PAWTUCKET — The diary of a young soldier from Woonsocket detailing his experiences during World War II has brought a first-person flavor to a Shea High School history class
No one remembers exactly how Emilian Larue's leather-bound diary ended up at Shea. By chance one day, history teacher James Matuszek was perusing a shelf in the history department office that held books and videos on WWII. “I pulled out some books and the diary fell out,” said Matuszek. “I started to read and realized, 'Wow, this is incredible stuff.'”
Matuszek said he wondered himself about how the diary of Larue, who later settled in Cumberland, came to be at Shea. He e-mailed some retired teachers and former department heads, and one remembered a student bringing the diary in to school back in 1998. “Apparently, it got lost after that,” said Matuszek.
Matuszek read through Larue's handwritten accounts of his experiences during late 1943 and early 1944 when he was sent overseas as a flight engineer, gunner on B-24 and B-17s with the “American 8th A.A.F. 392 Bomb Group and 577 Bomb Squad,” as he recorded. He said he found the excerpts “fascinating” and thought they would be pertinent to the U.S. history class he was teaching.
Matuszek transcribed some of the diary's more vivid entries and worked them into his lesson plan. To make things even more interesting, the longtime history teacher decided to engage his students in a little modern-day “sleuthing” and asked them to see if they could find any information about Larue. “They Googled, they Twittered, and nothing came up,” said Matuszek. “Then one student, Helder Morales, said 'Lets go to the White Pages,' and sure enough, his name pops up in the phone directory.”
Unbeknownst to his students, Matuszek called the telephone number listed and discovered that the 91-year-old Larue is alive and well and living on View Avenue in Cumberland with his wife, Delores. He spoke to Larue, told him about the diary and asked if he would agree to talk to the class by telephone.
Keeping the fact that he had already spoken to Larue a secret, during the next class, Matuszek suggested that the students try to call the telephone number they had found. When someone answered, he said the female student chosen to make the call “nearly jumped out of her seat. She almost threw the phone up in the air, she was so surprised,” he said, smiling.
Passing around a cell phone, the students held a “press conference” of sorts with Larue, asking him all kinds of questions about his experiences during the war. Although hard of hearing, Matuszek said Larue's memory is still sharp and he was able to provide answers and anecdotes with the aid of his wife.
In the diary, Larue wrote that he was born on April 2, 1922 in Woonsocket and gave his home address as 59 Hamlet Ave. He also listed that he weighed 110 pounds and stood at 5'4” tall. He wrote of attending Woonsocket public schools and had left Woonsocket High School in 1939 to go to the Allen School of Aeronautics “since I had hopes of a future in such.” In 1939, he took a job with the Taft Pierce Company in Woonsocket as a gauge worker, and in 1942, enlisted in the Air Force.
Following his training, Larue was sent overseas in October of 1943. In an entry three months later, on January 11, Larue wrote, “Here my combat record begins. I was sent to Stone and Cambridge, England. There I took up advanced combat tactics. Then was sent to combat unit 392nd.” He listed his crew members by name on the plane that he referred to as “our ship, the Fairy Belle.”
Larue and his crew quickly began to see action, writing just days later, “Here in fog-bound England we sweat our missions out and our costs are heavy and most of us have given up thought of returning home. But are content to live today and tomorrow—if it comes.” He also wrote, “Here I may say nerves are on edge and minds perhaps not to(o) normal.”
In a January 17 entry, Larue wrote, “Was called up at three in the morning to replace a engineer on Lt. McNicles crew who had been shot the day before. My hands shake and I am scare(d) to hell. Trying not to show it in front of my own crew is no good. They know the hell my mind is going through.”
A March 12 entry noted, “Passed the Alps awhile after we crossed the Rhine River. Cloudy as hell. Bomb run, our bomb control jam(m)ed. Fuel low, sweating to hell, finally got bombs out by kicking them out. Sure a long trip back. Hit Ack Ack over Paris pretty light. We hit France, Ack Ack dam(n) accurate. A few ships shot up and going down. Last altitude crossed channel. Home again. Pretty tired.”
