By Toni Stauffer
I.J. Wiggins, born Sept. 26, 1920, took a trip down memory lane last week, recounting his harrowing time in World War II.
In 1942, his only brother Dennis had volunteered to enlist, but Wiggins got drafted when the Army saw how good he handled his .22 rifle. Challenged by a drill sergeant, Wiggins, just 20 years old, lost the shooting competition by only one bullet. When he demonstrated he could take apart and put together his weapon with lightning speed, the Army decided they had to have him.
The son of a “mean as a snake” Deputy Sheriff, Wiggins originally hailed from Bogata, Texas. Situated about 25 miles from Paris, Texas, Bogata at that time was no more than a hole in the dirt, and even now the town is just a blip on the radar. The 2010 census tallied the population at a mere 1,153. Wiggins trained at Fort Benning before shipping out to Europe where he spent three years.
Wiggins was one of the fortunate survivors of the Normandy Landings (Operation Neptune), also known as D-Day. On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 allied troops, of which 73,000 were Americans, stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. By the end of the first day, an estimated 10,000 were killed, wounded or missing in action with 6,603 of those being Americans.
During the swim to the beach, he tried to save a drowning soldier, but his commander shouted, “Leave him alone! You may be next!” Wiggins regrettably let the man go, and to this day, he doesn’t know if that soldier survived. An angel must have been protecting Wiggins as he dodged heavy gunfire from the Germans on his run from the beach. Bullets ripped holes in his shirt, but miraculously, none hit him during the invasion.
He managed to find a trench and lay down in it to rest for just a minute, but as he turned over a bullet took out a branch just above his head. The branch dropped down in front of his face. Startled by the close call, Wiggins remembered saying aloud to himself, “Hey, wait a minute, this is the real McCoy. They ain’t playin’ none now.” The realness of war and death had been realized.
Wiggins knew he had to keep his head down as he painstakingly worked his way through the trench in an attempt to make it to the woods. Warned about the land mines by his lieutenant who’d had a foot blown off, Wiggins narrowly missed stepping on one of the yellow-topped mines hidden in the dense foliage; however, he made it through and found his way to safety. All in all, the allied forces marched a total of 985 miles across Europe, from the beaches of Normandy to 25 miles outside of Berlin, Germany.
Wiggins had been injured twice in the war, once when he took a bullet to his left thigh (it’s still there), and another time when some German villagers purposefully toppled a huge log on top of him, part of a blockade they were building. The log rolled down his body and crushed his foot. In agony, Wiggins instinctively turned his weapon on the man responsible who frantically waved his arms, in fear for his life. The gun didn’t fire, which Wiggins felt was fortunate since the man had a wife and children.
During the war, Wiggins missed his fiancé Katie LaDell, a Phenix City native.
“I wrote her a letter every night,” said Wiggins. “We had what they called V-Mail, which didn’t cost us anything.”
He returned and married Katie. The details and years are fuzzy for him now, but after Katie passed away, Wiggins found love again when he met his second wife Alma who passed away in the early 2000s. Wiggins never had children of his own, but he does have a beloved stepdaughter. He has many friends, like Sherry, also a veteran, who met Wiggins through her volunteer work with the Veteran’s Administration. She, along with other friends and family, takes him places and makes sure he’s eating well. Sherry and Wiggins are the best of friends.
“She’s so nice and kind to me. I love her,” said Wiggins.
When the war ended, Wiggins longed for home. He said he hadn’t had a Coca-Cola or a drop of milk for more than three years while in Europe. Before finally returning to the U.S., he found himself in Marseille, France. His first stop was at the United Service Organization (USO), where he bought four small bottles of coke which filled his canteen; he drank every drop, and then went right back and bought two more.
Wiggins also had brushes with celebrity. During the war, he rode on the back of General Patton’s tank but dismounted, because he couldn’t hear the enemy artillery coming over the enormous vehicle’s loud engine. He also had the distinction of being the personal driver for General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the French Resistance during WW II, and Prime Minister of France from 1958 until he resigned in 1969.
Even at 98, he still has dreams for the future. Wiggins said if he wins the lottery, of which he only wants $25 million, he plans to buy a new 350 diesel truck and move back to Texas, where he’ll buy a 100 acres of land for a cattle ranch which he’ll name the Wiggins Ranch. He would like to build a three-bedroom brick home, maybe two-stories, with a windmill so that he can pump his own water.
“And, I want either 10 or 12 white-faced cows and a man cow,” said Wiggins.
The irony is that his brother Dennis, who’d volunteered, spent his entire enlistment in England and never saw a lick of combat. Wiggins didn’t hold his brother’s easy time against him, but knows that sometimes it was only by the grace of God or sheer, dumb luck that he himself made it through the war. Tears fell as he remembered a lost comrade, someone who’d taken his place on a mission after Wiggins had become ill. Survival almost always comes with a price.