Do you ever have those moments where you suddenly realize what you have? You’re holding something in your hand or are looking out the window when a House-like epiphany reveals itself and you run to tell someone about the discovery. That exuberant rush of excitement at the realization you’ve got something that others would certainly be impressed with. In the history field, that moment occurs more than one would think especially since it’s in our nature as historians to find what’s been overlooked or connect the missing dots. Suddenly we find it right there; history in our hands. That’s what happened to me again recently (See Entombed But Never Truly Gone)
While responding to the normal queue of requests, a peculiar name appeared on a WWII-era Marine Corps record; ‘Adolph Nagurski’. Interesting name, yeah? German-Japanese? Sino-Polish? Being born in Arizona at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the possibilities are endless. I begin my standard operating procedure of assessing the record, extracting information, and all the rest. That is until I noticed something on the discharge paperwork. The primary occupation specialty was ‘code-talker’. That only meant one thing to me (and to all other WWII history buffs): a Navajo code-talker. Confirmation was swiftly needed to satiate my intellectual curiosity. The service record book was intact and after reviewing the enlistment contract, training courses, overseas deployment, battles, campaign participation, and that crowning moment: ‘Special Skills: Navajo language’. Right there in my hand was the service record of a U.S. Marine Navajo code-talker.
Now there are two versions of the Navajo code-talkers story. You could watch the 2002 film ‘Windtalkers’ and receive a heavily fictionalized accounting where the Navajo Marines are sidelined as secondary characters beneath the shadow of superstar Nicolas Cage. The second version is how Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who once lived on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, pitched the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that the Navajo language could be used to encrypt and transmit valuable intelligence throughout the Pacific Theater. Precedence existence for such a project; during WWI, the U.S. enlisted the aid of several Choctaw recruits who spoke their native language to relay radio messages on the Western Front in France (See Little Gun Shoot Fast). The complexity of Navajo grammar combined with its non-written feature made it ideal for transmitting encoded messages. The only drawback however was because of cultural suppression and Anglicization that there were relatively few native speakers of the Navajo language remaining.
By the spring of 1942 as the United States mobilized for war in the Pacific Theater, Marine Corps General Clayton Vogel recommended that Navajo Indians attend signals combat training. The military made a concerted effort to divert as many Native Americans with special language skills into these courses. The first batch of twenty-nine recruits arrived at Camp Pendleton in May 1942. This group paved the way for future code talkers as they developed the system for encoding messages. For weeks they learned how to operate radio equipment, memorize coded messages, survey terrain for enemy positions, and learn how to transmit and receive messages under fire. Each recruit was tested on how many messages they could translate during a firefight. If a recruit could successfully decode a three line message in under twenty seconds, they were ready for the front.
As any cryptologist will tell you, having a key to unlock encoded messages is the vital component of any secure communication. The uniqueness of the Navajo language (or any Native American language) was its oral tradition. Nothing in Native American languages are written. There also exists a vast array of dialects and accents within each language tree, creating overlapping layers of complexity. The code talkers utilized the spelling alphabet system designating certain words with letters and improvising when they didn’t exist in the Navajo language. Words like ‘airplane’ ‘torpedo’ and ‘submarine’ had no Navajo counterpart and so the code talkers improvised. A ‘shark’ was a destroyer vessel, ‘silver oak’ was a lieutenant colonel, ‘buzzard’ was a bomber plane, and ‘iron fish’ was a submarine. These are just some examples of the Navajo code that the talkers had to memorize. Codebooks were written to train each group of recruits, but the books wouldn’t be taken into the theater. Enemy codebreakers could potentially decipher the code, but fortunately for the code talkers, small nuances and changes in the dialect and tonal inflection could result in a entirely different translated message. Nearly four hundred Navajo Marines served as code talkers throughout the Pacific. Despite being an indispensable part of American forces, they faced racial prejudices from their fellow Marines. A handful of recorded instances depict them being mistaken for enemy Japanese soldiers; by 1943, code talkers were assigned personal bodyguards. After they reported to their units, code talkers were assigned in pairs. During battle, one operated the radio while the second relayed and received messages in Navajo and then translate them. Many code talkers also performed duties as runners. Their work was especially dangerous in the Pacific as Japanese soldiers deliberately targeted officers, medics, radiomen, and code talkers. Their survival rate was considerably lower when compared to a Marine Corps rifleman, machine gunner, or mortarman.
