Tag Archives: World War II

Before the colors fade: A young Oswego “daredevil” jumped into Pacific Theatre combat

My friend Stan Young died on Nov. 9.

He was my best friend’s dad, so I literally grew up with him. He was a sort of building genius here in town, and in my adult years I had him do a number of projects at our house. He was absolutely top-notch in maintaining our house’s Queen Anne architectural elements, making additions or improvements look like they’d always been there.

Stan Young (left at top of ladder) and his son, Glenn installed the finial Stan made for the top of the Little White School Museum’s bell tower in 1983 the day before the museum gallery opened for the first time. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in 1977, when we started restoring the Little White School Museum, Stan volunteered to take on a number of projects, mostly donating his labor for free. Those projects included stabilizing and replacing the building’s timber front sill that had been badly rotted out over the years and replacing floor joists in the building’s entry, recreating the building’s wooden front porch, and then recreating and installing its iconic bell tower. His last big project was recreating the finial atop the bell tower, something he and his son, Glenn, installed the day before the museum in the building opened in 1983.

A lifelong resident of Oswego, Stan joined the Army when he was drafted on Jan. 12, 1943. He volunteered for the paratroopers and fought in several engagements in the Philippines, making four combat parachute drops. Serving in the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division as a mortar gunner, Young eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant by the end of the war.

Several years ago, he retired from both contracting and owning, with his wife Lydia, Scotty’s Restaurant in Oswego and moved to Mena, Arkansas. And after battling some increasingly serious health issues, that’s where he died at age 99 after a long and very eventful life.

Stanley Young’s Oswego High School senior class photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in August 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VJ Day marking the victory over the Japanese in World War II, I interviewed Stan for the Ledger-Sentinel and finally got him to talk a bit about his years in the military, something he never really spoke of—other than to note one time that one of the guys in his company was always going around writing stuff and eventually became involved with television. That literary former paratrooper turned out to have been Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame.

Born and raised in Oswego to a family that had been in the area since the 1830s, Stan was popular in the community as a youngster. At Oswego High School, he was involved in just about every activity that was offered, from sports to helping produce the yearbook, to his election as senior class president. He graduated with the Class of 1941 and attended teacher’s college in Winona, Minnesota before being drafted.

Although he wanted to be a paratrooper, he was nearly talked out of it before he left for the service. As he related the story to me back in 1985:

“It’s a funny story and it’s kind of a sad story as well. I had always thought I’d like to jump out of a plane with a parachute. 1 Just was kind of a little daredevil in those days, and I thought it would be fun. The last day when I was leaving, my mother said, ‘You’re not going to get into paratroops, are you?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t think they’d accept me anyway.’

“So, riding in on the train, my best buddy that I had gone through school with from first grade was Stuart Parkhurst. And he said, ‘Let’s get into paratroops.’ And 1 said ‘No, I told my mother I probably wouldn’t.’ He said, ‘Aw, come on. You get better pay, nicer uniforms; you get your own special camps. It would be neat!’ And I said, ‘Well, it probably wouldn’t hurt me.’

“So, I volunteered that I wanted to be in the paratroops, and the first thing they said to me was, ‘I don’t think you want to be in the paratroops.’ And I said that I really did, and they had me sign some other papers and take some more physicals. At noon 1 got out of all that, and I said, ‘Stu! I made it! I made it! How’d you do?’ And he said, ‘They told me they didn’t think I wanted to be in it and I decided not to.’

“He subsequently went into an infantry outfit and was killed over in Europe. So, I made it and came through alright, and he didn’t and he was in what he thought was a safer outfit. If they got your number, they got your number.

“Initially, we went to Tacoa, Ga., where the unit was formed and then to Camp McCall, N.C. where we took parachute jump training. By then the division (l1th Airborne) had solidified and was preparing for duty in the South Pacific. We trained additionally at Camp Polk, La., and shipped out in April of ’44 for New Guinea. There we trained additionally. We made a few more parachute jumps and did some more jungle training, preparatory to going to the Philippines.

11th Airborne Division Paratrooper Stan Young, 1943. (Little White School Museum collection)

“In November of that year, they put us on a ship and we arrived at Leyte [an island in the Philippine Group]. When we got there, they had concluded that the war was about over there, as far as Leyte was concerned, and we were to go into a mop-up operation. But when we arrived, new troops arrived from Japan on the opposite side of the islan—and also paratroops and ships and airplanes attacked, and we had a full-scale war instead of a mop-up operation.

“We were in combat there for about 30 days in the jungles and mountains of Leyte, and the mountain where we were was subsequently named Starvation Ridge. We didn’t eat for five days from the time the last C-ration was gone, and we were on one-third of a C-ration at THAT time. Every time they air-dropped something, the Japs got to it before we did because of the heavy fog and mist, because they kind of had us surrounded there.

“We finally got back to the beach about Christmas. About mid-January we got on some little landing craft and sailed across the Philippine Sea to Mindoro Island, not knowing where we were going at the time. There we enplaned and made a combat parachute drop about 37 miles south of Manila. We marched a shuttle march, the entire 511th Parachute Regiment, with us walking and being shuttled forward by the three trucks we had, to a little village. And here all hell broke loose. We arrived just before dark and they gave us the option of digging in. The ground was like sandstone. About that time, the artillery started hitting and we decided it was about time to start digging in. We took several casualties before we did dig m and they were lobbing mortar rounds and artillery right into our position.

“We were there until June, in that area, from February until June. At one time I figured it was 102 days that I didn’t lay down to sleep, that we slept in the ground sitting up in our foxholes. We were in some pretty intense combat.

Troopers from the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment get ready to enplane for the Raid on Los Baños to free the roughly 2,000 prisoners the Japanese housed there. (History Net photo)

“Along with it, we freed one of the Japanese prison camps where they held a bunch of Catholic nuns and priests. There were some showgirls and prostitutes and dancers; some businessmen; some Americans; some Spanish and other nationalities. They were holding them at Los Baños near Santa Rosa.

“It was about that time there was a lull in Southern Luzon. We went, at one point, into this little town of Santa Rosa and they said they had a festival. What it was was several Japanese collaborators had been captured and they were going to punish them. We saw them execute three men by slow degrees–torture. It was horrifying. For the grand finale, they had a woman. They tied her to a post in the square, put rice straw all around it, threw gasoline on it, and set it on fire. I’ll tell you, it’s quite a shock. We were told we were not to interfere with the Philippine guerillas in any way.

“We eventually took Luzon Province. On June 23, we were enplaned and flew to the very tip of Luzon Island and engaged in a parachute jump there, but there was no combat. All the Japs pulled back.

There I sustained a serious shoulder injury and was taken to the hospital. I was released on July 20, and we entered into a training program, and the word was out we were to make a jump on Japan proper. But then the scuttlebutt had it that a big bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and subsequently another one was dropped [on Nagasaki].

