Miles from home, Otts meets wife in WWII

Published 12:59 am Wednesday, July 4, 2007

By By Kerry Whipple Bean, publisher
Lee and Mary Frances Otts say a shared love of dancing was one of the things that brought them together.
Two different and dangerous paths to Europe in the waning days of World War II also helped ultimately bring them together for life.
Lee Otts believes God had a hand in their meeting and marriage.
Now the parents of four daughters and the grandparents of five, Mr. and Mrs. Otts have made their home in Brewton for nearly six decades. But their shared memories provide a vivid picture of the war and the men and women who served in it.
Off to war
Lee MacMillan Otts, a Greensboro native, was a graduate of the University of Alabama and its ROTC program when he was sent to France in September 1944 as a second lieutenant, a replacement infantry officer, in G Company.
Southern-bred Otts was surprised to learn he had been assigned to the Yankee Division. “I wasn’t too happy about that,” he said with a laugh.
Otts took over a 40-man platoon that had only six of its original men left.
Otts and his men crept across France, staying in houses or hunkering down in foxholes.
Most of the casualties G Company suffered came from mortar and artillery fire, not from rifles. On Dec. 12, 1944, as Otts recalls in “G Company’s War,” which he co-authored, the 328th Infantry nudged into France.
Relief finally came. Four days later Otts and his men were in Metz, France, and Otts had his first shower and fresh clothes in six weeks. They were supposed to be in Metz for about six weeks, resting and receiving replacements.
Then the Battle of the Bulge began.
“We just hopped on trucks and started going,” Otts said. “We didn’t know where we were going, and we didn’t know where the enemy was.”
A separate path
While Lee Otts was preparing to make his way across Europe, Mary Frances Byrd was growing bored in her hometown of Wilmington, N.C.
A teacher, she spent summers at her parents’ house, working an office job at a shipyard. As a backup secretary, she didn’t always have much to do.
She had heard the Red Cross was sending workers to Europe to help during the war. Even today Mary Frances can’t quite say what got her interested in the Red Cross.
Whatever the reason, Mary Frances ended up in Atlanta to be examined and trained for her new post. The questions asked during her examination would help prepare her for what was ahead.
Mary Frances arrived in England in September 1944, when “buzzbombs” were still raining over London.
After a short stay in London, Mary Frances and two fellow Red Cross workers ended up in Circencester, England, where a cluster of hospitals offered them the opportunity to bring a small piece of home to the American patients there.
The Red Cross had a “clubmobile” that they would park outside each hospital for a day to offer refreshments.
Sometimes the Red Cross workers would visit the men in the hospital as well.
Mary Frances’ family did not try to stop her from going overseas, but she knew that they were worried about her safety.
Battle of the Bulge
After leaving Metz, Otts and his men were moving toward Luxembourg.
By Christmas Eve, G Company was poised to attack Eschdorf, Luxembourg. Otts and his men lay stretched out in a ditch for six and a half hours; they could hear machine gun fire across the road. Otts crawled among his soldiers to keep them awake.
For weeks the fighting continued as Otts and his men moved across the country. By the end of January, the bloody Battle of the Bulge was over, and G Company moved south into France, to a town called Saarlauten.
In March 1945, Otts began the move into Germany with other Allied troops. On top of Hoecker Hill, Otts’ combat experiences in World War II ended.
Otts and some of his men dug a foxhole.
Shrapnel from a mortar shell hit Otts in the jaw. His medic, seeing the injury, could barely believe it; he nearly cracked right there.
Otts made his way toward an aid station, only to be hit in the shoulder by a bullet that shattered his collarbone — adding insult to injury, considering Otts already had a ticket to the hospital.
Meeting in England
After a long night at a hospital in Luxembourg City, Otts was evacuated to a hospital outside Circencester, England.
After about a month of recovery time, he was well enough to visit the town every evening. There, a friend set him up on a blind date with Mary Frances Byrd, the petite Red Cross worker.
Both agreed they liked to dance.
They celebrated V-E day together, but after about a month more in England, Otts went back to the United States, and Mary Frances went on to France and Germany, where she helped process POWs before they were sent back home.
As they had with their campmobile outside the hospitals, the Red Cross workers were able to give the men some comfort and conversation.
Back together
Mary Frances and Lee didn’t see each other for three years, but Otts made sure their paths crossed again.
Back home in Greensboro, Otts wrote the manuscript that eventually became half of “G Company’s War” in longhand during the summer of 1947. His mother typed it for him.
When Mary Frances returned to the United States, she spent a year in California working while Otts was in law school.
He persuaded her to visit him in Alabama in early 1948; by September of that year, they were married in her hometown of Wilmington.
Traveling Alabama in search of work, Otts found encouraging colleagues in Brewton, and the pair made their home here.
Neither Lee nor Mary Frances Otts is overly sentimental about their service.
They didn’t sign on out of a sense of patriotism, but like so many in their generation, they felt they were doing their duty to their country.

Email newsletter signup