Piedmont Profile: Early in World War II, ‘Gib’ Russell flew coast, looking for German subs
GRANITE QUARRY — It’s hard to imagine now, but as a 17-year-old Gilbert “Gib” Russell was flying single-engine planes along the Va. and N.C. coastlines, looking for German submarines.
When he spotted one — and this occurred with some regularity in late 1942 and early 1943 — Russell could do several things. Flying close to the water, he might drop a glass flask over the spot where the submarine had settled during daylight hours.
The thin glass of the flask would break when it hit the surface and leave a white powder, or what Russell liked to think of as an oil slick. He and his flying partner would leave in a hurry and call back to Base 16 in Manteo to give a compass reading for where their submarine might be found.
Some hellcat fighter planes would be scrambled out of Norfolk with the hopes of finding the Civil Air Patrol’s marker and blowing the German sub out of the water.
“A lot of people don’t know how close the Germans were to us in World War II,” Russell says.
Today, the 88-year-old Russell leads a more relaxing life, and if he has a woodworking project, he’ll spend several hours a day in his backyard shop.
This week he’s putting finishing touches on eight wooden stools, which will be used in the coming school year by East Rowan High cheerleaders.
“I call it piddlin’, he says of his work in the shop.
His handsome house near Christiana Lutheran Church holds plenty of things he has made — a television cabinet, pie safe, book shelves, picture frames and special pieces for Madge, his wife of almost 67 years.
“If you say, ‘Gib,’ you can’t do this,’ you’re bound to get a good one,” Madge Russell says.
Gib says he’s just stubborn.
Madge and the rest of the family — they have two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren — are heading to the Burlington airport Saturday for a N.C. Civil Air Patrol ceremony that will give Gib the honorary title of lieutenant colonel. He’s thought to be one of only two N.C. men surviving from those air patrols along the coast during World War II, daughter Patti Boles says.
“It’s just a chance to get out and eat somewhere,” Russell shrugs.
The Civil Air Patrol planes, on loan from private owners, also carried their own bombs at times.
“I released two that I know of,” Russell says, adding quickly he has no idea if they did any damage to the enemy.
“We had to leave the area, because when the Navy started sending bigger planes in there, we could get in the way right easy.”
Required to have two people in a plane, Russell usually flew with the only other 17-year-old pilot, P.G. “Kit” Carson. Russell says Carson could fly better upside down than most pilots could right side up.
You were supposed to be at least 18 to fly for the Civil Air Patrol. “I just got an early start, that’s all,” Russell says. “... They used to call us ‘the kids’ down there.”
The Civil Air Patrol relied on what Russell calls a “conglomeration of civilian aircraft,” which included Stinsons, Stearmans, Fairchilds and Great Lakes Trainers. Their owners donated them to the war effort or flew them for the Civil Air Patrol themselves.
The Civil Air Patrol base at Manteo was known as Base 16. It was one of 32 CAP bases stretching from Rhode Island to Texas, Russell recalls.
The pilots would cover two routes a day, and only during daylight hours. The northern flight went toward Norfolk; the southern route, toward Beaufort.
Russell spent only three months flying the coastline before the Navy came into Manteo, built an airfield and claimed the base as its own.
Three days after returning home to Granite Quarry, Russell enlisted in the U.S. Army infantry, disappointed that his then seventh-grade (he later got his GED) education didn’t qualify him for service in the Army Air Corps.
He was 18 by then, having celebrated his most recent birthday only a few weeks earlier while flying for the Civil Air Patrol over the Atlantic Ocean.
Instead of playing baseball as a kid, Gib Russell worked at his parents’ service station-tavern on U.S. 52 in Granite Quarry.
He would rake the yard, fill the drink boxes and provide curb service, running sandwiches and drinks out to the cars of customers. Everybody locally referred to the business as “Mom and Pop’s Place,” which was respect for Gib’s parents, Viola and Raymond Russell.
During the day, Raymond Russell worked as a clerk at the Southern Railway transfer shed near Salisbury, so he left Viola to run things in Granite Quarry.
Gib fell into flying through his family’s friendships with Lloyd Parker and Clay Swaim, who ran the Rowan County Airport.
“Not many 15-year-olds were out at the airport like I was,” Russell says.
Through Parker and Swaim, Russell also began attending local Civil Air Patrol meetings, and it led to his being asked to go on active duty for the Civil Air Patrol at the coast, even though he was only 17.
