Veteran in Recognition
by Lisa McCauley. Bonnes Nouvelles, September 22, 1998
Lou Ella Fontenot grew up in the community of Pointe aux Tigres. She remembers being at school in Basile when war was declared. Everyone, she recalls, knew there was trouble in Europe, but an attack by Japan came as a complete surprise.
Helin McCauley, my father-in-law, was raised in L’Anse ‘Prien Noir, a community north of Duralde. He can’t recall how he learned of the war, but speculates it was over his family’s radio – they were the only household in the area with one.
Lou met her future husband in the summer of 1942. She was staying with her aunt Lillian [Naquin] Miller in Duralde while her uncle Murphy was away at work. Lillian had been left with 2 daughters and a farm to manage, and needed help. For entertainment, Lou would occasionally go to Piersall’s dance hall in Mamou (located on the same block as Fred’s Lounge) with her cousin “Sis” Fontenot. She remembers that Eugene Daigle, who owned a bus, would drive kids from the country to the hall each Wednesday night. The romance started when Helin asked Lou to dance.
Like many young couples, Lou and Helin found themselves separated by the war. Helin was drafted in 1943 and chose to join the Navy. He had originally hoped to join the Cavalry, but was informed that it longer existed. On February 26, Helin left for basic training in San Diego, CA. He had only ever ventured as far as Pollock, LA (where he worked for the Conservation Corps in the 1930s), and while the trip to California was not difficult to make, he did regret having to be so far from home.
Life in the Navy was not hard for Helin. He had grown up with hard work on the farm, knew how to shoot from hunting, could already swim. Perhaps the most difficult thing was getting home for leave. He would take the train, the bus, sometimes catch a ride with pilots to various bases. More often he’d hitchhike, which was safe for servicemen (and rather patriotic for drivers) despite the fact that there were fewer cars on the road due to tire and gas rationing. One trip took 17 rides to get to Oakdale, another took 34!
Helin’s time with the Navy was memorable. On more than one occasion, due to no fault of his own, he was prevented from joining his fellow sailors at the front line. His first assignment was on an aircraft carrier off the coast of California. Their ship was used for “qualifying”, or training, pilots and Helin’s job was to repair and maintain their airplanes. He next traveled to Brisbane and Pert, Australia (remembered vividly for it boiled mutton consumed for weeks afterward) on route to Karachi, India (now Pakistan). His ship was transporting important equipment and aircraft to the area, and the crew learned upon leaving Australia that no ship had ever made the journey past 5 days. Helin recalls that, unescorted, the boat [ship] maintained a zigzag course; history was made when they arrived unharmed in India. The crew later learned that for part of the way they had been trailed by a submarine.
Perhaps Helin’s most lively encounter during his time was the hazing which took place upon crossing the equator. Each initiate stood trial with a judge whose biggest complaint was, “That hair! A working soldier shouldn’t have that!” Each had their hair shaved sloppily, and was passed through various stations of punishment, including one for whippings. In the end, Helin received a card and certificate certifying his new rite of passage.
Helin then joined Cajou 5, located on North Island in San Diego, where he worked as an airplance mechanic through “shore duty”. Not long after, he joined a “commando squadron” at a special camp in Point McGoo. Cajou F69, as it was called, was a fighting unit whose purpose was to clear a way on Pacific Islands for landing strips. Instead of shipping out with the group (his squadron was on leave at the time), Helin was sent to 29 Palms in the Mojave Desert where a new type of rocket was being developed and tested. The closest highway was 53 miles from the air base. The war ended before any other missions could come Helin’s way.
While most young men from home were in the service, there were few locals in Helin’s immediate area. One day, while out for a walk, he met Octave Fruge from Gueydan. Heline approached him from behind and asked “Et-ou tu deveins, Fruge?” (Where do you come from Fruge?) Octave, never having left home before, was extremely homesick, and it’s easy to imagine how wonderful it felt for him to hear his native tongue again! The two became life-long friends, visiting each other often after the war. The only other Frenchman on board Helin’s ship was S.B. Ardoin of Mamou.
Louisiana French culture was certainly new to many sailors, and Helin recalled the time that some of his crew first heard French music. His family had sent some recordings of Amede Ardoin, Leo Soileau and other to his ship – at first, he said, the goup became very quiet, only looking at each other, bewildered. Eventually their feet were tapping along with the music.
The old saying “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” certainly held true for this young couple during the war. In March 1944, when Helin returned home on emergency leave, they decided to marry immediately. They obtained a marriage license in Ville Platte and drove directly to St. Ann’s in Mamou. Unsuccessful here, they continued on to St. Anthony’s in Eunice. It was during Lent, a time when marriages weren’t usually held, but the assistant priest performed the ceremony anyway (quick marriages were common during the war, after all). Their witnesses were two individuals who happened to be making the Way of the Cross at the moment. Helin had to immediately return to California, leaving his new wife to care for her mother at home.
Letters were the only means of communication the family had with Helin during their separation, so he devised a code to warn his family of impending movement. If a form of endearment was included in the greeting, such as “Dearest Lou”, they knew theat he would be shipping out soon.
The couple was united three months later, when Lou made the long, tiring journey to San Diego. Trains, used for transporting troops, offered little space for civilians. Lou remembers having to stand holding a strap all the way to Beaumont. The journey across Texas lasted 32 hours, after which time Lou had no further desire to ever see desert again.
The couple was assigned a room in an old house which, despite its simplicity, offered many amenities that the couple had never had before: a telephone, electricity, running water, a bathroom in the house with hot water… Life in the city definitely differed from their lives back home.
Rebecca, their first baby, was born in April. Two months later, Helin got word that he was shipping out and the couple agreed that Lou should go back to Louisiana. The train ride home for mother and baby was unforgettable. At supper one evening, an officer explained to her that she was on the wrong section of [the] train – these cars were heading to Chicago! Panicked, unprepared for such a declaration, Lou moved to the correct train cars only to find them overcrowded with no available seats. The two spent the night on the floor between two cars – well shaken and dusty by journey’s end!
I wondered how everyday life was affected by the war. The couple explained that farmers and their families suffered less from rationing than those in the cities. While there were plenty of eggs, milk, and meat, canning materials (metal lids, rubber gaskets) were in short supply. Sugar, a precious commodity to all and was often hidden in jars buried in the ground.
While in California, the couple was well supplied with meat-rationing coupons from their families, often leaving Lou the envy of other shoppers. Of course, with the men abroad, it was difficult and emotional time for wives, children, and mothers at home.
Aviation machinist mate 3rd class [Petty Officer] was discharged on December 3, 1945. He eventually settled in the community of Soileauwhere the couple raised five children; Rebecca (Grand Chenier), Gentry (Tampa, FL), Monica (Reeves), Malcolm (Alexandria), and Cory (L’Anse ‘Prien Noir). Helin and Lou Ella will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary next month.
The McCauley Family book available for purchase at Lulu.com.