Monthly Archives: November 2017

Remembering a forgotten casualty of World War II

It seems like most of the time I spend down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum these days is far too often devoted to paperwork of one kind or another.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much record-keeping goes into maintaining a museum collection, especially one that keeps on growing like ours does. Because, as I’ve told numerous visitors over the years, the trick’s not cataloging an item, safely storing it in proper media to assure its preservation, or putting it on a shelf or in a drawer. It’s finding it again after you do all that.

So any time I can get involved in doing actual history I consider golden. And one of those golden opportunities popped up earlier this month.

After my buddy, assistant museum director Bob Stekl, and his band of enthusiastic volunteers got this year’s “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit mounted and opened (it ran Nov. 4-12 this year), Bob was giving a tour to a group of Cub Scouts when he realized something important appeared to be missing.

In each year’s exhibit, we feature a special section on those Oswegoans who were killed in action, from the Civil War through Vietnam. The World War II section of the special exhibit included posters honoring five local residents killed in action: Frank Clauser, Kay Fugate, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst, and Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer Jr.

But when Bob and the group of Scouts moved on to another part of the exhibit and he started explaining about the community’s World War II service flag, he noticed something didn’t add up. The large service flag had a blue star on it for every community resident, male or female, serving in the war. When one of them was killed in action, their blue star was replaced with a gold star. And there were six, not five, gold stars on that flag.

1935 Squires School students

The students and teacher at Squires School in 1935. Elwyn Holdiman is circled in the back row. Squires School was located at the northeast corner of U.S. Route 34 and Old Douglas Road just east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the tour was over, Bob headed back down into the museum archives to figure out what was going on. It didn’t take long before he found our missing gold star serviceman, Corporal Elwyn Holdiman.

When Bob told me about it the next day, we decided a poster honoring Holdiman’s service was needed right away, and so I started gathering information about him, all the while thinking that last name sounded familiar. We got the poster up later that day, but I continued to research Holdiman and his family for the biographical file we started on him.

It turned out the Holdimans had been in America for a long, long time. Elwyn’s sixth-times great grandparents, Christian and Christina Haldeman (the name evolved over the years), immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German-speaking Swiss canton of Bern sometime prior to 1716 when their son, Johannes (Elwyn’s fifth-times great grandfather), was born in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Johannes and his wife, Anna Marie ventured into the Virginia frontier of the 1750s, where Anna Marie was killed by Indians in 1758 during the French and Indian War. Their descendants subsequently settled in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, remaining for several decades before heading west with so many of their Pennsylvania German-speaking neighbors, to the rich prairies of Wheatland Township in Will County.

Elwyn’s great-grandfather, Joseph Holdiman, made that trip, probably in the late 1840s, and in 1850 married Catherine Lantz, newly arrived with her family, also from Pennsylvania. The couple had eight children before they decided to seek their fortunes farther west in Black Hawk County, Iowa. Their son, also named Joseph, born in Wheatland Township, stayed in the Wheatland area where he and his wife raised their family, including a son named Albert, Elwyn’s father.

Albert and his wife, Emma Lombard Holdiman, farmed in the area around Yorkville and Oswego, where they raised their 10 children. Elwyn, their third child, was born on January 20, 1920 in Oswego Township and attended the one-room Squires School at modern U.S. Route 34 and Old Douglas Road near Oswego and worked as a farmhand. And that’s what he was doing when he was drafted.

Sherman Tank schematic

Plan view of an M4 Sherman tank, arguably the most successful tank of World War II. Elwyn Holdiman operated his tank’s main gun.

On the day after his 22nd birthday, the Jan. 21, 1942, Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that: “Oswego men selected for induction from the local draft included Cecil E. Carlson, Paul T. Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer.”

After basic training, Pvt. Holdiman was assigned to the tank corps and was trained as a gunner on the M-4 Sherman Tank, the standard U.S. tank of World War II. The gunner controlled the tank’s main 75mm gun, and the .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret beside the main gun, though he followed the tank commander’s orders on what to shoot. Each weapon was fired with a foot switch on the gunner’s footrest. The gunner controlled the turret either with a hydraulic system independent of the tanks motor, or a manual back-up system using a crank and gears. Although the Sherman gunner’s view was very limited, it was better than most other tanks of the era. A good gunner working with a good loader in the 75mm armed Sherman could get off two or three aimed shots in very short time, a big advantage in combat.

7th Armored shoulder patch

U.S. Army’s 7th Armored Division shoulder patch

He was sent to Company C, in the 17th Tank Battalion, part of the brand new 7th Armored Division, activated at Camp Polk, Louisiana, under command of Gen. Lindsay Silvester on March 1, 1942. The division trained in Louisiana and Texas through early November 1942 and then underwent desert training in California. Then it was back east for more training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Along the way, Pvt. Holdiman was promoted and became Corporal Holdiman.

