To celebrate the grand opening of the Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport-McMoRan Foundation Road To Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries, the LTJG Ralph E. Crump Merchant Marine Gallery, and the American Spirit Bridge, The National WWII Museum partnered with National History Day (NHD) to bring 58 middle and high school students to New Orleans to represent all 50 states and Washington, DC during the dedication ceremonies.
Learn with the Museum
Explore photographs, letters home, and other primary sources in these lesson plans and programs designed to illuminate history and spark curiosity.
The Digital Collections of The National WWII Museum
The National WW II Museum is home to thousands of oral histories and hundreds of thousands of photographs. This website offers the visitor a way to browse a sample of these collections and purchase images if interested.
As part of their participation within the dedication ceremonies, these students studied a veteran or service member from their home state or district whose oral history is contained within The National WWII Museum’s Digital Collections. These students then composed essays describing why these men and women were such outstanding examples of courage during World War II.
A Note About Student AmbassadorsSeven additional outstanding NHD students comprised the Museum's 2015 Student Ambassador Program, a yearlong initiative in which specially trained students collected oral histories from WWII veterans on behalf of the Museum. As part of the grand opening celebration, the Museum is showcasing some of the oral histories that these Ambassadors collected alongside the NHD students' essays.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington, DC
- West Virginia
Sidney Phillips, Marine Corps
“I was sitting in a drug store at the corner of Dauphin and Ann St. (in Mobile Alabama) drinking a vanilla milkshake with my good friend W.O. Brown who I enlisted with… a lady burst in the side door and screamed, ‘Turn on the radio!’… They were talking about Pearl Harbor on every station.”
The very next day, December 8, 1941, Sidney Phillips enlisted in the Marine Corps with W. O. Brown. They were planning to join the Navy but the line was 300yds long, stretching out the front door, down the steps and around the corner of the building. While observing the line length, a Marine recruiter convinced them to join the Marine Corps. Sid was first sent to boot camp on Paris Island, then to mortar training in Camp Lejeune, next to Guadalcanal and finally to Cape Gloucester.
Sid was told to come back to begin his training the day after Christmas. On December 30, he said good bye to his family and boarded a troop train to Birmingham, where he was sworn into the Marines. He then boarded another train to Paris Island to begin boot camp. This was the first time he had traveled cross country on a train. To Sidney Phillips, Paris Island turned boys into fighting machines, following every order with speed and precision. It was hard but it was just what he needed. Sidney Phillips recalled, “If you live through Paris Island, you can live through anything.” He then continued to Camp Lejeune where he trained to fire mortars. While at Camp Lejeune, he practiced, with his mortar squad, beach landings in preparation for invading islands.
With his training behind him, Sidney Phillips of H Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, boarded a ship and headed to the Japanese fortress, Guadalcanal. With little information to go on, Sid landed on Guadalcanal with W. O. Brown and his fellow squad mates ready to fight for their lives, only to find the beach already taken. After eating some coconuts, they advanced into the jungle. Having navigated a large river, they set up camp in the midst of the thick foliage and muddy ground with mosquitoes swarming around them. There they began constructing trenches and defenses.
When the United States Navy ships were forced to retreat, the island was shelled every night by the Japanese Navy. One night the Japanese tried to retake the island. Sid and his mortar squad set up their mortar but couldn’t aim it properly due to the cloak of darkness that surrounded them. They sat there all night watching and waiting apprehensively for first light. When they could see, they discharged their weapon continuously until late afternoon. The only thing he focused on, the only thing he knew, was doing his job. Sid’s thoughts never wandered; it was only what he needed to do next. When the battle was over, they had held their ground and the United States was victorious.
After departing from the horrendous conditions on Guadalcanal, Sid reached Melbourne, Australia where his unit had a much needed reprieve. He then continued to Cape Gloucester reinforcing the United State military units there. Sid and his comrades steadily built defensive structures and manned the perimeter defenses, all the while there loomed an imminent Japanese attack.
It was so rainy. There was so much mud that a whole bulldozer sank completely into the mud; its’ tracks still turning. Their rations remained small and the rain pelted them relentlessly. On a stormy rainy night, where the thunder sounded like gun shells and lightning flashed like explosions, the Japanese attacked the island. Sid and his mortar squad were in position along with 3 other mortar squads. With the only working flash light, Sid’s squad discharged their weapon all through the night and into the morning, until at last the firefight subsided.
The story of Sidney Phillips’ courageous actions in Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester inspire and continue to inspire his friends and comrades and even complete strangers. Against terrible conditions, Sidney Phillips never wavered, but stood his ground and did what he was trained to do. He was a Marine!
Geri Nyman, WASP
When both my engines started sputtering, I knew my plane was going down. I quickly radioed back to base. They responded, “You’ve got a parachute, bail out!” I anxiously looked out the window at the housing project beneath me. I couldn’t crash there, I would kill someone!
“I’m going down with this airplane,” I respond. “I’m not going to kill anybody.” I quickly identify an empty field with a fence where I could crash. As I began to fall towards the earth, all I could think is how I won’t let those people die.
My name is Geraldine Nyman, Geri for short. I was born in Emmett, Idaho in 1920. My family constantly moved, every year I went to a different school and my father would buy a barber shop without a bathtub, install a bathtub, and sell it the next year. After I graduated high school early, I went to college. In my last year I had a horrible teacher, so I stood up in the middle of class and left college behind.
One day, I decided to take a flying lesson. I’ll never forget that tingly feeling in my stomach during takeoff and staring at the world soaring below me. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to spend every minute of my life in the air, flying. I felt on top of the world!
Luckily, my instructor needed help in the office, so I became his employee. In no time at all, I became an instructor, and was teaching others to fly acquiring 2,000 hours in the air. Then, when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, my flying school shut down. I boarded a bus to New York, hoping to find a job.
When I arrived, I met a spunky gal named Jacqueline Cochran. She offered to take me along with 24 other girls to fly for the British Army, and I was ecstatic. I prepared to leave, but a week before our travel date, Jackie frantically called me. She told me that a new program had just been approved, called the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. She told me that she needed women with experience and lots of guts to fly, because it wouldn’t be an easy road. The government thought we couldn’t succeed, but we would prove them wrong. And I agreed. How could a girl say no to an offer like that?
I realized just how difficult training would be when I got to Houston. Almost all of our instructors were male with a superiority complex, even though we had more flying hours than they did. They were trying to get rid of us, but we wouldn’t let them. We endured the horrible food, the old malfunctioning planes, and the unjust treatment. Then, we made it, we graduated! Jackie bought our wings herself, and I will treasure them always.
After graduation, a group of gals and I were to be stationed at Long Beach, California. On the way there, I talked with a dashing young lieutenant named Van on the train, and we decided to keep in touch. Upon arrival at the military base, “hot pilots” that we were, we discovered the head man forgot we were coming, and as a result, we had to stay in the abandoned insane barracks. They were horrifying! There were army cots lining the walls, covered in dust, and the toilets and the showers had no coverings whatsoever! There were sure to be peeping toms, but we had no choice, so we made it work.
When the second group of girls came in, they were not so acquiescent. They complained so much we older girls broke down. We all drove to the most expensive hotel in town, stayed there for a few nights, and when we sent the commanding officer the bill, more private accommodations were arranged for us.
My main job became one of a ferrywoman. I would fly a plane somewhere, pick up another, and return. I flew every military plane out there, some functional, some falling apart. One day, I was in mid-flight when my plane’s canopy flew off! It was extremely cold and windy, but I managed to make it to my destination. When I landed, a man told me that I had to fly the plane to a different airport. I told him that they could take the plane and dump it. I was not flying it again. When he replied that I couldn’t expect a man to fly the plane, I turned around and walked off. If a man couldn’t fly it, I wouldn’t either.
Some months later, I had my accident. I was over a housing project when my engines began to fail, and to save any civilians below I crashed into a fence. It was extremely painful. I was hospitalized, and I left the WASPs, just a few months before it disbanded. I got married to my sweetheart Van, and he became a pilot. Then, we moved to Alaska. It certainly was an adventure. We delivered the mail to tiny villages far into the north, through mountain ranges and storms. We left Alaska when one of our co-workers crashed through the ocean ice and died. The danger was just too great. I had three children, Paul, Ken and Bruce, and we lived a happy life together.
Sometimes it is so hard to get over, the injustices, our lack of rank or recognition that our service should have received. I often wonder if I even made a difference. But then I remember my triumphant moments. The day I graduated. My crash. Marrying Van, and raising our three children. And of course, I remember flying. The joy of taking off and leaving my troubles behind. I became me, a girl in the sky. “I loved it! I loved flying all those airplanes… and anything I complain about is [superficial] because loving those airplanes overtake[s] everything!”
Queen Creek, AZ
Davey Jones, United States Army Air Forces
“[W]e get down below the clouds and realize we are in mountains, no way we can land. So I say, ‘Okay, troops, now it’s time.’ They pull the hatch and two of them go out. Hoss Wilder, my co-pilot, and I get into the well. Engines are running, they’re all zero in the gauges, but it’s running, and we got the auto pilot on elevators… And it is not good, a dark and stormy night… [Hoss is] out there and I am, and, God, I’m scared, no doubt about that, down there was black. So, I went out a little bit at a time, and then I’m hanging on with my arms. And my arms stretch out, and as that last fingernail broke I pulled the rip cord. [I] swung two or three times until I hit the ground, and it was very soft there on the side of the hill.”
David Jones was born in Marshfield, Oregon, and moved to Tucson, Arizona when his sister became ill with tuberculosis. Jones attended the small Tucson High School from 1926 to 1930, and graduated college at the University of Arizona in 1936. He joined the ROTC in high school and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Reserve as a member of the cavalry upon graduation from college. In the spring of 1936, young Lieutenant Jones felt that he had no prospects, and stumbled upon a West Point graduate who was on his way to the hospital. He was going to get an aviation physical, and Jones decided to go with him. One thing led to another, and soon Jones was selected as a flight cadet while still on active duty. In June of 1937, he began schooling at Randolph-Macon Academy for his first four months of Primary aviation training, followed by four months of advanced training at Kelley Field. Upon graduation at Randolph in 1938, one of 78 cadets in the second of three graduating classes per year, Jones and his fellow pilots flew B25s from Georgia to California to practice maneuvers in San Diego. For four years, Jones and the rest of his class flew patrol flights up and down the west coast in order to gain experience. Some of the pilots talked of a Japanese attack on the United States, but they believed that if there were an invasion, the U.S. could defeat them easily. The pilots were shocked when the Japanese military struck on December 7, 1941.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, the group split three ways, to Archie, Cornfield, and Columbia. Jones was sent to Columbia, South Carolina, then flew to Minneapolis in consent to an unknown mission involving action against an enemy capitol.
In April of 1942, Davey Jones found himself aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, bound for Tokyo. Each pilot received a flight path and information regarding where to drop their bombs; Jones’ were to be dropped near the water line. But the Japanese acquired information on the location of the carrier while it was still 650 miles from shore; it had not yet reached the planned location for the B25s’ departure. The carrier did not have enough fuel to arrive in Alaska or Hawaii, and they were forced to decide either to dump the planes into the ocean or launch early when the Japanese began firing on them early on the morning of April 18. The crews were rushed into their B25s, loaded with fuel, and sent away. The pilots flew after Jimmy Doolittle, their commander and leader of the Doolittle Raiders, toward Tokyo Bay. Jones recalls, “I had a leak in one of my bomb bays, and at that point we rushed around and put five or six or seven 5 gallon tins [of gasoline] aboard. That little leak… They’d had the tank out, working on it, and put it back in, but there still was about a toothpick [size hole].” The crew’s plan was to deposit their bombs near Tokyo, withdraw southeast, and turn southwest to fly along the coastline to Kyushu, and proceed to China to refuel. However, Jones launched from the carrier knowing that his plane would not have enough fuel to make it to China. He and his crew left anyway, and they did not talk about the necessity of more fuel.
After dropping their bombs on the target, Jones and his crew flew along their planned course down the coastline until it became dark. The weather was poor, and they flew in clouds. Around 9 or 10pm, they realized that they didn’t know where they were. Jones spotted a river below them, and concluded that they could either land in the river or bail out. He sent down a flare in order to light the terrain, and saw that they were in mountains and could not land. The crew bailed, and Jones was the last man in the plane. He saw that the gauges were at zero; they had run out of gasoline. Terrified, he climbed out of the hatch and clung to the plane until his arms were stretched out and he was forced to let go. He pulled the cord and his parachute came out, and he floated to the ground and landed softly on a hillside in China. He was then joined by his co-pilot, and the two found their way to the airfield and waited for the rest of the men. With the success of the bombing, the men lingered for 10 more days until they could be recovered.
David Jones’ courageous service left a legacy of honor for soldiers who followed orders, no matter the personal risk or sacrifice. Jones had the courage to serve his country in a time of great peril and complete a critical military mission, despite the knowledge that the mission was impossible to execute as planned. Jones and his crew are the resolute men who make victory possible for the navy, air force and the United States as a whole.
Byron Wilkins, Army
Byron Othello Wilkins (or B.O. Wilkins for short) grew up in a small rural town in Luxora, Arkansas. Wilkins was an avid student and his passion for learning extended to many sport and extracurricular activities (i.e., high school band, and rising to the rank of Eagle Scout). In 1941, once graduated from high school, Wilkins entered Louisiana State University where he majored in chemical engineering, and simultaneously fulfilled 2 years of military service. One year later (1942) Wilkins enlisted in the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was stationed at Camp Beauregard. In September of 1943, Wilkins entered as a freshman at Texas A&M and subsequently became the Cadet Captain of Company C. At the end of his first school year at Texas A&M, Wilkins was sent to Camp Maxey in Texas where he was assigned to the 393rd Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division. In late August of 1944, the men of his unit were sent to Camp Myles Standish in Boston where they prepared to go overseas. The soldiers were stationed at both Camp D6 in Dorset, England and Aubel, Belgium. Wilkins’ regiment was sent to the very dangerous front lines. While on the frontline, Wilkins experienced artillery barrages, gunfire, and swamp foot.
Wilkins was given the honor of sergeant status on December 3, 1944. On December 16 of that same year, Wilkins’ men experienced a German artillery barrage and Wilkins, along with his men, were forced to surrender. Consequently, Wilkins and his men were taken as Prisoners Of War (POW). As Wilkins explained, “I pulled out my old checkered brown dirty [handkerchief] and put it around my rifle and waved it, and then some guys came out of the trees and told us to come there, so we got up and went there.”
As a POW, Wilkins ran ammo to the front lines, and on December 17, the infantry was marched to Flamersheim - whereupon they were thoroughly interrogated. Wilkins only gave the interrogator his name, rank, and serial number. Wilkins and other POWs were then sent to work at a nearby town called Euskirchen. Wilkins was eating a very low calorie diet of about 700 calories a day, as was physically weak. Wilkins reminisces, “In the morning you got a mug of coffee. At noon it would be tea and a bowl of soup, and maybe a chunk of black bread. You didn’t get 1000 calories a day, maybe 700 or less.”
After his time at Euskirchen, Wilkins was then moved to an American POW camp in the east of Germany. After about 2 weeks, the Russians were threatening to invade so the Germans moved 30,000 men out of the camp. During the march, Wilkins was hit by a truck and was moved to an infirmary. At the army infirmary, Wilkins met several Belgian POWs and befriended them.
After Wilkins’ wounds had healed, he moved to a farm with British POWs and then moved on to Rundberg in Czechoslovakia. As WWII drew to its conclusion, the Russians started to close in on the Germans, therefore POWs were forced to march to the Elbe River where they were stranded. Thanks to ingenuity, and logic, Wilkins and several POWs procured bicycles and biked up to Dresden. As the men were biking they encountered an American signal truck from the 76th Division which informed them about recent events. The men were separated and the Americans were put on a C 47 and flown to Reims then taken to Campy Lucky Strike on the French coast. The men were well fed at the French camp. General Eisenhower went to talk to the men about returning home. Wilkins boarded a ship to Boston, and once he arrived, Wilkins promptly went to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg to get a new uniform. He then hitchhiked to Memphis. The men were instructed to go to Miami Beach for rehab and relaxing time. Wilkins was then assigned to go to the west coast to receive men from the Pacific. After the western assignment, Wilkins travelled back to Arkansas, only to find his family who thought he was dead.
B.O. Wilkins is a great example of courage and bravery during WWII. Wilkins stayed strong even in the hardest times - from being captured by enemy soldiers to marching day and night, without rations. Wilkins’ legacy today is one of determination, focus and courage. He will be remembered for his perseverance and bravery throughout the Second World War.
Santa Rosa, CA
William Douglas Lansford’s oral history of his wartime service reveals his keen appreciation for his fellow Marines, his mastery at storytelling, and his observation of the enemy.
Lansford grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in East Los Angeles. He was raised by his mother, an actress, and his grandmother and did not speak English until he was a teenager. His father, an Anglo policeman, was not part of his life until Lansford was 14. Born in 1922, Lansford’s teenage years were during the Depression. He quit school at 16 and joined the California Conservation Corps where he learned to speak English, had plenty to eat, and learned how to get along with the “Oakies and the Arkies” who came to California during the Dust Bowl.
Lansford initially wanted to join the Navy, the branch his father has served in. After being turned away on multiple occasions, he joined the Marine reserves at age 18 and was soon called up to active duty in 1940. After serving on Iceland, Lansford returned to San Diego where he talked his way into the Raiders, commanded by Evan Carlson and Jimmy Roosevelt. Lansford recalled, “I started the war with a first sergeant threatening me and I ended the war with a first sergeant threatening me.” He expected to be court martialed for leaving without permission and ended up being transferred to Carlson’s Raiders, an assignment that would define Lansford’s military career.
Serving under Evan Carlson on the 2nd Raider Battalion, Lansford trained hard ahead of his first assignment. The Raiders trained at Jaques Farm where they were taught how to survive with little to no food and had to perform under extreme conditions. Carlson trained his men in the “gung ho” philosophy he had learned while observing the Chinese military. His men and their superiors worked together. There were no privileges for high rank soldiers with Carlson’s Raiders. Under this dynamic, Lansford learned guerilla warfare and Carlson’s collaborative system.
Lansford served in three major campaigns during WWII, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Iwo Jima. He started as a machine gunner and finished his service in field intelligence. While Lansford discusses parts of each campaign, his month on Guadalcanal stands out as a time of sacrifice and courage.
On Guadalcanal, Lansford was part of the Long Patrol, the most successful patrol in the history of the Marines. For 30 days on Guadalcanal, the Raiders marched 150 miles and with the assistance of the natives and officers from New Zealand harassed the Japanese in the jungles on the island. The patrol, however, was grueling, and the Raiders emerged from the jungle “...at the end of 30 days...like skeletons, with jungle rot in our feet.” Surviving on socks filled with raisins, rice, and tea, Lansford dropped 15 pounds in a month. Lansford remembers escaping from a flank attack at night by marching with each Marine holding on to the sheath of the bayonets in front of them, “like elephants marching trunk to tail.”
Listening to Lansford talk about the Long Patrol, I had a sense of his experience through his description of the enemy. He remembers a battle on the river and describes the Japanese as “marvelous mortar men.” Later he reminisces that the Japanese were “tough guys and good soldiers,” but they were defeated by the fact that they always repeated their tactics.
After Bougainville, which Lansford remembers as boring, smelly, and miserable, he returned to the states and served under John Basilone. Lansford’s description of Basilone, much like his recollection of Carlson and Wornham, reveals an appreciation and respect for the men he served under. Listening to Lansford, I realized that his courage under fire had its foundation in the relationships he had with his fellow Marines and his commanding officers.
William Lansford remembers his service with clarity, retelling battles and personalities with descriptions and details that make you feel like you were there. His experiences reveal a soldier who approached danger and fear with the benefit of training and a true camaraderie with his fellow Marines. Lansford’s legacy as a Marine, beyond his service, is his published articles and books where he recounts the battles and the boys of World War II.
Joe Abernathy, United States Army Air Forces
I first visited the National WWII Museum nearly three years ago and I remember being in awe of the oral histories. It was wonderful, and captivating to hear the personal stories of those involved in the war. In a sense, it made the history come to life. When I was given the opportunity to conduct my own oral histories, I considered it a great honor. My time as a Student Ambassador has allowed me to get a glimpse at the individual stories of World War Two, and no longer will I see the war in the objective way, composed of names, and dates, and battles. Instead, I’ve seen and understood a few of the personal, emotional impacts of the war. Overall, it has been a remarkable learning experience.
One of the most interesting and enjoyable interviews I conducted was with Mr. Joe Abernathy. Mr. Abernathy enlisted in the Air Force in 1943 and served in the European theater until the end of the war. He was full of lively stories and vivid memories. He told me everything, from the dates of the missions he flew to the games they played in basic training. The interview was made even more exciting by the artifacts he showed me. Over the years, he had held on to many of the objects he had received while in service. One fascinating item he showed me was his personal journal. He had kept a detailed record of every mission he was involved in, although it was forbidden to do so. Mr. Abernathy did not just tell me what he did in the war, but also what he learned from it and how it has affected him. He has a strong belief in hard work and helping others, as well as several personal philosophies that he would like to pass on for future generations. Interviewing Mr. Abernathy and other veterans has allowed me to gain a better understanding of the personal impacts of World War Two and to preserve their stories for the future.
Raymond Wells, Army
The American sergeant watched as a dozen Germans approached his squad’s location. He knew their machine guns weren’t set up, but under the cover of darkness, he hoped the Germans didn’t know the same. The sergeant decided to play it cool and bluff his way through the situation, knowing that a wrong move could spell death for his entire unit. The German commander spoke perfect English, and the sergeant conversed with him for several minutes. Finally, the German said he better get going, and after wishing the Americans good luck, he and his troops turned around and marched away.
This was one of Sergeant Raymond Charles Wells’ most vivid memories from his time fighting in World War II. Born in Eagle, Colorado in 1922, Wells, known as Ray, grew up in half a dozen small New Mexico towns before finally settling in El Paso, Texas. Wells enlisted in the National Guard his sophomore year of high school on February 2, 1939, feeling it was his duty to serve. He joined Company H, 141st Infantry Regiment, and began training at Camp Bowie, Texas. In April, 1943, Wells boarded a ship to North Africa. In September, he was informed that he was to be a part of the first attack on mainland Europe. This marked the beginning of his courageous service to our country.
