Auto Biography of William Theodore Block, Jr.
(January 10, 2006 Update)
Updated at the request of Mrs. Alta Fletcher
I, William Theodore Block, Jr., was born on July 29, 1920 at 100 Block St. in Port Neches, TX, the son of William Theodore Joseph Block, Sr. and Sarah Jane Sweeney Block. Mama was born Aug 4, 1884 in Grand Chenier, La., and died at Nederland, TX on June 12, 1983. Dad was born on Black Bayou, near Hackberry, LA on Aug. 2, 1870 and died at Port Neches on Feb. 26, 1933. I was born in the old Block home (formerly Gentz), on Block’s Bayou, now Oak Bluff Memorial Cemetery, which was built of rough-sawn lumber in 1858, nailed with square nails, and was torn down in 1937.
After attending Port Neches schools through the 10th grade, I moved with my mother, my sister Alta Grey, and my brothers, L. Otis Block and Everett Staffen, to 836 Detroit in Nederland, TX on Oct. 17, 1935, the town in which I have since resided. I graduated from Nederland High School in May, 1937, and from Chenier Radio College in Beaumont in April, 1938, at which time I passed the FCC second class marine radio operator’s license and the 1st class Broadcast or Radiotelephone license, needed to operate broadcast transmitters. Prior to World War II, I worked mostly as bookkeeper, later manager, of Smiths Bluff Lumber Company, although I worked at other places as well.
After Everett was drafted in April, 1942, I enlisted in the Army on August 27, 1942 and took basic anti-aircraft training at Camp Wallace at Hitchcock, TX. I soon was assigned to camp cadre and taught radio operating and repair throughout 1943. When the camp closed in Dec. 1943, I was transferred to 78th Signal Company, 78th Infantry Division, then on Tennessee Maneuvers. I was immediately attached to HQ, 309th Infantry Regiment, with which unit I remained until division deactivation in April. 1946. At that time I was seeking a military civilian job, which I received at Fritzlar Air Base, Fritzlar, Germany.
I shipped overseas aboard the British transport Carnaervan Castle in Sept. 1944, docked a week or so later at Southhampton, and we were sent to live for 3 weeks in a hotel in Bournemouth on the south English coast. In Oct. 1944 we crossed the English Channel on an LST vessel, unloaded at Rouen, France, and went in motor convoy to the farm village of Scheren Elderen in eastern Belgium. We lived for 3 weeks in tents in an apple orchard. About Dec. 10, 1944 we went in convoy to Roetgen, Germany, on the Belgium border, where we were lodged in a woolen weaving factory until Dec. 14th, when the division relieved the 1st Infantry Division. The next day the 309th attacked and captured Simmerath and Kesternich, Germany, small German farm villages of about 125 houses, but the Germans re-attacked and recaptured Kesternich from us twice. On Dec 16, 1944, the German army made a major drive into Belgium, 10 miles south of us, and we remained cut off from all supplies and gasoline for the next 15 days.
In Simmerath we moved our radio into a farm house cellar, with our truck parked beside the house. German troops dug in 400 yards from us and they could have attacked at daylight and overrun us within an hour. We stayed in that hell of a hot spot until Dec. 24th, during which we were under constant barrage of mortar shells and 88mm artillery shells, most of which exploded 50 feet above ground and sprayed the earth with shrapnel. Also German snipers infiltrated every night, sometimes into the church steeple. Kesternich was even hotter, and since it commanded a main highway artery, the Germans fought like demons to keep it in their hands. During the next two weeks we were transferred first to the 1st Canadian Army and later to the 1st British Army.
On Dec. 22nd, 3 German shells arrived, the first hitting an attached barn and setting the hay afire; the second hit the attached milk barn and killed the German Holstein cow that I had been milking every day; and the 3rd shell hit the roof above the cellar and brought it down over our stairway. Luckily we were able to escape through the cellar window. The shell also cut our remote cable outside, disabling our radio, so we moved into the 309th HQ cellar for the next 2 days until we returned to rear echelon for repairs. Several of our soldiers were killed in Simmerath.
Before I forget, let me add that before the war, I had operated an amateur radio station at our home, where I also had a radio repair shop. Also while I was a soldier on Tennessee Maneuvers, our older brother Everett Staffen was shot down over Italy in his B-26 bomber, and he remained a German prisoner of war for the next 16 months.
After my division fought through the Rhineland, the Remagen Bridgehead on the east side of Rhine River, and the Ruhr Pocket campaigns, the “shooting war” ended for me after we captured Remschied-Wuppertal, one of the big Ruhr steel cities, on April 14, 1945. Immediately our division entered the Army of Occupation, first at Marburg Germany, where it snowed 4 inches on April 20, 1945; then in the Schloss Friedrichstein castle in Bad Wildungen, and about June 1, 1945 the 309th was transferred to Melsungen, Germany, about 15 miles south of Kassel. There I soon met Georg Kothe, who was the town postmaster, as well as his daughter, Maria Elisabeth Kothe, who was the town telephone operator. We began dating each other in her home, the Villa Waldhaus, which was on the outer edge of the forest, after dark, because fraternization with Germans was still not permitted. After about 2 years of courtship, during which time I was assigned for some months in Berlin and came home for 6 weeks on a “recuperation” furlough, I returned to Germany and was discharged as a civilian. I then worked for the next year as a high speed radio operator and communication chief at Fritzlar Air Base, close to Betty’s home. We spent 6 months getting permission to marry, after which we were married on June 2, 1947 in the Lutheran Church in Melsungen.
