Convergent Paths to Glory: The Revelations of Captain Sheldon Dannelly’s “Missing Letters”

Captain Sheldon M. Dannelly, CO of A Co. 128th Regt., 32nd ID, in Australia, 1943.

In its 654 days, or over 13,000 hours, in the combat zone in World War II—the most of any Army infantry unit up to that time, and arguably since—the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division had a total of eleven Congressional Medals of Honor bestowed on its member soldiers. All were enlisted men, and all but two were posthumous awards. These factors help support the notion that the awards were legitimately earned, free from the scrutiny that some instances of the lesser gallantry awards may have attracted.

Equally notable for the Division’s history, and long a story that had remained under-recognized or even totally missed until discovered in the research for 32 Answered, is that no less than three of the eleven Medals of Honor were awarded to men serving under the same company commander: Captain Sheldon Marchus Dannelly (Wofford College, Class of 1939).  This path to greater glory for all involved proved a costly one in lives, including Dannelly’s own.

In writing 32 Answered, your author was graciously provided access to a total of fourteen sets of family papers from the South Carolina veterans; the Dannelly collection was the last and by far the most extensive and comprehensive.  At the time of publication, however, the collection stopped abruptly in November of 1943, just shy of the run-up to the Saidor Campaign.  A great deal of speculation, followed by several conversations with Dannelly’s surviving relatives, arose out of the attempt to reach a valid conclusion for why this lapse had occurred.  Loss in transit, damage or destruction from poor storage over time, or that possibly for some profound reason Dannelly had just stopped writing letters home, became valid theories.  This had also led to quite a bit of “guess-timation” in the book narrative in trying to reconstruct (1) what happened at the Teteri ambush (Saidor campaign), (2) the events at Aitape the night of the Driniumor River action (resulting in the Medal of Honor for Sgt. Gerald Endl), and (3) the true circumstances of a transfer to the 127th before the Luzon campaign (i.e., was he plucked away from the 128th by Colonel Powell A. “Pop” Fraser to replace Captain Tally D. Fulmer, with the goal of keeping Southerners in command of his companies?).  Also, the lingering question: did Dannelly have a unique quality in his leadership that encouraged his men to rise above and beyond a normal expectation of duty and give that extra bit, at risk of personal sacrifice, to accomplish objectives and protect the lives of their fellow soldiers; or, was it just that he happened to have really good men in his units and made sure they got their due awards.

The slideshow presentation that has accompanied most book-signing engagements so far has emphasized the principal take-away drawn from the research process methodology used for 32 Answered.  Essentially, a categorization of the types of discoveries encountered in the digging; for example:

  1. What you discover and can print in the narrative
  2. What you discover and can footnote
  3. What you discover but cannot use
  4. What you have a hunch about but cannot discover
  5. Undiscovered and missing pieces, presumed lost

The uncovering of the “lost” letters in September 2015 solidly fit the fifth category and led to creation of a sixth: “what comes to light after [you think] you are finished, too late to include”.  Much to our surprise, this critical bundle of papers had existed all along, just had not resided with the main body of personal effects in Dannelly’s two footlockers.  Rather, they were found packed neatly in an old purse, a sure sign that someone had especially treasured this segment of his correspondence.

As demonstrated in 32 Answered, the 32nd Infantry Division, while historically a Michigan-Wisconsin National Guard unit, began its storied World War II combat career with a disproportionate number of Reservist junior officers from the Deep South, including, remarkably, thirty-two from South Carolina alone.  Nearly all had been assigned in February 1942, just before the Division was ordered to move out from its training base near Alexandria, Louisiana, to an interim posting at Fort Devens near Boston Massachusetts, in preparation for transport to the United Kingdom.  Quite unexpectedly, they spent the next three months moving with the Division westward across the continent, then in convoy across the Pacific Ocean destined for Australia. Later in the year, these same officers led company and platoon-sized elements into combat against the Japanese at Buna, on Papua New Guinea’s north coast, as part of General MacArthur’s first offensive.  In a unit consequently 90% decimated by tropical ailments, enemy action, and general unpreparedness for jungle warfare, those South Carolina reservists who managed to survive and return to duty formed the core of the officer leadership that continued on to later campaigns, right up to the very last one against General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s holdouts in the Luzon highlands.  The story survives only because of a critical mass of clues gleaned from the surviving collections of veterans’ papers, which were used for critical comparison against the published primary and secondary source materials as well as available official documents.

