Tag Archives: U.S. Army

Before the colors fade: Local heroes who hid in plain sight…

During my 1950s childhood, we all envied friends whose dads were World War II veterans because so many of them had such cool war souvenirs. From web belts and canteens to equipment pouches, first aid kits, and even U.S. Army leather holsters, that stuff enlivened our hours playing “War.”

But little did we know that several of those dads—and even a few moms—had done far more than their part during the war, only to be determined to come back home to our little corner of northern Illinois and get back into “real life.” In fact, about the only time we saw any evidence of those folks’ service was during the annual Memorial Day Parade when they marched with our local American Legion Post to the cemetery to honor the nation’s war dead.

But from the director of the local funeral home to the carpenter down the street, many of them had stories of pivotal events they’d participated in that they simply didn’t want to discuss with anyone who hadn’t also participated in the same kinds of things they’d seen and done. So they kept their peace in public, lived productive lives by contributing to their communities, and have now passed on leaving others to piece together tales of the sacrifices they made to save their country during the momentous events of the war years.

Two men who spent almost their entire lives in our then-little town are excellent examples of those who served. Their service took them to opposite sides of the globe from each other, but after the war and returning home, they became related by marriage.

When it came to winning World War II, the combat arms of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Corps have justifiably gotten most of the attention. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who also fought and died to win the war, from the merchant mariners manning the Liberty Ships carrying vital Lend-Lease supplies across the oceans, to truckers who kept the supplies going to front line troops.

In September, Oswego’s Little White School Museum received two donations from long-time Oswegoland Heritage Association member and frequent donor Barbara Wolf Wood that added to our knowledge of how some of those unheralded participants in the war not only did their duty for their country, but helped win it.

The materials donated came from the estates of Oswegoans Ray Leifheit and Merrill Wolf. Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineering Battalion in the European Theatre of operations while Wolf served in the Seabees in the Pacific Theatre.

Merrill Wolf

The Merrill Wolf donation included his Seabee footlocker, two complete uniforms—his blues and his whites—a 1940s hard hat, and a pair of khaki shorts of the kind Seabees wore during their hard work maintaining the pipeline of supplies to Marine and Navy fighters as well as building the ports and airfields on once unknown Pacific islands to allow the bombing raids on Japan that eventually led to its surrender.

The Seabees were the construction experts for the Navy and Marines. The name stems from the initials for Construction Battalion. The force was created by Rear Admiral Ben Moreell just weeks after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. The original authorization was for a naval construction regiment consisting of three naval construction battalions to be comprised of construction tradesmen. Adm. Moreell realized that using civilian construction crews for the ports and airfields the Navy would need as they leapfrogged across the Pacific simply wouldn’t work. As the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command put it: “Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.”

Wolf, an electrician, enlisted in the Seabees in June 1943 at the age of 32.

He subsequently served throughout the Pacific Theatre, aboard LST-244, working as an Electrical Mechanic First Class. LST-244, was a large ship designed to land tanks and other heavy equipment directly ashore. Ironically, LST-244 was built not far from Wolf’s home in Oswego at Evansville, Indiana. Launched on Aug. 13, 1943, the ship sailed down the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From there it was down to Panama and through the canal to the Pacific. Reaching the Pacific Theatre of Operations, the ship and crew participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign in November and December, 1943; the invasion of Kwajalein and Majuro atolls in February 1944; the capture and occupation of Guam, July and August 1944; and the bloody assault and occupation of Okinawa, April 1945.

Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) under construction at the Evansville, Indiana shipyard on the Ohio River. The ships were launched sideways into the river. From there, they sailed to the Mississippi River, and down to New Orleans. The shipyard employed 19,000 workers at its height. Today, one of the LSTs like those built there is on exhibit as a fully-operational museum ship. (Courtesy of Evansville Museum/Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library)

After Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Wolf continued to serve on Okinawa for a few more months. When his discharge number came up, he was shipped directly from there back to the U.S. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 13, 1945: “Merrill Wolf, who had the rank of Electrical Mechanic 1-C, received his honorable discharge at Great Lakes on Nov. 10 and came home to his wife and two little daughters. The younger, June Anne, 17 months, he had never seen. He had been in the Pacific for two years, coming home directly from Okinawa to Seattle and thence to Great Lakes.”

A future brother-in-law already in the Army Engineers

By the time Merrill Wolf enlisted, his future brother-in-law, Ray Leifheit, had been serving in the U.S. Army for almost two years. A carpenter by trade living in the Yorkville area, before the war Leifheit had volunteered for three years to serve in Company E, a unit of the Illinois National Guard’s 129th Infantry Regiment based here in Kendall County at tiny Plattville.