Initially landing on the beaches of Italy, Wells recalled that his fantastical ideas of war were quickly dispelled as he stepped over the bodies of those who had gone before him. From there, Wells and his company pushed into Altavilla, and then Mt. Rotondo. It was here that Wells bluffed the Germans, and later killed three enemy snipers after losing his entire squad. While at Mt. Rotondo, Wells courageously volunteered to hold back the Germans as his battalion retreated, before following to San Pietro under enemy fire. There, he was admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding, but returned to the front lines before he was discharged. “They knew I hadn’t gone AWOL to get away from the front lines, but that I had gone AWOL to get to the front lines,” remembered Wells, after being questioned about his disappearance. From there, Wells marched 32 miles to Monte Cassino, where he was hit by shrapnel during one of the most intense firefights of his life. He spent several months in the hospital, and then received orders to return state side. Once home, Wells performed a variety of duties, before discharging in June, 1945. He remained restless until he enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division two years later. “Walking to the front gate of my base, I finally felt home,” Wells reminisced. His career in the Air Force led Wells to meet his wife, work as a prison guard, and serve in the Korean War.
Wells retired from the military as the Sergeant Major of Operations in 1983 at Warrens Air Force Base. At his retirement, Wells was married with three children, and eventually settled in Denver, Colorado to work at the US Mint. He now serves his country by attending the funerals of veterans. Looking back, Wells says that the war forced him to grow up and change his values, recalling that he had killed men and seen men killed. Before, Wells says, he was happy go lucky, but his life’s attitude changed after seeing the carnage of war.
Raymond Wells is truly a living example of courage. From his quick thinking when confronted with a party of armed Germans to his kindness towards prisoners, and from his selfless sacrifice for the good of his company to his bravery in the face of danger, Wells’ actions embody the values of our nation. It is incredible to consider the amount the courage it took for Wells to reveal himself to enemy fire in order to lead a disorganized group of soldiers to safety. Or, on the home front, the amount of courage it took Wells to stand up against racism and demand that a fellow black soldier be fed. “We were all one soldier,” Wells remembered saying of that incident, regardless of color. These stories are but a few describing the ferocious bravery Wells demonstrated during his service. Today, Wells’ legacy continues to live on. Not only does it live on in the beating hearts of the people he saved, but in the courage he has inspired in myself, and others. Mr. Wells, I salute you.
Charles Bishop, Navy
The true victories of war are the stories of ordinary men doing extraordinary things in the face of danger and opposition. Such is the experience of Charles Bishop, a naval officer during WWII. Born in New Haven in August of 1920, Bishop was raised by a single mother. After completing school, he was accepted into the rigorous Naval Academy in Maryland, which is where he was the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. His class was already on the path to early graduation, and Bishop received both his diploma and his first assignment mere weeks after Pearl Harbor.
Bishop’s first deployment was to a Destroyer called the USS Cummings, an escort ship in the Pacific. He recalls the excitement of being sent to the war zone, knowing that Japanese could be lingering anywhere under the ocean surface. However, this anticipation never came to fruition and Charles Bishop applied to submarine school. His request was accepted, and he returned to New London, Connecticut, where he underwent intensive three month submarine training. During his time stateside, he met his wife. They married in December of that year, after only three dates. It was not long after that duty called once again, and Charles Bishop said goodbye to his wife to set out to Pearl Harbor to serve on the USS Piranha. The incredible courage of personal sacrifice was seen here; not only did Bishop leave his new wife, but he also filed for submarine duty for the purpose of escaping an old escort destroyer. Bishop knew that an outdated destroyer like the Cummings would not be reassigned to war patrol, due to its old technology. Therefore, he became an engineer aboard the Piranha, heading straight into the dangers of a war patrol. In fact, his position as a member on the Piranha was steeped in extraordinary circumstances as well; Bishop was not a certified engineer, subsisting on his basic training from the Naval Academy. However, this was the most experience of anybody on the ship, leaving Bishop to become engineer. He credits much of his knowledge to Dick Otto, an assistant machinist who showed him the ropes.
For its first war patrol, the Piranha set out as part of a submarine wolfpack, consisting of 3 ships, towards an area between Formosa and Luzon called Convoy College. There they planned to target Japanese convoys traversing back to Japan, and it was here that the Piranha sunk their first two ships. This is also where Bishop experienced his first depth charge. He remembers a signalman who was stationed with him who would tally the depth charges on the bulkhead with a piece of chalk. He said that people such as him “generate a feeling of comradery…seeing humor in unpleasant circumstances.” Life aboard the Piranha became routine, until the departure for their sixth war patrol. The crew was ready and the engines were running when rockets began to go off; Japan had surrendered. The war was over but the job was not done. There was still a lot of work to do before Bishop could return home to his wife and son. As engineering officer of the Piranha, Bishop brought the submarine through decommission. It wasn’t until September of 1945 that Bishop was finally able to return home. By the following year the Piranha had become fully decommissioned, and Bishop had become its commanding officer, marking the end of Bishop’s WWII service.
The story of Charles Bishop details personal sacrifice, everyday valor, and sense of service in the face of danger. It is stories like his which Bishop hopes will be remembered by younger generations. He leaves us with the message to: “Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that’s important, and it’s worth putting your life on the line to protect our country and our way of living and what we stand for in this world. That’s the important thing.”
He continues to say that although we may not all speak the same language or share the same thoughts, we are all human beings, we are all God’s children, and foremost, we are all Americans. It is this legacy of courage and patriotism that will continue to live on through new generations of American because of men like Charles Bishop. His story of service truly illustrates the significance of every ordinary man and woman who contributed to the war efforts, and finally, what it means to be a good American. It is with that respect that Charles Bishop has become a salute to courage.
Helen Snapp, WASP
Helen Wyatt Snapp may not be the most widely recognized World War II veteran, but her acts of courage are examples that still speak to generations today. Ms. Snapp was born on May 1, 1918 in Washington D.C. The middle child of five, Helen grew up with a fascination of flying and aviation. While in college, whenever she had free time, Helen learned to fly at the local community centers. She fell in love with the freedom and daring nature that flying gave her. To keep up with her bills, Helen attended school in the evenings and worked for the government as her day job. Helen soon dropped out of school to devote all her time and energy on flying.
As World War II began to heat up, Helen joined the service- one of the few women of her time to do so. She joined the Air Force WASPS. The fact that Helen joined the WASPS at all is an act of incredible courage. For every 25 men to join the air force, there was one woman. She knew that she would be one of few women, and even though it may have seemed scary, she was willing to take on the risk.
Snapp and her sister joined the Civilian Pilot Program, which taught civilians to fly. Their training began at George Washington University, where the sisters came up against their first adversary. One of the flight instructors, refused to give Snapp a position in the program, simply because they were women. After appealing, Snapp and her sister were both given an opportunity in the CPP, and it was on to ground school.
With her private licenses in hand, Helen continued to pursue her dream of being a pilot. She arrived in Sweetwater, Texas, to finalize her pilot training and to serve on the base. Along with thirty or forty other women, Snapp received the same training as the male pilots. She completed her training with flying colors. Helen was then told to wait for further orders, but before long, was on her way to Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware.
Delaware, the “small wonder” of the United States, was the launch pad for Helen’s flying career. Snapp and her fellow female pilots were then stationed in North Carolina, where she flew many missions that were previously only done by men. These included strafing and radar missions, towing targets for the anti-aircraft gunners, and some weather missions.
Helen Snapp, in her oral history interview, made a point to say how thankful she was for the opportunity to be able to fly and to serve her country. From fighting for a place in a predominantly male military of the U.S. during the 1940’s, to flying missions for the Air Force, Helen’s heroics are acts of courage that are still relevant, important, and resound with today’s generation of women. Helen Wyatt Snapp is a woman whose name may not be in every history book, but she was a woman who stood up to serve her country in a difficult time, and that is something to salute.
Rosemary Fagot, WAVES
Rosemary Fagot, born in Nicaragua, was registered as an American citizen since her father was from New Orleans. Without much formal education, she was working at a gold mine with her father prior to the war. She found out about the Navy W.A.V.E.S (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) through an article in a Life magazine. She applied and got accepted after a naval member interviewed her parents in Nicaragua. She was only 17-years-old, and this was her first time traveling to the U.S. She saved money by teaching nursery school to children to pay for her trip to New Orleans. Once there, an uncle took her to the Navy office to be sworn in.
She was sent to Hunter College in New York for boot camp. It was a difficult time for Fagot as an immigrant with little formal education, with a language barrier and a heavy accent, she made no friends. To her surprise, she received good marks after taking an aptitude test and was sent to Iowa State Teacher’s College for Naval Intelligence, where she learned shorthand and typing for a period close to five months. Then she was transferred to Miami, Florida, where she worked at the DuPont building assigned as a personal Yeoman to Captain W.B. Howe. She enjoyed Miami and thought she was in heaven. There were no barracks, so she stayed in a hotel and walked to work every day. Miami was the center for international liaisons and Fagot handled greeting the international officials and taking them to friendly meetings where she would translate, and write down important information. She recalled times when she could have carried secret documents and was forced to carry a gun and learn how to shoot it. Fagot said, "because it was when the A-bomb came out, and we had some papers and things, and we were aware that this was happening… we had to be very cautious and not read any more than we had to… we knew that there was something going on, and we knew that it was something serious...they were afraid that we might be caught, to get something out of us, so we had to be cautious at that time, during that period, until the bomb gave way, and then we knew what it was all about, but I didn’t know what it was until that happened."
Fagot had a lot of respect and admiration for Captain Howe. He was a very nice gentleman who at one point allowed for her jealous boyfriend to accompany her one night to the airport to meet and escort foreign dignitaries to their hotels and meeting. Howe also assigned a Marine to escort her to the airport to protect her from the advances of some foreign dignitaries. Fagot also had to welcome wounded American soldiers back to the country. This was difficult for her as it made her very sad to see the men returning in such bad conditions, broken and shattered in the inside. She wondered if they would ever recover.
By the end of the war, Fagot traveled to Argentina with Howe to accept the surrender of enemy submarines. This was done in Spanish, and she had to translate it to be sent to Washington (she had to learn some legal terms). When the end of the war was announced, people celebrated, and she joined in the excitement. It was an amazing experience for her.
After the war, Fagot was discharged in Jacksonville. Soon after, she got married and moved to Lake Worth, Florida, working as a translator for the United Fruit Company in Palm Beach. Later on, she started a successful career as a dressmaker. When asked about her time in service, she said, " I felt very good for having done something worthwhile for the country. I went to school which I hadn’t gone to school, and I had the most wonderful Captain… the most beautiful human being... [The Navy] was a pleasure, it was a great experience, and it made me a better human being."
Fagot showed bravery in coming to America to offer her services. As an immigrant, she endured the exclusion from her coworkers, but earned the respect of her superiors. She loved America and was grateful for the opportunity to do something for the country that gave her a chance for freedom and a future. She was a proud and loyal American citizen and wanted for people to remember the sacrifices made by many for this beautiful country.
Gulf Breeze, FL
Cass Phillips, Navy
Cass Phillips grew up in California, visiting the carriers and battleships in Long Beach. He said he was lured to become a Navy man after seeing the sailors in their clean, white uniforms, talking with their pretty girlfriends. When he turned 18 in 1938, Mr. Phillips joined the Navy. He was selected for radio school.
On December 7, 1941, Mr. Phillips was based at Kanaohe, across from Pearl Harbor. While getting ready for breakfast that morning, he heard planes overhead but thought they were army planes because they had been doing maneuvers in the area. He said he even commented about how realistic they looked because they painted “meatballs” on the side. When he saw smoke coming from the hangars, he realized the planes were dropping bombs. Like most heroes of his generation, Mr. Phillips ran toward the danger, not away from it. At the hangar, he helped care for the wounded.
In the days following the attack, he did patrols out of Pearl Harbor. Mr. Phillips then served in the Aleutian Islands, where he was commissioned as an ensign. He retired in 1960, at the rank of lieutenant commander.
It was fascinating to hear a first-hand account of the Pearl Harbor attack. I was impressed by how brave he was at 21-years-old.
At the conclusion of the interview when I asked Mr. Phillips to share advice for my generation he profoundly said, “Pay attention to what is going on in the world and always be prepared. We were not prepared for what happened that day. People need to hear these stories and remember our history and learn from it.”
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview Mr. Phillips, hear his story, and learn from him.
Lewis Hopkins, Navy
Lewis Hopkins, born in 1920 and raised on a tenant farm in Georgia, says he grew up poor. "I mean dirt poor, but I didn't know it, everybody else was poor too." He graduated high school and attended Berry College in Rome, Georgia, majoring in chemistry. After graduation, he moved to Atlanta, my hometown, where he worked for Sears & Roebuck Co. as a collections agent and then as a salesmen for Royal Typewriter.
When he heard about the 1940 World's Fair in New York City, he really wanted to go but did not have nearly enough money. He got an idea when he read a newspaper article about the Atlanta Navy Reserve unit going on a training cruise with a layover in New York. The next day he registered for the Navy Reserve so he could go on that cruise, and thus, attend the World's Fair. His plan was nearly thwarted when he could not pay for the train fare to port, but he simply stowed away on the train, dodging the conductor all the way. He ultimately made it to the World's Fair, but upon returning home, the Atlanta Constitution headline revealed that his Reserve unit was being activated. He immediately went to the unit's office to ask how he could get a better job than peeling potatoes for two years, which is the job he was stuck with during his first cruise. Because he had a college degree, he was offered a seat at the Naval flight school, where he earned his wings in October, 1941.
After a short assignment to Norfolk, Virginia, Mr. Hopkins was transferred to Hawaii, arriving a few days after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor and joined a unit tasked with escorting the Doolittle Raiders as they flew their bombing run to Japan. His part of the mission was a success, and he returned safely to his carrier. Two months later, on June 4, 1942, the Battle of Midway took place. His squadron left the carrier and flew to search for the Japanese fleet, but struggled finding it. His flight leader ordered the squadron to continue and, just as they were about to turn back due to low fuel, the fleet was sighted. Reflecting on what he saw, he said, "Things can get impressed on your mind so that images you saw years and years ago you can see clearly again. And just as you and I sitting here, I can see just as clearly that Japanese ship formation down there as I saw it that day."
His squadron attacked, resulting in the sinking of a Japanese ship, though his bomb likely missed. Within six minutes of being spotted, the enemy fleet was disabled. Of the eighteen planes in his squadron, only Hopkins' and four other planes returned to the carrier. He reflected, "The Battle of Midway is a truly significant naval event in that it was not only a naval battle and a naval victory, but it was so important in the events of the day. It really turned the point in the Pacific war. It kind of changed everything, the outlook of everything and in that respect it ranks up there with the really significant military battles."
Needing to find a landing place after their home carrier was sunk, Hopkins and four other pilots volunteered to fly west in hope of reaching an island with a landing strip. As their tanks neared empty with no airstrip in sight, they bailed out in the ocean near an unknown island. It was inhabited by French farmers, who cared for the American pilots. They were rescued by American forces a few days later, though he contracted malaria. Because of his illness, Hopkins was not allowed to fly in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, recovering on the Wasp when it was attacked. Soon after, he was assigned to train dive bombers at flight school in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1974, he retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral.
I was privileged to hear Mr. Hopkins tell his story. He displayed courage in many different ways throughout his time in the Navy. First, he had the courage to join the navy not knowing what his future service would entail. Second, after he joined, he displays much courage when dive bombing enemy ships. Dive bombing is an act of courage like no other: pushing your plane towards the ocean and hurtling yourself into almost certain death at the guns of your enemy, all for a slight chance of hitting the deck of a ship. Finally, I think that he was courageous when he volunteered to fly west over the South Pacific Ocean hoping to find a safe landing spot. Believing that he would almost certainly die, he went anyway. Lewis Hopkins is, in my opinion, a very courageous and inspiring man.
Ewa Beach, HI
Daniel Inouye, Army
On December 7, 1941, Daniel Inouye knew his life had changed. He was getting ready for church in Hawaii, like any other Sunday, until he heard a frantic radio announcement saying Pearl Harbor was under attack. He stepped outside and saw huge amounts of smoke, anti-aircraft fire, and three Japanese aircraft passing overhead. Then, approximately one month after the attack, the United States government designated all Japanese Americans as 4C: enemy aliens. “So here I was, 17 years old, who considered himself a lover of this country and patriot, called an alien enemy” explained Inouye. This motivated him and many other Japanese Americans to petition President Roosevelt for permission to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. I could not imagine being in his shoes, as he was only three years older than me and already going off to fight in the war. It must have taken much courage and strength of character to do this.
From his home state of Hawaii, Inouye was sent to San Francisco, then to Mississippi, New Orleans, and eventually to Europe. There he first saw the devastation of war: the entire city of Naples was destroyed with rubble everywhere. “It was a terrible awakening,” Inouye said. “It was obvious that war was terrible, but my first introduction to that was unforgettable.” At that point they could have easily backed down, packed up their bags and gone home; but even though this experience had been an unpleasant one, he and his courageous regiment continued forward.
Inouye’s first combat occurred in the area outside Rome. However, his first major battle was the rescue of the Texas 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry of the 36th Infantry Division who were surrounded by an entire division of Germans in the Vosges Mountains of France. Against far greater numbers, the courage and determination they showed that day, achieved a heroic victory. During that battle, the 442nd suffered more than 800 casualties, and of that, 200 were deaths. Inouye entered combat as an assistant squad leader. However, due to high casualty rates and his ability to complete tough missions, he quickly earned a battlefield commission at only 20 years old. Then as a platoon leader, he had the lowest casualty rate in the regiment, with only one man lost.
Toward the end of the war, on April 21, 1945, the regiment went out to battle against a German and Italian line. Just two weeks before this battle, Inouye and fellow officers were told that the war was almost over; but they were sworn to secrecy for fear that if they stopped pushing forward, the war last longer. It took perseverance and courage to continue fighting with this knowledge; and during the battle, Inouye was shot in the stomach. Nevertheless, he continued to lead the fight for 2 more hours until another shot blew his arm off at the elbow, while another hit his leg. Thinking quickly, he pried the grenade from his detached hand and took out the last remaining enemy machine gun nest.
It was then nine more brutal hours before he could receive any care from the field hospital. Inouye recalled watching the medics go to each person and determine who could wait or who would die. “When they came to me, the verdict was ‘God bless you,” Inouye said. “A couple minutes later the chaplain came up, looks at me and says: ‘Son, God loves you’; and I said: ‘Yeah, I love God too, but I’m not ready to see him. He looked at me and said: ‘You're serious?,’ and I said: ‘Absolutely. I’m not ready to go.’” So they amputated his arm and gave him 17 transfusions of blood to keep him alive.
Years later, Daniel Inouye continued to impact the lives many. After the war, Inouye became a public servant. He represented my home state of Hawaii in the U.S. Senate from 1959 until he passed away on December 17, 2012. As the most influential Japanese American from WWII, his courage teaches me and countless others that, with perseverance and determination, great things can be done. In the words of Inouye himself: “Before December the 7th, America was a good nation trying its best to keep up with the rest of the world. After World War II, we became a super nation, for one reason: the people were together.” Our generation is very fortunate to be able to look to the past and learn from Daniel Inouye’s extraordinary example of courage and leadership.
Freddie Ohr, United States Army Air Corps
In 1939, Fred F. Ohr stood at attention in front of his commanding officers and waited for his flight test so he could become a pilot for the U.S. Air Corps. His uniform had cost $50 more than expected, so had not eaten in a week to make up the difference. For Ohr, a life lived without honor was not a life worth living.
During World War II, Ohr served as the first Korean fighter ace in the United State Air Corps, becoming a pioneer for Asian-Americans in the military. Determined and focused, Ohr honored his family, fought for his rights, and left a legacy of perseverance and courage to inspire future generations.
Ohr was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1919, the son of Korean immigrants. When he was young, his family moved to the Boise Valley in Idaho. He spent his early childhood in a basement house, and remembered spending much of his youth struggling with poverty. He learned to shoot when he was eleven, and became an excellent hunter and fisherman. He would frequently drive into the mountains to camp, developing survival skills he used frequently during his later service.
As a senior in high school in 1937, Ohr knew the United States would be pulled into war soon. Wanting to avoid being drafted into trench warfare, Ohr dedicated himself to graduating high school and attending at least two years of college. He could then begin college, and hopefully stay out of the trenches.
Ohr’s goal was to fly with the United States Air Corps. However, as an Asian-American, he believed he had a “snowball’s chance in hell” of ever getting in. Still, his mother encouraged him to join. In a later interview, Ohr recalled, “My mother would always say, if the desire is great enough, some day it will happen.”
Committed to pursuing his dream, Ohr graduated high school and began college. He served in the Idaho National Guard, attending trainings in the summers, and was inducted into service just before his junior year. Despite a previous experience with discrimination at a Navy recruitment center, Ohr overcame all obstacles and went to the Air Corps recruitment center. Despite his fears, he was quickly accepted. Ohr was assigned to the 52nd Fighter Group, and was eventually transferred to the 2nd squadron, where he was trained to be a fighter pilot.
Ohr served as the first Korean fighter pilot flying in the United States Air Corps. During his most difficult assignment, Ohr was shot out of the sky over a German camp. However, out of an extraordinary combination of luck and skill, he survived the explosion. In a later interview, he recalled with pride his ability to get up on his feet immediately after, and shoot the machine gunner who had brought him down.
After several more tours, Ohr completed his service with the Air Corps, ending his career as a Fighter Pilot with 6 aerial victories and 17 ground victories. He had been treated as an equal while serving as a Fighter Pilot, but Ohr returned to discrimination as a veteran. He wanted to attend engineering school, but instead was sent to California to attend a school for the Chinese until the war ended. Ohr then attempted to go to medical school, but was denied entry. Eventually, he attended dental school in California. He moved to Chicago after completing his education, becoming a successful dental surgeon. He married Esther Ohr in 1946, and they had three children together.
Despite facing discrimination and hardship throughout his life, Ohr was proud to be a veteran and proud to be an American citizen. He lived on principles, honoring himself, his family, and his country. Ohr died in September of 2015, inspiring Korean-Americans and leaving a legacy of courage for all.
Lester Tenney, Army
Lester Tenney, from Illinois, joined the National Guard when he was a young man, as part of the 192nd Tank Battalion, in November of 1940 for a year of service before the draft. In 1941, he was sent to the Philippines, which was just before the start of World War II in December of that year. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor the Japanese landed around Lingayen Gulf, and Tenney’s troop went into battle, fighting the first tank battle of World War II. Tenney said, “The Japanese just kept coming; one after the other on top of each other. They were determined to push us back. That was on the third of April. By the ninth of April it became quite obvious that there was no place for us to go.” His troops were sorely underprepared compared to the Japanese. Fearful but determined to survive, they withdrew into Bataan and held off Japanese troops for as long as they could. They were forced to surrender in April of 1942.
