Manuel receives medals 68 years after discharge

MORGAN CITY, La. — Almost 70 years after being honorably discharged as 1st Lt. James Manuel of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and with the help of a judge and a congressman, on April 23, a retired 94-year-old Morgan City man was given the medals he earned while serving his country during World War II.

Manuel was given the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. He also was presented with the World War II Honorable Discharge Pin, which he said is affectionately referred to as the “ruptured duck.”

The affable former life insurance agent, better known as Jimmie Manuel, offered a handshake and began his story by conspiratorially whispering with a smile, “My nephew, (Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals) Judge John Saunders told me about the medals. I didn’t know I was entitled to them.”

Saunders said he was researching family genealogy issues when he discovered his uncle might be entitled to some medals for having served. Saunders asked Manuel if he had gotten those medals.

“I might be such a modest fellow that I never pursued it but it is probably because I never knew about it,” Saunders recalled his uncle saying.

The logistics of hundreds of thousands of servicemen returning home and discharged led to many not knowing they were eligible for medals and not receiving them, Saunders said.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, assisted in obtaining the medals, which were presented in the courtroom of 13th Judicial District Judge John Larry Vidrine, Saunders said. Cecil Colligan, the Ville Platte president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, gave the medals to Manuel.

Manuel offered the following story of his journey from the heart of Cajun Louisiana, across the United States and over the globe during World War II and then to Morgan City as a successful businessman.

After being raised on a farm near Ville Platte, Manuel went to LSU, graduated with a degree in agriculture and shortly afterward enlisted in the Army Air Corps, which was the forerunner to the Air Force, at the age of 22 in October 1941.

“My parents were not ones who would express their feelings,” Manuel said about their reaction to his joining the Army while Europe, Asia and Africa were embroiled in a world war that would draw in America two months later. “They were not happy to see me go, but they accepted it as something that was expected.”

He and three of his brothers served overseas during the war. The family was fortunate to have all four return home alive.

After being inducted into the Army in Shreveport, Manuel was sent to Montgomery, Ala., Arcadia, Fla., and then Denver, where he became a 2nd lieutenant as an armament officer.

“We were dressed in funny looking uniforms, but I was proud of that uniform,” Manuel said.

Arriving at Brookley Army Air Field near Mobile, Ala., he was trained with a group of about 900 soldiers that would remain together in various assignments taking care of airfields.

Brookley Field became the major Army Air Corps supply base where many air depot personnel were trained and then deployed.

The group convoyed to New Orleans, boarded a ship and embarked to Trinidad in 1942 with stops along the way in Jamaica and Puerto Rico.

The south Atlantic air route through Trinidad to Europe quickly became the most often used method of getting aircraft to the African and European theaters of war.

After a two-year stint at the airfield, Manuel returned stateside for a 30-day leave at Norfolk, Va., and then went to Fresno Calif., for a few months. He spent the winter of 1944 in Nebraska.

“That is the coldest I have ever been in my life,” Manuel said of his stay as a 25-year-old in the Midwest.

He spent the spring of 1945 camped in the woods outside of Seattle waiting to be transported to the Asiatic Pacific.

Once leaving stateside, Manuel said the group did not know where they were headed but they were pleased with a brief stop in Hawaii. Before reaching their destination at Iwo Jima, he was “stunned” by the news of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945.

Manuel stood up as he talked about arriving at the famously secured Pacific island.

“We walked in black sand this deep,” he said motioning at the top of his ankles. “It was hard to walk in that sand. And it was quite a feeling to see all those crosses” where Americans were buried who had died taking the strategic island from the Japanese.

“We heard there was a ship coming with a special bomb that had a tremendous explosion,” Manuel said regarding the impending nuclear bombing of Japan. “Not knowing about nuclear bombs we had no idea how powerful it could be. But we were happy to know the Japanese had given up once it was dropped.”

When he was discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1945, Manuel took a train to New Orleans and then a bus to Ville Platte for a “wonderful meeting” and reunion with his family.

On Dec. 30, 1945, he married Muriel Bibbens of Morgan City who was teaching school in Mamou. The pair moved to Morgan City in 1949 where he soon went into business with his father-in-law, John J. Bibbens, as an independent insurance agent. He retired in 1990 at the age of 70, but still frequents his office.

“My uncle is the most engaging person I have ever known. He will walk into a restaurant and know everybody in the room before he leaves,” Saunders said. “Some time in his life he must have made a mistake, but I have never heard of it. You only hear good things about Jimmie.”

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