In prelude to greater glory, most of the Reservists began their tenure with the Red Arrow Division in predictable roles commensurate with the treatment familiar to any outsiders or “newbies,” either drawing peripheral tasks such as “gas officer” or “athletic and recreation officer”, filling out the ranks of the new “cannon” and “anti-tank” companies, or else receiving command of the arduous, emburdened pioneer or heavy weapons platoons.  Perhaps luckier than some, Second Lieutenant Dannelly wound up in the 128th (Wisconsin National Guard) Regiment’s 1st Battalion, whose officer complement featured about an even mix of Reserve and remaining Guard and as a bonus happened to be led by the son of the unit’s World War I commander. Two of his newfound best friends in the Battalion, Second Lieutenants Robert Charlton (“Charlie”) Commander and William Aiken Carlisle, were fellow South Carolinians, both Clemson cadet program graduates.

The shocking attrition rate at Buna soon brought several of the South Carolina officers from the periphery of command into solid leadership positions. “Pop” Fraser, who began his Red Arrow service as the 127th’s Regimental “athletic and recreation officer”, manned the straggler line behind the Buna front until picked to take over a company that had lost all of its officers and its nerve.  Alongside the company led by Tally Doyle Fulmer, who himself was commanding by default as the last officer effective in the unit, Fraser’s company played a very visible role in the final actions on the Buna Front and garnered enough attention from superiors to warrant a Distinguished Service Cross for both he and Fulmer.  Dannelly, though earning no similar decorations, likewise at the end of the campaign was commanding not only his own A Company 128th but also the remnants of C Company 128th after the latter had lost its last officer in an early morning ambush of its Headquarters.

While existing source material supported the Buna-related events quite adequately in the book’s text, the gaps left by the open questions of subsequent campaigns had to be filled in with some triangulation and speculation.  The official histories, in most cases, were of little use; the resources dedicated to the Red Arrow Division (e.g., the Blakely and Lauer unit histories, Jesse Coker’s personal memoir, Tracy Derks’ independent research, and the 32nd Division Association website) were more helpful.  Having the missing Dannelly correspondence in hand later resolved a great many of the questions, especially regarding the confluence of the 128th and 127th Regimental battle timelines resulting from Dannelly’s transfer in late 1944.

The significant incident at Teteri, and the circumstances before and after the loss of Colonel Gordon Clarkson, 1st Battalion 128th Commander, regrettably remains incomplete. For some reason, there were still no letters existing from the crucial period of interest between January and March of 1944, though he mentions one sent in February.  This letter, had it been included in the later batch, may have resolved the questions of why Dannelly was neither present with elements of his company when they were ambushed on the wrong side of the Mot River west of the Saidor beachhead, nor heading the rescue party, which was instead led personally by Clarkson, who was hit by enemy gunfire and killed while reaching to pull a man from the river.  As determined from the post-Saidor letters that do exist, Dannelly thankfully did not appear to have suffered any discernible signs of survivor’s guilt or depression from the incident.  His perspective, however, on the fates of the six soldiers and medic who volunteered to stay behind on the far bank with the wounded and dead, and who to this day remain MIA, is sadly lost forever. Still, we do now know that Dannelly’s subsequent transfer from command of A Company 128 to C Company 128 was not the result of some command decision resulting from the Teteri clash; it was not disciplinary, nor carried out to rescue his career from any loss of confidence among his men; surprisingly, it was merely the result of false hopes, bad timing, and lost opportunity.

