The Moral Conscience of a Leader (Memorial Day Post)

“Remembrance” Booklet full text  [click on line to open link]

[NOTE: The author would like to offer sincere thanks to Mr. Charlie Johnson of Oak Grove, Missouri, as well as Presbyterian College Archives and Special Collections, Clinton, SC, for their assistance in providing the details discussed in this update.]

The last week in May is a milestone for the book—one year since publication, made available just barely in time for the first purchasers to receive their copies over the Memorial Day weekend.   In observance of Memorial Day, 2016, however, ours is a much more fitting tribute if we recall another one exactly seventy years ago, the first following the end of World War II.

Powell A. Fraser, a native of Brunswick, GA, was one of two Presbyterian College graduates who ended up in the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division in February of 1942, the other being his Class of ’41 classmate, William T. King.  Like King, Fraser was a few years older than the typical student in his class, an attribute which had undoubtedly contributed to his nickname “Pop”.  He was a football standout all years he played, including the 1940 season when the “Blue Hose” beat their rival “Terriers” from Wofford College and the “Bulldogs” of The Citadel, but lost to the “Tigers” from Clemson A&M.

Again, like his classmate Bill King, Fraser was a cadet in the ROTC program at “PC”, and immediately following the commissioning ceremony after graduation, both he and King, along with quite a few of their fellow ’41 ilk from The Citadel and Clemson, went on active duty as white officers in the otherwise racially segregated 367th Infantry Regiment at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.  Following the “Lee Street Riot,” a racial disturbance on a January 1942 Saturday night in the adjacent town of Alexandria, the War Department abruptly deactivated the 367th; many of the white officers, now available for other duty, transferred into the 32nd Division at nearby Camp Livingston, where the “Red Arrows” were gearing up to move north in preparation for a troopship convoy to the United Kingdom (or so they thought), and yet were still short of junior officers in platoons and companies due to recent purges of over-aged Guard leadership.

Fraser was assigned to the 127th Infantry Regiment (Wisconsin National Guard), initially as the “Regimental Athletic and Recreation Officer”, one of those peripheral appointments which, as outsiders in an otherwise insular organization, the Southern reservists frequently found themselves in at the start of their long adventure.  In that role, he later helped orchestrate the exhibition “American football” game, part of the city of Adelaide, South Australia’s Fourth of July celebration staged on behalf of their American guests, which pitted hand-picked players from the 127th against worthy stand-outs from the 128th.

Introduction to combat in Papua New Guinea had shortly afterwards leveraged a profound effect on Lieutenant Fraser.  With no need for a Regimental Athletic and Recreation Officer, he took a place on the so-called  “straggler line”, where in his own words he saw one of the scared young privates he had talked into returning to the front lines come back mortally wounded on a litter at the end of the day.  Also, his former tent-mate, an unnamed fellow officer in the 127th, was killed there at Buna.  Later, in correspondence with faculty and staff at PC, he admitted heartfelt sorrow at news of the loss of a PC classmate in faraway North Africa, and still later took on the solemn duty of reporting to his faculty mentors the death in action of a highly regarded PC staff member who had coincidentally, and only recently, appeared in the 32nd Division as a replacement officer, only to be killed by an enemy sniper shortly after arrival at the front lines.

As demonstrated in 32 Answered, Fraser emerged from his marginal role in the Regimental organization to one of solid combat command and inspiring visibility in leadership.  When given charge of an Infantry company that had lost all of its officers and its nerve, Fraser quickly turned them around, setting a fearless example by exposing himself constantly to enemy fire on the beach.  Along with fellow officer and South Carolina reservist, Clemson ’39er Lt. Tally D. Fulmer (each of whom became recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross during this action), Fraser remained a visible leader in the final stages of the campaign.  Afterwards, he took command of a Battalion, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and becoming, in fact, the commanding officer of other South Carolinians such as Fulmer and Sheldon Dannelly; notably, he was the only Battalion Commander in any of the 32nd Division’s three regiments to maintain this tenure of position for the rest of the war.  In the Philippines, Fraser earned a Silver Star and a write-up in Time Magazine for ordering jeeps dismantled and physically carried across a gorge, then re-assembled on the opposite side, during the pursuit of General Yamashita’s army across the Cagayan Valley.

In steeling himself for these accomplishments, Fraser had at first grappled with moral conflicts, based on his strong Presbyterian beliefs.  In the end, as so many Americans of faith had done and have since done in time of war, Fraser came to see the conflict in terms of a free and overwhelmingly Christian country in a fight for its way of life in order to prevent destruction by an apparently (to him) godless force of evil that believed only in preservation of “the state”.  He had articulated his resolution in a series of letters to his former faculty mentors at PC; then, once committed to his rationalization for killing and sending others off potentially to get killed in wartime, he stuck to it relentlessly.  Later in his career, in fact, this found suitable application to an anti-Communist stance during times he was assigned to postings in Taiwan and West Germany at the height of the Cold War.

While both Fraser and classmate Bill King had aspired to the ministry before the war broke out, in the end only King followed through.   Soon after returning home from duty in the Pacific, Colonel Fraser instead accepted a position at his alma mater as the new “PMS&T” (Professor of Military Science and Tactics).  From his new but not indefinite faculty role (1946-1950, then called back to active duty for Korea), Fraser would begin  a long career in which he balanced his strong Presbyterian faith with a career of Cold War military service that took him to postings around the world and, eventually, to  the Pentagon, before retiring and returning to PC as Director of Development.

