WWII veteran, photog Balser  dies at 97

Johnny Balser, a McComb native who helped his unit earn a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge before later becoming a longtime portrait photographer who captured the likeness of countless people across Southwest Mississippi, died Tuesday at Aston Court in McComb. He was 97.

Visitation is 9 a.m. Monday at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church until Mass at 11. Burial will follow in Hollywood Cemetery under the direction of Sharkey Funeral Home in Summit.

Balser was the only boy in his high school graduating class at St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa, which at the time was an all-girls Catholic boarding school.

He entered the military service in November 1942 and landed in France on Utah Beach with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army on D-66 — or 66 days after D-Day, the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy.

He served in the Battle of the Bulge as a Technician 5th Grade with the 3444th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company.

Before entering the military Balser worked as a machinist’s apprentice in the railroad shops in McComb and the Army, recognizing that background, assigned him to work as a machinist in a unit that supported troops.

The Battle of the Bulge,  also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, took place during the dead of winter, from December 1944 through January 1945, and was a pivotal moment in the war. Hitler had planned on splitting up Allied forces in the Ardennes Forest, encircling them and conquering them in the hopes of forcing a treaty on his terms.

But the allies managed to shut off German supply lines and end the offensive with the arrival of Patton's 3rd Army at a besieged Bastogne, Belgium.

In a 2014 interview with the Enterprise-Journal, Balser recalled how his unit was preparing to cross the Rhine River, where it was sure to encounter fierce fighting with German troops. Bitter cold weather caused the unit’s 105mm guns to malfunction.

“We were about to cross the Rhine and we had no guns. That was a big problem,” he said.

Balser used a lathe to make a tap that could be used to clear out the debris from babbitt metal parts on the gun that had been shattered by the combination of cold weather and use, causing the guns to fail.

“This thing was worth its weight in gold,” Balser said of the tap, which he estimated put at least 100 of the guns back in commission.

“We still had to get across the Rhine. We needed those guns,” he said. “The war was  getting to the end. Once we crossed that Rhine it was over.”

Balser said a brigadier general noticed his company working on the guns one day and wrote down the unit’s information and recommended it for the Bronze Star.

In 2014, he was one of five Mississippi World War II veterans to receive the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony at Camp Shelby.

Balser was preceded in death by his wife Virginia, a former classmate at St. Mary of the Pines.

The couple reconnected in 1945 at a high school reunion in New Orleans, began dating and married in 1948.

He first opened a photography studio in Ville Platte, La., and after two years there, he and Virginia moved to McComb, where they ran a studio out of their home on New York Avenue.

Virginia managed the studio, scheduling appointments and handling the bookkeeping, along with retouching and hand-coloring photographs.

Survivors include two daughters, Valerie Balser Winn of Gautier, an author whose books are loosely based on her upbringing in McComb; and Mary Agnes Balser Hough of Baton Rouge; as well as two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.New York Avenue.

Virginia managed the studio, scheduling appointments and handling the bookkeeping, along with retouching and hand-coloring photographs.

Survivors include two daughters, Valerie Balser Winn of Gautier, an author whose books are loosely based on her upbringing in McComb; and Mary Agnes Balser Hough of Baton Rouge; as well as two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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