After surrendering, Tenney’s troops were at the mercy of the Japanese. They were forced to walk through Bataan to Camp O’Donnell, World War II’s first prison camp, a march now called the Bataan Death March. Many American soldiers died from either malnourishment, poor physical condition, or murder on the Bataan Death March. Soldiers were sometimes even forced to kill each other. If they didn’t, they themselves would be killed.
Conditions at Camp O’Donnell were poor. All 2,000 of the prisoners were exposed to diseases like malaria and dysentery, and they received skimpy food rations. At one point, Tenney bravely attempted to escape, but was captured and tortured by Japanese troops, and then sent back to camp. After his return, he volunteered to take a job in a mine that would require him to go back to Bataan. He rode on a ship full of horse manure with 500 other prisoners to Camp Cabanatuan. Tenney remembers his experience in Camp Cabanatuan as better than the one at Camp O’Donnell in terms of health and food rations, but still awful. He was 187 lbs. when he left for the war, and 97 lbs. when he returned. He worked 12 hours a day, every day, for 3 years there.
The war ended in 1945 for Tenney and the others Prisoners of War. Tenney recalls, a Japanese soldier coming to the camp and saying, “America and Japan are now friends.” Soon Red Cross boxes began to descend from the sky and the prisoners were released shortly thereafter. A wave of relief flushed over them all. They had done the inevitable: survived. While others sought revenge on their aggressors, Tenney was rushed to seek medical attention for an injury he endured in the mine.
Upon returning to America, Tenney spent one year in a hospital in Iowa to fulfill his service time due to injuries and other medical problems that resulted from the war. He later returned to Illinois, where he went to Northwestern University for his Bachelors and Master’s degrees in business. Sometime after, he earned a PhD in Business in France.
In the interview Tenney said, “We docked in Seattle and there was no one there to greet us. There was no one there to say ‘Welcome home.’ There was no parade, there was no officer, there was nothing. We got off of the ship, and we felt that the Japanese were right when they said we were lower than dogs.” The courage he obviously exemplified through the traumatic experiences of war merited a hero’s homecoming.
As a Prisoner of War, Tenney did not allow his spirit or will to be broken. He managed to continue to uplift himself for nearly two years, uplifting the spirits of others by writing skits as entertainment, even though living a nightmare at the same time. Despite violent encounters with his capturers, he kept himself composed, persistent to see the end of the war. This persistence and attitude is connoted with survivors of war, like Tenney, today. In a time of severe endangerment, he represented and fought for his country wholly, because it was what he had vowed to do.
Reflecting on his story, I am in awe. Tenney’s embodiment of courage and strength defines the concept of American heroism. A hero is a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. His actions during WWII, to help others and himself, deem him the honor of being called a hero. Although he might not have felt like one after the war, this legacy will forever be affiliated with his story for years to come.
Alex Vraciu, Navy
Alex Vraciu is from East Chicago, Indiana. For most of his life, he wanted to be a pilot. He declared himself for the Navy after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor while he was still in college. Like many Americans, he was enraged by the attack and wanted to do his part. After graduating, he went to pilot training school then on to the Pacific Theater. Vraciu said that had the Navy not let him fly he would have joined the Army Air Corps.
Vraciu was Lt. Commander Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare’s wingman. O’Hare disappeared in combat during the Battle of Midway and was eventually declared dead. His death became one of Vraciu’s major motivations during the war.
Vraciu made two water landings over the course of the war—five and a half weeks apart. The first, because another pilot earlier in the day had said that something was wrong with the plane; however, the mechanics said that the plane was fine. The engine failed for Alex and he was forced to land in the water. The second was because his landing gear was destroyed due to combat with Japanese fighters and the landing gear would have “torn up the flight deck.” He was given two choices: parachute out over the fleet or to land in the water alongside one of the destroyers. Alex chose the latter because “the waves were strong that day.”
During a raid of Truk, Japan, Vraciu shot down four Japanese Zeros in one day. That night, the U.S.S. Intrepid was torpedoed, while he was on it, but the ship was able to make it back to Pearl Harbor with minimal casualties.
Vraciu chose to stay after his tour was up—even though he was told that he was crazy for doing so. He felt that the war was “just picking up” and that he was needed. After choosing to stay, he was transferred to a unit based on the U.S.S. Enterprise. He said that he was cocky and became reckless stating, “I was gonna win the war all by myself.” As a result of his recklessness, on one mission, he was flying too low to the ground and had to pull up fast and hard—saying it was “the only time I ever blacked out in my life.” The tail on his plane was damaged and had to be replaced as a result.
Vraciu said that the Americans believed the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, also known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, was going to be the “biggest fleet battle of all time.” Vraciu shot down six Japanese Zeros that day. As a result, he was the Navy’s leading ace for four months and by the end of the war, he was the fourth-ranking Navy ace. He was shot down over the Philippines on December 14, 1944. He was stranded in the hills of the Philippines and was rescued by Filipinos. He was made a Brevet Major of a guerrilla unit for six weeks until he made contact with the Navy to return to his unit. On his journey back, Alex met a former classmate from DePaul—a pilot of a mail plane—who helped Vraciu get back to the U.S.S. Lexington where he was then stationed.
The commanding officer of Vraciu’s air group gave him an “Un-Sat” (meaning an unsatisfactory report) because he chose not to return home with his air group. The “Un-Sat” was not given much attention by anyone as the commanding officer’s complaints were trivial at best. Commander Grant was impressed by Vraciu’s courage to stay, so the Commander gave him orders to serve at Pearl Harbor. This was the only way he could remain in the Pacific theater. It is because of this that Vraciu said “I will never forget Commander Grant.” After arriving at Pearl Harbor, he was informed that he was not allowed to fly over enemy territory in the event that he might be shot down; this order was given because of security risks caused by his time on the ground in the Philippines. Vraciu was then sent home from Pearl Harbor to San Diego where he was promoted to Lieutenant.
Alex Vraciu exhibited courage throughout his time in the Pacific theater during World War II. He chose to stay even though his tour was up and he shot down four Japanese Zeros in one day. During the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, he shot down six Zeros. He yet again showed his courage when he was shot down over the Philippines, helped the guerilla fighters, and did everything he could to get back to his unit on the U.S.S. Lexington. He is a man that is worthy of honor.
James Ramage, Navy
“[Admiral Richard Byrd] showed up in my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa with those white uniforms and with his big gold wings and gave his speech, and I said, ‘Dad, that’s for me, that’s what I want to do.’”
Even as a young boy growing up in depression-era Iowa, the wonders of flight mystified James Ramage. It was around the late 1920s or early 30s when famed Arctic explorer Richard Byrd came to his hometown with a travelling presentation chronicling his Arctic expeditions. This encounter between boy and adventurer would forever change the course of Ramage’s life.
In the midst of the Depression years of the 1930s, Iowa’s farming communities were struggling. Farms, including one owned by his own father, were sold off as families were forced to alter their ways of life. In his hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, a city of 45,000, Ramage graduated from high school and enrolled at a teacher’s college. In retrospect, he believes his “old man” somehow knew he was truly meant to be in the air. So with a little string pulling, Ramage found himself at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at 19 years old.
Blaming it in part on his bad attitude, Ramage and some of his companions scored dead-last in the Aptitude for Service ranking. Nonetheless, he graduated in 1939 and was shipped off for compulsory service aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. Two years of compulsory service at sea only solidified his urge to be in the skies. Rumblings of war had of course begun by now, and sure enough, Pearl Harbor was bombed within the month. Ramage reflected that while he was shocked by its boldness, many were not truly surprised that the attack had come. Instead, they felt a collective duty to come back fighting from that day of infamy.
Ramage was first assigned to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Pensacola in late 1941. Hardly a year into the war, however, news broke that five brothers from his hometown died during the sinking of the U.S.S. Juneau. I can only imagine how the story of the Sullivan Brothers––as they became known to so many heartbroken Iowans and Americans––must have affected Ramage. The following year, he was assigned executive officer of Bombing Squadron Ten, yet again aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. With clarity, he recalls the day he was assigned his first bombing mission over the Tarawa Atoll in the Marshall Islands. I was intrigued to hear that aside from the usual “nervous pee” before strapping in, he felt hardly a pang of fear. Beneath the plane, he saw the cross of the island’s airstrip a couple thousand feet below as he dropped bombs over a torpedo workshop. Ramage’s squadron was clearly thrilled, but this was not even close in intensity to the combat they would experience later.
In January, 1944, he participated in the bombing Kwajalein Atoll with much success. He and some others were playing medicine ball on the deck of the Enterprise a few weeks later when the air commander announced they would be bombing Truk Lagoon, an island so heavily defended it was known as the Japanese Pearl Harbor. On the early morning of February 16, 1944, Ramage recalled how daybreak revealed that “[the] harbor was filled with ships, merchant ships, unfortunately, very few naval ships there, but it was just beautiful.” Following two days of relentless pounding from the air, not a single Japanese ship remained afloat at Truk. For Ramage, there was a sentiment of great satisfaction as the tide of the war turned. That tide would sweep them over Saipan, Guam and all the rest of the Marianas, all the way until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
Although I doubt Lieutenant Commander James Ramage would take much credit for it, his actions are not only representative of individual courage, but also of the valiant leadership he demonstrated as commander of Bombing Squad Ten. In the early 2000s, Ramage spearheaded a campaign to construct the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo. Through Ramage’s narrative, I cannot help but to reflect on the service of my own brother, an air force lieutenant colonel who like Ramage, was captivated by the skies. Until his death in 2012, Ramage continued to publicize the legacy of Iowa’s remarkable heroes of foreign conflict. I believe it is indisputable that Ramage’s actions exemplify the courage many Iowans brandished—both at home and abroad—that is now forever memorialized in the Sullivan Iowa Veterans Museum.
Fort Scott, KS
Norman Kleiss, Navy
Norman J. Kleiss was born on March 7, 1916 in Coffeyville, Kansas. Kleiss realized that aviation was the wave of the future, and decided to join the air force. He attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he graduated in 1938. Kleiss was a pilot of an SBD, a scout and dive bomber plane for the U.S. Navy. He served on the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Enterprise.
At the outbreak of WWII, Kleiss was stationed at Pearl Harbor. On November 27, 1941, a message from Washington D.C. stated that a Japanese attack on the harbor was suspected, but no overt actions were to be taken. Prior to the attack, Kleiss recalls suspicious activities. Twice, Japanese divers were caught swimming in the Harbor. A man went to the FBI about advertisements in the Honolulu Newspaper, which were advertising fictional types of silks being sold for an unbelievable price of a-dollar-a-yard by a nonexistent company, indicating the presence of Japanese spies.
Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey had the idea of moving some of the aircraft concentrated on the ships at Pearl Harbor to the nearby Wake and Midway Islands. Permission for this operation was granted with the understanding that the aircraft carriers would be back in Pearl Harbor by the 6th of December. According to Kleiss, “It was only a God-given storm” that prevented the carriers from being docked at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. Had this storm not occurred, and had the aircrafts and carriers been destroyed by the Japanese, Kleiss believed the outcome of WWII, “would have been a completely different situation.”
Kleiss’s largest war contribution was his role in the Battle of Midway. Thanks to a spy, the United States received advance notice of the Japanese’s attack on Midway. The U.S.S. Yorktown and the U.S.S. Enterprise were ordered to seek and destroy the oncoming Japanese carriers, in order to save the crucial Island of Midway.
On June 4 1942, Kleiss awoke to a breakfast of steak and eggs. Kleiss recollects, “When you had steak and eggs for breakfast, you knew you were in for a really bad day”. Kleiss remembers taking off from the U.S.S. Enterprise with the intention of being joined by fellow planes from the U.S.S. Yorktown. After circling the Yorktown and wasting much needed fuel, the pilots were given the orders to continue without the Yorktown squadron.
Arriving at the reported location of the Japanese ships, the pilots were disappointed to find that the carriers were not there. A fellow pilot, Wade McClusky, spotted a destroyer moving at flank speed. They followed it and found three large Japanese carriers, the Akagi, the Kaga, and the Sōryū, and another carrier, the Hiryu, 20 miles away. McClusky was first to attack, but he missed. The pilot, Earl Gallagher, dropped a bomb on either the Kaga or the Akagi. His bomb and incendiaries hit the ship. The ship was in flames. Aiming for the large red circle on the Kaga, Kleiss released his bomb. He turned around to see his bomb hit the very corner of the big red circle and explode. Revealing his Kansas roots, Kleiss stated that the inferno from the ships looked like, “haystacks on fire.” Dangerously low on gas, Kleiss and the other SBDs had to make their way back to the Enterprise, leaving the Hiryu unscathed.
At 5:30 p.m. Kleiss and his fellow pilots were back in the sky, to destroy the Hiryu. After misses from several of the other pilots and attacks from anti-aircrafts, Kleiss was the first pilot to hit the Hiryu. After the U.S. had sunk four of Japanese’s most vital carriers, the Japanese decided to retreat from the Battle of Midway.
Following Kleiss’s successful mission, he remained in the navy for an additional 26 years, where he was an instructor to new pilots. Looking back on the war, Kleiss believes that increased communication would have been life-saving. He also credits success in the war to courageous leaders such as Admiral Halsey. Kleiss retired with many awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. Kleiss passed on his legacy of courage to the many people he trained. Because of courageous men and women, like Kleiss, we are able to live in a safe and free country. We must remember to salute these people for the endless amount of courage they have displayed defending our country.
Wilburn Ross, Army
World War II has played a fundamental role in defining our identity as Americans. Today, we read vivid descriptions of the great battles of Anzio, Monte Cassino, the landings at Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge in our history textbooks, and we celebrate the daring maneuvers of Generals Patton and MacArthur. In the midst of learning about these monumental figures and events, it is easy to overlook the contribution ordinary citizens made to the war effort. The experiences of Private Wilburn K. Ross remind us that it was not just great leaders who worked toward an Allied victory.
Private Ross grew up in Strunk, Kentucky, in the southeastern part of my home state. As a teenager, he worked on a farm, and when he turned eighteen, he was employed in a coal mine. Both agriculture and coal mining play essential roles in the Kentucky economy, and his career before joining the military would have been typical for young men living in the region. To help the war effort, Private Ross decided to become a welder, working in a shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. Shortly after arriving, Private Ross received his draft notice, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After basic training, he was sent to Tunisia in 1943, where he took part in rounding up the troops of the defeated General Rommel. Then, his division prepared for the invasion of Sicily, which occurred on July 10, 1943. After several weeks of intense fighting in Naples, Private Ross’s company advanced to Monte Cassino, where one of the major battles of the Italian front was fought. He remembers the huge abbey at Monte Cassino, but had already moved onto Anzio when the Allies destroyed the abbey.
At Anzio, Private Ross and his company, trying to find their way back to camp in the dark, accidently ended up among German lines. They were quickly captured, but Private Ross was determined to escape. The next night, he hid in a ditch, and after several days, was able to rejoin his unit. His feet were frozen from running barefoot during the frigid nights, but nonetheless, he was still alive. This incident shows Private Ross’s determination and tenacity in getting out of a difficult situation.
Private Ross was part of the Allied force that took Rome on June 5, 1944. After some time in Rome, Private Ross and his unit were sent to southern France. Private Ross received his Medal of Honor for actions that occurred around St. Jacques, France. The Germans had attacked a hill that was held by the Allies, and Private Ross was stationed on the hill. He held back eight or nine surges of German troops, and these troops came within about twenty yards of Private Ross. He remained on the hill for thirty-six hours. When asked why he stayed on the hill, he replied that he believed that he had a chance of stopping the Germans and that despite the danger, he felt that he must “do what he was supposed to do.” The Medal of Honor citation states that Private Ross’s actions saved his entire company. Private Ross certainly did not have to defend the hill. When he saw the waves of attacking Germans, he could have tried to escape from the hill, since that might have been easier than gunning for thirty-six hours. However, Private Ross put the welfare of his entire company ahead of his own, and in this, he displayed courage.
Private Ross does not know who nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but he received his medal at the stadium in Nuremburg on April 23, 1945. General Alexander Patch presented Private Ross with his medal. After the ceremony, he embarked on the journey home, and he recalls hearing of the German surrender as he passed the Straits of Gibraltar. After the war, Private Ross served a brief stint as a state police officer before reenlisting in the military. He retired from service in 1964, achieving the rank of Master Sergeant. He is 93 and lives in Washington State.
Private Ross recognizes the necessity of remembering World War II, and he supports the creation of museums such as The National WWII Museum. World War II proves, in the words of Private Ross, that when situations get dire, “we can get things together.” Shakespeare wrote a description fitting of men like Private Ross—“he hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.”
Benjamin Wicker, Marine Corps
Hollywood is not a classroom. Despite the distortions in many movies, they shape our understanding of historical events. This is particularly true of war films. To watch a war film, you would think that every soldier is at the frontline, with rifle in hand, fighting the enemy. However, in order to survive and succeed in any conflict, the military requires many troops to serve in non-combat roles. In World War II, one such person was Benjamin F. Wicker, Jr.
Benjamin F. Wicker, Jr. was born in Scotlandville, Louisiana in 1923. Since his father worked for the railroad, his family had sufficient financial resources and barely felt the effects of the Great Depression. Growing up, Wicker did not realize that war was brewing in Europe until he turned seventeen. Upon understanding the problems Europe faced and recognizing that Europe’s problems might soon become America’s, he wanted to join the Marines. Wicker boarded a train to New Orleans to enlist. However, because he was underage, he had to persuade his parents to vouch that he was eighteen. Understanding their son’s wish to serve, his parents assured the Marine Corps their son was eighteen. Wicker left for basic training in San Diego the same day. He enjoyed basic training which included shooting at the rifle range and going on hikes. He, however, missed home a great deal. After training, Wicker received an assignment to the 6th Marine Division and was selected for Sea School. During the one-month course, he learned how to tie knots and wear his uniform correctly, received instruction about shipboard firefighting and damage control, and other things associated with sea service. After Sea School, Marine command transferred him to the USS California (BB-44) where he served for several months until the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
Wicker was on guard duty on the USS California when the Japanese attacked. When he saw the Japanese fighters overhead, he felt confused saying, “I thought they were having some kind of maneuvers.” Like almost everyone else, Wicker could not comprehend why Japanese fighters flew overhead until the first torpedo hit his ship. The USS California sustained heavy damages and sunk due to flooding when Japanese torpedoes exploded below the ship’s armor belt. Wicker and his buddy abandoned ship and swam to a nearby island. Wicker was saddened by the loss of life during and after the attack.
After the attack, Wicker guarded prisoners in Pearl Harbor and later Pearl City. Later in the war, Wicker saw service in the Marshall Islands after the conclusion of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign in early 1944. This campaign formed part of the island-hopping march by U.S. troops to Japan and was the first time American troops had penetrated the outer ring of Japan’s Pacific defenses. On the Marshall Islands, Wicker set up anti-aircraft guns for three weeks until he received leave for the first time in four years.
He returned to Baton Rouge for his month-long leave and saw his parents. While in Baton Rouge, Wicker met the woman who would soon become his wife. At the conclusion of his leave, he received orders to deploy to Camp Lejeune for six months. While stateside, he married his wife in December 1944. After serving at Camp Lejeune, Wicker was sent to England, and later Ireland, to watch the Germans surrender their U-Boat fleet. Wicker guarded both the U-Boats the United States had taken and the German naval prisoners who had served on the U-Boats.
The war concluded in Europe on May 8, 1945. Like many people Wicker was happy the Germans surrendered saying, “It made me feel good.” Wicker was later sent back to Camp Lejeune where he was decommissioned out of the Marines in 1945.
Benjamin Wicker is an example of courage not because he fought the enemy head on, but because he did not. He is an example of people who serve in the armed services, but do not actually fight. People, like Wicker, who are not on the frontline, are essential because they keep the military operating. Without troops to fill non-combat positions such as prison guards, as Wicker did, or cooks, or drivers of transport vehicles, or those who gather intelligence, the military could not function. Benjamin Wicker did not fight on the frontline, but he still served his country where he was needed and to the best of his abilities. This is why he is an important example of courage and why his legacy is felt today.
North Yarmouth, ME
Robert Shoens, United States Army Air Forces
There were many brave men and women involved in World War II. Some were nurses, while others joined the Navy, US Army Air Forces (USAAF), or Army. One very brave man was Robert Shoens. Shoens joined the USAAF after college. After training, where he showed he was a great pilot, he fought overseas in Europe during World War II. His was the only bomber plane from the 351st Bomber Squadron to make it back to the airbase after the Berlin Raid in 1944. Although Shoens was one of many brave men fighting, his bravery and courage stood out because of his accomplishments in the Berlin Raid.
Robert Shoens’s involvement in World War II started when he walked into the drafting office to join the Navy like his father, but he was short on college credits. During college, he received 40 hours of training to become a pilot, so he walked further down the hall and signed up for the USAAF. It took almost six months to begin his training. The first part was basic. The only airplanes they saw were in books. They eventually moved onto a different base where he trained on the PT 22. Men started to be weeded out. Although he had been trained as a pilot, he had no advantage. The Air Force focused on precision. You were checked every 10 hours of training. If you did something wrong during the check, you were written up. After getting written up two times, you were done. Shoens almost had to leave; on his first check, he was written up for using no rudder. Later, he was written up for using too much rudder. Luckily, the second one didn’t count because he was fixing his mistake. He went to more training bases where he flew a B-17 bomber and started to acquire crew members. After much training, he and his crew were on their way to England.
Shoens joined the 351st Bomb Squadron. He flew training missions all throughout December. After about 10 or 11 missions, the crew got their own plane which they named Our Gal Sal. Shoens and his crew went on all three Berlin missions. The previous 15 missions had been to the other important cities of Germany, so everyone knew Berlin was coming. Even knowing that, no one was ready when the day came. When the Berlin Raid was officially announced, there was a lot of groaning, but by the time the third Berlin mission was announced the men were solemn. On this trip they had an escort, but when they reached Berlin, the escort had disappeared into thin air. The planes were in formation when all of a sudden the enemy planes appeared and started flying at top speeds between the USAAF planes, making more drop with each pass. There was nothing that anyone could do except to keep on flying. You couldn’t think about the men going down with the planes; you just had to keep on flying. You couldn’t worry if you were going to be the next one down, you just had to keep on flying. After approximately four passes, all of the planes in Shoen’s flying group were down except for his and possibly one other. Shoens found a different bomber group and joined them. Luckily, the group did not shoot him down thinking he was an enemy. Shoens was able to drop his bombs over Berlin and make it back to his base. Arriving, he learned that they were the only plane to return. Everyone there was thirsty for details from the horrific mission. Shoens continued to go on many missions before finally returning to the United States as a Major. He landed in Presque Isle, Maine, got on a flight to New Jersey, and landed in Chicago where he met up with his wife, ending his career in the USAAF.