Both of his best friends and fellow South Carolinians in the Battalion—“Charlie” Commander and Bill Carlisle—were scheduled to rotate home in May of 1944.  The flawed rotation system, universally reviled, remained the bane of Red Arrow men hoping to go home after serving overseas since early 1942.  As outlined in Dannelly’s letter home dated 30 April 1944, “I do not know what my priority is, since it’s based on these steps: 1-time overseas; 2-then (among those overseas the same amount of time) time in the tropics; 3-physical and mental condition.  Many of our officers have been overseas a few weeks longer than I. . . . Others in our own outfit have a week more in the tropics. . . . Still others are not in as good health as I.”  The quota of three officers a month placed him “pretty far down the priority list.”  This description clearly shows the irony, which rewarded the healthy, unwounded, and critically needed—including, in addition to Dannelly, Harry Williams in the 126th; “Pop” Fraser and Marvin Thomas in the 127th; Harold Thackston and Thomas Bell in the 128th—by keeping them overseas and in combat indefinitely.  On the other hand, Commander had contracted a severe case of malaria at Buna and had only recently been able to return to limited duty.  Carlisle was wounded by a sniper at Buna but had returned to take over the job of Battalion S-3 (Operations and Training), the position he held during the rebuilding and refitting period of 1943 and culminating in their return to combat at Saidor.  The latter case set a series of events into place that affected Dannelly directly, at least through the remainder of spring and into the summer of 1944, and provided the circuitous chronology of events that led to his transfer.

The first inkling of this was news of a “possibility of my receiving a new assignment” in his letter dated 12 March 1944.  The Executive Officer (“XO”) of 1st Battalion, Major Samuel Scott, had meanwhile become the interim Battalion CO after Colonel Clarkson’s death at Teteri.  Dannelly related how Major Scott “said he’d like to have me on his staff to replace the Officer going home” (Carlisle, the S-3 position) “and also creating a vacancy here for Lieutenant [George] Hess, my Executive Officer, to take over command of this company and get a promotion for the outstanding work he has done on numerous occasions,” most recently having been the hero at the Teteri fight; recall that it was Lieutenant Hess who carried the rope across to Clarkson’s rescue party, at the end of a human chain, and made possible the withdrawal of all but the party that stayed behind with the wounded.  As Dannelly continued, “It would be difficult to give up command of the best Company in the outfit after being with them ever since sailing for overseas, and having commanded them in two campaigns and for over fifteen months.”  Still, he agreed that it “will be a break for Hess, and it is a compliment to be wanted by the Battalion Commander for his staff.”

The news initiated a long and uncertain wait for the appointment to matriculate, or not.  In his letter dated 21 March he was still optimistic and “expecting to get the staff job in a couple of weeks.”  Beginning 16 April he went on detached duty with the Quartermaster, which lasted through the end of the month, but still the S-3 position had not come through on his return to his company.  Finally, something positive broke, but not the news he expected.  In his letter home dated 11 May 1944, Dannelly asked, “How good are you at keeping secrets, even from the family?”  In a very excited tone, he continued, “Yesterday the Regimental Commander called me over.  He told me that the C.O. of one battalion is in the hospital and might not be back” and that the Executive Officer was running the Battalion.  He then quoted the Regimental Commander as saying, “If the Bn. C.O. does not come back, and if we go back into combat, I want you . . . as executive officer of that battalion.”  Dannelly continued, “I was speechless, as he added, ‘In fact, you can handle a battalion if it becomes necessary.’ Well should the job become mine, the Colonel said he would recommend me for promotion to Major as soon as I took over.”  Assessing this seemingly good turn very cautiously, he added, “I won’t count on it too much, but it surely makes one feel good to know the Regimental Commander feels you have the stuff in you to do a good job.”  He ended this letter with a small sketch of a hand with fingers crossed.  On Monday, 29 May, as determined from his letter dated May 31st, Dannelly did transfer, not into 1st Battalion’s but to 3rd Battalion’s Headquarters for assignment as Battalion XO, while the officer formerly in that role stepped up for the ailing and hospitalized 3rd Battalion Commander. “It is still not definite whether he will return,” he assured his parents, “so my assignment may not be permanent.  At least I’m getting the experience.” Concluding, “I am very pleased with the Colonel’s giving me the position of responsibility I am now holding. Who wouldn’t feel good about it!!!”  Finally, adding an update on 16 June, “the former Battalion Commander has been transferred. Now if the replacements they send don’t include field officers, and higher headquarters doesn’t send one down, I’ll be sitting pretty for an eventual promotion.”

