Carl Higgins, WWII Hero
Last summer, the "Did You Know?' column followed Ira Lee Taylor through World War II in Europe. But one of Ira Lee's best friends from Harrisburg didn't come home after the war.
Written & copyrighted by Janet Morrison, 2008
Jesse Carl Higgins, Jr. was born to J.C. and Zula Bost Higgins on February 24, 1919, in Gaffney, South Carolina, where Mr. Higgins was working for Southern Railway. The family soon moved to Harrisburg.
Carl grew up rambling on Back Creek and hunting with his friends, according to his younger brother, Harry R. Higgins. After Carl graduated from Harrisburg High School in 1935, he and Ira Lee went off to study forestry at "State College" (now North Carolina State University at Raleigh.) In 1939, Carl landed a job as a rural mail carrier in Harrisburg.
When the United States entered World War II, Carl could have gotten a military deferment, but he didn't. He volunteered for the U.S. Army and was in the second contingent from Cabarrus County to go to the war.
Carl left for Fort Bragg on February 20, 1941, and trained there for thirteen months. Wanting to be a pilot, he transferred to the Army's Air Corps and began his aviation training at Kelly Field at San Antonio, Texas. He had additional training at Grider Field at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Randolph Field in Texas, before returning to Kelly Field for advanced training.
While training in Texas, Carl fell in love with Miss Virginia Allen. They became engaged but decided to wait until Carl returned from the war to get married.
On December 13, 1942, Carl received his wings and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was assigned to a Martin Aircraft B-26 Marauder. He practiced flying the plane at Lake Charles, Louisiana, and McDill Field in Florida. He gave Harrisburg residents a thrill when he circled the town several times on July 28, 1943, on his way to England for the war.
The last time Carl and Ira Lee saw one another, they promised to try to get together, if they both ended up in the European theatre. When Ira Lee got to England for training for D-Day, he wrote Carl a letter and suggested they meet in London when they could both get a day off.
On Carl's twenty-sixth mission, his plane was hit over Abbeville, France. His parents received a telegram saying that Carl was missing in action. Ira Lee's letter to Carl came back to him marked, "Missing in Action" in big red letters. Ira Lee still has the letter.
"That tore me up," Ira Lee said. "He was my buddy."
Five months later, the War Department informed the Higgins family that Carl had died in the crash on March 5, 1944 - sixty four years ago today.
It was two years after the war before Carl's body was returned to Harrisburg for burial in the Harrisburg Presbyterian Church Cemetery. One of the young men who served under Higgins, Richard Green, a gunner from Virginia, attended the funeral and told of Carl's heroic efforts to land the B-26 after it was shot up.
Ira Lee recalls that Green described what happened. "Carl told us, 'You boys, bail out!' We just sat right there and didn't move. We were going down with the plane. Carl said, 'I told you to bail out! That's a command! My bombardier is trapped in the nose and can't get out. I'm going to try to crash land and save him.'"
The four crewmen parachuted out of the plane. The plane went into a spin. Carl got the plane leveled out, but he had lost too much altitude. The plane crashed and burned. Carl and the bombardier were killed.
The co-pilot's face was badly burned. All four surviving crewmen were captured by the Germans and became prisoners of war.
Before his death, Carl had been awarded the Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters and had been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Distinguished Flying Cross and his Purple Heart were presented to his mother at Morris Field in Charlotte on January 26, 1945.
Ira Lee Taylor saw military action from D-Day until the war in Europe ended, but he said, "Carl is my hero."
Jesse Carl Higgins, Jr. was the only Harrisburg resident who was killed-in-action in World War II.
Interview with Harry and Nell Higgins, February 2, 2008, and various undated newspaper accounts in their possession. Photographs of the B-26 aircraft and Carl Higgins courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Harry R. Higgins.
Interview with Ira Lee Taylor, February 24, 2007, and telephone conversation on May 18 2007.