The Navajo code talkers were highly commended for their meritorious service, communications skills, and bravery under fire. They served with distinction in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division credits the Navajo code talkers for being the reason behind the successful invasion of the island. Had they not been able to transmit and receive nearly 1,000 messages from the landings, the outcome could have been far more deadly.
“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.”
Major Howard Connor
As with any military practice involving a degree of secrecy, the Navajo code talkers were prevented from sharing details about their military service from their families or the public. The code talker program was classified from its beginning and remained so until 1968. Its declassification came at the height of the Vietnam War and with anti-war sentiment and public protests demanding more civil rights for Native American tribes, recognition for the code talkers was unfortunately sidelined. Many code talker veterans kept silent about their service. By the 1980s, stories about the code talkers began entering mainstream media as books and documentary interviews with surviving code talkers started to tell their stories. In 2001, the 106th Congress passed H.R. 4527 ‘Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act’ which bestowed its highest honor on each of the surviving twenty-nine first recruits; the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented medals to the survivors, honoring them for their achievements and contributions to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific.
So where does Adolph Nagurski fit into this story? As previously mentioned, the first twenty-nine code talkers weren’t the only ones in the entire war. As more Navajos entered the Marine Corps, their language skills were tested to see if they could perform as a code talker. Adolph Nagurski qualified following his induction in December 1943 in Flagstaff Arizona. He completed basic training in the following spring and in May 1944, he attended the Field Signal School at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. The class lasted four weeks where he and fourteen others learned every skill needed for a radio operator and memorizing the Navajo code. In December 1944, Nagurski left California for Guam, then Saipan, and Guadalcanal. On April 1, 1945, he took part in the landings on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He fought on Okinawa for the full duration of the battle; over two months of some of the worst fighting in the entire Pacific war. Thousands of Marines, Army, and enemy troops were killed every week while many more Okinawan civilians were caught in crossfires. When the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, Nagurski sailed for China where he witnessed Japanese forces formally surrender at Tsingtao that following October. There he fulfilled occupation duties with the 6th Marine Division for six months until he finally returned to the U.S. in May 1946. He passed away in 2013, but he never received the full honors for his code talker service. A stipulation in the legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal to the first group of code talkers was that the Congressional Silver Medal was granted to every Navajo code talker who served after the initial recruits. Nagurski was unable to participate in a subsequent ceremony for the silver medal recipients and passed away in 2011 before ever receiving it. The situation came to the attention of Senator Martin Henrich in 2018 when the Nagurski family petitioned to have this oversight resolved. In April 2018, Pvt. Adolph Nagurski was posthumously honored with the Congressional Silver Medal accepted on behalf of his surviving son, Benjamin. In the award speech by Senator Martin, he describes the harsh conditions and battlefield horrors endured by Nagurski and the other code talkers. With their indispensable role as transmitters of important messages and intelligence, the Navajo code talkers made their mark in history. The Navajo code remains unbroken and its secrecy lives now in the memories of those who ran the Pacific gauntlet into victory.
People risk their lives for a number of reasons: it’s in their job description, they’re in a medical crisis, or they’re protecting someone or something important. Without those trials, we wouldn’t come away with a better understanding of who we are or what we’re doing. Bravery sculpts us into stronger people. It also makes us capable of accomplishments we didn’t think possible.
Military life isn’t exactly a safe occupation, especially if your MOS (military occupational specialty) is a combat role. There are non-combatant roles that can, however, place one in the line of fire. War correspondents insert themselves right the heat of battle in order to report what happens to the home front. There was certainly no shortage during the Second World War. Dozens of journalists from publishing and news companies around the world risked life and limb to relay actions and human stories to their readers. Amongst the correspondents and reporters, many point to one man who outranks all others. Someone who defined the role of the common soldier and made him, and not the generals, the true heroes: Ernie Pyle. Covering both the European and Pacific theater until he was killed in action on April 18, 1945 on Ie Shima, his dispatches, interviews, and grassroots style of hometown journalism were highly regarded by service members of every rank. A posthumous Purple Heart was awarded to his family, an extremely rare honor for a civilian. His reporting even directly impacted the lives of service members by reporting on the conduct of the war and the sufferings endured by those who were maimed or traumatized. He knew what they were going through because he traveled right alongside them.
