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Dundy County Gold Star Boys in the Pacific Theater of WWII

Memorial Day Presentation

May 26, 2014

by Jim Buffington

 Veterans Memorial WallLadies and Gentlemen, let’s bring to life the memory of a few of these names you see inscribed here on this monument, a few of our Gold Star veterans.  What is a Gold Star Veteran?  During World War II, every family who had a son serving in the military was sent a service flag with a blue star to hang in a window.  If a son was killed in action, they were sent a gold star which they placed over the top of the blue star to let anyone who passed know they had lost a son.  Today, let’s remember the Dundy County Gold Star Boys of the Pacific Theater of World War II, those 17 Dundy County boys who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war against Japan.

 December 7, 1941, the “Day That Will Live in Infamy,” was the day that saw the Japanese launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.  On December 6, American public opinion was strongly against entering the war that had been raging in Europe and Asia since September of 1939.  But the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything.  Many Dundy County boys rushed to enlist after Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese did not follow up their surprise attack with an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands, so Pearl Harbor served as a naval base and training grounds for the War in the Pacific.  Although no Dundy County boys were killed on December 7, the Hawaiian Islands and other training camps proved to be very serious business.  Mervin DeGarmo graduated from Haigler, Nebraska in 1942 and joined the Marines.  A year later, while on a training exercise at Pearl Harbor, he was killed in a truck/plane accident. 

 In the early months of the War, it was not just Americans at Pearl Harbor who were at risk.  The Japanese Navy and Army had superior numbers across the entire eastern Pacific, including in Indonesian waters, some 3600 miles south of Japan.  Cecil Garland Colvin, also known as Bobbie, was a step-son of Ray Fletcher, spending much of his younger years on the Pringle Ranch, and attended school in both Parks and Benkelman.  Bobbie enlisted in the US Navy in 1936.   Bobbie’s ship, the USS Houston, was sunk in March 1942 in the Java Sea.  Bobbie was taken prisoner by the Japanese.  He survived as a POW for more than three years under horrifying conditions, until April 8, 1945 when he succumbed to starvation and malnutrition.  One of his fellow POWs wrote of him: “Bobbie was a real shipmate.  He was the librarian for our outfit and through his efforts did much to keep up our morale.”

 Many historians say the Battle of Midway was the turning point of the War in the Pacific, at least as far as Naval Operations were concerned.  Midway is a small island located 1,000 miles west of the Hawaiian Islands, and home to a small American garrison and an airfield.  Japanese Admiral Yamamoto planned to attack and conquer this little island, giving the Japanese a base in the eastern Pacific from which to interrupt American shipping and air traffic in Hawaii.  Yamamoto mounted a fleet of 100 warships, including eight aircraft carriers.  Because American intelligence had broken the Japanese Naval Code, we knew approximately where this Japanese fleet was located.  So it was that a little fleet composed of four aircraft carriers found the much larger Japanese fleet, and in June of 1942, seven months after Pearl Harbor, American dive bombers sank three Japanese aircraft carriers in a five-minute period, and a fourth carrier the next day.  Japan never again mounted a major offensive threat in the Pacific.  Jennings L. Robinson, son of Mr. and Mrs. Lee Appleby of Haigler, who prior to the war was employed by the Rock Creek Fish Hatcheries, had enlisted in the Marines less than a month after Pearl Harbor.  Jennings took part in the Battle of Midway, and lived through it.  However, as a tragic reminder that not all casualties are a result of battle, Jennings survived the war only to be killed in a car accident in California in October 1945, less than six weeks after the Japanese surrender.

 Pearl Harbor was not the only target on December 7.  A few hours after Pearl Harbor, Japanese war planes attacked the Philippines, and by May, 1942, the Japanese conquest of the Philippines and the 31,000 American troops stationed there was complete.  One of the casualties of the war in the Philippines was Bernard F. Humphrey, adopted son of Mr. and Mrs. Emory Miller.  Bernard grew up in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.  Bernard was captured by the Japanese in May, 1942.  Bernard survived as a POW for more than two years, until he was put aboard a Japanese ship carrying 1800 POWs.  This ship was sailing without lights and refused to halt or be identified when it was sunk by a submarine in the South China Sea.  Bernard Humphrey died on October 23, 1944.