Re. 1947 Pac Sac (Yearbook), Presbyterian College

One immediate manifestation of this dual calling, however, was a project that could conceivably have been his catharsis, his penultimate expression of heartfelt emotion at having commanded a battalion that sent so many good men to their deaths in combat. We know this today solely because one individual felt it an imperative to share a family keepsake:  Missouri native Charlie Johnson, whose grandfather, Private First Class Guy Johnson, was one of those in Fraser’s 1st Bn., 127th Inf. Regt. who did not return.  In March of 1946, Charlie’s grandmother received in the mail a booklet titled, “Remembrance of the men of the 1st Battalion, 127th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division who Gave Their Lives for the Great Cause of Freedom in World War II”, return address “Powell A. Fraser, Lt. Col. Infantry, Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC”, postage “Free”.  Your author first corresponded with Charlie in May of 2013 by way of a referral from Tom Bruss, the webmaster and researcher par excellence of the 32nd Infantry Division Association website.   Aside from so graciously offering a digital copy of this booklet, it was Charlie who called attention to a key oversight in the story:  that Sheldon Dannelly had commanded his grandfather’s unit, Company “A” 127th, at a time when the progress of research had indicated only that Dannelly had commanded companies in the 1st Battalion 128th.  This revelation led, as it were, to other important discoveries that dramatically shaped the final story as depicted in 32 Answered.

The list of names is indeed sobering to read, and includes personnel killed prior to as well as during Fraser’s tenure as 1st Bn. CO.  Among the officers are the initial Battalion Commander, Major Edmund Schroeder, the hero of the “Second Corridor to the Sea” at Buna who was killed shortly afterwards by an enemy sniper;  also, Captain William Workman, whose death while leading Company “C” 127th in his first attack immediately preceded the ascension to command  by Lt. Fulmer (Clemson ’39).  The “John C. Martin” indicated as from Columbus, Georgia, and a member of C Company at Buna, is almost certainly the same Lt. Martin who graduated from The Citadel in 1941, though The Citadel’s records list him as a member of the Army Air Corps at time of death.   Sheldon Dannelly, the Wofford (’39) graduate who had commanded two different companies in the 128th before being banished to the 1st Battalion 127th in November 1944, (see earlier post: “Convergent Paths to Glory: The Revelations of Captain Sheldon Dannelly’s ‘Missing Letters'”) is also listed.  Included among his A Company 127th personnel are Guy Johnson (posthumous Silver Star), along with Staff Sergeants Isaac Bear (posthumous Silver Star) and Robert Van Bogart (posthumous DSC), all three losing their lives in the same time frame—first week of March 1945—and in the same series of actions in which Private First Class Thomas E. “Gene” Atkins of Campobello, South Carolina (another of Dannelly’s Company A men) performed the act of valor that earned him the Medal of Honor (one of only two of the Red Arrow’s eleven Medal of Honor recipients to survive the war).   Also included on the Company A roll, in addition to a couple of others from South Carolina, is Private David Gonzales, the Californian who gave his life to rescue several fellow soldiers buried in their foxholes by debris from a friendly fire near-miss, and in doing so earned the eleventh and final Medal of Honor awarded to a soldier in the 32nd Division during the war.  Gonzales, as described in 32 Answered and in the few instances in earlier update posts, had jumped up to finish the job Captain Dannelly had intended to undertake before being hit and killed instantly by enemy fire.

Progression of the number of deaths in the infantry companies as the fighting reached a crescendo in the Philippines is remarkable.  The Company A section, which has visibly the longest list, clearly indicates that the preponderance of losses occurred on Luzon, with Leyte, Aitape, and Buna noticeably and incrementally fewer.  The other rifle companies (“B” and “C”) show only slightly shorter lists of names with similar break-downs of numbers per campaign.  [One caveat: the heavy weapons Company D list, as compared to the three rifle companies, appears to be incomplete.  Some of the KIA’s noted by Lt. Frank Cheatham (Clemson ’40) in his diary are not present; understandable, since as we know D Company had its hands full at Buna.]

Tempering, somewhat, the numbing list of names of those lost, are several pages of inspirational quotes and excerpts, both biblical and literary.  It is likely that Fraser had selected them personally for inclusion, inasmuch as he presumably acted alone in putting together the booklet and paid for its printing and binding expenses out of his own private funds.   To these moving selections of poetry, prose, and sacred verse, he added his own emphatic preface, one whose relevance today has not diminished:

“May these great thoughts bring comfort to the friends of the men who have given their lives for the great cause of freedom and a constant reminder to all of us that they gave the most precious possession they had, their lives. They loved life. They loved and were loved.  They were something greater than rocks, sun, and stars.

. . .Let us not forget that this hour of life has been bought and paid for with blood other than ours, and at the end of each blood sprinkled trail that our blessing have come, there stands a cross of sacrifice.”

The postmark date of March 27, 1946 on the example sent to Mrs. Johnson may indicate that Colonel Fraser intended to get as many of the booklets on the way to known next-of-kin as possible in time for Memorial Day (or “Decoration Day” as some may have still called it then) as celebrated in those days on May 30th, which by coincidence is exactly the day it falls on this year per formal (circa 1960s) Federal holiday alignment.

Charlie had sent a note last month and proposed that it might be beneficial to share the content of the booklet, in its entirety, on the web page as an update in conjunction with the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.  The challenge was to determine the best way to attach it.  So, with that hurdle accomplished, here it is—possibly the only example to have survived the seven decades since its distribution, and a poignant snapshot of time and place from the earlier occasion of remembrance.

Many thanks for continued support and interest regarding the book and the website dedicated to it.


17 May 2016


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