Shoens showed courage from the beginning by signing up for the USAAF. He further exemplified his courage with many successful missions, but his courage and bravery really shone through during the Berlin Raid. Throughout it all, he was calm and in control. His flying skills, bravery, courage, plus luck are why he was able to continue flying. Unlike other men, he never let panic shine through to his crew. Instead, he focused on the important thing- to just keep flying. In fact, once the enemy planes were gone, he didn’t turn back. He completed his mission, just like a true brave, courageous hero. That’s what Shoens is - a hero.
Janice Benario, WAVES
When I heard Janice Benario’s story, I thought it almost couldn’t be real. It could have been pulled straight from box-office spy movies and The Imitation Game, except this was no Oscar-nominated movie for entertainment: she targeted Nazi submarines that led to America winning World War II in the Atlantic.
Janice Benario was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, my current home. She attended Goucher College at her father’s insistence. This turned out to be a really significant insistence, because there a teacher offered her the opportunity to take a cryptology course covertly given by the Navy at seven women’s colleges in 1943, her senior year. The project sounded just like the exposition to a good thriller: since the courses were top-secret, Benario was forbidden from telling anyone, including her classmates, about where she and fellow cryptologists-in-training went every Friday behind locked doors. It was there that her military involvement began.
After further studying “Navy subjects,” as she described them, she joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services), a group of women enlisted in the Navy during the war-- a big step up from their World War I counterparts. Benario earned the position to handle Top Secret Ultra material in Washington, D.C. And I don’t use “Top Secret Ultra” lightly. Speaking about anything at all would be treason, and the punishment for treason? Death. Benario explained, “My parents both died and they didn’t know what I’d been doing.” That resounded with me, especially considering how open I am with my parents. Keeping a secret that big from them was something I’d never imagined, let alone do. Goucher released a story on the cryptology courses in 1991, but Benario mentioned that even today she isn’t used to talking about it.
We now know she was in the work of Alan Turing: decoding and interpreting messages from the German Enigma machine. In fact, the Germans had several Enigmas; the one used by the navy was the most complex and her line of business. Every day, German U-boats sent information like position, weather, sighted ships, or new orders to the Enigma. The machine sent Morse code messages intercepted by British and American receivers who decoded them by running different “settings” until German words showed up (This became increasingly difficult as the Germans changed the Enigma settings more often). Translators would decode the messages and give them to typists to type them up; these were then given to the senior watch officer, who read them and passed them to researchers. Then junior watch officers (Benario was one of them) read them and marked positions of ships on a map with pins.
My first reaction to Benario’s experiences was, “I got the coolest World War II story ever!” I was surprised at how much Benario’s story echoed the popular spy/hacker/secret service-type stories we know and love, only set in the decidedly non-movie-like 1940s, as the world was thrown into tumult. She started as an ordinary college kid, but as she said, “Everybody’s mind was on the war, and everybody wanted to do something to help.” By taking initiative and doing “something to help,” she and many other young adults showed the courage to contribute to the war in small ways that really added up.
People might ask, “How can a woman putting pins on maps possibly be a significant model of courage?” Honestly, I asked myself the same question. But if you think about it, she and a bunch of other women pinning positions and toying with wires more or less called the shots on where the US Navy should go. Those women were leaders in that sense, and what is a good leader without courage to step up to the job? The WAVES like Benario used their heads, they always knew what they were doing, and they could handle whatever was thrown their way. They were ready for anything. Through their confidentiality and dedication, they stuck to their values and put their country first. They earned the respect of others: in her words, “Service people were looked up to, male and female.” People recognized what they did and knew it was important (even if it was Top Secret Ultra). And when you consider all of that, that puts Benario right up there with Eisenhower, Patton, Churchill, and the great men and women whose leadership and courage put their names in history textbooks.
And, of course, she was arguably the real imitation game.
Havre De Grace, MD
Mikki Carpenter, WAVES
Mikki Carpenter is a woman who left her job and enlisted in the Navy in 1944. She did not want to stand by while men were being killed overseas. Her contributions made a difference in the outcome of the war. Her job was keypunching; an essential part of code breaking. I interviewed Mrs. Carpenter at her home in Maryland. I was inspired by her humility and her continuing desire to make a difference in the world.
During the past year, I have had the honor and joy of meeting, and interviewing five WWII veterans. Hearing the unique perspectives of these heroes has given me a new window into the significance of the sacrifices made during this turning point in history.
Participating in the project affirmed in me the necessity of preserving history. During this process, I had the privilege of hearing stories that had never been told before. There is an urgent need to preserve these stories. I experienced this personally when one veteran passed away just weeks before our scheduled interview. Another died only a few months after our interview. These interviews allow us to understand the unique contributions of these veterans. They serve to inspire us and remind us of our shared values.
Harry Ferrier, Navy
Harry Ferrier was born in the old industrial city of Springfield, Massachusetts and was only thirteen when his father died. His stepfather was mean and Harry really wanted to get away from home. He thought that joining the Navy and serving on submarines would be an adventure and his own Mom helped him change his birth certificate to show that he was seventeen when he was just sixteen, still really a boy. In the filmed interview he did for The National WWII Museum, he called himself a “115 lb. weakling,” and at boot camp began thinking that he couldn’t pass the physical for submarines. He heard that aviation radio would be a good alternative, and it was a decision he “never regretted.”
Harry was a good student at radio school and was able to choose his own assignment with Torpedo Squadron 8. This was in 1941, before America got into the war. He was home on leave in Springfield when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that December. He and his squadron quickly shipped out to Pearl Harbor. When they got there, six crews were assigned to Midway Island, 1100 miles away. Today, Harry remembers that the crews were not told anything about the assignment, but six months after Pearl, the war was going very badly for the Americans.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, Harry and his pilot, Ensign Ernest, were suddenly ordered into the air. It was only after an hour’s flight that Harry and the turret gunner, Manning, found out that they were flying to meet a Japanese task force heading toward Midway. Soon after, they were attacked by Japanese fighter planes. Harry heard the gunner stop firing and then saw that he was dead. Next he felt hot iron on his own arm and a bullet graze his head. It went into one side of his cap and out the other (he still has the cap) and he fell unconscious, but the pilot dropped the torpedo. Getting home was a problem, too, because the compass and part of the steering gear was shot away, and Ensign Ernest told him that they would have to make a “water landing” which was almost certain death, but they managed to get back to base. That’s when they found out that the other five torpedo planes didn’t make it back.
After being patched up, Harry then found out that the battle was being called a great victory, even though he thought “we didn’t feel very victorious.” With five planes lost, Manning dead and both he and the pilot wounded, it didn’t seem like an American win. His plane was inspected and found to have over 60 machine gun bullet holes and nine much larger hits from cannon. Harry wished that the Navy had kept it for display, but it was junked. For his part in the battle, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. He had other assignments during the war and stayed in the navy until 1970, but the Battle of Midway was the day that he became an official hero. He was only seventeen years old.
What I like when I watched the video of Harry Ferrier is that he just talks about these things like it is no big deal and you get the feeling that he would never go around calling himself a hero, even though other people do. He just seems like a regular person that you might meet somewhere and could talk to about anything and it would just be like talking to your gramps or something. This battle is supposed to be a turning point in the war, and he is one of the very few men still alive from that day and so he is a living connection to that victory, but like I said, his courage just seems really natural to him; like he was in this terrifying situation, but he got through it and now it’s just a story that people like him to tell and he tells it again for their sake even though he has lived a long life since that day. Even though he has not lived here for a long time, I am proud that Harry Ferrier was from Massachusetts, and that he did his duty very courageously in World War II.
Alexander Jefferson, United States Army Air Forces
“The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.” – Stephen Ambrose’s writing summarizes the conditions under which the African American’s fought in the World War II.
Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson was born on November 15, 1921 in Detroit, MI. The eldest child of Alexander Jefferson, a factory worker and Jane White Jefferson, Alexander Jefferson was no stranger to racism and segregation. He started his education at Newbury Elementary School and some days he would walk to a nearby airfield often helping the people there with various tasks. Thus began his love affair with planes and flying.
Jefferson’s love for chemistry and biology earned him a degree from Clark College in 1942. In 1941, the Tuskegee Institution began to train black pilots to be part of the 99th Fighter Squadron. Jefferson enlisted and completed his training at Tuskegee. In January of 1944, he graduated as second lieutenant. During his stay at Tuskegee, Jefferson flew P39 planes and P-40’s. After completing his training, he was transferred to Selfridge Air Force Base where he started his training as a replacement pilot for the 332nd Fighter Group.
After obtaining his pilot wings and officer commissions, Jefferson began practicing flying the P51 Mustang. He was part of a “Red Tail” Fighter group at a base stationed near Italy. He was responsible for attacking important ground targets and protecting the bombing mission against the Nazi Luftwaffe fighters.
On Jefferson’s nineteenth mission, his plane was shot down. Afterwards, he was held hostage at Stalag Luft III, a Nazi P.O.W camp for almost 4 months. While he was there, he did not face any form of racism. He was treated exactly the same as other soldiers by his German captors. In fact, his prominence increased as he was associated with the Red Tails and they were known throughout the camp to bring American flyers back alive.
With the advance of the Russians, Jefferson and the rest of the soldiers were moved to Stalag VIIA where they were liberated by General George Patton’s army. At the Dachau concentration camp, Jefferson witnessed all the abominations of the concentration camp. In his own words Jefferson had been a witness of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Racism reared its ugly head once again when Jefferson arrived at New York City on board the Cunard liner, RMS Queen Mary, in 1945. Jefferson who had been treated with respect and without bias like any other POW outside the United States was shocked to hear a US Army sergeant on the dock, who instructed him -"Whites to the right, niggers to the left”. He was a “hero of war,” but, in his own country, he was still a second class citizen. Jefferson was deeply pained by this and said, “I was treated better as a POW than I was back home”.
Jefferson stayed in service at the Tuskegee Army Airfield until it closed in 1946. He left the Army as a First Lieutenant and continued to work in Reserves in Detroit until he retired.
Alexander Jefferson did not fight the war because he believed that “by shedding one’s blood, one could achieve first-class citizenship” nor was the irony of “fighting for someone else’s freedom and democracy when he was denied the same in his own country” lost on him. Jefferson’s participation in World War II was part of a parallel war he was waging – one that began long before the World War II and ended long after it. It was the war on racism and segregation. Jefferson wanted nothing more than to be treated as an American. He fought World War II because he wholeheartedly believed that he was every bit American as the others who lived in America and when the country called, he wanted to be treated equally. Jefferson fought for the United States because he considers this his country. His participation in the war was part of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Alexander Jefferson’s legacy is not only about the display of indomitable courage, amazing display of technical ability or even the willingness to sacrifice one’s life during the World War II. Alexander Jefferson and the Tuskegee men through their courage and skills were able to dispel the notion that the African Americans had neither the intellectual nor physical capability to fly airplanes and by obtaining one of the best military records in the Air Forces during World War II were instrumental in putting an end to racial segregation in the U.S armed forces.
Colonel Jefferson’s legacy is a legacy of hope. Society will continue to fragment itself via narrow domestic barriers of race, religion, sex etc. While encountering these issues, Colonel Jefferson’s reminds us, "America is the best country in the world. You don't like it? Leave it. The only obligation? Make it better. It ain't perfect, but it's home."
St. Paul, MN
Robert Rosendahl, Army
Listening to Robert Rosendahl, you know he is the kind of person who is a dreamer, who will lend a hand and take a risk. As a small boy growing up in a rural agricultural community in Northwestern Minnesota, Robert dreamed of playing baseball. He attended a small school in St. Hilaire, Minnesota. When he graduated, he got his chance to try-out with the St. Louis Cardinals and was told “…come back next year. You’re a little light in the ass and you can’t handle the fastball pitchers.” So he joined the Army hoping to play baseball for the Army’s baseball team. Sadly he never played baseball again.
In the Army Robert was a natural marksman, bypassed boot camp, and toured with an Army marksman team. In the fall Robert was assigned recruiting duty, and soon decided he had enough of recruiting and jumped to the Army Air Corp.
Aircraft and mechanics fascinated Robert. As a boy he built his own home-built airplane, and was one of the few aircraft mechanics with a FAA certificate. He was promoted to 1st Class Aircraft Mechanic and assigned a plum Philippines assignment, the 3rd Pursuit Squadron.
In the Philippines duty was easy. He spent half his day maintaining planes and then he was off-duty. As war neared, life started to get harder. His base on the western side of Luzon was the closest airstrip to Japanese-held Formosa. His base got new pilots and new P-40 Warhawk fighter planes. Days off became few and far between.
On December 8, 1941, they awoke to news of Pearl Harbor. By 11 AM they were under attack by Japanese Twin-engine G4M Betty bombers and A6M Zero fighters. By December 9, their few remaining planes were transferred inland and Robert became a rifleman assigned to guard the Bataan coast.
On April 9, starving and in poor shape with little food and no ammunition, the soldiers on Bataan surrendered, throwing their weapons in the ocean. Armed only with a small, broken knife he used to shave, Robert was attacked by a Japanese soldier. He slashed the enemy with his small knife and the soldiers intestines jumped out. Badly cut from the Japanese’s bayonet, he fashioned a needle and sewed himself up, then scrounged iodine and chlorine water tablets before turning himself into the Japanese.
The captured Americans, divided into groups of 100, set off on what became known as the Bataan Death March. Americans who couldn’t keep up were killed by their Japanese captors. Robert marched for four days with no food and only dirty ditch water to drink. Using his scrounged tablets and iodine kept Robert from getting sick from the ditch water. On the fifth day a Japanese officer standing on top of a stuck Dodge truck called for volunteers. Robert jumped because he knew, “You can’t get a four-wheel drive stuck, it just can’t be done, unless you mire it down or something.”
The next two weeks Robert drove the truck for the Japanese because “very few Japanese could drive a car… They were ignorant old rice farmers.” It ended with a Japanese solder beating him with a hammer because of Doolittle’s Tokyo Raid.
Robert was sent to Camp O’Donnell. Each day 100 soldiers were dying because it was such a hell hole. At the first chance Robert volunteered for special duty just to get out of the camp. He first built bridges for the Japanese. Later he was sent to Manchuria to work in a factory as slave labor. While in Manchuria he got sick and the rule there was work to eat. Ever resourceful, a sick Robert volunteered to bury the dead. He stripped the old clothing off the dead, found an old sewing machine that he repaired and started fixing the clothes. For the rest of the war Robert sewed clothes and buried the dead.
On August 15, 1945 nobody came to make the Americans work. The war had ended. Soon a single American plane flew over and six chutes appeared. Americans soldiers had arrived to free the prisoners. Eventually Robert made it back to the Philippines, and the day after Thanksgiving 1945 he was back in the US.
While Robert felt he was just another soldier, doing what he had to survive, he is special. He survived because he made the best of a terrible situation. Even though he is not much of a philosopher, his message to future generations is to practice good citizenship, vote, and learn from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes.
William Barnes, Coast Guard
During the interview archived in the Digital Collections of The National WWII Museum, World War II veteran William Barnes sits proudly while telling his story. Aside from the humorous glint in his eyes, he remains calm and collected, answering each question that the interviewer shoots at him with great detail and clarity. At 90 years old, that’s pretty impressive.
His story begins with his birthday on July 15, 1920 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just a two-hour drive from where I sit writing this essay in Starkville, Mississippi. Upon graduating high school, he attended Bowling Green Business University in Kentucky and studied accounting. Just as he completed his degree, Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and Barnes did not hesitate to enlist in the army. When asked what motivated his decision, he simply replied, “I felt the urge to accept the call to help come defend this country, which is a great country.”
Because Barnes was a country boy and knew nothing about the military, he was advised to join the Coast Guard. After being accepted, he was sent to Sheepshead Bay near New York City, where he began his first job to clear an area to build a new training facility. In 1942, Barnes found himself in the position of Postmaster General of the Merchant Marine Academy. Although the job guaranteed his safety, he felt that he wasn’t as involved in the war as he wanted to be. An advertisement in the Coast Guard magazine looking for a yeoman for a PC (Patrol Craft) boat caught his eye, and he volunteered for the position even though he had no prior experience. The New York District Office approved his request, and he took off to New Orleans to join the commissioning crew of the USS PC-590.
In 1942, PCs, armed with 20 millimeter cannons and three-inch-fifty-caliber cannons, were treated as anti-submarine machines. Barnes was the number one gunner on the 20 millimeter anti-aircraft cannon. His crew was assigned to convoy duty guarding troop transports on their way to a battle zone, mainly traveling around the Miami-Panama-El Salvador region. During his time in active duty, he and his crew were responsible for sinking several submarines as well as shooting down planes. Barnes even shot down a Zero himself. “It makes your adrenaline pop up because you see this guy coming right at you”, he says, “Like that Zero...My bullets went right into the engine of that plane and it exploded...It’s a feeling that you don’t know how to take, but nonetheless this is war and you get trained that you can’t be personal about it.”
Barnes served aboard the ship for two years, from 1942 to the middle of 1944. While in Papua New Guinea, he received orders to return to the United States. After hitchhiking from the dock to the Coast Guard district office, he got his train ticket back to Clarksdale, Mississippi and ended up serving as the chief of the income tax and sales tax divisions for 36 years. After he and his wife retired, they decided to become tour directors and guided tours around the world for 16 years. He passed away on March 15, 2013.
Barnes’s story is no extravagant tale about a hero, but rather one of a figure of moral authority whose achievements reflect the extraordinary abilities of an ordinary man. Simple and humble, yet selfless and fearless, he is an example of what every person should strive to become. His stories of volunteering for a job he had no experience in to traveling around the world as a tour director have truly redefined what courage means to me. Courage is not just about saving lives and enduring hardships. Rather, it’s about not being afraid to step out of your comfort zone and take on challenges that most others would not have taken. It’s about living life to the fullest by taking risks and experiencing everything you possibly can.
Jay Mohan Mehta
Kansas City, MO
James Starnes, Navy
When watching the footage of the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, most people tend to focus on the two major players: General McArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, and Mamoru Shigemitsu, civilian plenipotentiary for Japan. The scene seems as if it came straight from a movie: a bespectacled Shigemitsu, in a top hat, tuxedo, and cane (used to compensate for a wooden leg), stands in tight formation with a small party of Japanese officials on the Surrender Deck of the “Mighty Mo” (President Harry Truman’s sobriquet for the battleship named for both his and my home state, the USS Missouri) to formally sign the document that would end World War II. However, what I, like many, overlook, is a single man standing in the rows of soldiers. This man was the Officer of the Deck. This man had given the Japanese party the official permission to board the ship. This man is James Starnes.
James Starnes grew up in Decatur, Georgia during the Great Depression. Following his second year at Emory College, while working at a local movie theater, a coworker told Starnes he was joining the Navy, and convinced him to do the same. Subsequent to his commission as an ensign in November 1940, he was assigned to the USS Boise as a part of the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. The ship left “Pearl” three weeks before the attack, and was already sailing in the Philippines when the news arrived: the United States was at war.
In 1942, the USS Boise was ordered to “intercept and destroy” the Tokyo Express, the Allied Powers’ name for the vessels that provided supplies to Japanese troops on Guadalcanal during the night. On October 12th, the ship’s radar picked up the Japanese fleet. The ensuing ship-to-ship battle killed about three hundred soldiers and, in Starnes’ own words, “turned night into day.” Fortunately, Starnes was situated in a part of the ship missed by the blasts.
Following that battle, USS Boise underwent repairs stateside. It was during this “month off” that Starnes was married. The Boise was then sent to the European Theater to provide support to the landing troops in Sicily and Salerno. Later, back in the Pacific, Starnes received orders to return to San Francisco (a trip he made on a Dutch freighter captained by the brother of the infamous German Commander Erwin Rommel). In November 1944, he was directed to immediately “proceed and report” to the USS Missouri as its navigator, a duty normally assigned to an officer of a higher rank.
On February 19, 1945, the USS Missouri was sent to support the Marines in Iwo Jima and then to Okinawa during a time of innumerable kamikaze attacks by the Japanese. The USS Missouri’s bridge, Starnes’ station, was targeted by one of these attacks, but thanks to an alert gun crew, the aircraft was shot down.
In August 1945, the USS Missouri received the news that atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in what must have been “the best kept secret in the history of warfare,” according to Starnes. A few days later, the Japanese announced their surrender. The site of such a historic coup de grâce? The USS Missouri. Starnes realized he should not have been surprised. After all, when his daughter, Margaret, had christened the ship, the then-Senator Truman had remarked to her that “the Mighty Mo will steam into Tokyo harbor someday . . . and the war will be over.”
On the day before the surrender, a Japanese riverboat pilot led the gargantuan ship safely through the minefields en route to Tokyo Bay where they would meet the Japanese delegation. In accordance with Navy protocol, the navigator of the ship, Starnes himself, was the Officer of the Deck. At the Japanese party’s point of entry, he chose to position eight men, each at least six feet tall, to create an aura of dominance. The ceremony, he recalls, was quite short, and was concluded with an Air Force flyover that darkened the sky, sending a message of might to the Japanese. It was “such a...indescribable feeling – to be there having been through all the war from beginning now to end, having seen combat and seen death and seen injury . . . now to know that it’s over.”
James Starnes’ quiet courage is evident throughout his story. While recalling the sacrifices made by so many during the war, he has continued to remind the world of the destructiveness of war and his hope for peace.
During the Japanese surrender someone took a photo of Fleet Admirals William Halsey and Chester William Nimitz as they walked past James Starnes on their way up to the surrender deck. A few months after the war, a man gave him a poem called “Nimitz, Halsey, and Me,” inspired by the picture. To James Starnes, this poem summarizes his feelings in a way that nothing else can. It reads as follows:
Patty McCoy, an American boy,
Left his home in the old Lone Star State.
He set out to sea in a shiny DD,
And he wound up in Task Force Thirty-Eight.
