Saturday, May 25, 2013

MIA 2nd Lt. Lucian France Wilkins by Alex Poston

Frogville, Oklahoma, a town named after the alleged "giant duck-eating frogs" that make their home in the surrounding lakes and creeks, is a little speck of a town, barely visible even on a map, near the Oklahoma-Texas border. Chances are—if you could even find it— it would look much as it had nearly 100 years ago, when my distant cousin Lucian France Wilkins was born there, on November 29th, 1917.
Lucian was born at the tail end of what would later be known as the Green Corn Rebellion— a socialist-backed uprising of southeastern Oklahoman tenant farmers and sharecroppers in protest of military conscription and entry into the war in Europe. The rebellion itself lasted less than three days, but involved close to three hundred poorly-armed farmers and their planned march on Washington, D.C. According to the The New Day (1922) by Bertha Hale White:
"All of those who had participated in the uprising were soon under arrest,
and the net swept in others who had belonged to the organization, but had had no part in the rebellion. In all, nearly 300 men were involved, and when the case came to trial at Ardmore the following October 175 men received sentences ranging from 30 days in jail to 10 years at Leavenworth prison."

Perhaps it was the rebellious nature of southeastern Oklahoma at the time, or maybe just plain boredom due to life in a small town, but my grandmother June (Lucian's cousin) would likely say it was his being born with Wilkins blood that made Lucian and his older brother Lloyd into the town Hell- raisers that they were.
Lucian's mother, Minnie Wood, was half Choctaw and died when Lucian was only six years old. Her death had a devastating effect on Lucian's father, George "Ellis" Wilkins. The boys' aunt and uncle,
Celia Adeline "Addie" Wilkins and Frank Schroeder, took the boys in and raised them from then on, as
Ellis had reportedly become too distraught and turned to alcohol to help ease the pain of her passing. This was, Addie thought, not the right environment in which to raise two young children, and
though Ellis provided for the boys financially and wasn't technically "estranged," the boys, particularly Lucian, came to think of her as their mother. So much so that Lucian would later name her the beneficiary of his U.S. Army life insurance policy in the event of his death.
Lucian was the picture of the All-American youth in the 1930s. He attended high school in the neighboring town of Hugo, Oklahoma where he was by all accounts, one of the popular crowd (something quite rare in my family). Also a star athlete, he lettered in both track and field and football. Also during high school, Lucian joined the Oklahoma National Guard.
The Depression didn't ignore Oklahoma. In 1933, an out-of-work Ellis Wilkins moved with Lucian three hundred miles to Clinton, Oklahoma where Ellis' brother (my great grandfather Granville "Grumpy" Wilkins) lived. Lucian enrolled in Clinton High, where my great aunt Jo remembers how popular she became with the girls at school because her cousin was the handsome new boy in school.
It was also in Clinton that 16-year-old Lucian set in motion a family legend and town secret that still hasn't been brought to the surface.
The yearly football game between Clinton High and it's nearby rival, Elk City High School was coming up and Lucian was on the team. One day, he casually mentioned to his coach how his big brother Lloyd was the star running back of the far-away Hugo team. Clinton's coach evidently really wanted to win the Elk City game, so he conspired with Lucian to get Lloyd on to the Clinton team for the game, since no one in the Clinton/Elk City area would know who he was. According to most accounts, Lloyd never set foot in a Clinton High class room, but instead just showed up the day of the game, enrolled, and took the field that night.
Lloyd ended up only playing the second half, and only after Clinton was down. He promptly scored two touchdowns, won the game for Clinton, and was back in Hugo for school on Monday.
After graduating high school in 1938, Lucian was honorably discharged from the national guard in September of 1939. Less than a month later he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was shipped off to Fort Deven, Massachusetts, where in April of 1942 he was appointed temporary Staff Sergeant.
Almost a year later, as platoon leader of "C" company of the 45th Infantry Division "Thunderbirds", (whose insignia before the 1930s was a yellow swastika) Lucian took part in the Allied invasion on Sicily on June 10, 1943. He fought and survived the Battle of Biscari, where he received a battlefield promotion to Second Lieutenant— presumably due to the dead of his commanding officer.
For actions of bravery in this battle, he would be awarded the Silver Star, though he'd only receive it after his death. After Biscari, Lucian and the rest of the Thunderbirds of the 45th clawed their way north toward Rome.
On September 9, the 45th took part in the Allied amphibious invasion of Salerno, known as Operation Avalanche. Three months later, on December 30th, after taking several more towns, inching up toward Cassino, Lucian was reported as missing in action. Details aren't exactly clear on how this happened, but it wasn't until a friend of Lucian's, Lieutenant Ralph Berryhill, wrote his parents telling of his friend Lucian's death, that anyone in Hugo knew. Aunt Addie didn't even receive a notice of death, just a note from the War Department a few weeks after reading the letter from Lt. Berryhill, telling her he was missing in action. "I have nothing to write you—" the letter read, "Lucian is dead."
I have no doubt that similar stories of young American heroes could have been told in small (and large) towns all over the country just by changing the names of people and towns, but what's important is that this is Lucian's story, and a story of my family, and it helped me to learn a little more about who I am and where I come from.

Grove, John. Correspondences with historian, April 10th - 25th, 2012
Bibliography White, Bertha Hale. The Green Corn Rebellion in Oklahoma. Corvallis, Oregon: 1000 Flowers Publishing 2006
Telegram: U.S. Secretary of War to Addie Schroeder, February 1, 1944, Grove Family Collection
Lucian F. Wilkins Obituary. Hugo Daily News. Year Unknown (likely 1944)
Letterman's Award Certificates: Football and Track and Field:, Hugo High School, Hugo Oklahoma 1938. 

[Alex Poston's grandmother and Lucian and Lloyd Wilkins were first cousins)