In 1944, following his frontline journey in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, Pyle returned to the U.S. for recovery after spending over two years overseas. Everything he chronicled in hundreds of news columns and dispatches were compiled into a handful of books. One of them, ‘Brave Men‘, published in 1944, highlights the different types of combat roles in the European theater. Pyle spent most of his time with infantry units, but he also saw action with engineers, tanks, artillery, aerial bombers, and naval vessels. Pyle’s well-known folksy style is evident in every snippet. He talks to his interviewees, asks about their civilian lives, their hopes, passions, families, hobbies, and why they’re fighting. He slept on cots in tents, on the ground in foxholes, and could talk his way into any jeep, truck, tank, or boat to wherever the action was. ‘Brave Men‘ isn’t a history book in the academic sense that there’s a thesis, central argument, supporting evidence, and endless citations. The book instead is a chronicle of how soldiers experience war differently. The bombardier and rifleman face different dangers from the truck driver or stevedore. Pyle doesn’t glorify one soldier over another because each have their role in the great enterprise. The soldier is there because he wants to make a difference. His livelihood depends on making a split second decision on whether to adjust the range on a mortar or to round a corner into a dark room. There’s a profound sense of loneliness, but also belonging in military life. Pyle doesn’t make these soldiers out to be supermen, but ordinary guys making their way through an extraordinary situation. They’re from Omaha, Nebraska, Columbus, Ohio, Sacramento, California, Danville, Virginia, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thousands of miles from home and willing to battle a tough enemy.
‘Brave Men‘, despite its age, retains great relevance with our contemporaries. The stories of many of those Pyle interviewed resonant with U.S. servicemen and women today. They learn to deal with impossible situations through their own coping mechanisms. Soldiers also explore ways to remind themselves of home and why they’re serving. Pyle’s brand of journalism kept millions of people grounded to the war effort and taught them just how important their bravery was in such a cataclysmic time. He landed with the thousands who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day and captured the historic moment with his eloquence:
“The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many.“
Ernie Pyle – June 6, 1944
‘Brave Men’ is highly recommended for those who want to read about the Second World War, but from a grassroots perspective. We can always check out books examining the war’s causes, political backgrounds, economic impacts, military technology, and many other topical intersections, but this looks at it from those who are fighting the war itself. Everything metaphysical and intangible as geopolitics are far removed from the soldier who’s trying to make it out alive from this foxhole on the Western Front. That was Ernie Pyle’s war.
“Some day I’d like to cover a war in a country as ugly as war itself.“
One of the great perks of my job with the National Personnel Records Center is working with records for those who took part in major historical events. Earlier at the office, I received a request for records on a World War II U.S. Navy veteran. Pretty standard operating procedure for me since they are a routine request. While glancing at the veteran’s information, I paused: Date of Death – 12/7/1941. A Navy veteran dying on December 7th? My mind instantly assumed this veteran was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. I cracked open the ‘brick’ [named for the small brown service jacket holding the documents] and slowly absorbed the mountain of historical information. My assumption was proved correct as I found several Naval speed letters and telegrams from the War Department informing the family that he had been killed in the attack. At least that was the assumption in 1941 since he last duty station was the battleship USS Oklahoma. The family didn’t receive official confirmation until February 1942 as he was still unaccounted for after three months. He was one among the nearly four hundred unidentified sailors recovered from the ship. His fate was not uncommon with many Pearl Harbor casualties, especially if they were trapped inside vessels. Between December 1941 and June 1944, the Navy recovered hundreds of remains from the USS Oklahoma and other ships and interred them in Hawaii. Colleagues came by my desk looking at the record and were astonished at the story. The veteran re-enlisted on the USS Oklahoma in 1940 where it was moored on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. What a twist of fate for him and hundreds more as they were the first target in the infamous attack. On top of asking for his service record, they requested all his awards as well, which were many given any veteran who died at Pearl Harbor automatically qualifies for several awards, including the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal. You receive a unique sense of satisfaction when handling something like this. It’s hard to describe; intrigue, humility, astonishment, sadness? Me personally, it’s all the above.