He cruised for a while with a satisfied smile.
Then he took his pencil in hand,
And here’s what he wrote in a well-censored note
To the folks back in stateside land:
Me, and Halsey, and Nimitz
Have sure got the Japs on the run.
We’re drivin' ‘em wacky in old Nagasaki.
We’re settin’ the damned rising sun.
Kyushu and Kobe and Kure
Are wonderful ruins to see.
We’ve got ‘em like gophers a’seeking a hole.
The way that they burrow is good for the soul.
And everything out here is under control
By Nimitz, and Halsey and Me.
Me, and Halsey, and Nimitz
Are having a wonderful time.
What we ain’t uprootin’ by bombin’ and shootin’
Would fit on the face of a dime.
They say they’re a face savin’ nation,
And that may be true as can be.
They’re takin’ a pushin’ all over the place.
Were givin’ ‘em Arsenic minus Old Lace.
We’re gettin’ a kickin’, but not in the face,
From Nimitz, and Halsey, and Me.
Me, and Halsey and Nimitz
Are anchored in Tokyo Bay.
The place is just drippin’ American Shippin’.
They stretch for a helluva way.
We hear that the fighting is finished,
And that is the way it should be.
Remember Pearl Harbor, they started it then.
We’re a’warning ‘em never to start it again.
For we have a country with millions of men
Like Nimitz, and Halsey, and Me.
Stanley Vejtasa, Navy
Stanley was born in an isolated homestead that his father had established after moving to Montana from South Dakota. After a few rough years, they moved to a location nearby, and after that, they moved to Circle Montana where Stanley’s father served as county treasurer. Stanley’s first association with the military began with the CMTC (Citizens Military Training Corp/Camp), as his only opportunity to get away. He remained in the program through completion, and thinks, to this day, that it is an amazing program “ The army had a program at that time called Citizens Military Training Corp or Training Camp CMTC. It was a devil of a good program.” Afterwords, he went to MSU (Montana State University), but due to a complication with scholarships, Stanley made his way to UM (University of Montana). It was there that he was given the opportunity to enter the Navy. He completed the necessary courses and went off to Pensacola.
Stanley, again really enjoyed and appreciated the training he was receiving, especially under Gus Whidhelm, who he thought was the best pilot in the fleet. Stanley was moved from Pensacola to San Diego and then to Pearl Harbor. There, they were often out in the ocean even though there wasn’t enough fuel or ammo to train. In November, instead of going back to Pearl Harbor, they were headed to Panama. They were notified about the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, and after a few transfers around, Stanley ended up on the Yorktown headed back through the Panama Canal. About a month after the attack, they arrived at Ewa Field. It was full of so much debris and shells that they had to clear it before they could land. Stanley saw his first combat at a raid on Makin Island. Stanley wasn’t nervous at all, it was a day raid and there was very little AA or opposition at all. Swede knew that combat would only get harder from this point on.
I believe that “Swede” Vejtasa’s defining acts of courage occurred at the Battle of Coral Sea, where he downed 3 enemy planes in defense of the carrier; at the sinking of the Shoho, where he and his group sank the carrier in a short 7 minutes; at the Battle of Santa Cruz, where he downed a total of 7 planes; finally, the night before the Battle of Santa Cruz, when he and the group were returning to the carrier and when they carrier was nowhere in sight, other pilots dropped their bombs in fear while he stayed strong and lead the other pilots on to find the carrier. For his feats at these locations and the fights at Salamaua and Lae, he earned 3 Naval Crosses and created his legacy as, in my opinion, should be the standard as a Naval pilot.
Ariana Van Pelt
Ben Kuroki, United States Army Air Forces
Ben Kuroki was one of many Japanese Americans who courageously fought for his country in spite of racial adversity during WWII. Few persevered as Kuroki did, simply for the right to fight. Once admitted into the Army he went on to become one of the most valiant heroes of World War II, receiving three Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Distinguished Service Cross for his part as pilot and gunner on three different fronts: raids over Europe, North Africa, and, finally, upon receiving special permission, raids over Japan.
Born May 16, 1917 in Gothenburg, Nebraska, Kuroki was one of four brothers and five sisters who worked a small family farm near Hershey surrounded by other Japanese American families. He graduated from Hershey Public Schools in 1936 during the Great Depression. After graduation, he worked on the farm for five years. Immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ben and his brother Fred resolved to enlist despite warnings that people were being arrested because of their race.
Together Ben and his brother went to North Platte to enlist; however, enlisting stations quickly closed their doors to Japanese Americans because the federal government classified them as enemy aliens. After discovering enlistments were being taken in Grand Island, the brothers drove 200 miles to give their pledge of allegiance. Fred was moved to the Army’s engineers, while Ben became a clerk and was enlisted in the 93rd Bombardment group.
Ben’s desire was to fly so he received gunners training and flew over Europe. Ben’s Bombardment Group participated in raids which flew B-24s over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The Ploesti Raid was the largest bombing mission of the war and consisted of 158 B-24 bombing groups. In the August 1943 raid, Ben and his bomber group flew at treetop level while enemy gunfire went on below. His bomber group endured many difficult obstacles before they reached their target and flew back to their base. Ben recalled, “158 planes went on this mission, less than 50 returned.” Ben volunteered for five more missions and was allowed to complete them though it was standard procedure for soldiers to be sent home after 25 missions. On Ben’s 30th mission to Germany, his plane’s air dome was shot off, but he walked away without a scratch. After this mission, Ben returned to Nebraska.
Upon returning home, Ben’s heroic efforts did not meet a hero’s welcome. Many fellow Americans did not want a Japanese American fighting for them. Ben re-enlisted, but, due to his nationality, he wasn’t allowed to fight in the Pacific. For three months Ben and his crew members petitioned the war department for permission to fight. Finally, he received his letter of permission. Ben and his bomber group were sent to the Hawaiian Air Force base. Later he became a gunner in the 505th Bombardment Group, flying B-29s based on the island of Tinian. Towards the end of WWII 200 B-29 bombers bombed Tokyo overnight, killing 100,000 Japanese. The B-29 Bombers were feared the most. Ben flew 28 missions over the Pacific and his fellow crew members honored him by naming their bomber “The Honorable Sad Saki.” Ben returned to the United States and was flown to New York City by the New York Herald Tribune for an interview.
After Ben’s interview with the Tribune, Ben toured many Japanese relocation centers and was influential in recruiting other Japanese Americans to the Armed Forces. He was famous to Japanese Americans and many wanted his autograph. When Ben spoke, extra guards were provided for his protection from those who still despised Japanese Americans. He eventually returned to Nebraska and attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney majoring in journalism. Ben worked for a newspaper and retired in 1984.
For his service to his country, he was saluted by Time Magazine in 1944 under the headline “HEROES: Ben Kuroki, American.” In 2005, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. In 2007, the Public Broadcasting Service aired a documentary titled, “Most Honorable Son,” about his service.
Ben Kuroki was proud to be an American. His legacy will be one of courage and loyalty in spite of persecution. As stated in the New York Herald Tribune, “Ben fought valiantly for the freedom of Americans regardless of race, nationality or personal opinions.”
Carson City, NV
Clarence "Bud" Anderson, United States Army Air Forces
Hello my name is Kaylee Gordon and today I will be sharing Clarence Anderson’s story. Clarence Anderson wanted to be a fighter pilot for as long as he could remember. He grew up next to a local airport; he watched the planes fly and land almost every day. For his seventh birthday, his father took him for a ride in a biplane. When Anderson got older, he joined a junior college that provided an aeronautics class. After his first year, he registered in the Civilian Pilot Training Program where he got his private pilot license. As a reward he took his first cross country flight which took approximately thirty-five hours to complete.
Next in his education was preflight training in Arizona followed by a civilian contract school in San Diego. On September 29, 1942 Anderson graduated, receiving his first assignment at Hamilton Field in San Francisco. One main factor that persuaded Anderson to join the Air Force was being able to travel around the world. Anderson and a small group of others were selected to travel to Nevada to be the cadre for a new fighter group. Up until now he had only traveled to surrounding states and when he received his first mission he was very disappointed but yet still enthusiastic about his future. This new group in Nevada gave him an additional year of training before going into combat. After being declared combat ready, the group and about 15,000 other men, boarded the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner.
At the time Anderson was a captain and was assigned a suite with seventeen other officers. It was there where Anderson was informed at some point that his group would be flying the new P-51s, a Mustang fighter aircraft with a British engine. The Mustang was so successful that when the war ended 14 of the 15 fighter groups were equipped with that specific plane. The only down side was their instability when full of fuel. But when Anderson was assigned to take the P-51 to the Royal Air Force’s gunnery school, he was able to acquire 35 more flying hours than anyone else in his group.
The other men in Anderson’s group were all young. When he was twenty he was commissioned and flew almost all of his combat missions at the age of twenty- two. Anderson believes “The way to do it is to have air groups that have trained as a unit”. This creates a trustworthy environment between fellow soldiers. Another key aspect of being a fighter pilot would be not just having good eyesight, but having good vision. During one mission, out in the distance Anderson could see a group of B-17s which had a small sparkle around the bombers. He determined that these sparkles were German fighters. The motto “Pursue and Destroy” was introduced when Jimmy Doolittle took over. Anderson took this motto to heart every time he stepped into his plane because once involved in a dogfight there is no time to be afraid.
Anderson’s first official mission was to Frankfurt, Germany. In February he got his first kill. He was returning from a mission, leading about eight planes back home, when he saw a lone B-17 with its engines smoking. On another account, while escorting bombers he noticed a flight of German Me 109s heading for them. Anderson knew they wanted to fight. During the fight one of the enemy planes peeled off so he sent two of his men to shoot it down. Anderson showed amazing courage every day, but, one mission, he saw a flight of three Me 109s flying right towards him so Anderson went straight for the enemy flight leader. Anderson was about to fire when Tommy Hayes, the group commander, called and all Anderson said was “I can’t talk right now, I gotta shoot.” This comment took tremendous courage because he basically told his commanding officer to stand down. On January 15, 1945 Anderson and Chuck Yeager went out for their final mission as alternates so they could go on their own tour of Germany. Instead of staying with their group and killing 57 German airplanes, they decided to stray and drop their wing tanks and attempt to shoot them causing them to catch fire. This decision caused them to miss the greatest air battle of all time.
Clarence "Bud" Anderson was a courageous fighter pilot. Even though he only stayed in Nevada for a little while, that extra practice allowed him to accomplish what he was destined for.
Emil Schoonejans, Navy
Emil Joseph Schoonejans was born on February 24, 1925 in West Hoboken, New Jersey, which is now known as Union City. He spent his entire childhood in that town, not leaving until 1942, when he volunteered to serve in the military at seventeen years old. Emil knew that he wanted to volunteer and to serve before he had even graduated from high school. In fact, he ended his relationship of one year because he did not want his girlfriend to have to wait for him while he was away at war. A very distinct pre-service memory of Emil’s was the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. He said he was listening to a football game on the radio when an announcement interrupted the broadcast, reporting on the horrific Japanese bombings on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Emil demonstrated indisputable courage by volunteering to serve after hearing about the tragedy that struck the U.S.’s naval base on that fateful December 7. He knew the risks and consequences of going to war, and yet, his bravery and loyalty to the United States would not let him cower and hide in fear when he knew he could be helping our country.
Though he originally wanted to become part of the Air Force, he ended up working with submarines in the Navy as a Torpedoman Second Class. As part of a submarine crew, a very prominent threat was that of depth charges from enemy ships. While recounting the terror he felt while under the attack of an excruciating 18-hour-long depth bombing, Emil said, “I communicated with God that day, and every day, every time we were depth charged. And we were depth charged many times. [...] I remember praying to God and saying, “I know I’m too young to die, I’ve got a long life ahead of me. I hope I make it. Please help me make it.”” He never quit, though. Despite his many near-death experiences, he stayed loyal to the Navy and to the United States. He kept fighting for our safety, and our freedom, risking his all for the citizens of his country. No one can doubt the courage it must have taken Emil to be able to keep fighting, even when death was staring him right in the face. Another memory that Emil recounted from his service was that every man aboard the submarines needed to be ‘qualified,’ as was determined by the officers of the boat. Being qualified meant that the men had to know everything about the ship they were on; the in’s, the out’s, and everything in between. As Emil recalls, one man aboard the ship “refused to go through the boat. That’s not the right attitude, because other peoples’ lives depend on everybody being qualified.” Emil’s morals and responsibility for the lives of his crewmembers also demonstrated his exceptional character, even when he was not engaged in battle. It would have been easy for him to ignore his responsibilities, and slack off with his other crew member - but he knew better. He knew the lives of his fellow crewmembers relied on him knowing the ship inside-out, and he fulfilled his duties honorably.
Emil distinctly remembered being stationed in my home state of New Hampshire when the war ended. He and his fellow crewmates had been sent back to the United States for a major overhaul, as their ship had become fairly damaged throughout their travels and battles. They were located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire when the joyous news of the end of the war was spread to them. Just because the war ended does not mean Emil’s legacy ended, though. I believe that one of the most admirable aspects of Emil’s legacy is his loyalty and determination to both the United States military and his fellow crew members. He volunteered to risk his own life, while still keeping his crew members safe and protecting the United States. We owe our freedom as American citizens to soldiers like Emil Schoonejans, whose courageous acts carry our country forward both in times of desperation and tragedy, and times of peace and prosperity.
Harold Ward, Navy
Courage often grows from the toughest of seeds.
Harold E. Ward was born in Atlantic City, NJ, to a sixteen-year-old single mother. Throughout his childhood in the Great Depression, he was moved from relative to relative, bounced from job to job, and lived a troubled adolescence.
With such a volatile life, Ward needed a stable home and lifestyle. He, along with many other struggling young adults in the Depression era, found a stable job and life in the Navy. However, upon enlisting, he immediately faced discrimination and segregation. As an African American in the Navy, Ward was told that he would be merely serving the officers’ requests - a prospect Ward disliked very much. Eventually, he wound up with a job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard with Pantry Watch, and eventually became Captain of the Head on the USS San Francisco (CA-38).
On December 7, 1941, the USS San Francisco was docked at Pearl Harbor, and Ward was aboard when the Japanese attacked. Though his ship was undamaged, Ward watched Japanese torpedoes and planes destroy numerous ships including the USS Oklahoma and the USS Arizona. Ward remembers that “We didn’t even know how to fight a damn war. The Japanese taught us.” He remembers the white uniforms of sailors strewn around in the harbor. He remembers that Pearl Harbor opened his and the other soldiers’ eyes to the realities and tragedies of war.
After Pearl Harbor, Ward traveled with the USS San Francisco on various missions to Wake Island, the Coral Sea, and Auckland, New Zealand. In mid-1942, the USS San Francisco assisted in Operation: Watchtower on Guadalcanal. Later in the campaign, the San Francisco was supporting the USS Wasp (CV-7) when a spread of torpedoes from a Japanese submarine sank the aircraft carrier. Ward remembers seeing exploding ammunition and white-hot metal on the Wasp as it sank, and eventually the order was given to abandon the vessel.
Soon afterwards, the USS San Francisco found itself in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Here, Ward experienced the true ferocity of naval combat. Here, the San Francisco found itself locked in naval combat between three Japanese cruisers and battleships. Though it escaped this initial confrontation, it faced another group of Japanese battleships, and the San Francisco took many hits, including a direct hit to the bridge that killed many of the commanding officers. Another hit wounded Harold Ward.
Ward remembers being transferred to a hospital ship (USS Hope (AH-7)) and eventually to an army hospital in Fiji. Much of the injuries he sustained were from shrapnel from the shells that were embedded in his body. Ward himself stated “I wear my medals in my body” and the dozens of pieces of shrapnel that remain in his body are reminders of the grave costs of war.
After recovering, Ward served on several merchant and supply ships throughout the Pacific Front, but saw no major combat throughout the rest of the war. When he returned from the war Ward was disappointed to see that the war had not changed the issue of discrimination in the country, and Ward saw the same amount of racial discrimination in civilian life as he had in the Navy. However, he also saw that his situation began to change in the 1960s as he lived in the small town of Lee, New Hampshire, as his service was appreciated and respected.
Harold Ward’s time in the military teaches many valuable lessons about World War II. As Ward entered the Navy, he was shown many obstacles in his path, such as racial discrimination and lack of work prospects. Ward entered the war with much anger and frustration from his past and from the racial discrimination that surrounded him. However, in his service aboard the USS San Francisco, he was able to find honor and valiance. He aided his fellow crew members well throughout the campaign in Guadalcanal, and he was awarded the Silver Star for his sacrifices in the face of the enemy.
Ward’s time in the military shows that courage, the ability to persist in the face of challenge or hardship, is not only found in the face of the enemy. Throughout Ward’s time in the Navy, he was faced with his troubled past, discrimination, lack of opportunities, and the onslaught of Japanese barrages. Ward courageously stood up to these challenges. Through his valiance and sacrifice, he aided his crew, fleet, and country in the Pacific Front.
On June 9, 2015, Ward passed away in Exeter Hospital after battling his failing health. He should be remembered as a symbol of courage in the Second World War.
Silver City, NM
Leonard Spivey, United States Army Air Forces
Leonard Spivey was born just a few miles north of Artesia, New Mexico. He began his life on a farm at a very young age. A part time cafe business in the family later brought him to San Jose, California at about age 16. After high school he began college at San Jose State. After one year, Spivey transferred to the University of California-Berkeley. While studying for exams his junior year he heard on the radio the infamous announcement that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It was at this point, Spivey decided he would train to be in aviation.
Spivey applied in January 1942 and was ordered to report to Primary Flying School. Eventually, Spivey would graduate from Mather Air Base outside of Sacramento, California. After some more brief training orders were issued, Spivey was assigned to be an instructor. Although Spivey had not wanted to be an instructor, he took the assignment. After another transfer, Spivey was to get prepared for overseas duty. His first mission was June 22, 1943 with the 1st Air Division. This mission also caused them their first casualty.
After completing many significant missions Spivey was assigned to a mission over Holland on August 19, 1943. It was on this mission that he would be shot down. Although Spivey was not injured from the parachute fall, his copilot had broken his ankle and every one of the gunners from the aft part of the plane were killed. For the last ten years Spivey has visited the American cemetery in the Netherlands; here he lays a wreath for the 381st Bombardment to honor his crewmembers that are buried there.
After capture, he was taken in a sidecar with a rifle to his head to a German flak station. He was given a blood-sausage sandwich and Dutch beer which he savored. Spivey’s radioman was later brought in. When asked if they knew each other, Spivey said no.
Spivey wrote in his memoirs of his experiences as a prisoner and states that he was not tortured. He says the food was not half bad and once they even were allowed to play touch football. The prisoners were told that their final destination would resemble more of a country club than a prison. While living in the combine Spivey was able to keep an optimistic outlook on some things. He actually grew to like the bread portions they received, even though their recipe contained 30 percent sawdust. Spivey actually ended up being a combine cook.
No Americans were involved in the “Great Escape”, although some helped in the construction. Spivey remembers a great deal of commotion when the prisoners were burrowing the tunnel. Many of the escapees were caught, and some of the tunnels were drowned, but none in Spivey’s compound. Things in the camp became tougher after the “Great Escape”. They accepted that their escape plans were shot. Spivey remembers thinking that they may be saved by the Soviets.
Spivey recalls that the Germans were able to get all of the prisoners out before the Russians arrived at the camp. The officers gave the prisoners about two hours to round up any belongings. This took place in the middle of the night. The German officers made the prisoners march from dawn to dusk. Spivey got sick and recalls that everyone seemed sick. But he remembers the exhilarating feeling when they were finally liberated.
Spivey was sent to the Red Cross Club in Paris where he was taken care of. He eventually boarded a boat that took them through South America, and then to New York City. This was a very emotional trip for all of the men. Spivey believes that all generations should learn about World War II. He still has an optimistic outlook on things and was not disappointed about the way the war turned out. His only regret was that he was shot down too soon and was not able to contribute more to the war effort.
Spivey was changed by the entire experience and says that he does not know what he would have done without it. He endured so much being a prisoner of war, and is still able to look at things from an optimistic standpoint. The fact that he was able to remain this way throughout all of the things he went through during his time in World War II, shows that he deserves a salute to courage for his contribution in World War II.
New York, NY
William Disanza, Merchant Marines
Born in 120th Street and raised in the Bronx, New York brought about a courageous and diligent individual; William Gerald Disanza.
From a young age, Disanza had consistently revealed traits of a hard-working and devoted citizen. He worked hard at what he did, no matter what. Growing up, with three brothers and one sister, Disanza and his family encountered financial issues. This gave him a drive to make money where he can. From cleaning shoes at the age of nine, to helping the milk man deliver milk, to working in the laundry truck, young Disanza was an industrious individual, which was a trait that would follow him later on his life.
In the year of 1940, Disanza, eighteen years old, joined the Merchant Marine alongside his brother, Vinny. In joining, William worked on the ship’s deck and worked the watch. His first trip on sea was ideal. He was deployed to South Africa. The only upset to his first experience with the Merchant Marine was that he got seasick for three to four days. A pail would become his greatest companion, as it would take collections from his upset stomach. Even with his stomach’s unpleasantness of the sea, Disanza continued fulfilling his role and duty in the Merchant Marine, and by the time his second trip came to an end, he was listed as an able-bodied seaman.
For a majority of his career, Disanza was usually at sea on a boat. Although, ironically, Disanza despised the ocean. He was always seasick. People saw the ocean as a beautiful body of water, filled with an abundance of life underneath the surface. Not Disanza. He saw it as a horrendous body of movement that would only threaten his life and inflict sickness unto him. Even though he didn't favor the ocean, Disanza still committed to his work on board. He didn't let his feelings come in the way of his duties.
After his service with the Merchant Marine, Disanza would then join the Army’s Navy. He trained in New Orleans and Maryland. There he would continue working on boats and on sea. While training in Maryland, he got involved with the OSS. With them, he would do a lot of strategic and guerrilla work.
Disanza was stationed in Burma during World War 2. Him and the other men worked to attack and dismantle small groups of Japanese in a covert fashion. This was a brutal and pungent job. Again, Disanza continued his duties no matter what. He also carried the job of dictating who they would attack and how it would be approached. One thing Disanza despised was the enemy, the Japanese. The only thing that sickened him while he was stationed was not the motions of the sea, but the sight of Japanese doings in Burma. He witnessed things that he couldn't believe with his own eyes, things that looked like it were the doings of barbaric monsters, things that he would have to see again in his dreams.