Larue further wrote of attending a 5:30 a.m. briefing on a mission and then being airborne at 10 a.m. when the number one engine prop began “throwing oil pretty bad.” He wrote: “Will have time to repair on ground and make formation again. Pretty tricky landing with bomb load.”
When Larue caught up with his formation a short time later, he wrote, “Leaving Channel, starting across France, one of our gun positions is out. Mechanical failure. Have been over France half hour. Two of our ships (planes) cracking up together. No one bailing out.” He added, “Passing Chateau T(h)ierry and Paris. We are crossing the Rhine River after a time. Now in the heart of Germany. We sure have good fighter escort.”
The next journal entry reads, “Ack! Ack! thick as hell on bomb run but going through it. To(o) late to avoid it. At this time a 20mm shell pass alongside my gun turret and tears a good size hole in the wing to my left. Ship vibrating like hell.”
Larue next wrote of being over Germany when he witnessed “about 75 ME 109s coming in for attack. He added, “I knew then I had flown my last mission. Strangely I was not afraid of death, the ship is quiet and the ack, ack sounds like hell in my turret.” He noted that a German plane was “making a pass. One of our own ships hit and spinning in. No one bailing out. These damn jerries (slang for Germans) are having a picnic.”
Larue continued, “Lt. Peterson flying our left wing is hit bad. His no. 1 engine on fire. At this point Lt. Peterson tried to gain protection from us by flying close to us so we could give him coverage with our guns.” However, he added, “We could hardly handle ourselves. He saw he was going to set us a fire if he blew up. So he rocked his wings showing he was dropping out. Eight chutes going out. The ship went into a sharp dive, three ME 109s jumped him and finish(ed) him off. Our guns were going to beat hell.”
The story continued, “We (k)new it was our last. Jerries concentrated attack on our ship. Tail gunner shot one down, waist gunner got another. I look in my ammunition cans and started to sweat, my ammunition about gone. My ear cut bad and blood keeps getting in my eyes and on my goggles. I missed a fighter coming in at six o-clock, my tail gunner nailed him. We were under attack for an hour.”
Larue wrote next, “Over France, our P-38s, P47s and P51s came in and gave these damn jerries hell. They shot down nine I could see. I got out of my turret and checked my ship. Crew O.K. A 20 mm hole in left (side), a few bullet holes and flack holes, oil leaks and shot up rudder. We got pas(t) Paris and Ack Ack gave us hell again. Finally hit Channel. We finally hit home.
In his assessment of that mission, Larue noted, “Some of the luck we did not have can be seen across Europe from the Channel to the Alps, across the lowlands. Yes, there they are strewed all over the land. Burned ships and men. Some prisoners, some will manage to cross the mountains into Spain. Commonly known as neutral. Some will freeze to death on the way over, some will be captured by the border patrol and turned over to the intelligence section of the S.S. Troops to be tortured out of secrets.”
Larue added, “I guess if a summary were taken the 100th and 44th Bomb Grp. could boast of having the highest number of men in enemy country. Then I guess they own the Channel, from the way they've been landing in it.”
Matuszek said that while Larue's diary obviously wasn't part of his original lesson plan, he thought the information contained in it was well worth re-arranging his material for. He sought Larue's permission to transcribe some entries for the class, then drove out to the veteran's home and returned the long lost journal. “He and his wife are such nice people,” Matuszek commented.
Several of Matuszek's students spoke of how interesting the diary was and their surprise at being able to speak directly to its author.
“He remembered everything. He talked about what it was like and about seeing his best friend dying,” said Sayou Cooper. “At one point, he was shot in the ear and the blood was seeping through his goggles as he was trying to see. It was interesting.”
“It was impressive,” agreed Kadiesha Dulin. “Especially being able to talk to him and have him say to us that he was still alive.” She added that the class had found Larue's wife, Delores, to be entertaining as well as she assisted her husband in understanding the students' questions. “I loved her! I love old people,” said Dulin.
When contacted about the diary, Delores Larue said it remains a mystery to the couple how it ended up at Shea High School. They don't remember ever loaning it to anyone, adding that her husband “didn't even know it was lost.”
Delores said she recalled looking at the diary as a newlywed. “He's lucky he came back, my God!”she exclaimed. She was quick to add that her husband of 61 years “has always been such a nice guy.”