Ultimately, however, this was not to be.  While the appointment, by his own account, proved to be a pleasant and interesting one, at the end of the month a new officer—Lt. Colonel William A. Duncan—was sent from Division to take over 3rd Battalion, sending the acting CO back down to XO and in turn causing Dannelly to get bounced out of the role. No further mention was ever made of the original S-3 opportunity in 1st Battalion.  As indicated by his letter home of 30 June, Dannelly was once again headed for A Company; as a consolation, “the Regimental Commander told me that he still intended for me to get the first opening for an executive position in any battalion.” Back with his old company, he almost certainly was a virtual lame duck because real command had already passed to Hess—who, being an original Wisconsin Guard officer (having risen through the enlisted ranks to get there) and now himself sweating out a pending promotion to Captain, plus because of his heroic actions at Buna and then more recently at Teteri, had no doubt in the interim already solidified his leadership role.

Not surprisingly, Captain Dannelly transferred to command of C Company 128 shortly afterwards—which, despite his having commanded it briefly at Buna and therefore possibly still with a breath of knowledge about the outfit, was painfully close (since, as indicated by his letter dated 3 July, he had not yet left A Company) to the immediate time frame of this company’s involvement in the Driniumor River fight early on the morning of 11 July 1944.  In the ill-advised reconnaissance-in-force undertaken by the entire 1st Battalion just prior to the Japanese assault, a platoon of Dannelly’s men served as “point” during the advance into the jungle from the beach, then just as quickly became the rear guard during the patrol’s withdrawal back to the beach.  It was in this action that Platoon Sergeant Gerald Endl, a Buna veteran from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, ran back into the heavily contested jungle four times to bring out wounded men, then succumbed to his own wounds after the fourth trip, and thus became the first Medal of Honor recipient under Dannelly’s command.  The company afterwards participated in the final phases of counterattacks and mopping up, with armor and artillery support, which helped restore the original American line.

Dannelly’s letter dated 15 July summarized the scope of his company’s involvement, beyond the relatively little that was known at the time of publication for 32 Answered:

[NOTE: Appears exactly as written.]

Events of the past week have kept me much too busy to write. . . . The Japs finally hit our beachhead line one night. Since that time my Company has been in several hard attacks, spearheading two of them. In the last attack, artillery and armored cooperation were magnificent, and we drove the enemy back after a hard fight, inflicting many casualties, including at least six officers. Maneuver was restricted because of the swampy terrain, and the narrow beach line we drove down was perfect for defense. Never-the-less, the men fought it out and finally forced the Japs out, and reached our objective on schedule. Several days of grueling marching were necessary, but we’ve tucked a gratifying victory under our belts. We knocked out many machine guns and a couple of artillery guns, which had given us considerable trouble at first.

 . . . The fighting probably is not over, but this round is ours, and we are fully confident that the rest will be ours too.

 I am prayerfully grateful for victory in the past battle, and have more faith than ever in my new company. By-the-way, my old outfit fought right beside me, and cooperation was magnificent.

Writing home on 17 August, he added, “They say the toughest fighting in the Regiment hit this company. I couldn’t say for sure about that; it was hot at times, but I’ve had closer calls at Buna—maybe it’s experience that makes the difference.”

Things got even more precarious for Dannelly’s advancement ambitions just as the Aitape action wrapped up.  A letter home dated 19 July, aside from sharing the news of Commander’s and Carlisle’s departure, also mentioned that the 128th’s familiar and encouraging Regimental Commander (whose identity remains lost to this study) was sent home and replaced with “a new one”, who as it turns out was Colonel John Hettinger, of late the Chief of Staff to the Division Commander Major General William H. Gill.  With that change went all hope for a promotion to major or a staff position of any kind, as Dannelly realized that Hettinger “knows nothing of the other’s [previous CO’s] intentions, and is not acquainted at all with my service during the past two years.”  At some point in this chronology, the 1st Battalion also had in the meantime received a new CO—Lieutenant Colonel James P. Burns, a recent transplant from the 1st Cavalry Division and to his credit a fighting man who already wore a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and at least two Purple Hearts. Perhaps even more seriously for the 1st Battalion, these transitions to unfamiliar leadership made the political burden much heavier going into its next campaign—the Leyte landings, signaling MacArthur’s “return” to the Philippines—which would prove to be a very tough and tragic one.