“When they said the Japs had given up, there about the middle of August, 1 have never seen so much jubilation in my entire life. I think that was the happiest moment of my life, when they said the Japanese had surrendered, because I figured there was new life. Regardless of any joys I have ever had over anything in the whole world, ever, that was the happiest single moment. And I would imagine any of the guys who were there would agree with me. Guys were running up and down the company street, running in and out of tents, you never saw such running and jubilation! You can’t imagine the jubilance!

“Some people say, ‘I bet it was thrilling;’ and others say, ‘I bet you miss your old buddies and I bet that was exciting.’”

“Hey—none of the above. It was horrible. 1 can look back and say 1 was there and it was interesting, but it was a horrible thing. And to hear it happened again in Korea and Vietnam, you wonder why aren’t people smarter? They learn to build huge buildings and marvelous communications systems and yet two people can’t even sit side by side in a bar and keep from arguing and then they carry that right on to country to country.

“If there’s one thing 1 brought back with me, it’s a total aversion to violence of any kind. I can’t even stand to watch it on television. If it comes on, 1 just get up and turn it off. I had enough of the real thing.”

After the end of the war was announced, Stan was among those on one of the first, if not THE first, Allied planes to land Allied military forces in Japan to take that country’s surrender. Given how ferocious the Japanese military had been during combat I asked him if he and his buddies were worried about what kind of reception they’d get when they touched down at that Japanese military base. He replied that, yes, there was worry, but it turned out once the emperor told the military to surrender, they did it virtually without incident.

As a sort of sidelight, both of Stan’s brothers also fought through the Pacific. John, an Army Air Corps pilot, eventually flew 50 missions in A-20 Havoc bombers, also in McArthur’s campaign through New Guinea and the Philippines. Brother Dick, a Marine, was wounded three times on Iwo Jima in the Navy’s island-hopping campaign. Stan and John were even able to meet once in January 1945. As reported back home in the Kendall County Record: “Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Young have three sons in the service for two years. Two of the boys met in the Philippines on Jan 25. Lt. John S., a pilot, landed on an island and heard that his brother, Corporal Stanley, was on the same island. Obtaining a jeep he drove 20 miles, found his brother, who was more surprised than words can tell. The two had a fine time for about two hours when the party had to break up. John reports Stanley as looking fine and strong. Lt. John has 13 missions.”

And the boys’ father, Dwight, was involved in the Pacific Theatre as well, although not in direct combat. Instead, he was a self-taught physicist who was working on something called The Manhattan Project in New Mexico. That “big bomb” Stan heard about through the paratroopers’ scuttlebutt was partly his dad’s handiwork.

After the war was finally over, all three of the Young boys found they’d survived and came home to resume their lives, and they made good ones, too. Stan was the last of the three, surviving to 99 years despite not playing it safe in 1943 like his best friend. Stu Parkhurst.

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Filed under Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

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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“Wind Talkers” of World War II weren’t all Navajos

The feature film “Wind Talkers” was probably the first time most people heard that Native Americans, members of the Navajo Tribe in the movie’s plot, were pressed into service during World War II to create secure communications. The Native People, speaking their own language, foiled efforts by both the Germans and Japanese to listen in.

But the Navajos were far from the only tribespeople involved in the project, and World War II wasn’t the first time Native Americans were pressed into service to provide secure voice communications during wartime.

Choctaw “code talkers” of World War I. (Texas Military Force Museum)

During World War I, the men of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, comprised of National Guardsmen from Texas and Oklahoma, had only just arrived in France when they were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into combat when a portion of the French line collapsed and Germans poured into rear areas.

During the confusion, an officer of the 142nd overheard some of his men talking back and forth in a strange language, which turned out to be Choctaw. The army was suffering because its communications were being intercepted by the Germans who were tapping their landline phones, and the officer’s bright idea was to put Choctaws at both ends of the unit’s telephone lines to translate from English to Choctaw at one end and back into English at the other. The idea proved a rousing success.

It was so successful that according to the U.S. Army, after the war, Germany sent some scholars to the U.S. to covertly study Native American languages in case another war broke out, but the government discovered their aim and sent them back home.

The reason the code talkers were so effective was that of all the Indian languages, only the Cherokees had a written language, famously developed by Sequoia. As a result, the only way to learn any of their languages was to live with the tribes, which pretty much limited the opportunities to missionaries and government officials.

Ironically, the U.S. government had done its level best in a shameful effort to eradicate the languages and cultures of Native People, going so far as to punish students at government-run Indian schools who were caught speaking their own languages.

By the time World War II broke out, their best efforts to stamp out the Indians’ languages had—fortunately—failed and the idea of ‘code talkers’ was quickly revived. The Navajos who served with the U.S. Marines are the best known code talkers, but both the Marines and the Army also made use of servicemen from the Comanche, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Choctaw, Creek, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Seminole, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac and Fox, and both Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes as well as many others. In all, some 33 tribes and tribal subgroups served during World War II as code talkers.

168th Infantry in Tunisia. (America in World War II Magazine)

The Sac and Fox Tribe lived in Illinois and Wisconsin before tribal land was seized by the government and they were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi in the 1830s. Even so, with war on the horizon, Native American men began flocking to the colors to volunteer their services. Early in 1941, on the eve of World War II, a group of young men from the Fox and Sac homeland at Tama, Iowa enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. They were assigned to the 168th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 34th Infantry Division.

Eight of the men were assigned to the communication section of Company H in the 168th’s 2nd Battalion. The Fox and Sac code talkers included Dewey Roberts, Edward Benson, Melvin Twin, and Dewey Youngbear, and two sets of brothers, Frank and Willard Sanache and Judy Wayne Wabaunasee and Mike Wayne Wabaunasee (whose surname ought to ring a bell with Fox Valley residents).

Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Tribe. (Little White School Museum collection)

I haven’t been able to track down the origin of the Wabaunasee boys’ surname, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility they might have some distant relationship to our Chief Waubonsee, even if he was a Potawatomi and they weren’t. “Our” Chief Waubonsee was the primary war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi Band and a confidant of the famed Native American leader Tecumseh and was at the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812 where Tecumseh was killed in action. Waubonsee and his friend Shabbona returned to the Fox Valley where they both lived until the region’s Native People were forcibly removed west of the Mississippi in 1836 and 1837.

In our area, a creek, a high school, and a junior college all honor Chief Waubonsee.

After training in Louisiana, the men of the 34th Division were loaded aboard transports and sailed to Northern Ireland where they received more training, before being assigned to the invasion of North Africa.

The 34th Division went ashore at Algiers and then moved on into Tunisia where they collided with Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in some of the U.S. Army’s first heavy land warfare of World War II. In fact, the Fox and Sac boys from Tama became the first code talkers to find themselves in combat.

