Woodbury
County

James Russell Commander

 

BIO

James Russell Commander, “Jim”, WWII veteran and resident of Woodbury County, Iowa, served in the infantry with General G.S. Patton’s Third Army in Europe as a front line rifleman replacement.

James Russell Commander was born 1 October 1917, in Philadelphia, Neoshoba County, Mississippi, to James Ralston and Mildred Euna (Russell) Commander as the youngest of three children. He received his education in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

On 31 March 1942, only four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Jim enlisted in the United States Air Force at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He subsequently was stationed at airfields at Tacoma, Washington, Salina, Kansas, and Sioux City, Iowa. While stationed at the Sioux City Airbase, Jim was in a medical unit and trained as a medic. There was a great deal of training of various types at this big airbase for many units of the air force.

Jim went to a nearby USO in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, while stationed at this airbase. His love of dancing led him to meet a member of the USO hostesses of Sioux City, who loved to dance, Arvilla M. Reninger, a teacher in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Dancing gave this couple a chance to know each other and to develop a relationship that led to the marriage of a native of Mississippi and a native of Nebraska on 9 July 1944, at Trinity Lutheran
Church in Sioux City. They had five months together living in an apartment in Sioux City as Jim had a Class A pass from the airbase and could live off the base.

At the end of the five months in November, 1944, the day after Thanksgiving, Jim was transferred from the air force to the infantry along with tens of thousands of other airmen. This was immediately following the Battle of the Bulge in Europe during which the Allied forces suffered serious setbacks. Among the great leaders who were able to convince the military as well as the civilian population of both the United States and England that we could survive these setbacks were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They never ‘gave up’. Jim had six weeks of infantry training at Camp Howze, Texas, and a two week delay enroute to his point of debarkation to Europe. He and his wife traveled by train to Mississippi to visit his family. The couple called this their honeymoon. Then Jim proceeded to his point of debarkation for Europe at Fort Mead, Maryland. His wife returned to Sioux City, to her family.

The transport ship to Europe, the Vulcania, had to alter its course many times as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean due to being chased by German submarines which had gotten in close to the eastern coast of the United States. Because of this danger, the Vulcania landed at Glasgow, Scotland, instead of LeHavre, France. The troops rode trains to London and then crossed the English Channel by boats to France. At LeHavre, Jim was attached to Patton’s Third Army, Company K, 319th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division that was known as the Blue Ridge Mountain unit, a remarkable military team.

Jim was in combat across Central Europe from LeHavre to Ebensee, Austria, living outdoors the entire time and having with him only what he could carry. The conditions were primitive; the troops had to deal with heat, cold, rain, mud, dry conditions. They had to be able to adapt to all kinds of living conditions including army rations. A memorable event for Jim was on a clear night in March, 1945, when his unit crossed the Rhine River. He was involved in many battles, some of which were at Weisbaden, Frankfurt, Kassel, Weimer, Regensburg.

During some of the battles there was anxiety caused by Hitler’s SS troops who were even up in trees ready to attack the Allied troops. This was a life of always moving, always a deadly urgent existence. Jim carried a picture of his wife and a small copy of the New Testament along with his dependable friend, his M-1 rifle. Fellow infantrymen as well as Jim who were known as “dog-faces” believed that you had to be there to realize the horror of war.
These “dog-faces” became part of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest
Generation”. Infantry became specialists on shells after being in combat awhile. They knew about the shells that came straight in or those that dropped down from a distance above. They recognized the different sounds of shells as they came in and had no love for the shells, their sounds, or the damage they could do.

At home, Jim’s family followed the war news as reported by Gabriel Heatter on the radio. The route of the 319th of Patton’s Third Army was marked as accurately as possible by Jim’s wife on a large wall map, which hung near the radio. Years later when Jim’s wife made a trip to Europe, she took a copy of this map to try to follow his war route. Family members at home also followed the troops as much as possible by reading newspaper columns. One highly regarded writer was Ernie Pyle; he wrote of people, not battles. Ernie’s columns were carried by many United States newspapers. Jim’s wife has copies of his columns for the time Jim was overseas. Another source of information was the “Stars and Stripes”, a military publication for the troops.
On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered all air, sea and land forces. Pfc. James R. Commander was awarded three battle stars, the sharpshooter rifleman’s badge, good conduct medal, European Theater ribbon. After the surrender of Germany, Jim’s unit was part of the occupation forces there. He helped liberate a concentration camp, this action led to months of nightmares in civilian life for Jim.

Upon arrival back in the United States, he was transferred from the infantry back to the air force for an honorable discharge. He returned to Sioux City, to his wife and has lived in Woodbury County, for over 55 years. Jim loves his family and home dearly. He and his wife have been married almost 59 years. They have two children: Kathleen Torbensen and Eugene Commander. There are four grandchildren: Claire Torbensen, Beth Dubbelde, Kristen and Matthew Commander and three great grandchildren: James, Lee, and Curtis Dubbelde. Jim has a great interest in fishing, hunting, dancing and card playing. In 1990, he survived a severe Stroke and has worked hard with great determination to overcome his disability. He had been employed at the Sioux City Stockyards for many years and retired from there.

Jim has been a member of St. Luke Lutheran Church, Sioux City, for 49 years. He was active in the Masonic Lodge, on the Stockyards Drill Team, before retirement. He is a member of the American Legion Post #662, of Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. Jim is very proud of his life in the military and his life as a husband, father and grandfather. He greatly enjoys having his entire family together for any occasion.

Written and submitted by his wife, Arvilla M. Commander.