 The U.S. may have crippled the Japanese Navy at midway, but there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers defending the islands of their vast Pacific Empire.  To win the war in the Pacific, the US Navy began a campaign of island hopping, beginning with the Solomon Islands, located east of Australia, and 3,600 miles south of Tokyo.   Guadalcanal was the focus of the Solomon Islands campaign.  In August 1942, the Marines landed on Guadalcanal.  If anyone thought that the war was going to be over soon, Guadalcanal quickly dispelled that notion.  It would take six months before the Marines would secure Guadalcanal at a cost of 7,000 casualties.  No Dundy County boys were lost in this six months of ferocious jungle fighting.  After securing Guadalcanal, it was necessary to garrison the island.  Everett C. Phifer grew up in the Parks area, and enlisted in the US Navy in January 1942.  He was an aerial gunner, and on May 23, 1944, he was killed while on aerial patrol duty when his airplane crashed shortly after takeoff on Guadalcanal.

 It was not only in equatorial jungle islands that American forces had to take on the Japanese.  In May of 1942, as Yamamoto’s fleet was steaming toward Midway, a small force of Japanese captured Attu and Kiska, two of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.  Mathias F. Unger was a brother of Al and Andrew Unger, who at one time operated a grocery store in Benkelman.  Matthew, as he was called, enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940 and was serving in Alaska.  He was reported missing in action on July 5, 1942 when his plane, which had been flying in foggy weather, struck a mountain, killing him. 

 The US did not seriously challenge the Japanese on the Aleutian Islands until nearly a year later, when the US 7th Division began landing on the mountainous, treeless island of Attu.  One of these soldiers was Lyle L. Brown, son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Brown, who lived in the Haigler area.  The 7th Division fought for 18 days amid fog and rain before overwhelming the Japanese.  On May 29, the remnants of the Japanese invaders mounted a suicide charge on the 7th Division.  The Japanese soldiers attacked down a ridge screaming “Japanese drink blood like wine.”  Lyle Brown was one of the American soldiers who did not survive this suicidal attack.  

 Ladies and Gentlemen, please join us at the cemetery, where we will hear the rest of the story about Dundy County Gold Star Veterans in the Pacific Theater.

 At the Cemetery

Left Handed SaluteThe island hopping campaign continued after Guadalcanal, with savage fighting in the Gilberts, in the Marshall Islands, and in the Marianas.  The Marianas are located 1,000 miles due east of the Philippines, and include the islands of Guam, Tinian, and Saipan.  American Marines went ashore on Saipan in June, 1944.  Among those was Harold W. Cooper, who attended Haigler High School and enlisted in the Marines in April of 1942.  Harold was a tank driver, and just one day after the landing on Saipan, he was killed in action.

 After the capture of the Marianas, the way was cleared for General MacArthur to make good on his promise to return to the Philippines.  MacArthur led 200,000 men of the American Sixth Army for the attack on the big southern Philippine island of Leyte.  It was a tough slog, beginning in October of 1944 and not ending for another ten weeks.  This campaign cost nearly 16,000 American casualties.  Bert Sampson, who graduated from Parks High School, attained the rank of lieutenant in the US Army Medical Corps.  He died in the Philippines in March, 1945 as a result of injuries suffered in an airplane crash.

 Is there a name more sacred in Marine History than Iwo Jima?  Who has not seen the photograph of six service men raising the American flag atop Mount Surabachi?  Iwo Jima, a volcanic spit of land measuring eight square miles, was an important part of the island hopping campaign.  Iwo Jima is only 800 miles from Japan, and its three airfields could be used as a base for the P-51 Mustangs to provide support for B-29s as they began to rain bombs on mainland Japan.  D-Day for the Marines on Iwo Jima was February 19, 1945.  Clarence Pursley, Jr. received his education in the Benkelman schools, enlisted in the Marine Corps in May, 1943.  He had survived the landings in the Marshall Islands, on Saipan and Tinian, winning three Battle Stars. He was not to see the raising of the flag on Mount Surabachi.  Within fifteen minutes of hitting the beaches of Iwo Jima, he made the ultimate sacrifice.  He was nineteen years old.