And it didn’t go well. At the battles of Faid and Kasserine passes in February 1943 the inexperience and sometimes downright incompetence of the U.S. Army’s commanders became all too apparent, as the Germans and Italians chewed up both the 1st Armored Division’s unwieldy Grant tanks and the badly deployed men in the 168th Infantry.

And given their positions as communications scouts, three of the Sac and Fox code talkers were captured, Frank Sanache by the Italians, and Dewey Youngbear and Judy Wayne Wabaunasee by the Germans. All three spent the rest of the war in German prisoner of war camps, only liberated at the end of the conflict. Youngbear, though, escaped several times during his captivity, only to be recaptured.

Seminole Code Talker Edmund Harjo wasn’t honored for his World War II service until 2013.

Although the code talkers served with distinction, and were vital parts of the war effort, their service was considered a military secret until the 1960s and so they never received the recognition they so richly deserved. Not until 2001 were the Navajo code talkers honored by President George H.W. Bush, but even then they received non-military Congressional Gold Medals.

Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, learning that Iowa had also produced code talkers, got the ball rolling to honor all the code talkers. But government being what it is these days, they weren’t all finally recognized for their service until 2013, long after most had died. Youngbear, for instance, died in 1948 of tuberculosis contracted as a result of his captivity.

As Edmond Harjo, 96, an Oklahoma Seminole code talker and one of the few who lived to be honored, noted, the honor was a long time—too long a time—coming.

 “If I was young, I would enjoy it,” he mused.

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The world–and Kendall County–changed 80 years ago today with the attack on Pearl Harbor

Eighty years ago today the world changed when the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor to begin the 20th Century’s second world war. A few days later, Germany followed Japan’s lead and declared war on the U.S. as well.

From our vantage point eight decades later, we clearly see that both Japan and Germany made extremely foolish decisions. While Japan had a very respectable navy to begin the war, their industrial base was small compared to the U.S. and the natural resources necessary to conduct modern warfare—coal, oil, and iron—were severely lacking compared to the seemingly unlimited supplies the U.S. had.

Likewise, Germany’s Adolph Hitler seriously erred in bringing the U.S., with its huge population and almost unimaginable industrial base, into the war he’d started in Europe. Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, could scarcely believe his luck when he heard about Hitler’s declaration.

Historians like to play the what-if game as much as anyone else. And they also like to look at events—particularly wars—to determine what the major turning points were. Many historians believe the thing that lost Japan and Germany the war was declaring it in the first place. The same can be said about our Civil War. The South, in its zeal to expand slavery into the western states, attacked the north, which had several times its population and industrial base, assuring its eventual defeat.

At Oswego’s Little White School Museum, the story of the community’s history is divided by three major inflection points: Settlement in the 1830s, the Civil War, and World War II. Why World War II? Because it marked the end of the Great Depression locally and nationally thanks to the greatest government funding program in the nation’s history and because of the generous way the government treated most of the millions who served after the war.

In early December 1941 the Oswego High School Band was practicing for their upcoming Christmas concert. After war was declared on Dec. 7, many of the boys in this photograph–and some of the girls–ended up serving in the military. (Little White School Museum collection)

Our county’s late 20th Century population boom has its roots in the G.I. Bill housing and education programs that, at least for White veterans, supplied low-cost single-family homes and college educations. It was something that created considerable wealth for those families lucky enough to have been eligible to participate—and not just for the generation that fought the war. That postwar economic base the World War II generation created continues to generate wealth here to this day. Kendall County’s population grew faster than any other county in Illinois between 2010 and 2010 because of what happened thanks to those government programs of the 1950s and 1960s.

To commemorate this year’s 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and its immediate impact on our county, I wrote a column that appeared in last week’s Oswego Ledger. Generally, I don’t post blog entries and columns on the same topic at the same time, but this seems worth making a special case. Back all those years ago, the county’s residents were just clawing their way out of the Depression and they really weren’t paying much attention to what was happening thousands of miles away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Life at home, at school, at people’s workplaces and on area farms was going on as the community looked back at the end of the harvest and towards the coming Christmas and New Years holiday season.

So when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, residents here were caught more or less off-guard. It seems to have taken a week or two for them to process the idea that the nation had again been drawn into a conflict with a foreign nation a couple short decades after what many had hoped would be “The War to End all Wars” ended in 1918.

With that introduction, here’s my take on the effect the start of World War II had on our little corner of northern Illinois, published in the Ledger last Thursday, Dec. 2:

******************************************************

Eighty years ago next Tuesday, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii without warning, destroying the fleet’s battleship squadrons. Fortunately, they missed the fleet’s aircraft carriers, and even more critically to the war effort, the huge tank farms with the fleet’s fuel oil supplies.

That Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt angrily described as “a day which will live infamy,” galvanized the nation into an almost unbelievable level of cooperation that created the “Arsenal of Democracy” that eventually led to crushing the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The attack literally stunned the nation. Here in Kendall County, immediate reaction was shock, with not a little confusion.

Tensions with Japan over their conduct in China and elsewhere in the East had been growing for years, tensions that were getting through, even to such a safe and protected place like pre-World War II Kendall County.

The Oswego High School District had just completed the purchase of this house at Washington and Monroe streets in late November 1941 to house the school’s home economics classes. (Little White School Museum collection)

In general, life as usual was going on in November 1941. In Oswego, the high school’s home economics classes had moved into and off-campus house on Washington at Monroe Street. The house was built by Luella Hettrich in 1907 after she moved the house originally on the lot around the corner to Monroe Street. Mr. and Mrs. Ed Weidert moved into the moved house in the late 1930s. Shortly before the home ec students moved in, the Weiderts welcomed home a new son, Gerald, born Oct. 26.

But those looming problems half a word away were beginning to cloud the horizon. The Nov. 12 Kendall County Record noted that “Gov. Dwight H. Green expressed faith in Illinois farmers to meet the call for increased food production and pledged the support of the State Department of Agriculture to the nation’s ‘food for defense’ program in a statement issued through the Illinois USDA Defense board.”

In general, though, life was moving on. The corn harvest was on-going, with farmers planning to work right through Thanksgiving Day, weather permitting. At the county’s country and town schools, teachers—overwhelmingly young women—headed home to share the holiday with family. On Nov. 13, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Condon welcomed a new son. And on Nov. 19, the Record announced “Richard Young, a senior at Oswego Community high school, has been elected by the student body to represent them as ‘Boy Mayor’ in the parade to be held in Aurora Nov. 21.”

But those war clouds continued to gather. On Nov. 26, the Record carried a short note announcing “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Robinson entertained relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner Sunday. Their son, Wylie, in the selective service, will leave Saturday, as will two other Oswego boys, Louie Reid and J. Fred Reeves.”