After a week’s honeymoon in the Bavarian Alps, we sailed for New York about July 1, 1947, arrived in New York after a 16-day, stormy trip aboard the hospital ship Jarrett L. Huddleston, and were back in Nederland on my birthday, July 29, 1947.
About Sept. 1, 1947, I went to work for the Nederland post office as a clerk. We lived with Mama the first 14 months or so, which was good for Betty while she learned English and Mama loved her to death. About Oct. 1, 1948, I went to work as a pipe fitter helper for the Neches Butane rubber plant in Port Neches. By then we had moved into Mrs. Kate Rienstra’s rent house at 811 South 13th St. On March 18, 1948, our first baby, Robert, was stillborn; he was an 8-pound healthy baby, left to die because of a doctor’s incompetence. That was a shock that Betty and I never really got over.
While I was at the rubber plant, I continued to work 4 hours daily at the post office as well. On May 25, 1949, I was working on Boiler No. 6 at the rubber plant when the boiler blew up in my face. Although 40 lb. fire bricks flew through the air all around me, I was unhurt, although I came out white as ghost, covered with asbestos from head to foot. I worked daily with the asbestos insulators, while “blinding” or “unblinding” flanged pipe lines or valves.
A week later the company called 72 of us in and laid us off, but they got jobs for us at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur. Nevertheless, I chose to return full time at the post office. I had not survived all the battlefield weapons just to come back home and be killed in a refinery.
Billy (W. T. III) was born on Nov. 17, 1949, delivered by an obstetrician who had saved Betty’s life in Mar. 1948. Thank God for penicillin which saved her! I was soon appointed a classified clerk, and when Haizlip resigned on May 1, 1952, I was appointed acting postmaster by Congressman J. M. Combs, although I had no chance to become a commissioned postmaster if Eisenhower were elected, which he was. I lost the office on July 17, 1953, to Kenneth Whelply, but I was immediately appointed assistant postmaster, a newly-created position, a job that I held until June, 1972, when I was transferred as officer-in-charge of the Orange post office. I chose to retire on Dec. 31, 1972 at age 52, for reasons too lengthy to explain because Westinghouse “took over” the post office and offered full retirement to those like me “who could learn no new tricks.”
In Feb., 1950, Betty’s parents immigrated to Nederland, but her mother was dissatisfied here from the beginning and they returned to Germany in July. In May, 1953, Betty and Billy left for a 4 month visit to Germany, returning in Nov. 1953. During that time, Billy forgot English, and he would speak only German to me for the month after he returned.
In August, 1949, we bought our home at 1824 Gary in Nederland, where I lived until Aug. 21, 1992, when I married Helga Woods. Betty had died the previous May 18, 1992. Becky was born on Sept. 4, 1954, followed by Bobby on Mar. 9, 1956, and Barry on Feb. 10, 1958. All of them were born in St. Mary’s Hospital in Port Arthur, and because both Bobby and Barry were “premies,” each of them stayed in incubators for several weeks.
During those years, I first owned a 1948 Chevrolet, which I traded in on a 1958 Plymouth; I loved that Plymouth because it had an automatic shift transmission, which used a touch switch to change gears. We endured Hurricane Audrey on June 26, 1957, as well as Hurricane Carla in Sept. 1961, although the latter did not make a direct hit on Nederland, such as Rita on Sept. 24, 2005 with its 125 mile per hour winds.
During those years after the war (1946-1969), I operated a ham radio voice station, first as D4APT in Germany, and after I returned, as W5GXA in Nederland. I abandoned ham radio while I was a Lamar College student, even though I had just perfected my radio teletype apparatus. Also in 1959, I became assistant scoutmaster of Troop 52 in Nederland and up until 1964 when I quit scouting; I had probably participated in 25 camping trips into the piney woods, either to Camp Urland at Woodville, or Camp Bill Stark on Highway 87 in Newton County.
In 1964, I started to Lamar University, pursuing a degree in history. I attended only night classes, taking 12 hours in the fall and 9 hours in the spring. I graduated in Dec. 1970 with a BA degree and a 3.74 grade point average. I immediately entered graduate school, finishing with an MA degree in Jan. 1974. I was writing my MA thesis, which also was the first book that I published in 1976, until Dr. Wooster told me I had to stop at the end of the Civil War because it was already 300 pages long.
Between 1972 and 1995 I published 9 books and wrote others which still remain unpublished. I began writing for Port Arthur News in 1972, but soon switched over to Beaumont Enterprise soon afterward. My last article (they appeared twice weekly), all Eastex and Louisiana history, was published Dec. 31, 2005, when two newspapers quit at my request. For years I wrote for Beaumont Enterprise, Midcounty Chronicle, DeQuincy News and Cameron Pilot.
In 1980 Betty became quite ill with a liver disease. She had a liver transplant in July 1990 and did quite well for 2 years when she died of kidney failure on May 18, 1992. The following Aug. 21, I married Betty’s best friend, Helga Woods, (who had also just been widowed), and we have now been married for 13 years. As of this writing (Jan. 12, 2006), I am 85 ½ years old, but I am suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, also emphysema, brought on by years of smoking and asbestos inhalation.