The story of the USS Oklahoma begins on October 26, 1912 when the keel was laid down in Camden, New Jersey. It was the first of a new class of battleships, coded Nevada-class. It was quickly pressed into service following its commission on May 2, 1916 as World War I ravaged Europe. At first it patrolled the Eastern Seaboard, but in August 1918, it joined Battleship Division Six in protecting shipping convoys across the Atlantic. The USS Oklahoma never saw combat action in the Atlantic; the only casualties were six sailors who died from the Spanish flu pandemic. Between 1918 and 1941, the USS Oklahoma jumped from training exercises, remodeling, and state visits in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it evacuated stranded U.S. and European refugees off the coast of Bilbao in northern Spain. A series of structural and engineering accidents in the late 1930s brought it to Pearl Harbor where it would remain permanently moored until all upgrades and repairs were made. By then though, the decision was made the retire the battleship by the spring of 1942.
The USS Oklahoma was one of eight battleships hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Torpedo bombers from the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi and Kaga hit the ship three times, almost rupturing the hull. Sailors scrambled to the main decks to return fire, but ammunition was locked in the armory. Boiler rooms and the aft bulkhead were then destroyed. This resulted in the ship capsizing. Two more torpedoes hit the ship as it continued to sink into the harbor. The ship’s large masts prevented it from completely exposing the keel. As the attack progressed, hundreds of sailors desperately tried to escape the capsizing ship. Sailors and officers like John C. England, James R. Ward, and Francis C. Flaherty helped get men to safety at the expense of their lives from the USS Oklahoma. They were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor with the exception of England who only received a Purple Heart. Another sailor, John A. Austin received a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions rescuing fifteen sailors. While reading the story of the USS Oklahoma, I’m trying to picture the veteran whose record I read struggling to survive and make it off the sinking battleship. What was going through his mind we’ll never know, but he probably offered up a sundry of prayers and let his survival instincts take over as the sounds of explosions and the buzz of warplanes was deafening. A fire broke out from the boiler rooms and engulfed the ship’s stern undoubtedly killing more sailors.
Fast forward months later, the clean-up of Pearl Harbor was still in progress. Navy officials determined that the USS Oklahoma was salvageable and began work in July 1942. The capsized ship was a navigational hazard and it required twenty-one derricks to parbuckle the ship and through it all a Navy crew was tasked with pulling out human remains. Many of the bodies decomposed after months in saltwater and were unidentifiable based on forensic techniques at the time. The unidentified bodies were turned over to the American Graves Registration Service and buried in Hawaii. By November 1942, basic repairs to the hull were completed and its armaments and guns were removed. in September 1944, the decision was made to de-commission the USS Oklahoma and in 1946, the hull was sold at auction to the Moore Drydock Company in California. It was here that the ultimate fate of the battleship came to fruition. A storm on May 17, 1947 finally sank the USS Oklahoma as it was being tugged from Hawaii to California. The wreck has not been located and the USS Oklahoma remains lost to this day. The crew that served on the ship though are not lost to time and their remains continue to be identified.
Ever since the end of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government has carried out numerous programs aimed at identifying the missing and dead servicemembers. In the nine years since Pearl Harbor, only a few dozen sailors from the USS Oklahoma were positively identified. The remaining were interred in unmarked graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began utilizing DNA analysis to identify the unknown remains. By the time the program ended in September 2021, 396 sailors and Marines were positively identified from the USS Oklahoma, with the remaining reinterred in Hawaii. Programs such as this help to not only bring closure to families who lost someone in the attack, but to honor those who died in the the country’s momentous entry into the Second World War. Some are lost forever, but their memories are kept alive by the historical research and forensic work carried out by the Armed Forces, historians, and survivors’ families.
For the sailor whose record landed on my desk, Fireman 1st Class Andrew Schmitz was accounted for on September 18, 2019 and returned home to Amelia Court House, Virginia.
“This is General Olbricht, calling on behalf of General Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army. The Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, is dead. A group of radicals in the SS are attempting to seize control of the government. Initiate Operation Valkyrie.”
Bill Nighy delivered that line as General Friedrich Olbricht, one of the participants in the famous July 20 plot intended to assassinate Adolf Hitler, arrest members of his inner circle, and negotiate an armistice with the Allies. The bomb failed to eliminate their intended targets and the plotters were quickly arrested and executed. For a brief moment though, men like Claus von Stauffenberg, Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Fromm, Werner von Haeften, Henning von Tresckow, Carl Goerdeler, and Erwin von Witzleben believed that they had incapacitated the Nazis and rescued Germany.