The next week, Dec. 3, while noting a whooping cough epidemic was getting started in Oswego in those pre-vaccination days, the county, state, and nation were beginning to get serious about registering everyone—even those who’d previously served—with the Selective Service. “Those men in the National Guard or Regular Army on Registration day who didn’t register but who have been discharged since must register immediately,” a note in the Record warned. “If you are within the age limits and haven’t registered because you were in the service, you had better get in touch with Mr. Wells of the Selective Service board at the courthouse in Yorkville and straighten out your status.”

Then on Dec. 7 came that devastating attack on the Pacific Fleet, and the start of a world war, the second worldwide conflict in the first half of the 20th Century.

Kay Ivan Fugate, whose family had deep Oswego roots, was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

Finding the news difficult to believe, the Record’s Oswego correspondent briefly remarked with considerable understatement on Dec. 10: “The world is in a turmoil this Monday morning. This will be a day whose date goes down in history.” A story about a fire in the basement of the Oswego Prairie Church was several times as long.

Down in Yorkville, Record Publisher John Marshall tried to come to grips with what had happened in his usually breezy weekly local gossip column: “Of course the main topic of thought and conversation in Yorkville and elsewhere is the attack of the Japanese upon the United States and its possessions. And here we sit at the Linotype and try to concentrate what we facetiously call our brain on the writing of this here kolyum and at the same time hear the news reports as they come over the radio which is a difficult thing to do. So if the kolyum sounds a wee bit more screwy this week than it usually does, you know that there is some reason for it.”

The area’s Republican Congressman, Noah Mason, a bitter Roosevelt foe, threw his support solidly behind the war effort. “Signing off for Duration,” he wrote in the Record. “America has been attacked. War has come. From now on all Americans must put aside differences of opinion and unite to win the war as quickly as possible. We pray that ‘Peace on earth good will to men’ may soon become the controlling gospel of all nations.”

Elwyn Holdiman, whose family farmed in the Oswego area, was among the Oswego men drafted during World War II. He was killed in action 29 Oct 1944 in the Netherlands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The pages of the Record began recording meetings of local Red Cross chapters who were knitting hats and mittens for soldiers, as well as notes on the young men who were either enlisting or being drafted. Forest Wooley, Bill Leigh, Bob McMicken, Cecil E. Carlson, Logan Harvey, Paul Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer all headed off to serve.

And bringing the Dec. 7 attack home to Kendall County, the Record reported on Jan. 28 that “Mrs. Mary Shoger received a message telling of the death of her grandson, Kay Fugate, 24 years old, who was killed in action at Pearl Harbor He enlisted two years ago in Aurora.”

The conflict beginning Dec. 7 would continue for nearly five years and involve hundreds of local men and women. Some, like Dick Young, the “Boy Mayor,” would fight on bloody Iwo Jima with the U.S. Marines but live to return home. So many, many more like Kay Fugate at Pearl Harbor; Elwyn Holdiman, drafted just weeks after Pearl Harbor and killed in action in Holland in 1944 along with young Oswego men Frank Clauser, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst, and Paul Zwoyer would never return, but instead make the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.

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The story of an Illinois cavalryman’s surprising World War II service

The annual Remembering Our Veterans exhibit down at the Little White School Museum opened Saturday morning for an eight-day run. This year, we’re doing a bit more commemorating World War I, since this month marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict.

As usual, my buddy, Bob Stekl, the museum’s assistant director, has done a great job mounting the exhibit—which completely fills the museum’s main room—with the help of a great group of volunteers (including Stephanie Just and Sarah Kimes) that operate like a fine-tuned watch, setting the exhibit up during a single day.

Also this year, like every year, we have a few new and upgraded exhibits featuring recent donations to the museum’s collections. This past year, my high school buddy Jim Yuvan and his brother Jerry donated some photos, battlefield souvenirs, and other materials that tell the World War II story of their dad, Louis Yuvan.

1941 12 Yuvan, Louis J

Pvt. Louis Yuvan, fresh from basic training as a cavalryman in December 1941, in a snapshot taken at his home in DePue, Ill. (Little White School Museum collection)

Louis J. Yuvan was born February 12, 1915 in DePue, Bureau County, Illinois. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was drafted and entered service with the U.S. Army five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He arrived at Camp Grant, Rockford, on June 30, 1941 where he was officially inducted into the Army.

From Camp Grant, he was immediately sent to the U.S. Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he received his basic training. Although World War II is usually considered a mechanized war, at the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. Army still employed horse cavalry, and Pvt. Yuvan was trained to be a trooper in the U.S. Cavalry.

After graduating from basic training, he was assigned to the Machine Gun Troop of the 112th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, one of the last two horse cavalry regiments to serve with the U.S. Army.

The regiment was stationed at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas and in February 1941 was sent to Fort Clark at Bracketville, to relieve the 5th United States Cavalry on patrol duty along the Mexican border and to receive further training.

Louie on horse 1

Pvt. Louis Yuvan at Ft. Riley, Kansas in 1941 during basic cavalry training. (Little White School Museum collection)

The regiment shipped out for the South Pacific from California in August 1942. Originally equipped with Australian Waler horses, they were ordered to New Caledonia to serve as a horse mounted security force.

Walers were developed in the Australian state of New South Wales and were a very hardy breed that had proven their merit in the Boer Wars in South Africa as well as during World War I. Given their hardiness—they were sometimes nicknamed Water Horses—it was hoped the breed could cope with jungle conditions on New Guinea and New Britain. But it was found horses of any kind were not suited to the physical conditions of jungle warfare, and so the regiment’s horses were withdrawn and they served the rest of the war as light infantry.

1942 Yuvan on outpost duty

Pvt. Yuvan at the trigger of his .30 cal. water-cooled machine gun while on Mexico border overwatch with the 112th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in 1942 as his sergeant supervises. (Little White School Museum collection)

In an interesting side note, after the regiment’s horses were withdrawn, the troopers of the 112th had no need for their sabers, either. At that same time, the Marines who were desperately fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Guadalcanal. The 1st Marine Division’s Gen. Alexander Vandegrift made an urgent request for machetes so his Marines could cut their way through the impenetrable jungle. The campaign’s overall commander, U.S. Army Gen. Alexander Patch, hearing of the sudden supply of cavalry sabers, ordered them cut them down for the Marines’ use as machetes and sent to Guadalcanal.

After extensive amphibious warfare training the 112th the former cavalrymen made their first landing as part of Operation Chronicle on June 30, 1943, establishing a defensible perimeter to protect Seabees building an airstrip on Woodlark Island. In their second amphibious operation, the regiment went ashore at Arawe, New Britain. After linking up with the 1st Marine Division, the Regiment was sent to Aitape, New Guinea, and attached to the 32nd Infantry Division, where it fought in heavy combat along the Driniumor River. The regiment suffered 61 percent casualties during the Battle of the Driniumor River, one of which was Corporal Louis Yuvan, who was seriously wounded on July 10, 1944, ending his career as a combat cavalryman.