On June 6, 1944, the day the Allies waded ashore on the beaches at Normandy, Holdiman and the rest of the men of the 7th Armored Division embarked aboard the SS Queen Mary in New York harbor for a fast trip across the Atlantic to England. After final training in England, they boarded landing craft bound for Normandy, the division going ashore on Omaha and Utah Beaches, Aug. 13-14. Once ashore, they were assigned to Gen. George S. Patton’s newly activated U.S. Third Army.

Sherman tank

U.S. Army M4 Sherman tank.

As part of Patton’s breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the division drove through Nogent-le-Rotrou to take Chartres on Aug. 18, then on Verdun, and finally across the Moselle River.

In late September, the 7th Armored Division was tasked with supporting Operation Market Garden, the combined arms invasion of the Netherlands recounted in the movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” From Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, they fought in the Battle for Overloon and from Oct. 7-26 were in action around Griendtsveen and patrolling around Ell-Weert-Meijel-Deurne, before they were engaged in the Battle of the Canals starting Oct. 27.

In a tank battle on Oct. 29 against the German 9th Panzer Division a couple miles from Heusden west of the Asten/Meijel Road, Cpl. Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by enemy fire while Company C was supporting an infantry push. He was killed in action, along with the rest of the crew (which was one man short, the assistant gunner position), 2nd Lt. Robert W. Denny, the tank’s commander; loader and machine gunner Pvt. Michael Ferris; and Tec 4 Leo W. Goers, the tank’s driver.

According to the after action report concerning Company C filed by the 17th Tank Battalion about the action on Oct. 29: “This Company did an excellent job but they lost Lt. DENNY who had just recently been Commissioned from the ranks, he had previously been a Platoon Sergeant in the same Company, Lt. DENNY was an excellent leader and his loss is a great loss to the Company. “C” Company lost four tanks in this action and they definitely knocked out five German Tanks.”

Holdiman tombstone

Corporal Elwyn Holdiman’s memorial on the Holdiman family marker in Lincoln Memorial Park, Oswego Township.

Elwyn’s parents, Albert and Hazel Holdiman, were first notified that he was missing in action before they finally learned he had been killed. While his remains were buried in Europe, the family erected a marker in the memory of his sacrifice in Oswego Township’s Lincoln Memorial Park.

And the fact that the Holdiman name sounded familiar to me? It turned out that Elwyn and I are third cousins—I remembered the name from my family history. My great-great grandfather’s sister, Catherine Lantz, married Joseph Holdiman. They were Elwyn’s great-grandparents.

Strangely enough, Holdiman’s sacrifice was not commemorated, as were the ultimate sacrifices of virtually every other local soldier and sailor.

But we’ve gone a bit towards rectifying our own oversight, as well as that committed by anyone else since that day in late October 1944 when Elwyn Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by German gunfire. And in so doing, we’ve uncovered another piece of the history of the Oswego area that, hopefully, won’t be forgotten again.

 

 

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Rescued from the archives…

One of the best holidays in the U.S. is Thanksgiving. I wrote this about the holiday four years ago, and it’s still on target today….

via Another Thanksgiving rolls around… | historyonthefox

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Visitor from the past would find a confusing modern farmscape

While development has taken a substantial toll on agricultural land here in Kendall County, there are still plenty of planted fields left for farmers to harvest this time of year. From the county’s congested tier of three northern-most townships, just take a drive west on Galena Road, or south on Route 47 or southwest on Route 71, and it doesn’t take long to leave tract homes and strip centers behind, and find yourself surrounded by fields that grow corn and soybeans, just as they have for generations.

It’s easy to think that our forebears would find the landscape on Route 47 down near Lisbon Center or on Grove Road south of Route 126 familiar. It’s rural; many of the farm homes are products of the late 19th century and early 20th century. There are even a few (very few) gravel roads to reinforce the feeling of stepping back in time.

But assuming we could crank up the Wayback Machine, and send Mr. Peabody and Sherman back to, say, 1870, to bring a farmer back for a brief summer visit to his future, he might find some similarities, but mostly he’d be struck by profound differences.

First and foremost, even if plunked down in a completely rural area, out of sight of any buildings, our farmer of the past would undoubtedly be struck by the odd uniformity of the agricultural landscape. Familiar, though unusually large and densely planted corn fields would stretch in every direction, but what, he would wonder, are those other row crops that seem to have bean leaves? And where in the world are the familiar fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rye? What’s happened to the pastures and the hay fields?

And where have all the fences gotten to? How on earth do modern farmers keep the neighbors’ cattle and hogs from eating growing crops with no fences to keep them out of the fields?