In 1974, retired Major General Gill, who had taken command of the Red Arrow Division after Buna and led it through the remainder of the war, shared with biographer Edward Jaquelin Smith the circumstances of his long command relationship with Hettinger.  It had begun in 1940, when the commandant of the Army War College had requested Gill for his Executive Officer.  The initial appointment was short-lived, as surprisingly (and perhaps briefly for the pre-war era), the Army shut down the War College and re-assigned its staff. The ousted commandant took Gill as his Chief of Staff to the next assignment, which happened to include Colonel Hettinger as the G-2 (Intelligence) in the new lineup.  Later (April 1942), when Gill was assigned to command of the 89th Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, he had requested (and received) “Jack” Hettinger as his own Chief of Staff. In Gill’s own words, “A division commander has an assistant division commander and an artillery commander . . . yet his chief of staff is his right hand man, no question about it. . . I chose Jack . . . [because] he had done an excellent job (as G-2) and I had great confidence in him and that’s what you have to have in your chief of staff.”

Hettinger, a graduate of University of Kansas, was like Gill (VMI) not an Academy man.  His service and political connections were made on the polo field, which being the popular pastime of the pre-war officer set helped him “come to know a great many people there in Colorado Springs” while participating on the Army team.  This was especially important, as Gill continued, because “all the other places he and I had been, such as Camp Jackson in South Carolina, had had experience with the military in their midst in World War I.” Colorado Springs “was new country so far as the military was concerned” because “Carson was actually started after Pearl Harbor, so I needed somebody who was not only good with the military but could cope with civilian activities, because I had to deal a lot with the civilian people when I first came.”  Hettinger, so invaluable to Gill at Camp Carson “in helping solve the many problems that inevitably arose in regard to organization, etc.”, continued on to the Southwest Pacific when Gill was ordered there to take over the 32nd Division.

Gill recalled that it was around October of ’44, when the 32nd was refitting at Hollandia after the Aitape campaign, that Colonel Hettinger “was transferred, at his request, to troop duty,” but of course Dannelly’s correspondence indicated that the “new Regimental Commander” was in place much earlier, at the very end of Aitape.  The principal reason for his appointment to this field command seems, based on Gill’s own words, purely political. Gill had repeatedly pushed through recommendations for Hettinger’s promotion to Brigadier General, “but the high command (I think General Krueger more than anyone else) insisted on him having some combat experience before they would recommend him for promotion.”  So, to that end, Gill “gave Jack the 128th.”  At Limon, during the Leyte campaign, Gill noted that its capture was “due in large part to the heroic efforts of troops under Col. Hettinger. . . . Limon was the key to the whole thing. It was very rugged country around there and the Japanese had, under Yamashita’s instructions, put up a very definite defense and they counter-attacked to strengthen their defense and try and hold Limon, but their reinforcements weren’t enough.  Jack Hettinger with the reinforced artillery we had picked up from the 24th Division and our own, finally captured Limon.”

Perceptions, over time and from a completely different vista, differ greatly.  Other indications actually point to the conclusion that Hettinger, the staff officer in his inaugural campaign in the field as the 128th’s commanding officer, incurred setbacks around Limon.  Yamashita’s troops indeed heavily contested the village, which sat in a bowl surrounded by ridgelines and commanded the gateway to the highway leading to Ormoc on the island’s south coast.  The official Army history of the Leyte campaign is actually quite misleading and in several instances completely misses, or glosses over, tragic encounters that individual participants’ memoirs have borne out quite strongly. With Hettinger needing a positive outcome instead of the potential black eye that would injure his chances of wearing a General’s star, one can easily envision great pressure on the individual battalion commanders, and thus the requisite company commanders, not to drop the ball. Colonel Burns, being another of those new and unfamiliar to his direct reports, possibly bore the brunt of scrutiny when his 1st Battalion consistently lagged behind the other two in the push for Limon, having faced a particularly strong Japanese defensive area to overcome in front of “Corkscrew Ridge”.   As stated in 32 Answered, “The 3rd Battalion found itself continually having to pause to allow 1st to come abreast before resuming the advance.   After four days, in which 1st Battalion struggled with the enemy’s defenses on Corkscrew,” Hettinger conceded by pulling them out of line with new orders to remain and “contain the enemy on the ridge” while 2nd Battalion came up and assumed their initial role in the advance.