1944 Corp Yuvan at base hospital

Corporal Louis Yuvan hams it up just a little while recuperating at a base hospital after being wounded on Sept. 3, 1944. While he was done as a combat soldier, he served with the U.S. Army through the end of the war. (Little White School Museum collection)

After being hospitalization for three months he was transferred to the 127th Quartermaster Bakery Company, a mobile unit that followed the troops when they departed New Guinea for the invasion to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation.

Corporal Yuvan’s unit came ashore hard on the heels of the Allies’ invasion of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf, where they supported the invading troops. From there, it was on to the invasion of Luzon, where the 127th supported troops fighting Japanese occupiers. The war finally ended in the Philippines on Sept. 3, 1945—two weeks after Japan itself surrendered—when General Yamashita Tomoyuki and Admiral Denshichi Okochi formally surrendered all Japanese forces in the islands to allied forces.

During his World War II service Corporal Yuvan earned a number of decorations including the Good Conduct Medal, the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Ribbon, the American Theater Ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with five Bronze Battle Stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, the Bronze Service Arrowhead and, ironically given his cavalry training, the Infantry Combat Badge.

Corporal Yuvan was discharged on Aug. 22, 1945 at Fort Sheridan. Illinois.

Yuvan WWII decorations & ribbons retouched

Louis Yuvan’s World War II decorations include, ironically for a cavalryman, the Infantry Combat Badge at top center. (Little White School Museum collection)

Returning to his hometown, DePue, Illinois, he started a family after marrying Dorothea Deihl. The couple and their two young sons, James and Jerry, moved to Boulder Hill, Illinois in 1961, where Dorothea taught elementary school, Louis worked as the head of the maintenance department for the Oswego School District and his sons went to school with me. Their oldest, Jim, graduated from Oswego High School with me in 1964. And that’s where I got to know Louis Yuvan, with his distinctive smile and trademark cigar. But I got to know him as my buddy Jim’s dad; I had no idea he had served in World War II, much less that he’d been a cavalryman who morphed into an amphibious warfare specialist.

Louis Yuvan died March 13, 1981 in Aurora, Illinois, after serving his country, his family, and his community far better than so many of his neighbors and friends ever realized.

So stop by the Little White School Museum this week and take in Remembering Our Veterans as we remember all the men and women who’ve served their country so well over more than two centuries. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The exhibit closes Sunday, Nov. 11.

 

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Oswego’s Slade Cutter: A real American hero

We bandy the word “hero” around a lot these days, to the point that its true meaning has been severely devalued. A word that used to be reserved for those who did heroic acts above and beyond normal behavior, hero is now applied indiscriminately to everyone from police officers to military personnel just doing their everyday jobs.

But back in the day when “hero” really meant something, Oswego had its share. There was Robinson B. Murphy, the 15 year-old who earned the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Ezra Church during the Civil war. There was Anna Brown, “The Hero Teacher,” in the 1870s. And during World War II, there was Slade Cutter.

It’s not often that someone earns fame in three separate arenas. But Slade Cutter managed to do just that, excelling in music, sports, and in the military, and along the way became a legitimate American hero.

Not only was he a nationally award-winning high school musician, but he went on to become a football All-American and national collegiate boxing champ at the U.S. Naval Academy. Then, during World War II, Cutter became one of the U.S. Navy’s most successful submarine commanders, whose exploits during the battles against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific were, and still are, legendary.

Slade Deville Cutter was born on Nov. 1, 1911 in Chicago and then taken home to the family farm, located just south of the Oswego village limits along what eventually became Ill. Route 71. The Queen Ann-style farmhouse where his parents, Watts and Esther (Sundeen) Cutter, lived and where Slade grew up with his brothers and sister still stands, as does the old Cutter School (named after his family and now remodeled into a private home) he attended at the northwest corner of the old Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road intersection.

The Cutter School at modern Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road just south of Oswego. Although undated, the school would have looked much like this when Slade Cutter attended. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Cutter School at modern Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road just south of Oswego. Although undated, the school would have looked much like this when Slade Cutter attended. (Little White School Museum photo)

When Cutter started school there were no other first graders, so he was promoted to second grade where there was at least one more student. The same thing happened when he entered fifth grade. As a result, he graduated from eighth grade at Cutter School at age 11, too young to be allowed to enter high school. So he took eighth grade over at an Aurora junior high, where he became fascinated with playing the flute.

While Cutter’s parents encouraged their children to excel, sports wasn’t part of the encouragement. Cutter’s father had lost an eye playing football at the University of Illinois and so banned his tall, muscular son from getting involved in the game.

After completing eighth grade, and since Oswego High only offered a two-year program, Cutter chose to attend East Aurora High School. In those days, students could hop the interurban trolley—the tracks ran right past Cutter’s home—and commute to school in Aurora.

At East High, Cutter continued to excel with the flute. He joined the East High marching band, but felt so ridiculous playing the flute that he managed to persuade the band director to let him switch, for marching only, to the bass drum.

Encouraged by his parents, Cutter traveled into Chicago each Sunday morning to take flute lessons from the first chair flautist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He paid for the lessons—$5 for a half-hour—and trolley fare by giving lessons to local Oswego youngsters at $1 each. Cutter asked his parents to be allowed to play football several times, but was rebuffed every time because they were worried he’d be injured.

During his senior year at East, he entered the national high school music competition. He won the city, district, and state championships and went on to the national championship, held that year—1928—in Joliet. He recalled the head judge was the leader of the era’s most famous touring band, John Philip Sousa. The judge of the flute competition was a young clarinetist who had only recently started touring with his own band. The slight, bespeckled musician was impressed both with Cutter’s performance. But although Benny Goodman tried to persuade Cutter to join his band’s summer tour, Cutter declined, opting instead to attend the Sherwood School of Music, where he found he simply didn’t really have what it took to be a music pro.

“I had the ear, and I had the technique, but I didn’t have the rhythm,” he recalled in a 1984 interview.

After graduating from East High, Cutter, through a typically (for him, at least) serendipitous series of events, found himself attending the Naval Academy’s prep school at Severn School in Maryland.

While at Severn, the school’s new 22 year-old football coach strongly urged the Illinois youngster to play football. The coach and the school’s president pleaded with Cutter’s father to let the boy play, and soon he did. Not only did Cutter come to enjoy football, he became a star player. The coach, whose name was Paul Brown, went on to become the founder and first coach of the Cleveland Browns and one of the most successful and influential coaches in National Football League history.

All-American Slade Cutter, 1934. On Dec. 1, 1934, Cutter kicked the winning field goal to lift Navy over Army. (Little White School Museum photo)

All-American Slade Cutter, 1934. On Dec. 1, 1934, Cutter kicked the winning field goal to lift Navy over Army. (Little White School Museum photo)

Following his appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Cutter played football for the Midshipmen, earning All-American honors as a hard-hitting tackle. But it was his skill as a field goal kicker that won Cutter enduring fame. During the rain-soaked Army-Navy game on Dec. 1, 1934 in Philadelphia, the 6-1, 215-pound Cutter booted a 20-yard field goal—the only score of the game—giving Navy its first victory over Army since 1921. The game–and Cutter–were immortalized on Dec. 2, 1934 in a Philadelphia Sunday News story by Damon Runyon.