Raymond Leifheit

After induction into the U.S. Army, Leifheit was eventually assigned to Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, an engineering unit attached to the 9th Armored Division.

He was shipped overseas to England in August 1944, where the 9th Armored Division and the 9th Engineers underwent additional training before being sent to France in October 1944 to aid in the defeat of Germany. The engineers assisted the division in its move across France, first seeing action in northern Luxembourg. The battalion was in the Ardennes Forest area in December 1944 when the Germans launched their surprise offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Leifheit and the rest of his Company C mates found themselves desperately fighting to slow down the German armored spearhead. As U.S. forces retreated, C Company engineering troops worked hard continually creating new defensive positions, blocking roads and destroying bridges, and even fighting as infantry as they withdrew, finally reaching the strategic crossroads of Bastogne on Dec. 19. The engineers then returned to their engineering skills and from Dec. 20-27 blocked six roads south and east of Bastogne to check German assaults from those directions.

It was during the furious fighting to block those roads on Dec. 26 that Leifheit was seriously wounded and captured by the German Army. He was initially listed as missing in action, but in April his parents in Yorkville finally got the good news that he was indeed alive.

A U.S. Army engineer prepares to drop a tree onto a road near Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Oswego’s Ray Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion during the battle. (Courtesy To Those Who Served website)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 11, 1945: “Mr. and Mrs. R.W. Leifheit received the glad tidings in the form of a telegram on April 7 from the War Department stating that their son, T-5 Raymond Leifheit, who was reported as missing in action Dec. 26, in Belgium, was a prisoner of war of the German government. Many friends and relatives rejoice with them at this word and hope he will soon be released to return home.”

He had been treated in German military hospitals for two months after being wounded before he was liberated by Allied forces, and then spent more time in U.S. Military Hospitals before being finally sent home.

It took some time before he was completely healed. But he eventually did, getting back to his old carpentry profession.

Then on Jan. 3, 1948, he married Mary Wolf, sister of former Seabee Merrill Wolf.

Thanks to those recent donations from Wolf family descendants, the stories of these two World War II veterans will be preserved in the collections of the Little White School Museum, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have gone off to serve their nation in both war and peace, and whose memories the museum is committed to preserving.

As part of their mission to preserve the achievements of the hundreds of men and women from Oswego who have served their country for the last 190 years, the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street, Oswego, will host their “Remembering Our Veterans” special exhibit starting Thursday, Nov. 10 and running through Sunday, Nov. 27. Regular museum hours are Thursday and Friday, 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Monday, 4-9 p.m. The museum, located just two blocks east of Oswego’s historic downtown business district, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but donations are always gratefully accepted. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, check the museum web site, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org, or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.


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One Canadian who came “home” to enlist in the war against the Kaiser

Although World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, the U.S. did not officially enter the conflict until 1917.

But that didn’t stop hundreds of Americans from volunteering to serve for Great Britain, France, and the other allies against Germany years before their own country entered the war. From ambulance and truck drivers to hospital workers, combat pilots, doctors and nurses those determined to do their part in what was seen as a fight for freedom crossed the border into Canada or somehow made their way to Europe to volunteer their services.

Such well-known American authors as John Dos Passos and poet E.E. Cummings served with the he American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, while hundreds more served with the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille, the famed French fighter squadron staffed almost entirely by Americans.

Less well-known, however, was that after the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, young men and women from other countries decided to fight for the United States. In fact, one such individual came back to Oswego from Saskatchewan, Canada, to volunteer his services to his native country.

Map of a portion of east Oswego Township, 1903, with the Rink, formerly the Updike, farm highlighted. (Little White School Museum collection)

Ryburn Updike was born on the family farm a few miles east of Oswego at the southeast corner of Wolf’s Crossing and Harvey roads on Nov. 6, 1897. His father, Abner Updike, was well-known in the Oswego community, serving as an officer of the neighborhood Harvey Threshing Ring as well as acting as the manager of the East Oswego Pirates community baseball team. In 1900, Abner Updike was one of the promoters who were successful in acquiring a post office for Wolf’s Crossing where the old road to Naperville crossed the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway tracks. It was a substantial economic boost for the tiny farming hamlet around Wolf’s Crossing.