Dannelly’s letter dated 26 November carried the broad security moniker “Somewhere in the Philippines” in lieu of an APO address or company/unit name.  Uncharacteristically, the paper was very coarse and heavy, and the letter written in pencil.  An entire paragraph from the lower portion of the first page was cut out neatly with a razor blade, either by an official censor or by Dannelly’s own self-censoring hand.  The very nature of the correspondence implied duress.  On the second page, where the pencil point bore down, after several attempts one can barely make out some but not all of the redacted text: “my company has been in the middle of very heavy fighting. . . tough job. . .many wounded. . . by the grace of God I have been unscratched.”  Then, continuing, “The fighting has been very trying, both physically and mentally, and until the last day or two we were soaking wet and cold day and night.”

When a unit fails, the hurt often rolls downhill.  Nowhere is this more true than in Dannelly’s next letter, dated 5 December, and mysteriously addressed from “1st Bn. 127th Inf.”, which provides some closure to the episode. He wrote,

Noticing my new address, you will expect an explanation. It is “one of those things”—to quote an Army expression. I was given an objective to take with my Company; I did not succeed in taking it, so my Regimental Commander had me relieved and transferred.

Everyone says it’s a tough break for me, especially since my record shows a long period of excellent service. Of course this will be a mar to that record, but I am sure that in the long run I’ll prove that I still can do the job as well as the next person, under the same circumstances. I blame no one for, perhaps objectively, it might have appeared that I wasn’t doing a good job. My casualties on this campaign have been very heavy, but even that is not an acceptable reason in War.

In the same letter, Dannelly stressed the bright side in his usual, upbeat way.  He mentioned that the 127th’s Regimental Commander (at the time, ostensibly, Colonel Frederick R. Stofft, who had earlier commanded a Battalion of the 158th “Bushmasters” Regimental Combat Team—Arizona National Guard), “took one look at my record, heard the remarks of officers who new [sic] me, and said—with sincerity, ‘I’m glad to have you!’ The whole outfit has taken great pains to make sure that I realize they are glad to have me.”  He closed with another astute observation, noting that “many of the officers I was in ROTC Camp [NOTE: Camp McClellan, Alabama] with and others from Georgia, S.C., Tennessee, are in this outfit, so I’m really okay.”

In the 1st Battalion, his new CO was Lieutenant Colonel “Pop” Fraser, the 1941 graduate of Wofford’s nearby football rival, Presbyterian College. Dannelly continued, “My new C.O. is as fair as they come, and he’ll see that at least I get the right chance and priority within the Regiment.” By priority, Dannelly was of course referring to his ranking in the rotation quota, for at the same time of his relief from command, he had also risen to #1 on the list for the next available trip home. He had, in fact—as indicated at least by 8 December—already shipped his footlockers and most personal effects, including souvenirs from New Guinea natives as well as captured enemy items, home.

The revelation of the missing letters here shows that the chronological speculations made in 32 Answered were a bit off, but not by much.  They indicate that Dannelly joined the 127th a bit earlier than expected and that “Pop” Fraser was not responsible for recruiting him in; also, they show critical overlap since Captain Fulmer was still present and commanding C Company when Dannelly arrived, and the 1st Battalion was still in combat on the Ormoc Highway.  Fraser did still have to juggle his commanders around to make a place for Dannelly, but he did so with Fulmer still in place, “short” and with rotation orders pending but not yet gone.  In a letter dated 17 December 1944, and addressed from A Company 127th, Dannelly indicated that he had joined 1st Battalion actively in their sweeps in the hills surrounding Highway 2 in their approach on the village of Lonoy, the terminus of the Red Arrows’ southward advance.  “At last I’ve received a definite assignment as Company Commander,” he wrote his parents and younger brother. “Yesterday was the first attack in my command.  It went well.  We took our objective, captured a Jap 6 inch artillery gun, destroyed another, and knocked out one tank (Jap).  It was a pretty costly day for the Japs.  I am pleased with my company, and grateful for our success thus far.”  Of penultimate value to the chronology is the line in a follow-up letter dated 23 December, in which he wrote, “Captain Fulmer of Saluda SC left today on the December quota for rotation.  My recent transfer is the only thing that is holding me up.”  Having already noted the number of Southerners in the 1st Battalion 127th, Dannelly further expounded on this when he mentioned having “eight or ten South Carolinians” among the enlisted men in his new company.  Included in their midst was the brother of his former barber during his tenure with the Hampton County (SC) Schools system, and another, whom he did not mention, a young PFC from Campobello, Thomas E. “Gene” Atkins, who would become the second Medal of Honor awardee under his command.