 Glenn E. Druliner graduated from Benkelman High School in 1940.  He entered the US Navy Air Service in 1942 and won his wings in March, 1944.  He was a pilot of a Grumman Avenger, a large torpedo bomber.  His plane was awaiting takeoff from the USS Franklin when he was struck by a Japanese bomb on March 19, 1945.

 The capture of Iwo Jima made it possible for US B-29s, the most powerful bombers of World War II, to begin taking the war to Tokyo and other Japanese cities.  Marshal D. Long graduated from Haigler High School in 1941.  He served as a radar specialist on one of those B-29s.  On March 10, 1945, he was killed in action over Japan.

 If there was any doubt about how ferociously the Japanese would fight to defend their native lands, that doubt disappeared forever on Okinawa, the southernmost island of the Japanese homeland.  Okinawa has a land area just a little less than that of Dundy County, but in 1945, it was home to 100,000 well-entrenched Japanese soldiers.  Only 7,500 of these hundred thousand were to survive the Battle of Okinawa.  One of every four Japanese civilians on Okinawa also perished.  US forces suffered nearly 50,000 casualties.  Four Dundy County boys lost their lives in this, the last great battle of World War II.  John Baney, son of Mr. and Mrs. R. E. Baney and a recipient of numerous marksmanship awards, was the first of these Gold Star boys on April 12, 1945. 

 Perry V. Willis grew up in the Benkelman area and entered the service in 1941.  He received a Purple Heart in the Gilbert Islands campaign, and volunteered for service on Okinawa.  On April 30, 1945, he became the second Dundy County Gold Star casualty at Okinawa.  Leonard Medlock was a son of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Medlock of Haigler.  On May 17, 1945, he became the third Dundy County boy to die on Okinawa.  Leonard’s brother Earl had been killed in the European Theater the previous December.  Robert W. Clements graduated from Benkelman High School in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Bob was a Browning Automatic Rifleman in the 1st Marine Division; he was killed in action on Okinawa on June 2.

 Japan surrendered in September 1945, but it would be many years before American Armed Forces would leave Japan.  Philip H. Freemeyer graduated from Haigler High School in 1941 and volunteered for the Army Air Force in December 41.  Philip qualified to fly all World War II fighter planes, and on July 26, 1948 in Occupied Japan, while flying a P-51 Mustang, the plane that had done so much to help the US win the war, he was killed when his plane crashed.  He became Dundy County’s 17th and final Gold Star Veteran of the Pacific Theater.

 Today we have remembered a few of those names inscribed on the Dundy Courthouse Monument.  Perhaps in future years, we will hear more about some of those other names.  To all the brave men and women who have served our nation in time of war, we give our thanks.  And we will never forget that the millions who have served always say, the real heroes are those who gave their lives, the Gold Star Veterans.  Thank you Gold Star Veterans, thank you so very much.

About the Author

Jim Buffington at Memorial Wall

Jim Buffington graduated from Benkelman High School in 1964.  He married Janice Blank in 1968.  Janice attended Parks schools for most of her life before graduating from Haigler High School in 1964.  They have two children.  The oldest is Steve, who with his wife Tammy currently operate The Dub in Benkelman.  His daughter Brittany lives in Loveland, Colorado with her two boys, Kadan and Logan.  Jim taught English, speech, and history in Orchard, Nebraska and at Johnson, Nebraska before he obtained his Ph.D. in Management Information Systems from the University of Nebraska in 1986.  He has taught in the College of Business at Indiana State University since 1985.  Janice and Jim both have a strong interest in history.  Janice is very active with the Vigo County Historical Society, and Jim and Jan have spent many happy days at many historical sites in the U.S., particularly Civil War sites.  Jim has spoken at three of the Dundy County Memorial Day services since 2008.





Veterans Memorial Wall photograph
 by Jerry Pursley

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Dundy County Military

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