State Journal-Register, Springfield IL
Kentuckian Bill Reynolds was visiting a friend in Louisiana. His friend, Cary Winters, had something special to show Bill, a collector of World War II memorabilia.
It was a World War II-era Army helmet liner with sergeant’s stripes and the last name “Betts” on the front. Winters, who had purchased the helmet at a yard sale, gave it to Reynolds.
Out of curiosity, Reynolds used the Internet to see if he could somehow find the “Betts” who wore this helmet.
That was five years ago. After almost 70 years missing, that old Army helmet arrived in Springfield (IL) about a week ago. Judith Betts Davis of Springfield is the daughter of Arthur Betts, the man who wore it. Betts, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, died a little more than a year ago.
Fortunately for us, before Betts died he was interviewed about his war experiences by Mark DePue, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s director of oral history.
Betts enlisted in March 1941. His unit, the 94th Engineer Regiment, eventually participated in maneuvers in Louisiana. How his helmet liner was left behind nearly 70 years ago is not known. His helmet was in Louisiana, Betts moved on, shipping out for Africa in 1943. The next year, his unit took part in the invasion of southern France.
Betts was not only in the Battle of the Bulge, he was one of 2,221 black soldiers who integrated previously all-white combat units. “He was the most proud of that,” says his daughter, “to be one of the 2,221.”
But it came at a cost. In the 94th Engineers, Betts was a staff sergeant. When he integrated the 99th “Checkerboard” Infantry Division, he had to give up his stripes. The problem was his color. The outfit, he explained, didn’t want a black man to outrank a white man.
As the Allies neared the German border, Betts wanted in on the action, so he gave up his rank. It would cost him for the rest of his life, because he received a private’s Army benefits instead of a sergeant’s. But, his daughter says, he never complained about that.
“We were accepted very well there,” Betts told DePue about his entry into the Checkerboard Division. “No one thought about skin color so much at that time. You wanted someone to protect your back. Most of them were glad to receive you.
“After they knew we were good fighters, they were proud of us. They didn’t know we were capable of doing the job, which we did. We saved a whole lot of them.”
Betts described moving forward during the battle, stepping over the bodies of fallen American and German soldiers. That, he said, “was scary.” He took ammunition and anything else he could use from the bodies of the dead soldiers. It was a matter of survival.
“You felt sorry for the buy,” Betts said, “but you have to keep moving.
“Then you realize,” he said, “what Sherman said in the Civil War, that war is hell.”
When the fighting got intense, Betts said, the soldiers gave each other messages for their families in case they didn’t make it. He said that “tell them I did good, that I fought to the last” was a typical message.
Bill Reynolds knew none of this when he started his research. All he had to go on was the old helmet liner, the name and the stripes.
“I started researching Betts that were sergeants in Louisiana back during World War II,” he says, “and found an Arthur Betts who participated in Army maneuvers there.
“I wish I could have met him and presented (the helmet) to him in person,” says Bill, “as I would have liked to have a picture of me presenting to him …”
That is not to be. Betts died at the age of 90 on Jan. 31, 2009. But getting the helmet to his daughter is the next best thing for Reynolds. Judy Betts Davis is thrilled to have such an unexpected and meaningful keepsake from her father’s life.
“It’s just amazing,” she says. “My dad didn’t talk very much. It wasn’t until recent years that he talked about it. We had no idea about the 2,221. It was fascinating.
“We wonder where the helmet has been all these years. It was so nice that Mr. Reynolds was willing to find out who the helmet belonged to.”