As the 127th transitioned from Leyte to Luzon, Dannelly remained infectiously optimistic. His letter home dated 6 February was written on sheets of captured Japanese stationery; “I have plenty of my own,” he remarked, “but thought you might be interested in a letter on this.  It seems to have belonged to a Japanese Captain, since it was found with his equipment. I also have his insignia as a souvenir.”  At this stage, the 127th was yet to enter the cauldron of the two Salacsac Passes on the Villa Verde Trail: “we still have not had much action with my company, except some patrol contact. It would be wonderful if it were to continue this way, but I guess that’s too much to expect.”

Later, on 1 March 1945, as the 127th was leaving “The Bowl” area above the beachhead and rising from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level into the foothills of “Yamashita Ridge,” Dannelly wrote “our present location is a lot more comfortable. . . . We’re on a shady hillside, with the shade being provided by large familiar smelling pines.  A breeze blows through all the time.”  Quite prophetically, in the next paragraph he shared that “we stood atop the mountain and watched a beautifully coordinated air strike (bombing and strafing) by the Air Corps in close, direct support of our attacking infantry.  It certainly is a comfortable feeling to realize that these planes are on our side.”  Otherwise, “there really is little to report.  We are still in action, although another battalion has done most of the attacking recently.”  This letter falls in the chronology just before A Company 127th experienced its definitive combat of the campaign, the action between 5-10 March that epitomized the cohesion of Dannelly’s unit and his own leadership ability.  Here, the heroism and sacrifice had resulted, in addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor for Private Atkins, in posthumous awards of Silver Stars for Staff Sergeant Isaac Bear and Private First Class Guy Johnson, a Distinguished Service Cross for Staff Sergeant Robert “Bogey Bob” Van Bogart, and the first of two likewise DSC awards for Dannelly himself.  As his award citation stated, during the enemy’s night counterattack of 10 March, the culmination of this period of combat during which his A Company’s sector bore the brunt, Captain Dannelly had, “with utter disregard for his own safety, and in the face of heavy enemy artillery, mortar, and sniper fire,” moved “from foxhole to foxhole giving encouragement and direction to his men.”

Medals for bravery were not something that Dannelly had necessarily aspired to.  Earlier, when his sister Lois asked in correspondence why in a recent picture (ostensibly, the one showing him in either an Australian tunic or an early “Ike” jacket, shown page 294 of 32 Answered) he wasn’t wearing any decorations, Dannelly had responded on 23 July 1944, “The chief reason is that I haven’t earned any.”  Continuing, “I have done my job as well as I could, but have been no hero—many of my men have!  I give the orders—they take the worst risks in obeying them. Theirs is the credit and the glory, and the more of them I can conscientiously recommend for decoration, the better I like it. . . . My service has not been distinguished, but it certainly has been nothing to be ashamed of.”  He was certainly aware that he had been up to this time, the botched staff appointment notwithstanding, mostly pretty lucky, as evidenced in his 17 September 1944 letter: “There are a lot of swell fellows who came in with me before we sailed. Eight of us are now Captains—all from the South, not counting Carlisle and Commander who have gone home.  It’s a source of pride to me that I was the first one of our group to be promoted to First Lieutenant, and the first to become a Captain. Of course I got the breaks, there’s no doubt about that.”