But Abner Updike wasn’t quite as successful as he seemed. That was an era when farming was a fulltime job, but Updike wasn’t a fulltime farmer. He worked at least part of the time in Aurora at Ryburn (apparently his son’s namesake), Wolf & Parker’s hardware store and also had a route hauling milk from Wolf’s Crossing area dairy farms to the Palace Car Creamery in Aurora.

In 1902, the Updikes announced they were moving into Oswego. Unbeknownst to the rest of the community, it turned out Abner had lost the family farm. Fortunately, he was able to sell it to his brother-in-law, Henry Rink, and so was able to avoid the stigma of bankruptcy.

In Oswego, Abner entered politics and was elected village president. He went into business with Lew Gaylord, establishing the Updike & Gaylord hardware and harness store. He also began seriously investing in real estate, his first venture being developing the old Loucks Farm into Oswego’s first true subdivision, the Park Addition, so named because it was supposed to feature a city park.

Ryburn Updike

He built a stately new house on Garfield Street in the new addition—which still stands, by the way—and expanded his real estate ventures to include encouraging local residents to invest in land in the western U.S. and Canada by hosting rail tour groups to those areas.

And then the Panic of 1907—one of the nation’s periodic financial depressions—hit, causing Updike’s financial house of cards to come crashing down, a crisis he handled by quietly leaving town and leaving his wife and family to deal with the aftereffects. Indirectly, the Panic of 1907 not only led to Abner Updike’s downfall, but it also eventually led to the formation of the Federal Reserve System, helped along by yet another former Oswego farm boy.

His wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Armour Updike, left in debt and with no other means of support, left Oswego and moved to Elgin, where at some point prior to 1910, Abner rejoined her. His occupation on the 1910 U.S. Census for Elgin was listed as a traveling salesman for a cigar company.

Eventually, however, Abner apparently left again, and his wife, no shrinking violet, packed up seven of her children—daughter Alice Updike Shoger and son Albert opted to stay in Oswego—in a car and headed north to Canada, where she settled them in the small prairie farming community of Lockwood, Saskatchewan, Canada. There, she went to work as the local telephone operator, and raised all the children—including son Ryburn—who had accompanied her.

From 1911 to the day he decided to go back to his old Oswego home to enlist in 1917, Ryburn lived in Lockwood, Saskatchewan. In late May 1918, he left home and headed south to Kendall County, crossing into the U.S. on June 5. On June 21, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Yorkville and was sent to Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis, Missouri for training. From there, he was transferred to Fort McKinley in Maine for more training, and was later transferred south to Virginia, where he was assigned to the Coastal Artillery Command. In late August he was assigned to the coastal artillery’s newly organized 15th Battery, 12th Anti-Aircraft Sector (battalion).

15th Anti-Aircraft Battery, 12th Sector, American Expeditionary Force. Ryburn Updike is standing, second from left.

On Oct. 7, Ryburn’s battery boarded a ship and sailed for France, arriving at Brest about a week later.

He served in combat at Sedan and other areas of France until the end of the fighting on Nov. 1, 1918. On Jan. 10, 1919, he arrived back in the U.S. and was transferred to Camp Grant near Rockford here in Illinois where he was demobilized and given his honorable discharge.

When he left Canada, he apparently had thoughts about remaining in Illinois after the war. After all, he had several relatives as well as friends from the old days living in the Oswego area. But something—perhaps encountering some remaining bitterness in Oswego over his father’s sudden fall from grace—led him to reconsider. As he wrote home in a letter to his mother from Camp McKinley, Maine where he trained before leaving for France: “I don’t think so much of Illinois as I thought I would. The friendship isn’t as deep as it looks.”

So after his discharge, he left the Fox Valley and headed back north of the border to his family’s new home in Lockwood, Saskatchewan, where he met his wife, raised his own family, and became a successful farmer. Ryburn’s aunts, uncles, and cousins continued to live in the Fox Valley—and some of his cousins still do to this day.

Thanks to information provided by Ryburn’s son, Dale Updike, the Little White School Museum has been able to preserve the story of how this Oswego farm boy found himself in Canada, but decided to fight for his native country when the call went out for volunteers to oppose tyranny.

For the next two weeks, Ryburn Updike, along with a couple hundred other U.S. servicemen and women, will be honored on the Wall of Honor during the museum’s annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit. So stop on by and help recognize their service during regular exhibit hours, Monday, Thursday and Friday, 1 to 5:30 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Nov. 11-28. The museum, located at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but donations are always gratefully accepted.

For more information on the museum, the “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit, and other events, exhibits, and activities there, visit their web site at http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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