Popularized in the 2008 film, Valkyrie, the July 20 plot became the most famous assassination attempt against Hitler, who by than had avoided death more than a dozen times. Members of the German Resistance were comprised of senior political, military, and private sector businessmen who lost faith that Germany could prevail against the Allies. U.S., British, and Canadian forces were in the midst of liberating France and renewed offensives by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front placed Germany in an untenable position. In the early summer of 1944, after a failed bomb assassination, a new plan was put forward to resistance leaders.
The German Reserve Army (or Replacement Army) retained operational plans for maintaining law and order during a national emergency. Codenamed ‘Operation Valkyrie’, General Olbricht believed that it was possible to retool the plan to use the Replacement Army if a coup d’état were to erupt. Resistance members recruited the commander of the Replacement Army, Friedrich Fromm, who agreed to keep silent in exchange for a senior position in the new regime. Colonel Henning von Tresckow (who tried to kill Hitler in 1943) drafted a new copy of the Valkyrie plan and distributed it to various Nazi installations across Europe over a period of several weeks. The new draft required seizing communication hubs, government offices, and concentration camp offices so as to quickly secure German infrastructure.
But how to kill Hitler himself? There had been twenty-one attempts, including shooting, stabbing, bombing, and even poisoning (allegedly Hitler’s vegetarian diet spared him that fate). The answer came with Colonel Stauffenberg’s appointment as Chief-of-Staff of the Replacement Army. This granted him access to Hitler’s advisors and itinerary, which was manna from heaven to the Resistance. Armed with the knowledge of Hitler’s moving location and retinue, they could decide the method for killing Hitler. Two bombs armed with chemically timed pencil detonators inside a leather briefcase was the best option. The bomb would detonate inside a concrete bunker at the Wolf’s Lair complex in East Prussia and the resulting concussive blasts would instantly kill anyone in the room. Stauffenberg’s job required him to attend military briefings and so he volunteered to deliver the bombs.
The planners originally chose July 11 to carry out their mission, but there was a hiccup. Resistance members understood that if only Hitler was killed, he would be replaced by a close associate like Himmler or Goering. Ultimately the plan was aborted because Himmler wasn’t present at the briefing. A second attempt occurred on July 15 since Himmler and Goering were in attendance, but Hitler was called out for another meeting and Stauffenberg hastily removed the detonator from the bombs. Simultaneously as the Resistance carried out their plans, the Gestapo were investigating the alleged plotters and many concluded that some assassination attempt was in the works. Stauffenberg, Beck, Tresckow, Olbricht, and others resigned themselves to the fact that even if Hitler miraculously survived, they needed to complete the second half of their plot of seizing control of the German government. Failure meant facing the firing squad.
July 20, 1944: Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, arrived at the Wolf’s Lair and under the pretense of using a washroom, the two armed the bombs and walked to the briefing. A last minute change occurred when the meeting was moved from the concrete bunker to a wooden cabin with large windows: it was an especially hot and humid day. Stauffenberg placed the bomb as close as possible to Hitler and left the room quickly thereafter under the pretense of a phone call. At 12:42 PM, an explosion ripped through the cabin, shattering windows, ripping off doors, and splintering rafters. Believing Hitler was dead, Stauffenberg and von Haeften sped away from the Lair and flew back to Berlin where plotters received the flash: “HITLER IS DEAD.”
Hitler wasn’t dead. General Fellgiebel, another plotter present at the Wolf’s Lair, saw Hitler and informed other members, but when Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin, he maintained the Hitler was still dead. At 4:00 PM, Operation Valkyrie was initiated and the Replacement Army quickly went to work arresting ‘conspirators’ in the Nazi Party and Wehrmacht. As the plot continued though, news of Hitler’s survival began undermining the plan. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel deduced that Stauffenberg planted the bomb and orders for his and others arrests went out.
At around 7:00 PM, Hitler recovered enough from his mild injuries to begin making phone calls to Berlin. Members of the coup who wavered in their support for the Resistance shifted sides after hearing of Hitler’s survival. The coup quickly disintegrated and the plotters were ordered to be taken alive. In an attempt to prove loyalty, General held an impromptu court-martial and pronounced death sentences to all the conspirators. They were escorted to the courtyard of the Bendlerblock (administrative offices for the War Ministry), lined up, and shot to death.
