The “Greatest” Memorial Day

Sgt_Serrahn
Period newspaper clipping sharing the news of Dick Serrahn’s DSC.  Note that the regiment and division names are misprints. There was no 12th Regiment in the 27th Division, and the 27th Division was in an entirely different location.  T/4 Serrahn was with the 127th Regt., 32nd Division. Courtesy Wayne Haegele.

 

Memorial Day 2016 seemed from all indications to have been the most meaningful one in recent memory, especially regarding the Second World War and the persistence of the “Greatest Generation”.  This can be attributed to several factors.  For one, its reach on social media.  In another sense, the poignant fact that so many of the veterans from that era who survived the conflict, and who have so often since participated in the reflection and remembrances of their fallen friends and relatives, are now rapidly leaving us.  Yet another  is how perceptions of what the World War II era meant to them, and should mean to us–sacrifice, courage, faith, a clear just cause, full mobilization, determination, dedication, teamwork, unity–once again arise to give comfort and security through the glorification of past American greatness, seemingly in counterpoint to today’s complex social, political, ideological, and global issues that we are constantly alerted to as imminent and ongoing crises in both mass media and the aforementioned social media.  Finally, this year’s D-Day  anniversary–exactly one week after Memorial Day 2016–gave the WW II veterans’ remembrance a second wind because it too fell coincidentally on a Monday.  Otherwise, it seems the yearly event settles down fairly quickly; the fair weather service-thankers melt away;  social media goes back to its normal routine; and the networks quietly shelve the celebration coverage, movies, and documentaries for another year.

As we move ever further away from World War II, one of the greatest fears harbored by your author is that the war and war era are together becoming an abstraction.  If not merely reduced to a first person shooter video game putting you on a landing beach, in an online tank battle, in a virtual aircraft cockpit, or on a computer generated ship, it increasingly becomes more likely that someone– a talking head, or otherwise–will invoke WW II into an argument to make and distort his or her point or to support some caustic single-issue, against the better judgment of the true facts and events, hedging on the presumption that there are ever fewer around who know, or care, what really happened.

Over the course of the last two weeks, a number of very interesting stories developed that pertain to World War II and its veterans; three in particular directly touched the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division, the book 32 Answered and its research.  All three had much to do with the theme of “lost”, “forgotten”, or oversight, and each resulted in some discoveries that down the road could potentially help others’ awareness and appreciation of sacrifices made by those who came before.

But first, it is worth mentioning that were it not for another significant milestone, none of these three stories would have come to light.  That milestone occurred when [hold onto something…] your author, under strong persuasion, finally bit the bullet, broke down and established a book presence on social media, re. the site we shall call by its nickname “the book of face” (henceforth “FB”).  Having avoided it personally for several years now, the  establishment of a presence had become an imperative for the sake of the book and the story, and so there is now a page dedicated to that and that only.  This effort intends to remain a positive and educational voice afloat on a sea otherwise awash with extremist opinion, hateful vitriol, hoax, and defamation.  Turns out that so far the FB presence was long overdue and has immediately paid dividends for the research community. [NOTE: each location and web presence will retain a definite and distinct role.  This WordPress blog will remain strictly for periodic postings of relevant happenings and back-stories, which may then get linked to the FB page.  The FB page, in turn, will be used for more immediate updates related directly to book sales and marketing, as well as ongoing conversations about ongoing research, such as generated from discussion groups on the social media site.]

The run-up to Memorial Day 2016 began with a seemingly innocuous story post appearing simultaneously on both the Daily Mail UK and the AP sites concerning the remains of a WW II soldier coming home to New Orleans–also the home, incidentally, of the National WW II Museum.  Having just caught a glimpse of the headline on the way out the door to dinner, then on returning noticing an email message from a colleague (Edward Rogers, see earlier post, “Another Busy and Equally Interesting Lapse”, November 2015) with a link to the Daily Mail UK version,  it was soon evident upon opening and reading the article  that the previously MIA soldier had died at Huggins’ Roadblock, Sanananda-Soputa Front, and was a member of Anti-Tank Company, 126th Inf. Regiment, 32nd Division.  This of course connected immediately because that was also the parent unit of a South Carolinian in the book:  Lt. Louis Beaudrot (Clemson ’41) of Greenwood, SC.   Digging the roster for A-T 126th out of the research notes quickly confirmed the soldier’s name, Private Earl Joseph Keating.  There was still more to the story, however.  The article also stated that the remains were discovered in a common grave with another soldier, also KIA at Huggins– a fellow member of A-T Company and possibly fellow New Orleans native, Private John H. Klopp.  The remains were purportedly so intermingled in burial that it was difficult to separate them.  Even more remarkable was the revelation that the serial numbers of the two men, were only 20 digits apart: Keating, serial # 34150954,  Klopp, serial # 34150934.  This almost certainly meant that the two men were inducted the same day at the same place. The “341” prefix indicates they were both part of the 1940 Selective Service inductee group, and likely they both participated with the 32nd Div. in the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941.  In the realm of speculation, if Keating and Klopp were not friends prior to induction, they surely must have become so during the  induction process and then remained buddies through the Louisiana Maneuvers, on to Australia, during the Wairopi Patrol, and to their respective ends on 5 December 1942 while defending Huggins’ Roadblock .   Several posts to the National WW II Museum’s FB coverage of the story–the funeral procession paused in front of the Museum for a flag-lowering and sounding of “Taps”–spurred quite a meaningful conversation thread, which the Museum marked with not a “like”,  but a “love” icon and kept it at the top of the story’s feed.  The original post to the comments thread read as follows:

Private Keating’s unit, Anti-Tank Company 126th Infantry, was along with Cannon Company 126th the put-together detail of troops that formed the “Wairopi Patrol” sent ahead of the “Ghost Mountain” battalion, the 2nd Battalion 126th, in a planned march over the Owen Stanley Mountains along the little used Kapa Kapa track. The job of the Wairopi men had been to set up drop zones to supply the main body 2nd Battalion on their trek over the path, then to guard vital trail junctions in the interior. Traveling light, they left much of their gear, including helmets and all but a scant amount of ammunition, behind at the trailhead. The Wairopi men spent 45 days on a trail of more or less 100 map-miles that by airlift would have taken 45 minutes, and the unconditioned, ill-equipped men suffered greatly from the climate and terrain. After this phase of the campaign was over the Wairopi men were dispatched quickly to the Sanananda-Soputa front, where 3rd Battalion and some of the 1st Battalion 126th were engaged in trying to break the Japanese defense of a road that ran to the coastal villages from the Papuan interior. Hardly had the Wairopi member units reported for this assignment when they were pressed into a planned “double envelopment” attack 29-30 November 1942. This meant that the men of Anti-Tank and Cannon companies had scarcely enough time to draw new items of kit, including helmets. The establishment of the roadblock about 1,000 yards behind the Japanese main line of defense astride the Sanananda-Soputa track was a remnant of this double envelopment that otherwise had failed. The depleted Australian units whom the Americans had just relieved had earlier tried the same tactic with nearly the same result, and in doing so had decimated themselves beyond the ability to continue. Another facet of this location was that it was still largely uncharted, so no one had a map, only a vague idea based on position of the sun above the jungle canopy for direction–which is why the Americans had no idea they had moved so far behind the lines and no one else for a time knew where they were. Keating’s Anti-Tank Company made their assault along with Company I from 3rd Battalion, attacking from the jungle and sago swamp along the left side of the trail. Within the first 48 hours of setting up this perimeter they had endured several counter attacks, and both company commanders– Cpt.Shirley of I Company and Cpt. Keast of Anti-Tank– were dead. The name “Huggins” stuck when Captain Meredith Huggins broke through with a ration and ammunition party and stayed, despite a severe head wound, to assume command. Private Keating and his buddy, Private Klopp, who were found buried in a common grave, were killed, as the story goes on 5 December, which was a day of concerted and repeated attempts by reinforcements, along with other ration and ammunition re-supply parties–mostly composed of clerks, cooks, and other support personnel–to break through to the perimeter. During the day the soldiers inside the Huggins perimeter endured stifling heat, and got rained on every night, in their open foxholes. Aside from periodic Japanese counterattacks, all of which were successfully beaten back, the Americans were subjected to frequent harassing fire from mortars and the ever-present snipers firing down from high treetops in the jungle canopy. They remained there for 22 days while the main focus of the American effort on the Sanananda-Soputa track otherwise became one of maintaining the supply line into Huggins, themselves having become too decimated by enemy action and malaria to do much more. The Australian units, who began to relieve the 126th in late December, managed to fight through to Huggins and allow the few surviving Americans the ability to walk out carrying their wounded. The guys like Keating and his buddy Private Klopp thus remained missing for decades due to the general cloud in which this portion of the Buna-Sanananda operation occurred. Anti-Tank Company, over the course of the perimeter defense, lost nearly all of its officers either to enemy action or malaria (evacuated out with the returning ration parties), so chances are high that there was no one left who could fully account for all of the lost and missing men.