His father drove him to Manteo. When his father was leaving for home, it was the only time Gib had ever seen him cry. The boy rented a room from two older ladies.
Flying was just one of his Civil Air Patrol duties. When he wasn’t flying, he had to carry a gun and be on guard duty, patrolling the perimeter of Base 16.
Gib remembers his father’s scrounging around for a gun for his son on the day before they left for Manteo. He ended up buying a used Smith & Wesson .38-caliber pistol for Gib.
“It’s here in my chair right now,” Gib says from his living room recliner.
Russell says the Civil Air Patrol’s work along the coast during the war was important, because the German submarines he was trying to find could sink U.S. troop ships, cargo ships and tankers. He remembers the shoreline sometimes being thick with oil from tankers that had been hit.
Though Russell and his brother, Alton, would fly a little bit after the war, Gib says he considers his real flying days as having ended when his Civil Air Patrol duties wrapped up in early 1943.
He completed his basic training at Camp Wheeler, Ga., and joined the Army’s 88th infantry Division, 351st Regiment, Co. G.
He would land in North Africa and proceed onto Sicily and Italy.
Russell earned a Bronze Star, only because he disobeyed orders, he says.
The Germans were shelling his company unmercifully one day and into the night, knocking the U.S. forces off the top of an Italian mountain. After the bombing quit that night, Russell and other men kept hearing the sound of an injured soldier calling out from the mountain for help.
“We need to go up there and get that man,” Russell told his captain, a Capt. Noon. But Noon gave Russell a direct order not to go after the man, saying it could be a German trap.
The U.S. soldiers listened to the man’s pleas for help a couple of more hours before Russell and a friend, Roy D. Schumann of Wisconsin, left their camp and went looking for him.
They found him lying on the mountain with his stomach ripped open. Russell and his buddy carried the wounded man back to the medics, and Russell says he doesn’t even know if the man survived, but he will never forget Schumann.
Russell voice breaks later, remembering how the Germans nearly wiped out his company of 188 soldiers. He was one of only five men to make it through. All of the wounded Americans were shot in the head and left for dead, 13 were taken as prisoners and save for Russell and four others, the rest were dead.
Russell ran into one of the 13 men who were captured at a reunion of the 88th Division years later. The man told Russell that Capt. Noon was at the reunion, but Gib said it was impossible. The last time he had seen the captain, Noon was shot and lying dead over a radio.
In the banquet hall, Gib found the captain’s name at a table. By switching some cards, he made sure Madge and he would be sitting next to Noon.
“Well, hello, Gilbert,” Noon said when he recognized Gib. The men talked for three hours.
Patti Boles, one of Russell’s two daughters, asks her father to tell one more war story. It was during his first day of front-line fighting, while moving through a small Italian town, he spied three German soldiers at a corner across from him.
But all Russell could think of was his great-grandmother, who would read the Bible to him at night at her home in Gold Hill. The last time Russell had seen her before leaving for the Army, she was bedfast and blind, but she grabbed his hand and told him to remember the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
“I couldn’t pull the trigger,” Russell says, recalling his first encounter with the enemy. A sergeant saw his hesitation.
“Come on, boy, you can’t get anywhere like that,” the sergeant yelled, just before he was shot and killed.
Russell says he then emptied eight rounds of his M-1 rifle in the direction of the three Germans. When he walked by that corner later in the day, there were three dead Germans lying there.
“That’s what you call a baptism by fire,” he says.
There are many more stories, of course.
Russell’s days in front-line combat were over after he was blasted out of a trench by an 88-mm shell. It opened an incision in his back, left over from an operation he had undergone after falling down an embankment in basic training.
Russell was moved to the 904th Engineering Co., a support group laying pipeline for gasoline all over southern Italy.
After the war, Gib married Madge in September 1946 and became what he calls “a jackleg of all trades.” He served as an automotive and heavy equipment mechanic for several different companies, such as Johnson Concrete and W.F. Brinkley Construction, where he helped to build bridges, water plants and sewer plants.
He was the kind of guy who could take a heavy crane apart, rebuild its engine and get it working again.
So all of these woodworking projects are small in comparison.
Russell says they helped him deal with some of the nightmares plaguing him long after the war.
Over the past 20 years or so, Russell has been a frequent guest at local high school and middle schools when veterans are asked to speak.
On those occasions, he becomes a teenager again, remembering friends such as Kit Carson, Roy D. Schumann and Capt. Noon.
It’s more than just piddlin’.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.