How did he manage the kick? Of course it depended on skill and accuracy (Cutter was also a dead shot with a rifle), but divine intervention may have also played a part. During Cutter’s Midshipman Cruise in the summer of 1934, the cadets visited Rome and the Vatican where the Pope was scheduled to bless the young naval officers-to-be.

As Cutter recalled the event in a 1999 reminiscence:

“Bill Clark, one of the best punters in the history of Navy football, was standing next to me and we decided to take advantage of the Pope’s blessing to help us in the coming football season. As the blessing was given, we remained erect while standing on our left leg and extending our right foot in the direction of His Holiness.

“It paid off. On Dec. 1, we played Army in a sea of mud in Philadelphia. Late in the first quarter, Clark got off a great punt that went out of bounds on Army’s one-yard line. Army punted on first down and the partially blocked punt gave Navy the ball on Army’s 20-yard line. Unable to advance the ball in the quagmire of Franklin Field, we settled for the field goal that held up for the rest of the game.”

After the game, one newspaper dubbed Cutter “the boxing flautist from Oswego,” because he not only excelled in music and football—he was inducted into the NCAA College Football Hall of Fame in 1967—but also won three letters in boxing at the academy. He was eventually crowned collegiate heavyweight boxing champion, and seriously considered, for a time, taking up professional boxing. Until he got a good look at Joe Louis, anyway.

“I saw Louis, and I was pretty objective about it,” Cutter recalled years later. “He was just too good. Why not be honest? I was good in my league, but he was out of my league.”

Instead, Cutter decided to make the Navy his career and then decided to enter the submarine service. He completed the sub training course at New London, Conn. in 1938.

Cutter was serving aboard the USS Pompano on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During three war patrols aboard the Pompano, Cutter learned the submarine warfare trade and also earning a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat “V,” and a gold star in lieu of a second Silver Star.

The USS Seahorse and her crew, 1944. Commander Slade Cutter is sitting on the deck, center, with his legs crossed. (Little White School Museum photo)

The USS Seahorse and her crew, 1944. Commander Slade Cutter is sitting on the deck, center, with his legs crossed. (Little White School Museum photo)

Cutter was detached from the Pompano in November 1942 and returned to the U.S. to fit out the new USS Seahorse at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California. After the Seahorse was commissioned, he was appointed executive officer, moving up to command the sub on Sept. 30, 1943 after the sub’s original commander was found to be insufficiently aggressive.

It was as skipper of the Seahorse that Cutter–who was never accused of being insufficiently aggressive at any time in his life–earned fame as a tough, aggressive, skillful, tactically gifted submariner.

With Cutter in command during the Seahorse’s second war patrol starting from Pearl Harbor in October 1943, the boat sailed to the Japanese held island of Palau, where he intercepted a convoy. During an 80-hour running battle over 600 miles of ocean, the Seahorse managed to sink all three convoy transports while undergoing constant attack by the convoy’s escorts.

When it was over, Cutter had won one of World War II’s most epic naval battles for which he was rewarded with his second gold star for the Navy Cross and gold star he’d won earlier.

In August 1944, Cutter was given a rest from serving at sea and was assigned a staff position with the Atlantic Fleet. He took command of the new sub, USS Requin, in 1945 and was headed back into the Pacific for another war patrol when the Japanese surrendered and the war ended.

Capt. Slade Cutter in a formal portrait taken in 1963. (Little White School Museum photo)

Capt. Slade Cutter in a formal portrait done about 1963. (Little White School Museum photo)

After World War II, Cutter served in a variety of staff and command positions, including head of the physical education department and director of athletics at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957. His battle with the Navy hierarchy during World War II, especially his inability to suffer fools gladly, prevented him from being promoted to admiral. Bad blood between Cutter and Hyman Rickover, which dated back to their days as lieutenants serving aboard battleships, didn’t help either, as Rickover gradually became the face of the new Navy.

Winding down a long and successful career, Cutter returned to Illinois in June 1963 when he was named commander of the U.S. Naval Training Center at Great Lakes. His final Navy stint was as director of the Naval Historical Display Center in Washington, D.C. Cutter retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in July 1965 after 30 years service. He lived the rest of his life close to the Academy at Annapolis before his death on June 9, 2005.

For a complete rundown on Cutter’s life and times, read Slade Cutter: Submarine Warrior by Carl LaVo, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2003; and The Reminiscences of Captain Slade D. Cutter, U.S. Navy (Retired), interviewed by Paul Stillwell, U.S. Naval Institute, 1985.

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Trying to make the world a safer, better place…

For the past few weeks, we’ve been working up our annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego.

My compatriot Bob Stekl has been putting together most of the main exhibits, including the Wall of Honor and the exhibit of uniforms and equipment that make the annual event so interesting.

During World War II, this sign kept track of the men and women serving their country. I twas located on Main Street right next to the Oswego Village Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

During World War II, this sign kept track of the men and women serving their country. I twas located on Main Street right next to the Oswego Village Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Wall of Honor consists of photos of veterans and serving military personnel, from World War I to the present day. This year, we’re including a number of vets and serving personnel from our most recent spate of wars, including one youngster, a Marine, who graduated from Oswego High School in 2010, joined the Corps, and then encountered an IED in Afghanistan in 2011 that blew off both his legs and part of his hand.

My job in putting the exhibit together was to do a poster on each of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in action from Oswego, from the Civil War through Vietnam. Fortunately, we’ve had no more KIAs in the wars of the 21st Century, although that seems more due to the incredible advances in medical technology than a lack of our people finding themselves in harm’s way—see the story about the Marine above for verification of that.

From the information we’ve been able to gather (there may be more, and if there are, hopefully someone will point them out to us), three Oswegoland residents were killed in action during the Civil War, one during World War I, five during World War II, and three during Vietnam.

These were young men for the most part, with an average age of 22.4. They ranged from Frank Clauser, 31, (a distant cousin of mine) an engineer-dorsal turret gunner in a B-26 shot down over the Mediterranean during World War II, to 19 year-old Alfred X. Murdock, killed at the Battle of Ezra Church during the Civil War.

William "Billy" Pooley was a 24 year-old private when he was killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta in 1864. (Little White School Museum collection)

William “Billy” Pooley was a 25 year-old private when he was killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta in 1864. (Little White School Museum collection)

In fact, two of our KIAs were killed during at Ezra Church, Murdock (his friends called him Ax), 19, and William “Billy” Pooley, 25. During that same, desperate battle, as Hood’s Confederates tried to break the American line near Atlanta, young Robinson B. Murphy won the Medal of Honor. Just 15 at the time, he guided reinforcements to the far end of the American line held by Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteers, comprised mostly of Oswegoans. Murphy grew up in Oswego with the soldiers in the company and had enlisted as a drummer boy with them. The sights and sounds horror of that day stayed with him the rest of his life.