In the weeks and months following the July 20 plot, dozens more conspirators were identified, admonished before kangaroo courts and summarily executed. It was the last assassination attempt against Hitler, but after World War II, it became the most famous attempt of them all since it came the closest to possibly ending the war. In those six hours on July 20, the Resistance had their chance of stopping the most savage fighting in all of Europe. They made the most of those hours before facing the gallows. Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators became heroes in postwar world and their actions were later recognized by the German government in 1980 with the Memorial to the German Resistance. A plaque hangs above the spot where the plotters were executed, displaying a four solemn lines attributing to their cause:
You did not bear the shame.
You bestowed the eternally vigilant signal to turn back
by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honour.
General Douglas MacArthur said they were ‘my best soldiers.’ Without them, many believed that the U.S. war effort would have been vastly shorthanded. They were a vital force in North America and by the end of World War II, there were over 150,000 active duty personnel in every theater of operations.
The Women’s Army Corps was established as an auxiliary unit and activated to full duty status on July 1st, 1943, serving in communication and mechanical duties both in the United States and overseas. During World War II, the service women endured rigorous training and a great deal of slandering from WAC opponents. Some believed that women could not rise to the challenge and many others disbelieved that women should perform any wartime duties. Despite some public backlash, the Women’s Army Corps boasted over 150,000 active duty members and inspired the creation of other women’s auxiliaries; the Navy WAVES, Coast Guard SPARS, and the USMC Women’s Reserve. Like the rest of the armed forces, segregation was practiced between black and white women in the WAC, but senior leaders made it a priority to ensure that everyone received the same training and opportunities to work in different specialties.
For their service, all enlisted members of the WAC received the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal. Created by Executive Order 9365 by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1943, the medal is given to anyone who served with the WAC or it preceding organization, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Unlike other service medals, the WACSM has no appurtenances and is only awarded once. Following the corps’ disbandment, the medal was no longer awarded, but those who still served during the necessary time frame can apply to receive the award. The observe side of the medal features a profile of the deity Athena; Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. For many women, World War II proved that they were capable of doing many of the demanding wartime jobs and accomplishing them with great valor and gallantry.
The North Sea is a tumultuous landscape. Filled with rolling waves, violent storms, and high winds that only the most experienced seamen can withstand. Those who work on the sea can recount the harsh conditions. Life in the North Sea was immeasurably worse during World War II as it became a no-man’s land of German U-boats and patrol planes. They waited patiently for enemy ships to enter their vector and launch their attack. For the duration of the war, the North Sea became a precious corridor, a lifeline to the people of Norway and Great Britain. A small cadre of Norwegians and British sailors ran a covert shipping operation delivering weapons, supplies, and saboteurs to aid the beleaguered Norwegians as they resisted German occupation. Refugees were spirited across the sea as well to protect them from Nazi atrocities. Throughout the operation, ships had to travel at night to avoid detection from spotter planes and U-boats, but the sea is harshest at night and some never made it to their destination. This is the story of the ‘Shetland Bus’.
Fans of the BBC crime drama Shetland would know a trivia night amount of the Shetland Bus. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez researches its operational history searching for a link between a murder victim and a Norwegian sailor. He hears of the dangers they endured; fierce storms, aerial attacks, torpedoed by U-boats, and if discovered in Norway by the Germans, arrested and executed. This isn’t artistic license. The operators lived like this for over four years. To fully understand the bus’s criticality, we look back to Europe in 1941.
Norway capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940 and a pro-German puppet government under Vidkun Quisling was established with the Reich Commissariat of Norway. The country remained under German control until the end of war. This presented a precarious, but unique situation to the British Navy. The North Sea would be an intense battle ground for supplying Allied forces and blockading Axis ports. Additionally, British and Norwegian agents could be ferried and supplied across the sea and help subvert the Nazis in Norway. In early 1940, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6; yes, the James Bond MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) met with Norwegian special agents to formulate an espionage and supply operations between the two nations. A brief series of runs demonstrated the effectiveness and necessities of supplying agents in Norway and rescuing at-risk civilians. In late 1941, the SOE created the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit becoming informally known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ by its officers and sailors.
Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant David Howarth spotted a perfect location in Shetland at Lunna Ness. The small harbor and nearby houses would provide a fitting cover for clandestine operations. Many would not look twice at some fishing boats, thinking that they were ferrying saboteurs between nations. While central command was located at the Lunna House in 1941, boats would be brought in at any available harbor that had proper facilities for upkeep. Scalloway was used as the main port with its engineering capabilities and additional space for boats. The Shetland Bus operated from Lunna and Scalloway for the next four years. During its first winter, six boats and thirty sailors were lost at sea, either from harsh storms or enemy fire. In 1943, three sub-chasers from the U.S. Navy were transferred to the Norwegian navy who used it for the Shetland Bus. These were a godsend for the sailors and officers as it afforded them increased protection and faster speeds to outrun U-boats.
Two critical exchanges on the Shetland bus were vital to Norway’s survival. The country had several resistance groups, but were disorganized and scattered throughout. Specially trained SOE agents were ordered to slip into Norway and lead sabotage operations to undermine the German war effort and the Quisling puppet government. They took radios, explosives, and other needed supplies with them to contact British handlers and Norse resistors. SOE operatives also required a reliable transport network to ferry them back to Shetland at any point. The SOe proved incredibly effective in helping the Norse resistance. One famous act of SOE clandestine work during WWII were the raids on heavy water production facilities supporting the German nuclear weapons program.
The second exchange were spiriting away high risk Norse citizens considered enemies of the state. Nearly three thousands Jews lived in Norway in 1940 and approximately two-thirds escaped by fleeing to Sweden or taking passage on the Shetland Bus. Sailors routinely arranged with local Jewish and SOE leaders to make exchanges when making deliveries to transport Jewish families to Shetland. A handful of such exchanges were sometimes discovered by the local Gestapo, but they were never fully able to halt the Shetland Bus. The sheer length of the Norwegian coastline and number of fjords and harbors made it impossible for the Germans to police every incoming ship.
By late 1944 as the war turned against Germany and U-boat patrols in the North Sea diminished, the Shetland Bus lost less men, materials, and ships to the enemy. The addition of the three sub-chasers cut down on the loss of life and afforded them the ability to run shipments during the day rather than only at night. By the war’s end, the Bus completed 210 missions, carried over 400 tonnes of equipment, rescued over 300 refugees, and assisted with some clandestine operations that arguably held down thousands of German troops stationed in Norway that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere. The last mission was completed on May 9, 1945, the day after V-E Day when the VIGRA entered free Norse waters.
Today a memorial cairn honors the memory and sacrifice of Norse and British sailors who worked tirelessly, risking their lives to keep hope alive during WWII. What many thought was a motley crew of hard scrabble seamen in fishing boats was in reality a life-line to the oppressed Norwegians resisting the German occupation. Had it not been for the brave men running the Shetland Bus, who knows what might have happened to Norway and possibly Western Europe during the early dark days of the Second World War.
For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.
He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.
Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands.
Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials.
Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually.
Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles.
Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight.
Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States. By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first.
History of the 345th Bombardment Group
Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:
From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’
The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines.
They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion.
By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.
Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation.
While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip.
Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.
Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber.
Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group.
Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal.
American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal.
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:
Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)
China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)
New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)
Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)
Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)
Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)
Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)
China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945)
World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal.
Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp.
Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:
Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944.
Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.
The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM.
Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM.
Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina.
Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC.
All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.
Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943.
Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas.
According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’
Nearly every World War II history buff knows the story of the racial segregation faced by black soldiers and sailors. The U.S. Armed Forces were not racially integrated, resulting in many all black units and regiments. Integration wouldn’t happen until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Their work responsibilities were also limited to support roles in logistics, janitorial, and food services. Many did not see combat action with the exception of a few armored units such as ‘Patton’s Panthers’. As Black History Month continues, many historians have re-investigated covered-up stories of racial violence and intolerance in the WWII era. Even as the nation fought to preserve democratic nations, the denial of civil and equal rights in the black community became a sticking point in the ‘Double V Campaign.’ Volunteer service by blacks skyrocketed during WWII; they had served in nearly every U.S. conflict since the American Revolution and did so to prove their worthiness of citizenship and freedom. Resistance from some senior white officers and institutional racism within service branches led to unequal access to facilities in military posts, bases, and airfields in the United States. The story was different in Europe. The British and French welcomed them with open arms and couldn’t reconcile with the segregationist policies placed on black servicemen. They were all there to defeat the Axis powers; that alone should make them all equals.