1890 abt Otto Johnson farm

The Otto Johnston farmstead in 1890 had a barn, a corn crib, and a chicken house, but no machine shed–the simple farm equipment of the era was stored in the barn and crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

That nearby farmstead looks odd, with no barn, and only some cylindrical metal buildings with conical roofs and one very large shed that looks as if it, too, is made of metal. And such a huge door it has. No cattle shed; no corn crib; no chicken house; no hog houses. The farmhouse lawn seems trimmed so neatly it’s almost unnatural, but where is the orchard?

Unlike our visitor from the past, today’s farmers operate in an either-or environment. They’re either grain farmers or livestock farmers. Our visitor from the past came from an era when every farmer grew both grain and livestock. Moreover, both were integral to the economic heath of every farmstead.

Grain was not only grown for market, like it is today, but was also grown for use on the farm to feed hogs, cattle, and poultry. Hogs and cattle were driven to market, meaning less grain had to be hauled over the abominable roads of the era. Poultry was kept for the eggs produced–which were traded for groceries in town–and used for meat on the farm and also to trade in town.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

Russell Rink had plenty of business for his custom baling operation in East Oswego Township in 1947 when this snapshot was taken, since alfalfa, timothy, and other hay crops were common on area farms. (Little White School Museum collection)

The manure produced as a byproduct of feeding hogs, cattle, and poultry was, in turn, used to fertilize the farmer’s grain fields.

A variety of crops were grown every year, and the fields in which they were grown were rotated each year, with pasture or hay land part of the rotation so the land could lay fallow for at least a year with no crops leaching nutrients out of the soil. The Anglo Saxon root of the word fallow refers to the colors of pale red or pale yellow—the color of fields tilled but not sown with seed.

Soybeans were not part of that rotation until they were popularized in the 1930s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. County agricultural agents instructed farmers in the fine points of their cultivation and harvest, and soon they became a popular cash crop—one probably unfamiliar to our visitor from the past.

2017 fenceless landscape

DeKalb County’s fenceless landscape is common on northern Illinois farms these days, With no livestock on farms, there’s no need to waste productive land with fence rows.

What happened to the crops with which our visitor was familiar? Where are the oats, the wheat, the rye and barley? Farmers not only specialize these days, but so do regions of the country. Illinois’ humid climate is not conducive to growing wheat, so its cultivation has migrated west of the Mississippi to drier the Great Plains. Oats were once necessary to feed the millions of horses that powered the nation’s farms and cities, and for on-farm livestock feed, needs that have largely disappeared today. So too have modern times sharply reduced the use of rye and barley.

Pastureland—where are the county’s pastures? Most have been plowed for cropland in the absence of livestock. The same with the hay fields that once covered thousands of Kendall County farmland acres. The sight of rolling stands of clover, timothy, and alfalfa rippling in the wind of mid-summer is largely a thing of our past that faded away with the livestock that once required them for food. It makes a person wonder what Timothy Hansen would think, the Norwegian immigrant who imported the nutritious forage grass named Phleum pratense to his farm in Virginia in 1721. So well did he conduct his campaign in its favor that farmers nicknamed the grass “timothy” in his honor. Where once timothy grew on virtually every farm, today its presence has dwindled, another victim of changes in farming.

Farm orchards, too, have largely departed leaving only memories of stands of apple, plum, pear, and cherry trees once prized for their abundant fruit. As have the dirt roads with which our farmer of the past would have been familiar. When studies were done in the early 20th century, it was found farmers’ cars and trucks got much better gas mileage on gravel roads, road maintenance costs were less, and wear and tear on vehicles was far, far less. And asphalt roads were far, far better than gravel roads in terms of damage to vehicles, mileage, and maintenance costs. So dirt roads have disappeared. Gravel roads, at least in most of Kendall County, have disappeared, too, because they’re expensive to maintain.

As our visiting farmer leaves to head down-time to his home, he is probably happy to get back to where farming makes some sense and where the parts of the landscape make cultural and economic sense to him. As for us, it’s another late autumn of taking life the way we find it in Kendall County.

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My generation’s skewed view of the Civil War and Reconstruction still causing problems

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.

But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”

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Abolitionist John Brown lived up to his reputation as a murderous lunatic and was hanged for his troubles.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

1859 Underground Railroad

This map of the Underground Railroad through LaSalle and Kendall counties, was published in the 1914 history of Kendall County. It seems authentic in that the chapter’s author, Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam, interviewed county residents still living who had participated in helping escaping slaves.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

Robert Edward Lee.jpg

Robert Lee in a March 1864 portrait taken the same month Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the armies of the United States. The war was about to enter its final phase; a year and a month after this portrait was taken, Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant..

Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out that the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better tactician) who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va. A good but not brilliant tactician, Grant saved his brilliance for grand strategy, that he used to destroy Southern armies and the Confederacy they propped up.

illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)

After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”

Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights. But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too. Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. For instance, his Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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