Lt. Beaudrot was one of the last A-T  Company’s officers to leave Huggins, but by then he was nearly incapacitated by malaria.  If these two privates had been members of his platoon, their burial location would have become an afterthought–Beaudrot turned his command over to a corporal, one of two other members of the platoon left at the time of relief by the Australians.   If Keating and Klopp had been in one of the other platoons, their platoon leader was either dead or had evacuated earlier with fever or wounds.  So, not surprising that in the chaos of battle and the information vacuum that followed, two forgotten soldiers remained and finally were brought home last week for burial.

The second illustrative case was the story of Sergeant Kenneth Gruennert, one of the earliest Medal of Honor awardees in the 32nd Division.  He is officially listed as the second, but he and the first awardee, First Sergeant Elmer Burr, performed their respective acts of valor on the same day, neither surviving.  The subject of discussion appeared over the weekend in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online post, detailing Gruennert’s actual medal, it having passed through the hands of several family members before recently getting donated to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison by a surviving nephew. For years after the war, Gruennert’s parents kept the medal in a bedroom bookcase in the family home and never displayed it.  The nephew, who had inherited custody of the medal, then donated to the WVM for a larger exhibit of MOH recipients from the state.  Accompanying the article was a picture of the back surface of the medal, with the uneven inscription obviously applied in  long-hand by someone with a non-powered engraving tool.  Your author reposted the story on FB with the following comment linking the back-story and its relevance to the book:
 Sergeant Kenneth Gruennert, Company I, 3rd. Bn., 127th Regt. of the 32nd Infantry Division, was killed in action Christmas Eve, 1942, during the attack through Government Gardens, east of the compound known in the record as “Buna Mission”.  Government Gardens had before the war served as a garden that supported the settlement there on the coast, but now stood overgrown with tall kunai grass.  The objective of the attack was to open a salient from the jungle to the beach, cutting off the “Mission” (which, mis-named, was actually the former Government Station) from other Japanese installations further east down the coast.  The 3rd Battalion–Companies I, K, L, and M–were committed to this objective. 
  According to the official history (Milner, VICTORY IN PAPUA, p. 297), one platoon of Company L advanced much more quickly through the Gardens than the rest, conceivably could see the beach beyond the coconut trees, but in doing so got overextended. The platoon came up against “two well-manned enemy bunkers which stood directly in the way of their advance.” Gruennert, “in the lead, undertook to knock them out. Covered by fire from the rest of the platoon, he crawled forward alone against the first bunker and killed everyone in it by throwing grenades through one of the firing slits. Although severely wounded in the shoulder while doing so, Gruennert refused to return to the rear.” After dressing his own wound, he then “moved out against the second bunker. Hurling his grenades with great precision despite his bad shoulder, Gruennert forced the enemy out of the second bunker as well but was himself shot down by an enemy sniper.” The platoon’s foray eventually failed; because it was so far forward it lost contact with the rest of the effort, then was shelled by friendly artillery fire (causing several more casualties) and had to withdraw, taking two days through hip-deep swamp to get back to the American lines. One lieutenant, himself wounded, stayed behind with another man who was too badly hit to move; they managed to remain hidden behind enemy lines for eight days until rescued by the advancing American forces. Theirs was one of several instances of desperate engagements with nearly impenetrable enemy lines of defense at Buna, emphasizing extreme individual heroism offset by waste of opportunity and human life for little immediate gain.

 It is not clear-cut to say Gruennert was actually the first of the eventual eleven Red Arrow men to receive the Medal of Honor, but he was clearly one of the first. The official history and the 32nd Division’s unit history both cite First Sergeant Elmer Burr, of Company I 127th and involved in the same attack, with the dubious honor of being the first on the list and list Gruennert second in sequence. But both men performed their noted, specific acts of courage and sacrifice on the same day, and in the same time frame.   There were no South Carolinian subjects from 32 ANSWERED involved in this particular incident during the campaign. Worthy of note, however, here to say that two South Carolina natives, both enlisted men (as were all of the Red Arrow CMOH awardees) received the Medal of Honor while serving with the 32nd: Pfc. Wiliam A. McWhorter (Easley, possibly Liberty, SC) at Leyte, and Pfc. Thomas E. “Gene” Atkins (Campobello, SC), on Luzon. Atkins’ medal was one of only two of the eleven that was not posthumous, and one of three bestowed on awardees who served under the same Company Commander– Captain Sheldon M. Dannelly (Wofford College ’39), of Ehrhardt, SC.