In the 1980s, maintenance workers in Bamber Bridge, England carrying out remodeling work found what appeared to be bullet holes. They weren’t recent and stories emerged from some of the locals who lived in the area during the war. It was the Battle of Bamber Bridge. The Axis never invaded the main British Isles, but what transpired in the small village over forty years ago?
In 1943, the tide of war was beginning to change for the Allies. German forces were expelled from North Africa and Italy was the next target. U.S. troops arrived in England and began establishing bases of operation and prepared for the coming invasion of France. During this preparatory phase, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted training drills, firearms proficiency, and classroom instruction. Not all took part in this endeavor though. Black servicemen were primarily assigned to logistical roles in quartermaster companies, food service, and mechanical work. Coinciding with these was the unequal treatment and denial of access to specific facilities in base and when servicemen were on leave. Local villagers and townspeople in England welcomed black servicemen and were befuddled by the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere practiced by their white comrades. Black servicemen, who were routinely discriminated against in the U.S. enjoyed a new degree of freedom in Europe where no racial codes or institutional racism against blacks were practiced by locals. Despite that, their white counterparts and superior officers brought many of the Jim Crow attitudes with them. Military police designated certain businesses and services for blacks only and did not allow them to integrate with white servicemen in town. Differing opinions on race between soldiers and civilians though produced deadly results.
On the evening of June 24, 1943, black servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Company arrived at Ye Olde Hob Inn, a pub near the edge of town. The 1511th was assigned to the 8th Air Force that operated multiple airfields in England and their primary duties consisted of making deliveries between posts. That evening, a small group of truck drivers on leave went to the pub for drinks and socializing. As the evening progressed, two white military policemen from the 234th Military Policy Company passed by the pub and spotted the group. They immediately barged in and pointed at Private Eugene Nunn. They noted he was wearing the M1941 field jacket and not his Class A uniform. Army regulation at the time stated that a soldier has to wear their Class A’s while on leave in a public place. They also charged him with going AWOL (absent without leave), but they all had their passes with them. Many of the pub tenants defended the them saying they weren’t causing any trouble and were in fact behaving civilly towards everyone. A black staff sergeant diffused the situation, but while the MPs departed, beer bottles were thrown at them (they did not see the suspect who threw the bottles). They called back to their superior officers who ordered them to bring in those who were ‘resisting arrest’. Shots were fired between the 1511th and the MPs which turned the incident deadly; Private William Crossland was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter.
Local villagers were left in shock. A racially charged incident like this leaving one person dead was frightening to them and they did not know what to expect next. Some black servicemen safely returned to the nearby airfield and when news spread of what happened at Ye Old Hob Inn, others began arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Their commanding officer, Major George Heris and Lieutenant Edwin Jones (the regiment’s only black officer) persuaded the men that they would seek justice from the white MPs for Crossland’s death. Around midnight, a small group of MPs arrived in jeeps and an armored vehicle with the intent to ‘put down a mutiny’ as described by a British police constable. A four hour firefight broke out between the 1511th and the MPs, leaving seven injured, but no additional fatalities.
A court-martial convicted thirty-two black servicemen guilty of mutiny and were dishonorably discharged. Some white officers wanted to cover up the violence quickly to prevent any drop in morale before the invasion of Europe, but others were not so quick to cast off this racist event. General Ira Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, squarely put the blame on the racist behavior of white MPs and their inexperienced, racist superiors. General Eaker conducted a thorough purge of 8th Air Force units, expelling any documented offenders of racist acts and integrated MP patrols. Despite his best efforts, news of the Bamber Bridge Riot was heavily censored both in England and the United States. Just a few days before, race riots in Detroit left dozens dead and wounded following months of socio-economic tension between whites and blacks. News of race riots in the U.S. overshadowed an incident like Bamber Bridge and memory of the fiery exchange faded with time.
Popular historical interest in the Bamber Bridge riot resurfaced when that maintenance worker found those bullet holes. Since then, scholars and historians have researched the history of racial antagonisms in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. While President Truman’s executive order integrated the military, racist behavior by whites towards blacks was and still remains a unresolved problem between all the service branches.
How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?
The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.
Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.
Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).
Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:
John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)
OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.
A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.
The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.
Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.
U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.
So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:
Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
Convicted of sex crimes
Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)
These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.