By the end of the war, Disanza was a sergeant. He and his men were getting ready for a parachute drop. Although, they were not able to carry out on the mission because the war had come to an end two days prior to their initial drop.
Coming home from the war, Disanza decided to pursue a career in business. In that career, he continually showed the traits of diligence, as he would often work overtime without asking for more money. He also took classes on business, thanks to the GI Bill, and started his own business that would last over 30 years.
Disanza never wanted to be a hero, he just wanted to do the right thing. And for William, the right thing was serving the country that he loved. The country that would help rebuild their enemies from the ground. He was humble in his service. He did not like to brag about his experience, even though many people ask. In his eyes, World War 2 was a necessity and sacrifice, something that he believed young generations should learn to understand.
Overall, it was evident that Disanza was a courageous and diligent man. He always put aside his upsets, and did his job. Now, he is a devoted farther and husband, making sure that his family followed one integrity that he took home from the war. And that was to always finish something you start.
Chapel Hill, NC
Pearson Riddle, Jr., Navy
December 8, 1941 is known to many Americans as the day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war against the Empire of Japan and energized what would later be recognized as the “Greatest Generation” in America. But, to the 449 American men on Wake Island, which included native North Carolinian Pearson Riddle Jr., December 8, 1941 would be remembered as the day their lives changed forever .
Pearson Riddle Jr. grew up during the Great Depression in Pensacola, North Carolina. Everyday he would walk over a mile to and from school, and work on his father's 120 acre farm. After graduating from high school, he became a truck driver and an operator of heavy machinery for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was because of the CCC that Riddle went to California and eventually joined the Navy. Riddle was stationed on the USS Henderson at Pearl Harbor. He was later sent to Wake Island, with the mission of fueling B-17 bombers. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Riddle and a friend were walking down to the beach when they saw planes flying towards the island. “‘Well those aren’t Americans, those are Japs!’ my friend said to me”, says Riddle. Riddle recalls that night was the night when the Japanese invaded. “We didn’t see them right away, we had flood lights down by the beach, but I guess they got rid of those.”
Fighting went on for a few days, until the Japanese suddenly left. Riddle explains how “We would sit on the beach and talk and say, ‘oh they be comin’ back’, and they did, they bombed the devil out of us.” On December 23, 1941, the United States was forced to surrender Wake Island to the Japanese. The next day the remaining Americans on the island became Japanese prisoners of war. “We were rounded up by the Japanese and put into an area that was barbed wired off and they just put us in, we had no beds, and no showers.” Riddle believes that he was in this camp until January or February of the following year. “Then they put us on a boat to Tokyo”. Riddle explains that the boat ride was 14 days long, that the prisoners were often beaten, and they were given only one cup of water a day. As for food, “What they was feedin’ us was full of rocks, glass and everything else.” says Riddle, “It was a long time ago, but I will never forget how they treated us.” In 1943, Riddle and 80 other men were relocated to another camp in Japan. “I was in this camp for over two years … we had little food, little water, little clothes, and little sleep.” he says. The men also did not know how the war was progressing. “While we were there we had no news, no radio, no paper, no books for reading, none of that.” says Riddle. Eventually, Riddle was moved for the last time to a camp in Siberia where, “The snow was over our heads, every part of me was frost bitten. When I was there my fingernails and hair stopped growing, I only weighed 97 pounds.” recalls Riddle. “There was one morning when we woke up, and all the guards were gone. They had left us a recording telling us to stay where we were, that's when I knew we were going to be rescued and I was going to live.”
America’s “Greatest Generation” was created by a generation of Americans who sacrificed everything they had in order to serve and protect our country. Stories, such as Riddle's, remind current and future generations what sacrifice and courage look like. Riddle, along with millions of other Americans, answered our nation's wartime call, leaving behind families, friends, work and the comforts of their day to day lives. Fueled by patriotism and unshakeable belief in his countrymen, Riddle displayed uncommon courage in the presence of unimaginable and horrific conditions throughout much of his service to his country. When Riddle was taken prisoner, he never doubted that he would be saved. Towards the end of Riddle’s interview there is a great quote where he says, “I was always livin’ to get out of there, I knew the Americans would never give up.”
Dr. Samuel Maloney, United States Army Air Corps
I was surprised by how strongly the veterans still remembered their experiences from during the war, and how the memories and emotions from the war still affected the veterans when they told their stories so many decades later.
Hearing the different stories helped me see why it is so important to collect a wide range of stories and oral histories. Each of the veterans I interviewed had held different jobs during the war and had very different perspectives and experiences. Capturing just one or two wouldn’t tell the full story, and it would be sad for those stories to be lost.
When he went to war, Dr. Maloney was just a few years older than I am now. But for him and the other veterans, those wartime experiences shaped the rest of their lives. They said it felt impossible to leave those WWII experiences and memories behind when they came home from the war.
Masaji Inoshita, Military Intelligence Service
World War II in the Pacific Theater brought out the courageous sprit in many military personal. What they had to do and face in the fight against the Japanese, these brave men rose to the occasion.
One such hero was Masaji Inoshita. He was the oldest son of Maruji and Sen Inoshita, born December 9, 1920 in Fresno California. Masaji's father started a farm by Santa Barbara. In 1941, Masaji took over his father's farm, due to his father's stroke. In that same year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Inoshitas knew their life was about to change drastically. Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Masaji's father was arrested by the FBI along with other ethnic Japanese in the community. His father and the others were sent to La Tuna canyon, near Los Angeles. They were later transferred to Montana to be interviewed. Some then were sent to Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, a World War I prisoner of war depot. Others were sent to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
On April 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, an anti-Japanese document putting persons of Japanese descent into internment camps. This included one-hundred-twenty-five orders of evacuation of Japanese people by the United States Military. They could only take what they could carry: no cameras, two-way radios, firearms, or family swords. The military controlled camp rations and personal care items. Masaji was in charge of ordering meals for his camp and – even though the camp was rationed – it was often short of enough meals to feed all the camp. Many other camps where being built and 500 people were being moved elsewhere. The military let camps be locally run allowing for more freedoms and people started moving out of the camps.
The military needed Japanese translators, but Japanese-Americans could not be drafted, they had to volunteer. Masaji felt inclined to serve for his country though he did not want to, he volunteered for Military Intelligence language school. He and 25 others were sent to Savage Minnesota due to their ability to speak and understand some Japanese. Here they improved their Japanese writing and expanded their vocabulary mostly for deciphering. Eventually they were given uniforms, yet, due to their small size, they were given uniforms that did not fit properly causing them to have to get the uniforms tailored. Masaji and others where then sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for combat training. It was a big shift for Masaji. It was hard for many Japanese to keep up when marching. After three months they were sent back to Minnesota, the Japanese-Americans were then flown to the front lines in the Pacific. Masaji and others where loaned out to Great Britain and Australia.
Masaji and twenty others were assigned by the British to report to New Delhi, India. They sailed south to New Zealand, around southern Australia to a submarine base to translate documents. Soon after, they set sail for India's Camp Bush, from there took a train to New Delhi. Masaji remembers the poverty and the overcrowding on the train. After a 150 mile train ride they were met by a British captain and the twenty-two men were taken to camp. There they got their own butler, new uniforms and clothes. Masaji was interested in learning the Indian language so he and his butler would teach each other English for Indian. One day, the men were told not to eat supper, no reason why, until the next day, when they figured it out. The captain took the men to an Indian hospital; here 45 Japanese prisoners of war where being held, due to injuries, and the captain wanted Masaji and the others to question them. Masaji was horrified. The hospital conditions where horrendous, the bandages moved due to the insects eating flesh underneath. The stench was so putrid, the men still vomited even though they had not eaten the night before.
A few days later Masaji was summoned into the captain’s office, and was tasked with choosing one person, along with himself, to go to the front lines. Masaji chose Sergeant Edmond Sasaki. Both men where loaded on a crowded one-hundred-mile train ride to the Brahma Putra river. The boats capacity was one-hundred-fifty people. Along with another one-hundred-fifty people Masjai thought the boat was about to sink. They met up with British Major Thompson and were tasked with interrogating and deciphering documents. They carried two gallons of gasoline in case the Burma line broke. The Japanese were experiencing heavy losses and poor moral due to malaria. The Japanese gave many soldiers grenades if they felt like suicide. The hardest thing Masaji had to do during this time was scavenge rotting dead bodies for intelligence. He had a hard time doing this. Eventually the British trained people to go out and gather intelligence. Masaji got so good at Japanese he did not feel he had to write anything down. He went to many teas of high-ranking officers to report his findings. Masaji liked his intelligence position and felt he was doing the best he could do considering the circumstances.
Masaji was moved out of India due to the Indian uprising. He was moved to China, where it was hard to get around. He later found out he needed to get to the Yangtze River to be a translator for the Japanese surrender to China. Masaji made it to the Yangtze River and negotiated with a Japanese naval commander to give him a ship and crew to get him down the river. The commander agreed but wanted his boat and crew back and warned him to fly the Japanese Naval flag; Masaji knew why. The American commanding officer decided to fly the American flag and they were shot at twice because the small Chinese divisions along the river did not recognize the American flag. It was then they decided to fly the Japanese Naval flag. When they reached the surrender ceremony the main interpreter was a Japanese translator whose father was the Japanese ambassador to Great Britain. Masaji could pick out his English accent.
Masaji Inoshita lived his life providing. He was a farmer, then he gathered and provided intelligence. Mr. Inoshita exemplified courage in the way his father was taken by the FBI and military, yet he still chose to volunteer for the people who took his father and eventually him. He is also courageous in what he had to do to get intelligence, scavenging rotting dead bodies. To bring yourself to dig through a rotting stench to get, if you are lucky, war plans. Mostly he ended up just finding family letters and pictures. Sadly this past July, Mr. Inoshita passed away. His legacy lives on as a great interpreter in the Last Great War.
Christine J. Parshall
Billy Grieves, Navy
“We didn’t have to do this. The submarine service is a volunteer service. Any time a man wanted off of a submarine—wanted to transfer to a relief crew, or to surface craft, all he had to do was request it. But nobody ever did.”
Being born in Ohio is the only thing Billy Grieves and I have in common. Although he lived in Michigan most of his life, I find it inspiring that courageous people like him can be found anywhere. There are numerous times where Billy Grieves has shown his dedication and bravery, whether through small or big acts. Although, I have never met him in person, Billy Grieves is the kind of person I strive to be.
Grieves recognized that he wanted to be in the Navy early in his life. He signed up for a Naval program in high school and started boat training in Rhode Island soon after his graduation. His choice to join submarine duty was his own after being a part of the Squalus Rescue Mission and witnessing the unfailing camaraderie between the surviving men. Grieves just knew he wanted to be a part of a close-knit team.
Grieves’ first taste of battle was in the submarine USS Thresher outside of Tokyo Bay on the tenth of April 1942. The Thresher fired a single torpedo at a Japanese freighter, and within two minutes it had sunk. But soon, three Japanese destroyers were able to track the Thresher’s location and suppress them under the water. They had been submerged for eighteen hours—oxygen ran low, temperatures climbed, and batteries ran critical. They had to surface. Grieves describes the attitude in the room: “An air of hopeless resignation settled over the entire crew. But there was no panic. There were no complaints . . . some of the men openly folded their hands, bowed their heads in silent prayer. I prayed myself. But all of our prayers had one plea in common: If you take me now, Lord… Please, make it with a bang, not a whimper.”
When the submarine surfaced, the destroyers were not able to see its narrow silhouette, miraculously allowing the Thresher to escape the enemy unnoticed. This event demonstrated Grieves’ great bravery in battle. He performed his duty as best as he could and was prepared to die fighting for his crew.
Grieves had gone through many missions just like these. In one instance, the Thresher was latched by a grappling hook at three hundred feet. The captain tried many maneuvers, but they could not seem to break free. As they passed one hundred feet, they were suddenly freed and plummeted to the ocean floor. Despite so many close calls and near death experiences, his willingness to stay with submarine duty clearly illustrates his courage.
After the war, Grieves married his wife Muriel and became a firefighter for the city of Detroit. He loved every moment. “It’s the closest I can get to submarine life! The camaraderie—the dependence on one another for your very survival.”
Many people would think that Grieves is a crazy man for putting his life on the line time after time, but I disagree. I think he enjoyed the time on the submarines and he thought that if he were to die then, he would have lived a happy and purposeful life. He had made peace with the undeniable fact that he could die at any time in the submarine and he chose the optimistic, courageous view, which in hindsight seems impossible. But that’s what Billy Grieves did. He achieved the impossible.
Jim Goodrich, Marine Corps
There are many stories of courage during World War II in the Pacific theater. There is no other story of courage that inspires more than the story of Jim Goodrich from Oklahoma whose perseverance at a young age and in the face of adversity. Jim Goodrich was born in Garber, Oklahoma, May 1926, and served his country in the US Marine Corp during WWII with courage and honor as a young 16 year old boy. May 1942 Goodrich’s schooling wasn’t going well and he had seen a Marine poster in the post office, he knew from that moment on he was going to be a Marine. Being only 16 was an obstacle but he knew that he could convince or rather threaten his father into attesting to the recruiters that he was 17 so that he could join the Marines. Mr. Goodrich’s father at first had reservations but Goodrich told him he would go to Canada and join the Navy. Goodrich’s father agreed and Jim left for San Diego the next day and into the service as a Marine.
December 1943: Goodrich took his training to Guadalcanal where he went on a combat reconnaissance patrol with his BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and surprised a few Japanese soldiers that had fired upon his unit. Goodrich opened fired and sent the Japanese soldiers back into some tall grass. The battle on Guadalcanal was tough as sickness and malaria were rampant and Goodrich suffered 13 attacks of malaria but kept on fighting.
Leaving Guadalcanal in February he returned to New Zealand. At age 16 and on patrol Goodrich killed his first Japanese soldier, an officer. His buddy who was carrying a shot gun loaded with double OO buck shot fired at the officer and then Goodrich opened fired with his BAR and killed him. Goodrich had frozen at first but his buddy’s firing snapped him out of it.
On Tarawa in November 1943 and at the age of 17 Goodrich as a 6th Marine division going into Tarawa on their Higgin boats the landing craft got hung up on a reef and he had to wade in waist deep water all the way to the beach. The first night they defeated a banzai attack and the next day captured the airfield. A blockhouse, a Japanese command post, was knocked out by pouring napalm down the air vents and lighting the gas on fire. After the Command post was knocked out Goodrich’s unit killed over 600 Japanese soldiers to secure the end of the island. Surviving Tarawa Goodrich was given a pass to go home to Oklahoma City to visit his step-mother. After his furlough he reported back to Camp Pendleton in California where he was assigned to the 5th Marine division, made up of Raiders, paratroopers and members from the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions and in in Goodrich’s opinion the finest division ever to be sent overseas because all the non-commissioned officers were all veterans of war.
Feb 19, 1945, the first day of the battle of Iwo Jima, Jim, now an 18 year old Corporal, the youngest man in the squad was now a machine-gun squad leader in charge of 12 men. As the transport hit the beach Jim told his best friend, “See you later tonight.” Jim went left, his friend went right and Jim never saw his friend again. He never knew what happened to him. The objective was to cut the island in half and Goodrich was one of the few marines who made it across the island on the first day.
For 19 days Jim fought in this living hell, witnessing unspeakable death & destruction, never once seeing the face of a Japanese soldier as they were entrenched in 11 miles of underground tunnels and bunkers, “the Japanese weren’t on Iwo Jima, they were in it.” When Goodrich was shot by a Japanese soldier, there were 16 remaining members of his company’s 250 soldiers.
Wounded, Jim made it off the beach and back to Guam and then to Hawaii for five months of rehabilitation; the war was finally over for him. Jim Goodrich, survived the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Winifred Dudley, Women's Army Air Corps
Over the past year of being a Student Ambassador for the National WWII Museum, I have learned that our veterans tell us the stories that our history books often leave out. Through conducting interviews and hearing these people's incredible stories, I have heard a less factual and more personal side of WWII. Thus, I have learned more about this time period than I ever did in a classroom setting. Interviewing Winifred Dudley was refreshing because of her female perspective on an often male-dominated topic. She amazed me with her enthusiasm to join the effort and serve her country by working in air transport. I also appreciated her desire to tell her story so that her experience can live on and continue to educate for years to come.
Jimmie Kanaya, Army
“When young Japanese American men volunteered enthusiastically, some Americans were puzzled. But those who volunteered knew why. Their own country had dared to question their patriotism and they would not rest until they had proved their loyalty… mothers and fathers told them, live if you can; die if you must; but fight always with honor, and never, ever bring shame on your family or your country,” President Bill Clinton said at the Medal of Honor Ceremony for the Nisei Soldiers. This can be said about all of the Japanese-American Soldiers that fought during World War II.
Jimmie Kanaya was born in Clackamas, Oregon in 1920. He grew up working on a farm until his parents moved to Portland, Oregon in the midst of the Great Depression. Jimmie graduated high school, saw his friends getting drafted and knew he had to enlist before he got drafted. He enlisted in the Army in late 1940. After enlisting, he was sent straight to Monterey, California where he got his uniform. Jimmie was very proud to wear the military uniform and to be in the Army. In the Army, Jimmie had hoped to be a mechanic and work on airplanes, but was forced to become a medic. He then was shipped to Santa Barbara to the Hoff General Hospital. That was his first experience working in a hospital and he had never had any training. He worked in the hospital until Executive Order 9066 was passed and all Japanese-American soldiers were moved inland. When Executive Order 9066 was implemented everyone got a one week notice, so Jimmie got a ten day pass to help his parents move into an internment camp, in Idaho. “My dad lost his freedom and so did my mom, but they never complained,” Jimmie said. This was how many of the Japanese Americans felt after being put in the internment camps, even though they should have been upset. The nation they were supporting turned their back on them and forced them into these camps. Jimmie later went back to his parents and got them out of the camp. Jimmie moved them to Chicago and got them housekeeping jobs. His parents stayed there for the rest of the war and until they passed away. Jimmie’s parents liked Chicago because they could live free like other Americans; in Chicago they didn’t have to live in an internment camp.
Jimmie joined the 442nd in France, in the Vosges Mountains. On one mission he had orders to evacuate casualties, so he took three medics with him. They followed the resupply party to get to the 100th Battalion, on the way they went right by a GI unit and could hear them talking. He found out later that the voices they heard were most likely the Lost Battalion who were surrounded by Germans. Jimmie was captured during the war, he tried to escape three times but all attempts were unsuccessful. Before the end of the war, Jimmie was liberated by American soldiers sent by George S. Patton.
Jimmie had many life threatening experiences but fought out of them and was rewarded for it. After returning home from war, he received two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star, for saving the lives of American soldiers while in the line of fire. Next, they were going to help out with the occupation of Japan, he was put on board a ship and sent to Korea. Jimmie went to college after the war. He ended up getting his Master’s degree and retired as a Colonel.
"We had to prove ourselves...worthy of recognition when we came back to the States and that our parents and the rest of the Japanese-American community would be proud of us," Jimmie Kanaya said. There is no doubt that Jimmie is a hero. Just enlisting in the military is heroic because you are willing to risk your life for your country. Jimmie was courageous for saving many lives and risking his safety for others. But what makes him even more courageous was his willingness to risk his life for a country that turned its back on his race. It is important to understand what the Japanese Americans went through during WWII; but it is even more important to recognize their desire to serve their country in the face of discrimination and create a better life for their families in the future.
Michael "Iron Mike" Mervosh, Marine Corps
“Iron Mike” Mervosh has a constitution of steel and a patriotic heart as pure as gold. Some may claim that courage is the result of fear. In Mervosh’s case, courage and dedication are part of his character.
This Pittsburgh native, born in 1923, was determined to join the United States Army. Growing up in Pennsylvania’s “Steel City” with two younger brothers, his family faced hard times during the Great Depression. Uncle Sam’s beckoning hand and patriotic colors reached through the iconic poster and captured Mervosh’s imagination. Inspired by the recruiting advertisements and the horrific attacks at Pearl Harbor, Mike Mervosh joined the Marine Corps right out of South High School in 1942. Mervosh selected the Marines because their posters guaranteed action, unlike the Army’s posters where men were promised they would “learn a trade” or the Navy’s where they were promised they would “see the world.”
Mervosh said that he always pictured himself as “the man with the rifle.” In fact, he “purposely flunked” a test for electronic ability so he would be able to fight on the front lines with his rifle instead of sitting behind a radio controller!
His first pay check of twenty dollars came as a surprise. Mervosh said “I couldn’t believe it,” about this windfall after years of enduring the Great Depression. Instead of keeping his hard earned pay, he sent most of it home to his family.
While presented as idyllic on the posters, real-life training turned out to be a grueling experience. Mervosh joked that the newly-recruited soldiers at Parris Island called the drill instructors the “devil’s instruments.” He also remembered describing one particularly strict instructor as being “tougher than a seabag full of hand-grenades.” However, Mervosh realized that this infamously hard training could save his life. He took it seriously. At the time he thought his unit was being “overtrained” and remembered with a laugh that the repetitive training “got us so damn mad that we wanted to go into battle.” Mervosh later noted the value of those long months: “The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.”
After training, Mervosh’s unit was shipped out to the West Coast where the men followed an endless routine of practicing amphibious landings. When orders came to ship out, the 24th Marine Regiment of the Fourth Division did not think anything unusual was afoot—they believed their orders were yet another drill. It wasn’t long before the division realized that they were going to be the first and only outfit to go directly from the United States directly into battle in the Marshall Islands.
Mervosh, a machine gunner at this time, proudly noted that every island his unit captured was never retaken. There were harrowing moments. Mervosh remembered laying in a trench in Namur and seeing a Japanese soldier fixing a bayonet on the end of his rifle. It was, “Kill or be killed.” Later, Mervosh checked the soldier’s rifle. The dead soldier still had three rounds left, and, to this day, Mervosh wonders why the Japanese soldier chose to fight with his bayonet.
While Mervosh stated that he felt little remorse for the Japanese soldiers who were trying to kill US troops, civilians were another story. One of the most horrific things he saw in his wartime career was brainwashed Japanese women and children committing suicide rather than live under American control.
For the rest of the war, Mervosh fought in the Pacific Theater in Roi Namur, Saipan, and Tinian. His most noteworthy battle during this time was on Iwo Jima. Mervosh described Iwo Jima as a “perfect battle” due to its ideal fighting location far from any potential collateral damage. During this battle, Mervosh was hit in the back. Luckily, his binocular case took the brunt of the hit. The medics wanted to evacuate him, but Mervosh refused, insisting that he had “men to lead” on the island. On a different occasion, he was again injured—this time by a mortar shell. “Iron Mike” received two Purple Hearts for these wounds.
