One Man’s War

One Man’s War
Back row: Keith Ainley, Cindy Smith, William Harrell, Joan McCord. Front, Jerry Smith and Barbara Harrell

When Hurricane Irma slammed into Jacksonville in September 2017, flooding caused severe property damage to many homes along the St. Johns River, but for one Lakewood family, Irma turned up a treasure-trove of priceless memorabilia.

While attempting to salvage items from the water-soaked storage area of his in-law’s condo, William Harrell discovered the weathered, leather-bound WWII journal and the Bronze Star of Major William J. Hicklin, Jr., United States Army Air Force.

Capt. William J. Hicklin, U.S. AAF, 1944
Capt. William J. Hicklin, U.S. AAF, 1944

“I opened that soggy cardboard box, found a journal and Bronze Star.  When I began to turn the damp pages of that journal, I was amazed,” recalls Harrell.  “My late father-in-law never mentioned, even to his children, that he earned a Bronze Star in WWII.  He never talked about the war at all, but here it was – hand-written in vivid detail, the heroic story of one man’s deep love for family and country.”

When Harrell revealed his discovery to his wife, Barbara, and his mother-in-law, Mignonette (Mig) Hicklin, they were moved to tears, and Mig was literally flooded with memories.  

The Hicklins had been married in Jacksonville for just seven days when 1st Lieutenant Bill Hicklin was called to active duty with the U.S. Army Air Force Sept. 20, 1941.  A graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in civil engineering, Hicklin was suddenly in great demand as a chief engineering officer of the 434th Troop Carrier Group.  His role was helping conceive, develop and train transport aircraft and gliders, along with paratroopers, in preparation for massive airborne assault forces.   

Page from William Hicklin’s journal documenting his 14 moves over two years from Sept. 1941 to Sept. 1943
Page from William Hicklin’s journal documenting his 14 moves over two years from Sept. 1941 to Sept. 1943

During the next two years, Hicklin and his young bride moved 14 times, from one military base to the next.  In Alabama, Wisconsin, California, Michigan, Connecticut, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, North Carolina, and Nebraska, they lived as vagabonds in small towns unprepared for hundreds of wartime guests.  They celebrated their second wedding anniversary and Mig’s first pregnancy just as Hicklin was ordered to report for duty in the European Theatre of World War II.  He was not destined to meet his daughter, Barbara, until the war ended.

In a journal note of January 1945, Hicklin wrote: “Barby became a year old.  From all reports, she has no equal as babies go; certainly not as far as I am concerned.  It’s certainly been hard not to have seen her yet, and the reunion of the three of us.”

While his wife and baby waited in Jacksonville, Hicklin was quickly promoted to Captain and then to Major as he and his fellow Troop Carrier Command members readied the 434th Troop Carrier Group’s four squadrons for D-Day.  Hicklin’s journal contained many historic newspaper clippings, including an interesting little item that was later published about the week before D-Day.  The British Air Service Command sent out an urgent appeal for 80,000 paint brushes and 37,000 gallons of black and white paint.  After one British paint company came to the rescue, troops spent hours secretly painting large black and white zebra stripes on each aircraft so that assault ships and supporting aircraft could tell friend from foe.

All of this and much more was recorded in her late husband’s worn leather journal and, as war-time memories engulfed her, Mig decided she wanted to somehow preserve this treasure as a Christmas gift for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Mother told us she wanted them to know that the freedoms and blessings they have so richly received did not come cheap,” said Barbara.  

“Can you digitize this?” William Harrell asked his friend, Jerry Smith, handing him the tattered journal.  Smith, an Emmy-award winning film maker, owns Pineridge Film and Television Company with his wife, Cindy, and knows a treasure when he sees one.  “Digitize it!” declared Smith.  “This is an incredible piece of history! I’ll do more than digitize it!”

Original D-Day photos of double-tow gliders at Aldermaston Airfield in England from William Hicklin’s journal
Original D-Day photos of double-tow gliders at Aldermaston Airfield in England from William Hicklin’s journal

Within five months, Jerry Smith and his team had produced the 30-minute “One Man’s War” video, a remarkable real-time story of the Troop Carrier Command’s role in WWII, including four rare aerial photographs taken on D-Day of scores of C-47 “Skytrains” on the Aldermaston Airfield south of London preparing to tow their 2nd wave of 101st Airborne support gliders into Normandy.  

The fascinating video, “One Man’s War,” has become much more than a gift for children and grandchildren.  It has received well-deserved acclaim everywhere it has been shown.  In an epilogue, the video notes that Mig Hicklin, at 99, has lived through sending a husband, a son, both sons-in-law and a grandson-in-law into the military – all being deployed overseas during wartime conditions.  The video dramatically captures the terror of war, the courage and loneliness of a soldier far from home and family, and the conflict of those in the “Greatest Generation” who returned unscathed from war and reluctantly accepted medals of valor, knowing that the real heroes died serving their country.   

When Harrell presented the video about his father-in-law to the Rotary Club of South Jacksonville May 21, an invitation immediately followed to present it to the Rotary Club of West Jacksonville.  This led to a request by Rotary Club of Deerwood as well as the Association of Naval Aviation’s Bald Eagle Squadron at their NAS Jacksonville meeting.  More presentations will follow in November, with the public invited to a showing at All Saints Episcopal Church Nov. 17 in honor of Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11.  

Noting that his Hurricane Irma salvage operation miraculously turned into a Godsend, Harrell speaks on behalf of the Hicklin family and the Pineridge Production team when he says he hopes this video about “One Man’s War” will remind future generations that freedom is not free.  “We also hope this video will, in some small way, help the heroes and their Gold Star families to rest in honor and peace.”

Susan D. Brandenburg
Resident Community News

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