The third noteworthy instance of the lost and overlooked stemmed directly from the immediate reason for choosing to plunge  into FB land.  A family member of one of the subjects of 32 Answered had contacted your author and strongly encouraged joining an ongoing discussion in a closed group comprised mainly of children of 127th veterans, more specifically those whose fathers had served in A Company 127.  This, again, was Captain Sheldon Dannelly’s company beginning  late November 1944 and continuing until his death in action 25 April 1945.  A handful more people joined the group in the past week.  There were a number of very good discussions and eureka moments as together we shared our pieces of the puzzle, where long cherished keepsakes of fathers and uncles combined with bits of relevant research from 32 Answered.  Of interest, particularly, has been the action on the early morning of 10 March 1945, in which Pfc. Thomas E. “Gene” Atkins of Campobello, SC, made the heroic stand against the enemy that earned him the Medal of Honor, one of only two cases where the recipient survived the action.  This night battle was also mentioned a few times in earlier posts ( see “Convergent Paths to Glory: The Revelations of Captain Sheldon Dannelly’s Missing Letters”, and more recently, the Memorial Day Post, “The Moral Conscience of a Leader”), being the same fight that cost the lives of Pfc. Guy Johnson and S/Sgt. Isaac Bear, earning both men posthumous Silver Stars; also earning the DSC for Captain Dannely, the first of his two such awards (second one posthumous).  Based on this back-story, the third instance of note came to light only three days ago when one of the newcomers to the 127th discussion group really dropped a bomb on us all with what started out as a fairly nondescript share of information.   This all blew up when the gentleman included a news clipping about his uncle, T. Sgt. (probably T/4) Richard F. (“Dick”) Serrahn, noting that he had been awarded the DSC.  Upon reading the article, it was clear that Dick Serrahn had received the DSC for the night action of 10 March ’45, but had survived the further combat until 23 April, losing his life only two days before Captain Dannelly.  The article had misnamed Serrahn’s unit both at the regimental and division level (“12th” Regiment, “27th” Division).   A quick check of Colonel “Pop” Fraser’s “Remembrance” booklet (see attached, previous post, “The Moral Conscience of a Leader”) confirmed that Dick Serrahn was indeed a member of Dannelly’s A Company, 127th.   What makes this especially significant is that Serrahn’s DSC and death in action had escaped the meticulous eyes of the 32nd Division Association’s webmaster, Tom Bruss; also, probably for the same reason, it had remained hidden from the research digging of your author for 32 Answered.  The end result, significantly for future reference and research, is another DSC award added to the list of heroics in what must have been a very desperate night battle early in the morning of 10 March 1945.  So, now it is certainly easy to guess that for every one individual who received an award for valor, several more performed equally heroic actions that went unrecognized, and at least one more was awarded but may remain overlooked or lost to history.

 

Beyond the rediscovery of lost and missing persons, which was clearly the most relevant, meaningful, and welcome highlight of this Memorial Day week, the conclusion of this story necessarily leads to an overall observation about lost and missing artifacts and keepsakes from the WW II era.  As veterans continue to leave us, and especially in cases of the ones who left us during the actual war or early on in the intervening decades since,  the personal effects often take an uncertain journey.  Such was the case (a worst case) of the belongings of Coach (later Principal, and Superintendent) Bevin D. Lee (Wofford ’25), C.O. of Company L 126th at Buna, the educator-soldier  who retired as a Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and passed away in 1957.  As yet, no one in the extended family has ever found Lee’s  Silver Star from Buna, or its related paperwork.  This seems even less likely to turn up after the death in 2014 of his son Bob, who was my principal contact and who was sure that the effects were in a trunk in the old family home at one time.  [Noting also that, too often, such things get pitched or sold with an estate, or are lost either to time or else to catastrophic events such as  fire or storm.]  Sergeant Kenny Gruennert’s medal, on the other hand, had a much easier existence, though it remained hidden away just the same.  Whether T/4 Dick Serrahn’s DSC will resurface remains to be seen, but his nephew is hopeful.  One should always remember that such awards were earned the hard way, and that often there was someone or several (the recipient notwithstanding) who died to make the award possible.  Sometimes such an artifact, and possibly an accompanying news clipping and citation, are the only surviving links to a veteran long gone but hopefully not forgotten.

It comes with great satisfaction that the research elements and back-stories from 32 Answered have so far made, in a short time, a helpful and meaningful impact in their new social media venue, and as such they have paid forward with positive outcomes; here’s hoping that such a well-intended presence will continue.

[JHC]

7 June 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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