After the Second World War, Mervosh continued to serve in the Marine Corps. For the next 30 years, Mervosh put his life on the line for the American people. He even volunteered for the Persian Gulf War at the age of 67. Despite his “beautiful combat record,” he was passed over in lieu of soldiers of a younger generation. His wife was thrilled. He was not.
Mervosh believes that Americans today should continue to study the Second World War and recognize the sacrifices American soldiers make for our country.
I believe that Mervosh’s leadership and courageous actions can inspire all of us. With nerves of steel and an unbending commitment to our country “Iron Mike” Mervosh embodies patriotism, discipline and leadership. “Semper Fidelis.”
Ari Phoutrides, Navy
Ari Phoutrides was born in 1925 and grew up in a small family, often moving around the country because of his father’s job as a preacher. At the age of 12, Phoutrides’ family returned to Seattle, where he attended school. After graduating from high school, Phoutrides briefly attended MIT. He heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor when his family invited a few soldiers for dinner. Like most people, he was shocked and upset—but being a patriotic man, Phoutrides wanted to go and fight. He dropped out in 1941, his freshman year, to join the war effort—by himself, unaccompanied by friends.
He was sent to Newport, Rhode Island for his boot camp training, and it was unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Boot camp for Phoutrides was a new experience because it was difficult and required hard work, but also instilled a sense of community. He left the boot camp as a soldier with an as-yet-undecided role, known as a “striker.” Upon finishing boot camp, his mother refused to allow him to join the marines because of the intense fighting taking place on the island of Guadalcanal. The Pacific Campaign for Guadalcanal was brutal; both the United States and Japan lost an extraordinary number of men. Instead, Ari’s mother allowed him to join the Navy. He attended quartermaster school and graduated, after which he asked to be placed on a destroyer. He actually got the ship he requested, and joined the crew of the USS Laffey on February 8th, 1944. He is a plank owner, a crewmember who was with the ship on its maiden voyage.
He joined under the service of Admiral Julian Becton, who got the Laffey into shape very quickly. During the Allied invasion of France, the battle to liberate Cherbourg highlights Phoutrides’ deep respect for Becton. The goal of the operation was to divert the attention of an artillery battery so that troops coming from the north could take control. However, due to a haze on the water, American ships were unable to see anything. Almost every ship in the operation was hit, including the Laffey:
“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ to myself, but the skipper did just the opposite. He went right towards the beach, and I thought, ‘This man is going to get us killed!’ A few seconds later, I’m not saying the salvo would’ve hit us, but it landed in the general area where we would’ve been if we had gone seaward. When I saw the way he had outsmarted the Germans then, I figured that I would follow this man to the ends of the earth.”
After Cherbourg, the crew discovered they were hit with an armor piercing round. The shell was still lodged inside of the ship and never detonated because destroyers have thin armor. The Laffey then went to Boston for repairs and upgrades, before being sent to the Pacific.
Phoutrides recalls the invasion of Ormoc Bay in November of 1944, an important battle in the American campaign to liberate the Philippines. Although the invasion was small, the Laffey was so close to shore that when Phoutrides looked into his binoculars he was actually able to see a Japanese soldier flee from a bunker into the forest. He then describes the April 16th, 1945 attack on the Japanese islands of Kerama Retto. These islands served as an important staging ground for the Battle of Okinawa, and also is where the Laffey was involved in a vicious air battle. The ship was being bombed and circled by Japanese pilots. A bomb hit the Laffey’s hydraulic system, causing the ship to only be able to turn in circles. Phoutrides says that the bombs which hit the hydraulic systems were intended for the bridge. They missed because the skipper would speed up and turn faster when he saw a plane diving on them, and because of the Japanese pilots’ inexperience.
Phoutrides never held any hatred towards the Japanese, despite them bombing Pearl Harbor. One third of his high school was Japanese, and many of his friends were Japanese. Some of the other crew aboard the Laffey held hatred towards the Japanese and still do to this day. In the interview, Phoutrides said, “I didn’t have any hatred towards the Japanese. I was surprised, I was angry, but I had Japanese friends, so that kinda tempered my feelings.”
Ari Phoutrides is a model soldier. He was incredibly loyal and said that he would follow Admiral Becton to the ends of the earth. He showed an extraordinary amount of courage and patriotism by joining the Navy at such a young age, especially alone. I feel that Ari Phoutrides left a legacy of loyalty. His actions inspire and remind us of the price of freedom.
Fort Hill, SC
Herman Paul Bailey, Marine Corps
It is thanks to men like Herman Paul Bailey that we are still a free country today. He had strength and courage to fight an enemy on foreign soil to protect the United States.
Herman Paul Bailey was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina on September 12, 1921. He was only eight years old when the stock market crashed, starting the Great Depression. Because of this, he became a sharecropper to help his family. He began by picking cotton. At the age of ten, Bailey became a full time farmer; he picked cotton, drove mules, and planted crops. He continued farming until he was sixteen, when he became a carpenter’s assistant working for a lumber company. Eventually he became a full time carpenter. As a carpenter he helped build Camp Croft, an Army base in South Carolina, and the Wainwright Shipyard in Panama City, Florida.
With the United States at war, Bailey decided to join the Marines in 1943. On October 12, in Columbia, South Carolina, he was sworn in. He spent the next eight weeks training at boot camp in Parris Island. On October 10, 1944 he was transferred to Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, for combat training. He was then sent to Camp Pendleton two weeks before being deployed to Japan.
On March 31, 1945, Bailey was on a ship headed towards Okinawa. For the first time he saw signs of the war. Tracers flew over his head, planes were shot down, and Japanese artillery fired at his ship. At 8:30 the next morning, the first wave of American soldiers disembarked on an Amtrac, an amphibious tank. By 4:30 that afternoon, Bailey's unit was sent to shore.
For his first month on shore, Bailey spent most of his time in fox holes near the Yontan Airfield. For 39 days, they were under air attacks. On one occasion Bailey saw a kamikaze plane head towards a US ship. He shot at it with his M1 rifle and hit it twice. The plane bounced off of the ship and crashed into the water.
On May 9, Bailey was sent to the front lines to load bazookas for the 3rd battalion 7th Marines 1st Division. He was immediately under attack. His company was pinned down by machine guns in Death Valley. The next day, they were banzai charged by Japanese soldiers. Using a machine gun, one Marine killed all but one of the enemy who Bailey and the other Marines shot and then killed. On May 16, Bailey watched two boys get blown up by a mortar that landed next to them. Later that day Bailey found a cave with two burnt Japanese soldiers inside. They had been killed with napalm. “They where just sitting back inside...They were so hot that they were frozen in place, they didn’t even fall over they just sat there, that’s when I knew how hot napalm was”. From May 19-20, Bailey was involved in his first major battle. One hundred sixty Marines led the charge, advancing on a field. By the next morning there were only 90 Marines left. On that day, Bailey lost his friend Sammy Diego.
One event would remain with Bailey for the rest of his life. While carrying a wounded man to a boat on the China Sea, Bailey saw a Japanese soldier laying in a rice field. Bailey knew he was alive because the water in the field was moving as he breathed. He was forced to shoot that soldier, killing him. “Every time he would breathe a wave would go… so I shot him, I’ve seen that guy ever since”. He eventually got the wounded man to the boat while the Japanese artillery fired at them. That wouldn't be the last time Bailey saw men being killed. Just two days before leaving the front lines, he saw a sniper kill himself and another Japanese soldier kill himself with a grenade.
On June 17, 1945, Bailey’s battalion was relived by the 2nd Marine division, and they were removed from the front lines. They where preparing to invade mainland Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. Bailey was sent to China on September 30th to help disarm the Japanese.
On Feb 9, 1946, Bailey returned home. He began working four days later to help himself adjust to life at home. It wasn’t until he went to church one day that he started crying about the man he had shot. In Bailey’s words “They started it, we finished it, and I’m proud of it.”
Ralph McKee, United States Army Air Forces
“What makes the flag on the mast to wave?” The Cowardly Lion from Wizard of Oz answered his own question with, “Courage!”
Born on family farm September 19, 1921 and raised near Southard, Oklahoma, Ralph D. McKee grew up around machinery. As a six year old, McKee was fascinated with machines that could “travel through the air” when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean. Intrigued by this feat, McKee’s love for aviation began. Despite the dust bowl and the Great Depression, Ralph saved up one dollar for his first flight with a barnstorming pilot at a 4th of July Rodeo. Before 1940 high school graduation, McKee worked for 47-and-a-half-cents an hour at local gypsum company to afford college required for aviator training. He saved and started his first semester at Southwestern Institute of Technology in January of 1941. That spring, McKee learned that Army Air Corps pilot training program had expanded and that an equivalency test could be taken. He studied all summer when not at work. With a minimum age requirement of 20 McKee mailed his application to serve as an Aviation Cadet on his birthday, September 19, 1941. McKee passed his physical exam, but had to stand-by for orders to assign him to a class.
One fateful morning, McKee went to the post office – December 7, 1941 – eager for call up papers, unaware of events at Pearl Harbor. Later that evening he listened to the radio and heard of that day’s devastation. McKee thought he would be called up immediately, but was not until February 21, 1942.
During the completion of four phase training, McKee was located in my home state. On December 1, 1942, McKee arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota. Due to uncooperative winter weather, their stay was short: only ten days. His Crew was not even able to fly a training mission. They then relocated to Ainsworth, Nebraska. Although his stay in my state was not long, McKee would later leave a legacy greater than just to one state.
By February 23, 1943 Ralph arrived at Chelveston, England after reassigned to 15 different locations in four different countries. Perhaps the most memorable mission McKee flew near France, was one he was not even suppose to be on. A substitute for a sick crew member, Ralph navigated near Nantes, nine years after his first flight at Oklahoma rodeo, on July 4, 1943. In short, the plane was shot down and the crew was forced to bail out into enemy territory. McKee was sheltered safely by farmers, hidden with hay covered in a cart, and eventually housed with a pharmacist named LeGrande. Surprised, McKee was reunited that week with his plane’s pilot, Bill Wetzel. While there, the hosts’ daughter was not seen as a threat until her kindergarten teacher brought her home since she talked at school about “Americans who fell from the sky staying at her house”. After a hard and gruesome trek through two more countries, McKee was taken prisoner in fascist Spain. Eventually McKee made it back to England for disposition early September 1943.
In 2003 a Frenchman contacted McKee. A farmer plowed up pieces of a plane wrecked near Nantes, France and they wanted to erect an anniversary memorial 60 years later. McKee was the only survivor still living. The dedication was completed in 2004, however, per his doctor’s request Ralph was not able to attend. Instead His daughters went and presented the little LeGrande girl, now a grandmother, a doll McKee had purchased to fulfill his promise to her several decades ago. Ralph D. McKee stated in his oral history, “the French are very brave people. A number of Frenchmen risked their lives to help me and it’s something I can never repay except to say thank you and have very gracious memories.”
Ralph D. McKee received numerous decorations and awards for courageous service such as the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart – twice each. He also received World War II Victory Medal, United Nations Service medal and the French Legion of Honor. However he did not stop there and was stationed during the Korean War at Okinawa, just a 2 ½ hour flight from Tokyo, Japan. After 24 years of military service Lt. Colonel McKee retired in 1965 having flown over 5,000 hours as a navigator. His legacy went above and beyond international peace in this world when he engaged in engineering assignments for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs for 31 years.
Author L. Frank Baum who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz also lived for a short time in my state of South Dakota. His lion and McKee, to me, both embody courage.
Howard Brooks, Navy
Howard E. Brooks, born in 1919 in Greeneville, Tennessee, served in World War II in the United States Navy. He was at war for about five years, during which he worked on an electrician’s crew as a third class mate, worked on three ships (the USS Pyro, USS Portland, and USS Houston), and was captured as a prisoner of war by the Japanese soon after surviving the burning and sinking of the Houston. Brooks went on to labor as a prisoner of the Japanese for about three years before finally being able to safely return home. Brooks’ actions during trying times and his selflessness in serving his country display the utmost courage.
Brooks grew up on a tobacco farm in East Tennessee during the Great Depression. After he completed high school, he decided that he did not want to become a tobacco farmer, and encouraged by his older brother having been in the Navy, he decided to join the US Navy as well. Less than one week after applying, he was sent to a naval training station in Norfolk, Virginia. His training time was reduced by three weeks by the government in the first set of what would be called “quickies.” After completing his reduced training, Brooks was immediately placed on a ship for transportation to the West Coast, and he arrived in San Francisco on the USS Pyro, a navy ammunition ship, before the end of 1939. He was soon transferred to Honolulu on the USS Portland, and then to the USS Houston, a heavy cruiser which was bound for duty with the Asiatic Fleet. Brooks arrived in Manila in the Philippines in early 1940, where he would remain for two years until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He joined the electrician’s crew and worked as a third class mate below decks. Brooks sailed south to the East Indies, headed for Surabaya in the island of Java where he was assigned convoy duty, and the Houston joined a coalition of American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships. They made several trips to Port Darwin, which is on the northern coast of Australia.
On the night of February 28, 1942, the Houston was heading from Batavia to the Indian Ocean when they met a Japanese destroyer and began firing at it. The whole sky lit up with the bombs and the Houston began burning “from stem to stern.” Brooks jumped onto a life raft with about four to five severely injured men. The raft did not reach shore until the third day, and by that time only Brooks and one other man remained, as the other men had died and been let go into the ocean. When Brooks and the other man reached the shore, they were just barely able to crawl up onto the beach where they proceeded to sleep all night. When they awoke the next morning, Javanese natives provided them with coconuts and banana leaves with rice as well as coconut milk. They mentioned the words “Dutch army” and when Brooks and the other man followed them up a road, they were led to a truck with two officers in the back holding the Japanese flag, who proceeded to capture them.
Brooks was taken to a small camp with other prisoners and subsequently taken to a bicycle camp in Batavia where he remained for three months on working parties, in which men would salvage cans of grease and oil as well as other equipment. Brooks was then taken on a journey which would eventually lead him to working on the Thailand-Burma railroad alongside other prisoners. Brooks and the rest of the prisoners performed hard work all day in tough conditions and poor sanitation, leading many, including Brooks to develop dysentery. Brooks worked many hours on the crew that worked to dig the dirt, and he also worked to lay the railroad ties.
Brooks was in Saigon when the war ended, and a Japanese officer informed them that the Americans had killed many people with a bomb. He then said they were free to go, and soon all the guards disappeared. Brooks was eventually flown to an army hospital in Calcutta, India, where he remained for three weeks before finally returning home after five years. Brooks is extremely proud to have had the chance to defend his country and her ideals, stating that he “felt like we did the whole civilization in the world a great favor for defeating the forces that we did defeat.”
San Antonio, TX
Edgar Cole, Marine Corps
Edgar Cole was and remains a man of honor. In undying glory the spirit of the American soldier strives daily in memory of his sacrifice , his courage and his love. His legacy is forever imprinted upon his descendants and the land of our fathers and pilgrim's pride. Edgar Cole's upbringing began in Dallas, Texas on March 12, 1925. With no running hot water, little money and seven mouths to feed, Cole's family lived sparingly. From the early age of 9, young Edgar Cole had to work two jobs to support his family, while actively pursuing an education. He woke up early and woke up hungry, worked as a paperboy, attended school, worked at a grocery store, and then went home to bed, but not before a few hours of studying. Mr. Cole remained eager to help his family financially and would continue to do so throughout his life.
After graduating high school with honors, Cole felt hurt, confused, but not discouraged when there were no scholarships offered to him because of his family's poverty. Coming from a family of educators, he soared along the high road to be the first, and for that he endured arrows of prejudice. In spite of this obstacle with no clear path to tread, Cole never surrendered to mediocrity. Cole always did his best remembering the wise words from his hard working parents: "Always do your best and everything will be alright". By providence Cole walked to the Dallas employment office after graduation. The white woman at the desk inquired why he didn't pursue college and after an explanation of his experiences, she opened a door for him. Cole learned that finances were not absolute barriers because he could work his way through college. . One door closed, but another opened and after a few days, Cole was given a free ride aboard a bus the woman's brother drove. Although Cole was unable to enroll in college, he did qualify for training under the National Youth Administration. He excelled at his machine shop studies in no small part due to his creativity and interest in mathematical precision.
After completing his training at the top of his class, he proceeded to receive formal training at the Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California. Unfortunately, when he ventured west, he experienced hostile, white townspeople that were not accustomed to seeing African Americans. As a result, bread was thrown at Edgar on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, in time the townspeople warmed up to Edgar Cole accepted him into their town.
Once he completed his formal training there, Edgar travelled to San Francisco and was taken care of by multiple white families while he sought out a new job at the shipyard. In order to work there, Edgar was told by his employer that he must join their union first. However, once he travelled to the union office to join, he was curtly told that colored people were not permitted. When Edgar Cole explained that his employer had sent him, the admission clerk yelled, "[he] didn't care who sent [Edgar]." Even after a special call from Edgar's employer, Edgar was denied. Fortunately, his knowledge of the Spanish language allowed him access into the union. He was told by the union admission worker that he must sign up as a Cuban and not as an African American. After this unpleasant incident, Edgar Cole recounted that "[he] had to be someone else to serve [his] country."
Soon after, Edgar visited his family in Dallas. On a peaceful Sunday morning, as he listened to the radio while getting ready for church, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor transforming a holy day into an inferno. Listening to President Roosevelt's announcement on the radio, he felt the president's indignation move him to action. At this time Edgar was inspired to join the armed forces. After receiving his draft notice, Edgar was sent by train to North Carolina. The drill was hard and racism persisted in that part of the country, but by hard work and dedication, Cole became the honor man at Marine boot camp. Cole became a man of honor with the Marine Corps, one of the first African Americans to do so. After rigorous study in communications, Edgar served his country with honor by listening for Japanese radio communications. Without his service, the armed forces were blind and completely vulnerable to Japanese surprise attacks. Cole saved countless lives in his two years in the Pacific, yet he was among the last to come home. America remains indebted to Edgar Cole.
George Wahlen, Marine Corps
George Wahlen is a great example of courage because of his actions on Iwo Jima during World War II. As a Corpsman, George Wahlen saved the lives of many of his fellow Marines during combat. In spite of being hit by a grenade, he continued to save many lives. George Wahlen put the lives of his fellow Marines above his own by risking his life while rescuing injured marines on the battlefield. His selfless and courageous actions make George Wahlen a World War II hero.
George Wahlen was born on August 8th, 1924 in Ogden, Utah. He grew up on a farm west of Ogden and had two twin brothers, Jack and Jean. During the summer as a kid, he would sell night crawlers and saved up enough money to buy a horse. As a teenager he took an aircraft mechanic course up in Brigham City that prepared him to get a job at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. By the time he was 18, George had five people working under him at Hill Air Force Base.
Believing that he would be assigned to the Air Corps because of his experience at Hill Air Force Base, George volunteered for the draft. However instead he was assigned to the Navy. He transferred to the Marine Corps and trained at Camp Pendleton for six months as a Corpsman not a Marine. He then went to Hawaii for more training where the Marines and Corpsmen trained for the landing at Iwo Jima.
As a Corpsman he was responsible for giving shots of morphine and bandaging wounded Marines. During the landing at Iwo Jima, in spite of sustaining an injury after having a grenade thrown back at him, he continued to help wounded Marines. George Wahlen states: “My platoon leader wanted to send me back. My platoon leader said “How come you didn’t do what I told you.” Well Lieutenant I didn't want to leave my platoon.” One of his close friends got shot in the chest and he was able to give him the proper medical treatment, which most likely saved his life. During this battle he had five Marines die in his vicinity. A mortar shell also hit him and broke his leg. He was unable to walk and he had to be carried off on a stretcher to a field hospital. George Wahlen recounts in his interview: “One of the Marines hollered that they had got real hurt so I went over and a mortar shell had hit me. I fell down and didn't know what hit me. It broke my leg and blew off my boot.” Only five people in his entire company of more than a hundred were able to finish the whole campaign.
After his injury, he was transferred to a field Hospital at Camp Pendleton in California. Shortly after the war ended he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Truman along with 13 others. All fourteen of the recipients were featured in a parade in Washington D.C. He also received two Navy crosses. After receiving the Medal of Honor he went back to Camp Pendleton to continue the treatment for his injury. After completing treatment he moved in with his family in Ogden. He had many nightmares about the battle of Iwo Jima after the war and tried to choke his brother in his sleep one night when they were sharing a bed. After this incident he no longer slept in the same bed as his brother. His nightmares stopped once he got married.
After getting married he went back to school under the GI Bill and finished a bachelor's degree. He was then recruited by the Army as a recruiting officer. He worked really hard and was able to enlist 14 new recruits in a day. This was a record for his recruiting office. He then served in Korea at a field hospital alongside South Koreans. He was invited to several Presidential Inaugurations. His wife didn't know he was a Medal of Honor recipient until he was invited to his first Presidential Inauguration. This is a testament to George Wahlen’s humility. It shows that he truly didn't care about receiving recognition. His main concern was all and foremost the welfare of his fellow Marines.
George Wahlen is a great example of selflessness and courage. He was a quiet and humble servant of our nation. He displayed his true colors during perilous times in the battle of Iwo Jima. George Wahlen is someone who can teach us all a lesson in humility, courage and selflessness. George Wahlen is a World War II hero who gave his all for our country's freedom.
Clinton Gardner, Army
Clinton Gardner enlisted in the Army in 1940, after finishing his freshman year of college. His mechanical aptitude test score made him a good candidate for Officer Training School (OCS). After OCS, Gardner was assigned to an anti-aircraft outfit training in Cape Cod. He noticed that the Army manuals for identifying planes were up to a year out of date, but the monthly magazines were always up to date.
Clinton Gardner was very resourceful, he was able to build a projector out of a mirror, a magnifying glass, and some wood; because of this, his outfit could identify any type of plane they saw. Gardner was promoted to First Lieutenant over many older Second Lieutenants; then he and his outfit prepared to go to Europe. Aboard the ocean liner the Queen Mary, Gardner was in charge of looking for enemy submarines; if he did not do his job, he and 1500 other people could have died. Gardner and his outfit landed in Scotland, where they trained with new equipment, including radar.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Clinton Gardener's outfit landed on Dog Green, a section of Omaha Beach. By nine in the morning the beach was supposed to have been cleared, all obstacles removed, the pillboxes and artillery destroyed. Getting off the beach was supposed to be a cakewalk, however, it was not. At five that afternoon, the troops were still on the beach. Suddenly, Gardner heard a loud noise. He had been hit by a mortar in the head. He had a hole in his helmet that both of his hands could fit through, but he kept fighting. By the morning of June 7, the pill boxes were still not captured, but US troops had made it a quarter mile inland, and proper first aid facilities had been established. Gardner got treated for his wounds twenty-four-hours after he received them.
