crippling him.

It was near Christmas. By this time, the family learned that James had been shot down and was a Prisoner of War. Originally imprisoned in Stalag Luft 3 in October 1943, he would be moved in January 1945 to Moosburg, Germany, to elude the Russians. He was rescued after nearly two years.

A decision to serve

Although his parents didn’t want him to join, Loftin told his dad, “I’ve got to go.” His father understood, so off he went. He didn’t get to choose his branch of service, however, and was inducted into the Army at Fort Sam Houston in March 1944.

Training at Camp Hood came first; then Loftin was sent to California to join the 97th Infantry Division at Camp San Luis Obispo, where the entire division went through amphibious training. He was assigned to Company A, 1st Platoon, 3rd Squadron, serving as a scout, one of the most dangerous jobs in the service.

From khaki to cold uniforms

At first, the men thought they were going to the Pacific, because they were issued khakis and it was winter in Europe. “We knew we were being trained to invade Japan,” he said. But just before Christmas 1944, they were issued cold-weather gear. Due to the heavy American casualties in the Battle of the Bulge, many units were rerouted, including the 97th.

Near the end of February 1945, the division boarded a converted luxury liner, the Monticello, and headed overseas. The soldiers landed in France in March and traveled to Camp Lucky Strike, an important “cigarette” camp, due to its size and the role it played during the war. It was the staging area in Europe, and countless men passed through the camp, which was the size of a small city.

The men of the 97th were packed into rail cars so full there was no room to sit, Loftin said. From there, they passed through Belgium, Holland and across the Rhine River near Bonn, one of the oldest cities in Germany. The time for battle was near.

Next week: Loftin and the 97th fought in the Ruhr Pocket near the end of WWII in Europe before transferring to Patton’s Army. He came home for a 30-day furlough, then prepared to leave for Japan.

“Voices of Valor,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday in the Waco Trib. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, email voicesofvalor@wacotrib.com. Voices of Valor is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing.

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