History buff publishes her father’s letters from WWII

Published 7:01 am Saturday, July 23, 2016

John Rodney Williams married his wife, Margie Ann, on Aug. 31, 1941.

For the next two years, as the world was consumed with warfare, the Franklinton couple did well for themselves. Williams was a superintendent at his father’s lumber company and, with a war on, it was a good time to be in the lumber business. The war demanded lumber but it demanded men, too and in September 1943, the war came for Rodney. Margie was pregnant with their first child and his father needed him at the lumber mill to oversee operations, but Rodney couldn’t get a deferral and so, like many other young men, he was inducted into Army.

From the beginning, from his first weeks in basic training, Rodney wrote letters home to his wife and to his parents. He would write letters from gunnery school in South Texas and he wrote letters as he awaited deployment on the West Coast. He wrote letters as he moved east, across the Pacific Ocean. He wrote letters for 13 months, until a bomber he was on was shot down over the Sulu Sea after a bombing run near the Philippine Islands.

Ann Williams Warner never knew her father. Her mother would remarry, but Warner said Margie never liked to talk much about Rodney, rarely even offering a physical description of her father.

“She wasn’t secretive, but she couldn’t talk about the war,” said Warner, who lives in Franklinton.

Eventually, when Warner was a teenager, her mother handed over a cache of letters from Rodney, although even with the letters, Warner didn’t know much.

“I think her attitude … where she couldn’t talk about it, limited what I could find out,” Warner said.

Margie died in 2007 and with her passing, Warner said she sought out more information about her father’s bomber group, 307th Bomber Group, 424th Squadron in the 13th Air Force.

Armed with the letters and a headful of questions, she sought out bomber group historians and veterans and widows and, in 2012, she found the 307th Bombardment Group Association. Warner said she found in the group not only friends but also answers.

“I never really understood the significance of the battle in which he got killed,” Warner said.

Rodney’s mission was part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the biggest navel battles in World War II.

“That was the first time our B-24 planes ever saw the Japanese fleet,” she said.

Warner explained that her father’s mission was to destroy the Yamata, one of the heaviest battleships ever built. The Yamata had been on the attack, but aerial bombing sent the ship retreating, away from a light U.S. escort carrier group. Rodney’s brother, Len, was on the escort carrier and he would say, decades later, that the B-24 Squadron attack that repelled the Yamata probably saved his life.

But the Yamata didn’t retreat without a fight, and many of the planes in the bomber group suffered severe damage. Some, like Rodney’s, went down.

As the members of the 307th Bombardment Group Association shared their history and stories, Warner shared her father’s letters. She and her brother scanned them, and they made their way, via email, to each of the members. The letters were a hit, and someone suggested Warner write a history around them, give them a narrative and publish a book based on her father’s letters to Margie.

That book, The Rodney Letters: Love and Sacrifice in WWII, debuted this week.

Warner said she’s still figuring out how to market the book. She’s talked to a representative from the World War II Museum in New Orleans about getting the book there, and she’s holding a private signing event this weekend.

The signing is Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 19045 Highway 25 in Franklinton.

She also said she’s open to discussing the book with any interested groups. To find out more or to buy a book, call Warner at 985-839-3647 or email her at jjwarner@hughes.net.