While his letters generally led off with a brief description of recent events including combat, the last letter Sheldon Dannelly ever wrote his parents, dated 19 April 1945, was by comparison very tranquil and reflective.  The 127th had just rotated back into the front line, replacing the 128th after days of very heavy combat in front of Salacsac Pass #1, elevation 4,800 feet above sea level, and in the belly of the Japanese defenses on Yamashita Ridge. “After a very welcome but brief rest,” he wrote, “we are back in action in the mountains.  I hope that we’ll be able to complete our mission soon, and get a long, genuine rest! Mountain combat, especially, isn’t much fun.”  Afterwards, the letter continued the normal routine of so many others: the reassurances of his continued excellent health, the updates on sending money home, whether his footlockers and souvenirs had arrived home yet, asking about various acquaintances and girls he had dated back home, and finally, about the pending safe arrival stateside of his brother Joe (serving in the Eighth Air Force) and Joe’s English wife Marie, the new “sister” in the family whom he was so anxious to meet.  The subject that appeared especially to set younger brother Sheldon off during his wait for rotation orders was the expected imminent birth of the child that would make him an uncle for the third time since his 1942 deployment, and the realization he had neither seen nor met any of these new arrivals.  The subject clearly agitated his awareness of the war’s abject disruption of his own life plans—a feeling that had been simmering for some months, and among the many letters in which it came up he expressed it no more poignantly than in the one dated 2 Nov 1944, where he wrote, “two weeks from now I’ll be 27 years old.  I wish I could get back and begin to plan my future.  I never dreamed I’d be single yet.  It’s entirely by necessity and not by choice—but one of these days the war will end.”

By the time his letter of 19 April made it to sleepy little Ehrhardt, SC, Captain Dannelly had already given his own life trying to save several of his men who were buried alive in their foxholes by debris from a nearby American bomb blast.  The comforting feeling he reported only weeks earlier as he watched American planes bomb and strafe a ridgeline was surely absent on 25 April when this time the bombs fell short and directly onto his headquarters perimeter.  His subsequent, fortuitous dash into enemy fire, armed only with a folding shovel, surely epitomized his thoughtless devotion to his company, and by all accounts inspired Private First Class David Gonzales, a recent replacement from California, to do the same.  Neither rescuer survived.  Dannelly’s second DSC award resulted from this incident, as did Gonzales’ Medal of Honor, the third such award bestowed on one of Dannelly’s men.  Six decades later, the grateful former company First Sergeant searched and finally tracked down members of Gonzales’ family to thank them personally for his disentombment that day.

Immediately after the end of the war, Colonel Powell A. Fraser returned to Presbyterian College as the ROTC “Professor of Military Science and Tactics.”  One of his immediate projects, presumably out of his own pocket, was to create and distribute a roster of all 1st Battalion 127th members who had given their lives in the Pacific combat, including a notation for each where, or in which campaign, they were killed.  For the 32 Answered research, your author had access to the copy originally sent by Fraser to Mrs. Guy Johnson of Missouri, and loaned by grandson Charlie Johnson.  Captain Dannelly is included there on the list; one cannot escape noticing that the loss rate for A Company 127th on Luzon was remarkably high.  His men had indeed seen quite a bit of heavy fighting on the Villa Verde Trail.

In denouement to the tragic suite, the superiors incidentally responsible for Dannelly’s earlier relief from command and hasty transfer out of the 128th were also killed during the Villa Verde Trail action.  On 25 March, Japanese artillery had bracketed Colonel Hettinger’s command jeep in the open, killing both him and his driver.  Colonel Burns died 24 May performing an undisclosed act of gallantry that led him, ironically, to join Sheldon Dannelly in the select group of Red Arrow men earning two Distinguished Service Crosses in the same campaign—the others being Merle Howe (original Michigan Guard), Hermann Bottcher (the hero of Buna), and Dannelly’s fellow Wofford College alum, Herbert Peabody (Class of ’40). Of these, only Peabody (wounded at Buna and did not afterwards return to the Division) survived the war.

The appearance of these previously-missing letters, four months after the publication of 32 Answered, certainly answered many of the unresolved questions surrounding the wartime chronology of Captain Sheldon Dannelly and that of other South Carolinians with whom he interacted in the course of the Red Arrow Division’s combat history. Dannelly, because of these extensive interactions, is the glue holding much of the story together, and the use of his papers made the study exponentially what it otherwise would have been. In fact, the formerly missing bundle of letters now calls into question whether it is feasible to edit the narrative to include the new material, or to let the book remain as-is as a snapshot in time and with all evidence of the historian’s often speculative craft in place. The pros and cons are about equally balanced, so making it a tough decision, which itself remains unresolved. Readers and followers of the blog are welcome to comment on this question.

Sorry this update post took so long. More to follow….


15 March 2016


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