As Murphy put it in a letter published in the Sept. 7, 1898 Kendall County Record:

“As you all know, the most of the time my position was such that I could look on and see what was being done and oh! how I always turned towards my own regiment, and how it grieved me to see them stricken down either from disease or the rebel bullet. I shall never forget that 28th day of July in front of Atlanta, when “Billy” Lawton came running out of the woods and said “Bob, for God’s sake get us some reinforcements; they are cutting us all to pieces,” and a little later as I rode up near the line with the reinforcements, there I found our comrades, Ax. Murdoch [sic] and “Billy” Pooley, both shot dead; they were our Oswego boys. Do you wonder I was deeply touched and the tears rolled down my face?”

Two of our Civil War dead weren’t even citizens. Billy Pooley was born and raised in England before coming to the U.S. with his family, while William Shoger was born Johann Wilhelm Schoger in Germany. He immigrated with two brothers and three cousins at the age of 13 to help scout for good land for the rest of his family, which came from Germany a couple years later, settling just outside Oswego west of the Fox River. William was killed in action at the Battle of Raymond in 1863, as Gen. Grant tightened the noose around Vicksburg.

During World War I, 21 year-old Archie Lake was killed in action fighting the Germans in France with the U.S. Marines.

Kay Fugate was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kay Fugate was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

We lost five area residents during World War II, three of them in the Air Corps, one in the Navy, and one in the Army. Kay Fugate, 24, a Seaman Second Class, didn’t make it past the first day of the war, dying aboard the USS Nevada during the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. As noted above, Frank Clauser was shot down along with the rest of his crewmates in fighting over the Mediterranean. Donald A. Johnson, 20, died when his C-87 Liberator Express transport flew into a mountainside while flying over the “Hump.” Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer, 22, was killed near the end of the war when his B-29 Superfortress was shot down during a night raid on Tokyo near the end of the war. None of the three bodies of our three Air Corps dead were ever recovered.

Stuart Parkhurst was killed during his first experience with combat, and just two months to the day after he left New York Harbor in some of the fighting just before the Battle of the Bulge. He and his best friend, Stan Young, had pledged they’d volunteer for the paratroops when they were drafted, but Stuart decided not to. Stan persevered, making several combat jumps in the Pacific Theatre and being on one of the first, if not the first, U.S. planes to land in Japan to take the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army. Stuart was a sergeant in the headquarters company of the Second Battalion, 345th Infantry Regiment—normally not one of the most dangerous places to be, but on Dec. 17, 1943, the headquarters of 2nd Battalion was raked by tank and machine gun fire, badly wounding several officers and killing Stuart.

E4 Hans Brunner, a German national fighting in the U.S. Army, was killed in action at Pleiku, Vietnam on March 29, 1968. (Little White School Museum collection)

E4 Hans Brunner, a German national fighting in the U.S. Army, was killed in action at Pleiku, Vietnam on March 29, 1968. (Little White School Museum collection)

In Vietnam, we had three Army casualties. Fred Heriaud, 21, was Kendall County’s first Vietnam casualty, getting killed in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley Dec. 17, 1965, a battle immortalized by Mel Gibson’s movie, “We Were Young.” Hans Brunner, like William Shoger, another German national who had immigrated to the U.S. shortly before he joined the Army, was killed in action at the age of 24 on March 29, 1968 defending the airfield at Pleiku. And Bobby Rogers, who went to school with me (he was two years younger) was serving in the Army during Operation Iron Mountain when he was killed on March 19, 1968. He was just 21

It’s hard not to wonder what these young men would have accomplished had they not died in the service of their country—in three cases, their adopted country. If you happen to be in the Oswego area this coming weekend, come on over to the Little White School Museum. The exhibit opens Saturday, Nov. 8, at 9 a.m. Hours are Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. It’s free and it honors those who tried their best to make the nation and the world a better place.

 

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Another Thanksgiving rolls around…

‘Tis one of my favorite holidays: Thanksgiving.

I am, in general, a lover of autumn, probably due to my allergy to grass pollens (which, thankfully, are things of the past and future but not the present in the fall), but also because I’ve always considered Thanksgiving one of the nation’s best holidays.

It’s difficult in this nation of ours to get away from crass commercialization, but the idea behind Thanksgiving is, well, just being kind. We should, at this season, be thankful for what we’ve got. No need to buy gifts for anyone or engage in other frantic activities. Just—provided we’re lucky enough, of course—settle down with relatives and friends and enjoy some great food and, we can all hope, some great fellowship.

As a kid, Thanksgiving was a pretty big deal. Not only did we get two entire days off school, but we were all able to get together at my grandparents’ or at an uncle or aunt’s or even at our house to enjoy a meal of quite amazing proportions. While the dinner location was shared around the family, I most remember the ones we had at my grandparents’ house, especially the dinners out on the farm before they retired to town.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" is an iconic illustration of Thanksgivings past.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” is an iconic illustration of Thanksgivings past.

Some years ago, I remember reading a blog post by someone or another complaining that those tales of Thanksgiving tables groaning under loads of food were just that—tales. Most families, this person wrote, had Thanksgivings nothing like that. And not only that, but the blogger pointed to the fiction behind Norman Rockwell’s famed painting, one of his “Four Freedoms” series, titled “Freedom from Want,” which the writer derided as obvious fiction depicting an era that never existed.

As I was growing up, Norman Rockwell was, hands down, my favorite artist, with the possible exception of the guy who drew the “Prince Valiant” comic strips I eagerly read in each week’s Sunday Chicago American.

I sort of dimly recalled the “Freedom from Want” painting, along with its three companions (“Freedom from Fear,” “Freedom of Religion,” “Freedom of Speech”), and since we have this great Internet thingy, I looked it up to refresh my memory. Turns out Rockwell painted it, and its three brethren, in 1943 as both wartime propaganda and to illustrate, for the Saturday Evening Post, aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech laying out those same four freedoms.

When I saw the image I, of course, immediately recognized it and the other three in the series. You see them often, although not usually together, to illustrate this or that aspect of American culture. But as I really looked at “Freedom from Want,” it occurred to me that, far from depicting some sort of fictional incident of overwhelming gastronomy, Rockwell’s dining room table seemed pretty thin on the ground compared to the ones my family set.

Granted, there’s the big roasted turkey being proudly placed on the table, but the side dishes seem awfully scarce. Of course you have to take into account the painting depicts a wartime table, with all the shortages and rationing that was going on then.