After a stay in a hospital in England, he rejoined his unit. He became an Executive Officer in charge of the 90 Millimeter (MM) guns. Gardner’s outfit used their anti-aircraft guns as anti-tank guns during the Battle of the Bulge. The 90 MM was the best defense the Americans had against the German Tiger tank with its 88 MM guns.
While defending Malmedy, Gardner was at a lookout post, to warn his unit of approaching tanks, when he noticed a B-24 bomber, bombing US troops. He radioed his men to warn them, and the house he was in was hit.
Gardner was put in charge of Buchenwald concentration camp, after it was fully liberated, and he was the translator because he could speak French and German. Gardner turned over Buchenwald to the Russians on July 4th, 1945. He was then sent to be second in command of an occupation force in control of Wankein County, Germany. He returned home to Norwich, Vermont in December, and returned to Dartmouth College to receive and education, paid for by the GI bill.
Clinton Gardner displayed courage throughout his time in Europe. He put his men first as an officer. This is shown when he created a projector to show his men the most up to date plane images. He also continued to fight after he was wounded on the beaches of Normandy, instead of giving up. When he was in a house that was bombed by a United States plane, he made sure to radio back to his unit, to tell them not to shoot the plane. After the bomb hit the house, he immediately helped dig out his friends. Clinton Gardner’s courage is an example to all.
Albert Earnest, Navy
World War II heroes always loomed larger than life for me. I couldn’t fathom someone deciding to go to war to fight for his or her country. Such a decision would be so incongruous with my personal experience growing up in an environment characterized by safety and stability. It would be so difficult for me to risk everything in the name of the American flag. I couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to listen to real person who stormed Normandy beach or fought at Okinawa …or flew during the Battle of Midway like Albert Earnest. It was hearing Earnest’s story, however, that made me understand the character of someone who did make those decisions, went to war for their country and fought bravely in the grueling conflicts of the battle.
Earnest talked with an air of patience whether he was recalling his childhood growing up in Richmond or his action in the middle of a bombing raid. He would take in an even-keeled breath that reassured the listener that all the details would come out eventually. His narration was devoid of exaggeration or understatement; he narrated exactly what was going through his mind, no more, no less. He recalled how he grew up with a father and uncles in the military. After graduating from Virginia Military Institute in ’38 with a civil engineering degree, he quickly realized that he instead wanted to enlist as a pilot for the military. When he failed the Army Air Corps physical exam because of a lazy eye, he was undeterred; after receiving special eye exercises from the Navy Air Corps, he enlisted. He was assigned a torpedo plane and sent out to the Pacific theater.
His first test was at the Battle of Midway. “I saw a ship ahead of us, and it looked like a transport to me and I thought well, this won’t be too hard,” he said smiling slightly with the kind of composure that I could imagine him flying into battle with, “And I look back a few seconds later and there were two carriers up there, and a lot of other ships. And about that time, the Japanese fighters were hitting us.” Under heavy fire from the ships below, Earnest lost control of his plane’s steering and was hit in the cheek by shrapnel. He heard other planes’ guns go silent as his fellow aviators were killed; he was the only surviving member of his squadron, the Torpedo Squadron 8. He barely made it out alive, almost hitting the water before he regained control. He managed to fly around the battle back to home base, crash-landing with one wheel. He received two Navy Crosses for his bravery. The details made the story compelling for me: Earnest remembered the names of one-time co-pilots and the specifics of frenzied radio communications during battle. He recalled how he found a two-dollar bill on the runway shortly before his trip to Midway, recalling, “I picked it up, put it in my pocket, and it’s been there ever since… I’ve got a lot of two-dollar bills. But this is my two-dollar bill.”
Earnest was eventually sent on two more combat tours, one in Guadalcanal and another from the USS Manila Bay around the southeastern Pacific islands. Finishing the war back on the East Coast, he retired from the navy at 32.
Listening to his story, I was amazed at how practical Earnest was: just a guy sitting in his easy chair recalling his story with the attitude of, “I did what I had to do.” Hearing him so calmly relate his acts of bravery caused a shift in my perceptions. He said he joined the Naval Air Corps not out of any sense of ideology but simply because, “Well, I kind of enjoyed everything [my uncle] had told me about the Navy and I think I had just seen some movie based out of…North Island with the navy pilots flying, and they seemed to be having a great life.” And yet, he made sacrifices for his country in a way I couldn’t imagine. He balanced modesty with accuracy, not overstating or understating his achievements: just sharing his story. When he had opportunity to recount history, he focused not on the significance of his actions but the details that characterized the experience for him. He talked about how he his roommate was a nice guy. He talked about his squadron commander’s discipline. Earnest forced me to reconsider my perceptions of heroism in war; his bravery wasn’t abstract or idealized, it was made of realistic decisions made by a man simply doing the best he could for himself and his country.
Norman Ikari, Army
Norman Ikari was born in Seattle, Washington on February 17, 1919. His parents, both Japanese immigrants, moved to Montebello, California in hopes of finding better financial opportunities. The family had planned to move into a rental home on the edge of Montebello Park, but upon arrival, they were informed that the neighbors didn’t want to live next to a Japanese family and that they would have to find somewhere else to live. At only ten years of age, Ikari recounts, “that was the first time I ever saw my mother cry.” In 1936, Ikari graduated from Montebello High and began working at various fruit and vegetable markets. Seeking better work, as a Japanese American, the best job he could find was sexing baby chicks for farmers.
Ikari remembers Pearl Harbor well. The news came on a Sunday morning, and when he went back to school at Los Angeles City College the next day, he knew changes were on the horizon. On January 20, 1942, with America now at war, Ikari received his draft notice. He was sent to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, making $21 dollars a month as a private which was less than what he made sexing chicks. After being sent to Camp Grant in Illinois, he received news that his family had been evicted from their home and were being sent to internment camps. His mother was sent to the Poston Camp in Arizona, one of the ten camps that were set up in the state to move 120,000 Japanese Americans and Ikari’s father elected to break up the family and he returned to Japan, embarrassed to have sons in the U.S. military.
Later, Ikari transferred to Camp Shelby, joining the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in November 1943. He was assigned to Company E and was demoted from his sergeant status to private, for unknown reasons. Deployed to Naples, Italy to clear out the small town of Belvedere, he was shot in both legs when trying to take out a German outpost. He couldn’t move or crawl so he played dead until a combat medic rescued him and then was sent to various locations until he was fully recovered. After being told he would be on permanent limited assignment, he was sent to North Carolina and then discharged and sent home to Los Angeles. Once home, he started showing signs of PTSD and even considered enlisting in the military again to feel some sense of normalcy. But instead, through the support of family, he was able to finish his education attending Los Angeles City College, UCLA, George Washington University, and Georgetown. Ikari also married three times and conceived two daughters. He now keeps busy with various veteran groups and programs, golf, and saltwater surf fishing.
Norman Ikari believes that it is important for kids to learn about WWII because of the impact it had in shaping American history. Ikari also said “I don’t think in any other war, our country has come together [like] WWII. The whole country fought it”. The results of WWII showed how strong America can be when we are a united front against a common enemy. Understanding the events and people of this time period gives students today a better understanding of the value of what they’ve been given.
Imagine yourself in Ikari’s shoes. Do you think you could fight for a country that regarded you as part of the enemy because of your racial origins? Norman Ikari is an example of courage because he stood up in the face of adversity and did what he believed was right, even after his family was forced into internment camps, even after his father left the country because he was embarrassed to have sons in American uniform, and even after his devastating combat wound. Wherever he was sent, he did his job to the best of his abilities and stayed hopeful, passionate, and unwavering on the belief that the American ideals would prevail and that what he was doing was noble and worthy. He had every right to be angry at the unjust discrimination he faced throughout his life, but instead, he refused to be bitter, let go of the anger, and help to create a future that would be better for all Americans. The legacy of his actions is represented every day by the freedoms we continue to enjoy because of the many men and women who fought so fearlessly and courageously during WWII.
Daniel Lyons, Army
In July I had the honor of interviewing of Daniel Lyons. I was put in touch with Mr. Lyons by my National History Day Regional Coordinator. After emailing back and forth, I met Mr. Lyons at his home. Mr. Lyons was born in Honolulu, so I was interested in understanding his perspective on the attack on Pearl Harbor. While it was shocking, Mr. Lyons wasn’t all together surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor; many of his fraternity brothers had already enlisted, and he had the sense that something big was bound to happen. Mr. Lyons was trained in Fort Lewis, WA. He was deployed for combat at the Battle of the Bulge in France. However, by the time he arrived in France, the battle had ended. Then Mr. Lyons was sent to Pacific Theater. The journey to the Pacific was so long that just before he arrived the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. Mr. Lyons couldn’t believe his ears when was told about the atomic bomb. With his engineering background, he firmly believed that TNT was still the mightiest explosive.
Since Mr. Lyons hadn’t experienced any combat, he didn’t have enough points to return home. By the time he finally returned home, Mr. Lyons was disillusioned with the war, because after training for years he never had the chance to fight. However, looking back on his experiences years later, Mr. Lyons realized he was fortunate to have been kept out of combat since very few of his fraternity brothers returned from the war.
My experience as a Student Ambassador this year has been incredible. Through my interviews I have learned so much about World War II as a whole, but also at a very individual level that showed the true impact of the war.
Roscoe Brown, United States Army Air Forces
Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. was born May 2, 1922, in Washington D.C., and lived there for the first seventeen years of his life. Although he grew up in a time of segregation in the city, he went to Dunbar High School, a public school that was considered better than the white schools because the teachers were more educated.
When World War II started, Dr. Brown wanted to be in the Air Corps because the military had deemed that blacks were not gifted and talented enough to fight in the Army or become pilots. Dr. Brown wanted to prove them wrong, so he joined the Civilian Military Training Camp while in school at Springfield College.
Because of the color of his skin, Dr. Brown was separated from the other soldiers. This segregation occurred throughout his entire military service, starting with his time at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. Despite the segregation, this was when things started to change for Dr. Brown and his future. FDR passed several bills to commemorate the blacks in the service and allow them the same opportunities as whites. Dr. Brown then transferred to the Tuskegee Air Base and was trained with other black men to become pilots. Colonel von Kimball did not allow the blacks soldiers to train in the same place as the white soldiers. “He put up black and white signs, colored and white signs on the air base.” said Dr. Brown when speaking of his time at the base. Brown felt that because of the segregation, he received better training because the entire group had something to prove. Those men became the renowned Tuskegee Airmen.
Dr. Brown trained in several places to become a pilot and ended up being in the first class to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt. This in turn allowed him to be selected to one of the first replacement groups sent overseas. He left the U.S. from Ft. Patrick Henry in Virginia, and was flown to Ramitelli, Italy. Dr. Brown's first combat mission was to go through Austria and escort the bombers. He described the ground as “like you were walking through black clouds and seas of explosions” During this time he flew sixty-eight combat missions, and dropped tanks for ground troops between twenty and twenty five times. One mission, conducted in October of 1944, was to destroy the Athens Air Base by the Aegean Sea that was run by the Germans. Other missions were done on P-38’s so that he could use cameras.
Dr. Brown also flew dangerous missions as a bomber escort. On March 24th, 1945, Dr. Brown was heading the 100th Fighter Squadron guiding bombers over Berlin. He had to stay with the bombers as long as he could, which resulted in him shooting down the first enemy jet over the city. Several more of these feats came for the Tuskegee Airmen, where they shot down over twenty jets during the Spring months of 1945. Dr. Brown completed his tour when the war ended in 1945.
Dr. Brown did receive recognition while in Europe. The Negro 332nd Fighter Group that he was in was written about in newspapers. This is where his group was named the Red Tailed Angels. Dr. Brown stated that even though his own military segregated him, he and his fellow Airmen were recognized and thanked by people on the streets. The Tuskegee Airmen were known as one of the best fighter groups in the war, because of their skill, bravery, and determination to prove others wrong.
Dr. Brown was 23 when he left the service, and he went on to graduate school at Columbia and NYU. In the 1970’s, Dr. Brown helped to form the Tuskegee Airmen, Incorporated, which reconnected the Airmen.
Dr. Roscoe Brown was able to push through racial barriers because he believed that he was good enough for service even though the country that he was fighting for did not treat him as an equal. His courageous service to the U.S helped to destroy enemy lines. He is an example of excellence in the military and an example of how one can overcome extreme obstacles to perform at their highest. His legacy lives on as being one of the best pilots to fly in World War II. Dr. Brown was able to become a symbol for hope and courage for being a great black pilot who fought for his country, and a hero to a country who otherwise would not have seen him as such.
Coal City, WV
Herschel Williams, Marine Corps
Born in 1923 to a family of dairy farmers living in West Virginia in the aftermath of the great flu epidemic of 1918, Herschel Williams was raised in a part of the country somewhat isolated from the happenings of the last Great War that engulfed the world. The community was so unenthusiastic about military service that he characterized it by observing that anyone who served was seen as, “…in trouble with the law or too lazy to work.” As such, Williams had no expectations of joining the armed forces until one summer when he remembered meeting two Marine servicemen home on furlough and being impressed as a kid both by their demeanor and, as he later noted, likely exaggerated tales of triumph.
At age seventeen, Williams, along with a large portion of his peers, joined the Civilian Conservations Corps where he was sent to Montana rather than to a location in-state. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, he was given the opportunity leave his service in the CCC due to the encroaching war, which he readily accepted so that he might enlist in the Marines. After being accepted he was transported by train across the country to a military base in California where he was trained and later sent to Guadalcanal as part of the replacements within the Bougainville campaign in November of 1943. There Williams was promoted to the rank of corporal and given special training in demolition which he recalled as being almost entirely experimental, as new as the technology was.
When he was sent to Guam the year after he was assigned an assistant, Vernon Waters, who aided in managing all of the necessary tools to operate his demolition equipment. They stayed together for the large part of two years until when they were both transferred to Iwo Jima and separated until a point in early March of that year when Williams’ company was short several men and Waters was transferred to a position alongside him. On the sixth of March, Williams was wounded in the leg and was asked to move to a safer position where he could heal, but he denied the offer preferring to stay active in the fight. Later that day, his company was given orders to advance and Waters, climbing atop a knoll that the enemy had been firing mortars on, found himself directly in their deadly line of fire.
In their years of service together Waters and Williams had established a strong brotherly bond and had promised each other that in the event that one of them were to die, the other would take his ring and return it to their spouse. Despite the fact that he could be charged an offense worthy of a court martial, Williams took Waters’ ring before calling a corpsman and carried it with him for the duration of the war. After leaving the service he drove to meet Waters’ parents in Floyd, Montana and returned their fallen son’s ring to them.
When Williams had initially arrived in Iwo Jima in 1945, he was stationed at sea with the reserve division. Due to the size of the island and the fact that the assault division contained twenty thousand Marines, he never expected to be called to action. However, the struggle on the beaches was costly and soon he found himself leaving the carrier on a smaller shuttle with around thirty other men. Shortly after he arrived the US flag was flown atop Mt. Suribachi renewing morale and encouraging more aggressive tactics on the front. At a meeting of the officers (where Williams stood in as leader for his company) the captain present was searching for the cleanest way to secure the final stretch of the conflict, and he volunteered to lead a smaller force and destroy some of the enemy’s guard posts. Approaching the airfields, Williams and his men took shelter in the craters left by shells from the earlier naval bombardment. That day he managed to destroy seven bunkers – a feat that solidified the front until his company left Iwo Jima in April returning to Guam for street-fighting training in preparation for the troop’s invasion of Kyushu.
That invasion never took place due to the timely end of the war later that year. Williams remembers the end of the war saying, “The atomic bomb saved my life,” knowing the millions of casualties which would have occurred if the invasion had taken place. On returning to the United States, Herschel Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions and continues to live based on a creed he describes as not wanting to tarnish that medal because it belonged not to him, but to the Marines who didn’t make it home.
David Severance, Marine Corps
I have only met one or two World War II veterans in my life, and neither ever discussed their service. The opportunity to listen to Colonel Dave Severance’s oral history made the experiences of wartime both more and less comprehensible to me. More in the sense that I knew so little about military history to begin with; less in the sense that reducing something as abstract and academic as war down to one person made me understand the impossibility of civilians ever understanding soldiers’ feelings of fear and duty.
Col. Dave Severance was born on July 4, 1919 in Milwaukee, WI, but grew up in Colorado. He was part of the National Guard and his university’s ROTC, but joined the Marine Corps in 1938, when his family couldn’t pay tuition. When asked why he enlisted, Severance emphasized his strong desire to fly planes and that for young men, it was simply the done thing. He recalled being on liberty in California when he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio. Severance’s observation that “it took a while for the country to get into wartime status” surprised me, because in my American history class we learned about the war’s gradual buildup and inevitability. After qualifying for the elite first sergeants school, Severance was deployed to the Pacific in 1943.
On December 1, 1943, in the attack on Bougainville, Severance experienced his first combat. He was ambushed while leading a platoon to expand the perimeter around Hill 1000, but was able to reinforce their position. All involved performed like a standard training exercise and Severance was promoted to company executive officer. Talking about the relationship he had with his men, he noted that “[as an officer] you’re mainly interested in training them, what they are going to do, rather than what they did before.” I think this style of leadership speaks to the military as a force of upward mobility that gives no weight to superficial divisions found in the rest of society.
Col. Severance, as part of the 28th Marines and commander of Company E landed on Iwo Jima on February 20, 1945 in the tenth wave and were under heavy mortar fire as they landed. His commanding officer ordered him to move north against Japanese troops, but none of his platoons had arrived yet. The officer gave Severance five minutes to locate them, else he would be court-martialed. He used the military’s method of problem-solving: he stated the problem, all the facts, listed all possible solutions, and picked the best one, fortunately in time. On the second day, he began an assault on Mt. Suribachi. Severance sent up a platoon that faced no opposition to planting the American flag that would become Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph. On March 22, Severance was given orders to march north, where fighting was worse, to join with another battalion and defeat the last Japanese in the west. Severance was with three others while they were running telephone wire above a ravine and encountered twenty Japanese below them. Separated, there was no quick way to communicate with the rest of his patrol. A runner came and informed them that their patrol had been relieved, leaving them stranded. Despite the surprise and confusion, Severance managed to reconnect and left Iwo Jima in March 1945. His most vivid memory is of daily life on Iwo Jima, “I can’t think of any place worse […] you couldn’t see [the enemy] […] you dig yourself a hole and you get in it […] day after day. In the meantime, you got people shooting at you.” After returning home, he received flight training and flew in Korea. Severance retired in 1968 after 30 years of service.
Severance’s service has a legacy in the part he played in the emblematic flag raising, as well as in the lives of the men he commanded. He is still very active in the military history community today and so his contributions to a primary historical record will last generations, growing in importance as the years go on and the number of living veterans continues to fall.
Rather than one specific moment, I think more demonstrative of Severance’s courage is the quick thinking and acting in moments of immense pressure, with so much riding on his decisions. While the strategies he was presented with “looked good on a map,” when presented with an obstacle, it was Severance’s courage that allowed him to make sharp-witted decisions in the moment and to execute them properly. Moreover, Severance describes the experience of war in general as “you are scared all the time. [Fear] has to become secondary, otherwise you don’t function.” Only courageous individuals are capable of overcoming such a basic instinct to perform a duty in the service of others.
Vernon Baker, Army
Courage can be defined as "the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, and pain in the face of fear." Vernon Baker served in the 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division: the first black unit to go into combat in WWII. Baker was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Vernon Baker is an example of courage because of his commitment to the Army as a black soldier during the time of segregation and his determination to not let his fellow soldiers die.
Vernon Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1919. He was raised by his grandparents due to the death of his parents in an automobile accident when he was four. Only a dozen other black families lived in Cheyenne at the time. He eventually moved to Iowa where he graduated from high school and started working as a railroad porter. In 1941, Baker quit his job as a railroad porter and enlisted in the Army after his sister insisted that he join. The first time Baker went to enlist he was turned away by the recruiter who Baker said was, "a big fat burly guy who was mean looking". When Baker asked if he could enlist, the recruiter said, "We don't have quotas for you people". Baker went back weeks later to enlist again after not finding any work. He was ready to "punch the guy in the nose" if the same recruiter was there. As Baker walked in, a nice-looking man was sitting there who looked up at Baker and asked him what he needed. Baker simply said he wanted to be in the Army and the recruiter placed him in the infantry. Baker completed officer candidate school and was then commissioned in June of 1943. Baker was put into the 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division.
In 1944, Baker’s regiment landed in Naples to fight their way into central Italy. One night while on patrol, Baker ran into a German sentry. Baker was able to kill the German, but he was wounded very badly and had to be hospitalized for a couple of months. In 1945, as the only black officer in his company, Baker was in charge of a weapons platoon. Baker’s unit was near Castle Aghinolfi, a mountain stronghold secured by Germans. Baker was ordered to launch a dawn assault on the Germans position. On the 2nd day of the attack Baker led a very courageous battalion that would secure the mountain for the American soldiers. After getting out of the Army, Baker, talking of his fellow soldiers, said, “I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the guys... if it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t even be here."
Baker remained in the military until 1968. During this time he became one of the first black officers to command an all-white company. After serving in the infantry, Baker joined the U.S. Army Airborne and became a military parachutist until age 48. During his time in service, Baker received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Service Cross. Due to policies in place at the time no black servicemen were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in WWII. It wasn’t until 1996 that Baker received a call from a man working on reevaluating the heroism of blacks in WWII. Baker learned then that he would be receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1997, President Clinton awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor making Vernon Baker the only living black serviceman from WWII to receive the honor. He is one of the most decorated black American soldiers to have served in WWII.
After serving in the Army, Baker spent the next 20 years working for the Red Cross. Baker lived in Idaho with his wife until his death in 2010 after battling brain cancer. Baker was one of the most courageous soldiers in the army as shown by his commitment and leadership in the face of racial discrimination. Baker will always be one of the most memorable black soldiers in WWII and we all owe our freedom to men and women like him.