George and Ida Mae Ellis
By Karen Ray
The Ellis’ will be part of Honor Flight of Southern NM’s Mission 9 to Washington, DC this year.
Ida Mae grew up with a healthy sense of determination in a small Pennsylvania town. After high school graduation she relates, “One day my friend and I decided we were going to go down and join the army. She didn’t pass the physical so I went by myself…. of course my mother wasn’t too happy when I told her what I did…it worked out okay though.”
She trained at Fort Oglethorpe then was stationed as a WAC at William Beaumont Army Medical Center where she served in the awards and decorations center. “It was very rewarding for me,” she says, “We got to see the people coming back; they were bringing a lot of the wounded from Germany there. They specialized in artificial eyes and limbs. They looked to see if your blood matched the soldiers that came in and I can remember one day I gave blood to one of these wounded soldiers and to me that was oh, unreal! We would go up to the wards and get all the information we could from them and then we also had their service record. It was so interesting to look through their records and see if they were at this battle or what time they were there and then get all that ready.” Many times she and others went up to the wards when the general was awarding medals to the soldiers. “It was just so wonderful. To me it was so rewarding and I think if I hadn’t gotten married I might have stayed in there a little while. I don’t know if I was officer material but I sure liked the enlisted personnel.”
She and husband George met on New Year’s Eve 1945 and were married June 1, 1946. She says, “At that time, if you were married you had 30 days to get out of the service….” She describes their courtship, “We didn’t have a car. George would ride back with me on the bus; they used to send a bus over to William Beaumont for the WAC people to go over to the USO at Fort Bliss. All he could do was bring me to the gate and I got a kiss.” When the couple decided to marry they borrowed a car from an enlisted friend and drove to Las Cruces. At that time Texas required a blood test and New Mexico didn’t. She laughs, “So off we went to Las Cruces. We thought we got married in the Methodist church and when we looked at our certificate some years later, we married in the Baptist church. That’s been a joke forever. I had to be married in my uniform because at that time you couldn’t go anywhere in civilian clothes…but with this huge corsage, never knew where he got such a big corsage.” They celebrated their 70th anniversary this year.
George was stationed at Ft. Bliss so they lived in a downstairs apartment at 4406 Trowbridge. She says, “If George got in the tub he couldn’t stand up; the stairs were right above there. We had no washer or dryer, we had nothing. We would wash the sheets in the bathtub and hang them up. We had a huge yard but the apartment wasn’t very big. It was good for us, we were just married and we got $50 a month or something. George was a PFC when we got married and I was a tech sergeant. He got $54 and I got $96, because I was going to school. I couldn’t cook; after I thought about it years later, how we ever survived I do not know. I think on love!”
While George stayed at Fort Bliss she attended the International Business College for nine months. Then in 1947 they attended Holmes Junior College in Goodman, Mississippi and graduated together. She had used up her GI bill at that point. Then the couple moved to Kent State University in Ohio where George continued as a junior and entered the ROTC program. After graduation he was sent to Korea and Ida Mae says “I went home and stayed with my sister during that time. Then when he came back we went to South Carolina. We adopted a little girl, Cindy, and then later on we adopted a son, George Jr. Since then we’ve lost both children. That was sad but that’s the way it was.”
They came out to live in El Paso after their daughter passed away and dear friends invited them out for a week’s visit here in the city. She recalls, “During that time they had set up appointments for George to see people up at the medical center and they had him set up for interviews at the school. So we’re driving back home and we looked at each other and said ‘Do you know we own a house, we’ve never owned a house. And you have a job when you come back?’ That was ‘75. When the couple moved to the eastside in ’76 George began work in educational counseling at Parkland High School.
Looking back all those years she says, “I was happy to do it and I enjoyed my time in the service, I really did.”
George describes himself as a “webfoot,” born and raised in Louisiana. He says, “In high school I majored in football and girls. In football I made all state football player two years in a row and my coach and parents encouraged me to fail my final year in high school so I could the fifth year of football which I did. Then when I turned 19 in 1944 the draft board said ‘That’s enough, you’re in the army’ so I got drafted on my birthday.” He did basic training at Camp Benning, TX performing so well that they kept him to train incoming recruits in skills like bayonet, firing on the range and hand to hand combat. “I was one of two people in the basic training,” he says, “that passed the expert infantry training and I was awarded the expert infantry badge and got $5 a month extra.”
He began basic training in top physical condition from all the football playing. He says, “I was probably in the best condition of anyone because I had hunted all of my life, firing weapons was just second nature and that’s how I became a sharpshooter. They designated me as a sniper prospect if I went into combat.” Instead, Japan surrendered, the war ended and Camp Benning was closed. He was transferred to Fort Bliss on the 30th of December 1945 and met Ida Mae the very next night, New Year’s Eve, at the USO. He chuckles, “There were about five WAC ladies and about five of my friends and we sort of just paired off and that’s how Ida Mae and I got paired off.” He recalls their courtship consisting of mostly Sunday services at Trinity Methodist Church in downtown El Paso, followed by “a short meal somewhere and then we went to a movie, usually at the old Plaza movie theatre downtown. What a beautiful place…you look up in the ceiling and I assume they still have the stars and whatnot. They had a beautiful organ and someone played it before the movie started. It was absolutely beyond description, particularly back in the old desert days of El Paso.”