My grandparents farmhouse as it looked about 1955, with Grandpa and Grandma Holzhueter's lawn chairs out front. The dining room was at the far left of their house.

My grandparents’ farmhouse as it looked about 1955, with Grandpa and Grandma Holzhueter’s lawn chairs out front. The dining room was at the far left of their house.

But my family were mostly farmers and even during World War II there was plenty of food harvested from gardens and orchards and raised in the cattle yard, the hog houses, and the chicken house. So on one of our post-war Thanksgiving tables would be turkey, but also, sometimes pheasant that one or another family member had taken while hunting; mashed potatoes; stuffing ; gravy—generally two boats, one with and one without giblets; homemade bread with homemade butter; spiced apples; sweet corn; green beans; squash; sweet potatoes; Jell-O molds filled with all manner of things from pineapple to grated carrots; Waldorf salad; and loads of relishes including the eagerly sought-after ripe olives, to which all us kids were addicted. Dessert was always at least two kinds of pie, the constant being pumpkin with apple, cherry, peach, and others as the whim took the bakers.

After dinner, the men repaired to the living room where most quickly fell asleep as us kids first helped clear the table and then either listened to ancient records (including old party records like “Lavinsky at the Wedding”) on the wind-up Victrola in the dining room or engaged in a variety of apparently extinct games including “Hide the Thimble” and “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?”

Some, mostly city folks I suspect, deride Thanksgiving as a celebration of American excess. But those of us with farm roots know it was a celebration of both work largely done and a harvest brought home buoyed by thankful feelings that another farming year was nearly complete with no serious accidents or injuries. And while we definitely weren’t rolling in cash, there was that Rockwell-like feeling of thankfulness for what we did have, for the good fellowship, and that we were surrounded by the comfortable embrace of our extended family.

These days, farmers are a tiny minority of the nation’s population. While you might see lots of what look like farmsteads as you drive through the countryside, most of those farm houses are rented to non-farmers, with the land being rented to someone else entirely. The days when it was possible to make a living on 180 acres is long gone, and all those giant consolidated farms mean the industry simply doesn’t need as many folks to do the work. But those days are still alive, in a fashion, because there are a few of us around to recall them. It’s an era that I still relive at least once a year around Thanksgiving time.

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The greatest generation?

Tom Brokaw, in celebrating the generation that won World War II, named the young men and women who went off to fight “The Greatest Generation.” His reasoning was that these city and country kids laid down their normal lives and for four years they served their country in one of the toughest wars ever fought. Then they came back home and created the economic miracle that was the U.S. economy during the 1950s and 1960s.

And that’s true…as far as it goes. Most of the kids who marched off to war during the 1940s were drafted, but they went and did their duty in places as tough as the Arctic and the Sahara Desert. About 50 Kendall County men lost their lives while serving their country.

The vast majority of those who enlisted or who were drafted then returned home to an overjoyed populace and then were integrated back into the nation’s workforce, helped by a lavish series of G.I. Bills that provided free college educations and nearly interest-free home loans.

In comparison, the youths who fought in the Civil War suffered far greater causalities and received little in the way of rewards when they returned home. And the Civil War soldiers who left to fight the trators who formed the Confederacy suffered far more than their grandchildren who fought the Axis powers in the 1940s.

Here in Kendall County, 247 of the roughly 1,500 men and boys who served died while in service. That’s an astonishing 16 percent casualties. And that doesn’t include those who died after being either invalided out of the service or whose wounds—mental and physical—killed them long after their service.

For instance, Capt. William Fowler of Oswego, a justice of the peace and a former Sheriff of Kendall County, died in 1872 after being confined to the Elgin State Mental Hospital. Capt. Fowler recruited one of the companies of the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry at Oswego but was invalided out, Capt. William S. Bunn finishing out the war in command of the company. Fowler’s derangement was likely caused by what we would today call post traumatic stress. Wright Murphy, who enlisted in the 127th with his son, Robinson B. Murphy, came home from the war total exhausted, and died shortly after returning, broken in health. And Capt. William Hobbs of Yorkville, while being treated in the 1870s for a rifle bullet lodged in his leg, died much to the distress of his family and his community.

The 247 who died during their service caused a blight on Kendall County that lasted for years. To take so many young, vigorous men out of the equation was an irreparable loss for our county, our state, and the nation.

So while the World War II men and women may form a great generation, I’m leaning towards the Civil War generation being given the honorary title of “The Greatest Generation.” They more than earned it in blood.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History

Oswego’s heroic funeral director…

If you’re an old-time Oswegoan, you remember Everett McKeown and his personable wife, Evelyn, who was, for so many years, one of the secretaries in the office at Oswego High. Everett was a mild-mannered guy with never a bad word to say and everybody liked him. I remember him marching in the Memorial Day parades and doing other stuff as a member of the Oswego American Legion post. As it turns out, his World War II military experiences were remarkable.

The McKeowns bought the funeral home from the Thorsens in October 1938 and they moved to Oswego, living in the apartment above the funeral home. At that time, the funeral home was located in what we knew, as kids, as the Ken Bohn house at Van Buren and Madison. That historic old home was the living quarters part of the old Hebert wagon factory.

Anyway, the McKeowns operated a successful business, running both the funeral home and an ambulance service for the Oswego community. Then along came World War II and in June 1943, Everett was drafted and inducted into the U.S. Army. The question was what to do with the funeral home. They decided that Evelyn would continue to operate the funeral home while Everett went off to fight. As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent approvingly noted: “The decision is one that will face more and more wives as the war goes on and Mrs. McKeown is to be congratulated for ‘keeping the house in order’ while her husband is serving his country.”

Everett, with his experience in civilian life, became an Army medic, and got to Europe in time to participate in the invasion of Normandy. There, he was seriously wounded, his leg broken by the explosion of a mortar shell, and he was evacuated to a hospital in England to recover. Which he did, after which he was returned to duty–just in time to get caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. Thereby, he found himself involved in what were arguably two of the conflict’s two most pivotal battles.

Sergeant McKeown got his honorable discharge on Dec. 18, 1946 and headed back to his wife in Oswego. During his 23 months overseas, he earned four battle stars, an invasion arrowhead, a combat medic badge, and the purple heart. After arriving back home to join his wife after the war, they continued their successful business and contributed to the Baby Boom with their daughter, born in 1947. In September 1948, they bought the old Clinton mansion at Madison and Tyler streets and moved the funeral home business there, where its descendant doing business as McKeown-Dunn continues in business to this day.

Everett was a joiner and, like lots of those WWII vets, a doer. He was the first treasurer of the newly formed Oswego Community Unit District 308 when it was formed in 1962. He was active in the Lions Club and the Legion. He was Kendall County Coroner for many years and was one of the visionaries who served on the early Oswego Plan Commissions.

They were the kind of people we all too for granted when we were kids, but they were remarkable couple, Mr. and Mrs. McKeown…

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History