After their marriage he re-enlisted for another 13 months to make sure he had enough on his GI bill to go to college. He was in high demand, “I had offers for 22 division 1 colleges to play football and my coach said ‘LSU is your school.’ I accepted a scholarship to LSU but was never able to go there because I got drafted in ‘44 and spent the next three years in the military. When I got out my scholarship was no longer valid. But I started at LSU in 1947 after I got out of the army.” At LSU he says, “I was playing behind none other than Y.A. Tittle. He was an all American at LSU.” George sounds wistful, “I didn’t have an opportunity to be the quarterback that I was designed to be in 1944.”
During his WWII service he was noted for his combat skills. In addition to his expert infantry badge he received combat infantry badges in Korea and Vietnam. He says, “I guess in my total career I’m one of the few officers probably that commanded a rifle platoon, an infantry company, an infantry battalion and an infantry brigade, all in combat. I was actually wounded six times, four times in one day when I got my first purple heart. I received four purple hearts, two in Korea and two in Vietnam.”
After LSU he transferred to Holmes Junior College where he played football as #39, then attended Kent State University and joined the ROTC. He was named a distinguished military student and became the regimental cadet commander and a cadet full colonel. He says, “At that time Kent State had about 2500 cadets and we had six battalions. So I had six battalions under my command.”
Ellis graduated in 1951 as a distinguished military graduate and was offered a regular army second lieutenant commission. He accepted and was sent off to Korea assigned to the 45th infantry division. “On June 25th, 1952 is when I got shot up and also received a silver star for that action. The Silver Star is the third highest military combat decoration for valor and I also received another silver star in Vietnam. I have a bronze star with a “V” for valor that I received in Vietnam, the 4 purple hearts and I have the soldiers medal which was the highest you can receive out of combat.” Ellis has 13 air medals, several of which are for valor and two distinguished flying crosses for valor. He says, “My commander was a Medal of Honor winner. I’ve got decorations for doing things that were crazy if you considered. I was shot down in helicopters 13 times in Vietnam; they had to replace the helicopters in each of those cases. I was the infantry battalion commander and that was what you called a command and control helicopter. That was my jeep in the air! I could go in and provide the first support for my troops….”
He says, “That soldier’s medal I received in Korea for a train wreck that contained about 200 -300 children that were going to school. The train ran off tracks over a bluff. I climbed up in the train…That was a terrible thing. I was underneath, the doctor was up on top, he was taking the arteries and tying them off and I was sawing the leg off. The little girl was trapped and she was hanging down below, the little girl just clung to me. She never said a word. She never cried or anything…. I am assuming that even without a leg she survived. I never heard after that.”
Asked what he’d say to young people today about their country and his service experience he says, “In Vietnam the troops were the most outstanding aspect of it. Of course I lost almost 200 men in the six months I commanded that battalion and not a single one of them had burned their draft card. They went to Vietnam and got killed bravely. Of course they believed in defending their country. The greatest aspect of the war is the men that served, particularly as enlisted men that got drafted for two years and in almost every case were sent as infantrymen to Vietnam. I can even remember on one day I went down on the ground and interviewed a young soldier and of all things he had gone to Kent State University. He said he was going back when he got out and finish college at Kent State. But the next day he got blown away…I was the one that flew in and picked up the bodies and I had to see this tremendous specimen decapitated and lying there. The young men that were willing and gave their lives in defense of the country, when as you know back in the US at that time, this was 1969; they were burning their draft cards and refusing to come in the military.”
War reports were a steady part of my childhood, parents huddled around the evening news while my brother and I ate dinner alone at the table, acting silly, only half listening and not comprehending the sounds and images emanating from the television. I am humbled listening to this strong man talk quietly and profoundly of his experience.
“My troops did everything and I have nightmare after nightmare even now because I pushed those young men so hard…I lost almost 100 men in my platoon and company in Korea and 200 in Vietnam and we did not win either one of those wars. To a degree, you know, I say I’m responsible for 300 men being killed. I have a nightmare; I can’t go to sleep at night. Of course Uncle Sam if you remember dressed in all of his attire with the big hat and his finger pointing out and then the other, the sabers. Well, he chases me every night, ‘I want you’ and whenever it comes down and I almost go to sleep, ‘I want you for killing 300 of my men’ and of course I come up out of the bed like a shot and poor Ida Mae…it was been so terrible. That goes on night after night even now.
In spite of these war experiences, or maybe somehow because of the character Ellis brought to those events, his speech is gentle and he is quick humored. He parts with a bit of advice: “If you stay in love with your husband and he stays in love with you —you will make it to your 90s. The way that I survived for 70 years is ‘Yes, dear’ to everything she says,” he laughs. I kind of like that, George.
It is a gift that Ellis is willing to share part of his story, as hard as it is. I hope that he finds visiting the memorials in Washington on the Honor Flight later in September to be a healing experience. Both he and Ida Mae will be honored and that is good and right. He’s ready, although they’re in their 90’s he jokes, “I can still outrun anyone that’s gonna be on that plane.”