Veterans Day Edition: Origins of 32 Answered

Greetings, strangers.  So, yes; it has been a few months since you received the last update on the blog site.  Apologies and an explanation are in order.  First, your author received commission to write a second book, this on behalf of the family of a veteran of the Italian and North African campaigns in WW II; this second title is now out and available online through the same outlets.  Secondly, taking up some huge tracts of time is a return to teaching.  Third and equally time consuming is a shift to another social media outlet as a primary daily means of updates about the book and research.  But as promised, there is still a role for the blog site.  Veterans Day is a fitting opportunity to demonstrate this niche.

A long overdue anecdote that sits especially well with today’s Veterans Day remembrance is exactly how the story for 32 Answered first got going.  It is a tale that originally was intended as an appendix for the book, but contrary to that initial plan, the main part of the text and narrative kept growing, and growing (and growing), until it well surpassed the original estimate, and as such this planned appendix would have added at least another fifty pages on top of the final page count.  Four hundred pages or more seemed a-plenty for a cohesive story, so to avoid overdoing it the back matter was reduced quite a bit.  Still, it’s a great back story to the published narrative, and at least the first part of it seems highly relevant today. So, here goes:

Equally as remarkable as the story itself is the way in which the search for information hit a critical sustaining point.  It would not have been possible without key bits of information furnished at strangely opportune times by living Buna veterans, families of Buna veterans, or else by fellow researchers on similar subject matter.  The end result is presented in the narrative, but the background to the story warrants a section of its own.  For this aspect, I will speak in first person and describe how it all came together.

Some readers may find it interesting, and helpful, to realize the full scope of how a tale emerged where none seemingly existed.   All of these revelations cascaded from a relatively small set of chance discoveries or else mere passing comments made in correspondence.

At its root, the present study evolved from an interest in media coverage, war correspondents, and photojournalism in the first New Guinea campaign.   In retrospect, the definitive emergence of the offshoot theme was not clear until some time in 2012, by that time the third year of active research.  Back in the early1990s I had completed my Master’s Thesis on “LIFE Magazine and the Onset of the Pacific War, 1937-1943” (Georgia Southern University), in which I had detected a perceived “Journalistic Turning Point” in the Pacific, as manifested in the coverage of the Buna campaign.  LIFE Magazine correspondent George Strock was present for at least part of the action, and his photographs from the combat zone were plentiful enough to warrant back-to-back pictorials in the magazine in early February 1943.  Before that, most combat against the Japanese had occurred at sea, had resulted in the journalist losing his film, or else had been heavily censored for content.  Or, alternately, a correspondent just wasn’t there to cover it.  For Strock, the Buna campaign provided a somewhat macabre perfect storm, allowing him to capture, arguably, the first American combat photography of the Pacific.  Most people who remember LIFE Magazine during the war years recall a single picture from Buna, that being the well-known “Three Americans” dead on the beach with the tide rolling in around them.   That was indeed part of Strock’s body of work, but only one segment in a larger context that in its whole constituted a major shift in the way the war was portrayed to the public.

Any lingering aspirations to follow up and to expand on that research were hampered throughout the 1990s and early 2000s by the lack of strong conduits to any pertinent information.   The thought of ever getting to speak to anyone who was there, or to any living correspondents who knew the full story, was unimaginable.  Only through the advent of the internet, the world wide web, and email, and having so much potential opportunity literally at one’s fingertips, did some of this become possible.

I think I first heard about James Campbell’s Ghost Mountain Boys one morning on my alarm clock radio, set to NPR, on which there was a story about his plan to hike the pass over the Owen Stanley Mountains as a tribute to the soldiers who had been ordered to hike it back in 1942.   This segment would have been aired in late 2008.  Before that time, I had had no idea that any Americans had trekked over the island in this way, and it prompted me to get a copy of his book.  At that stage, my intent was only to see if any names he might have mentioned matched those in the captions of LIFE Magazine’s Buna coverage, and maybe then to see if any one of them might still be living and if so, if one of them might possibly remember some interaction with Strock the correspondent.  In Campbell’s acknowledgements section, I did get a match—”Bill Sikkel”—and soon discovered that Grand Valley State University, in Holland, Michigan, had a well-organized veterans oral history project underway, and it included a “Bill Sikkel” on the list of interviewees.  When I wrote to Dr. James Smither at GVSU, right away he informed me that I had the wrong Bill Sikkel in mind.  There were two of them, cousins with exactly the same name and both in the 32nd Division but in different regiments, and the one pictured in LIFE—shown getting his hair cut by a barber using a Japanese flag to catch the clippings—was actually the other one, known henceforth as “cousin Bill.”  Nonetheless, Dr. Smither offered to put me in touch with the living Bill Sikkel in Holland, Michigan.

I called Bill one evening in early spring 2009, after Professor Smither had called ahead for me.  Bill understood what I was after and seemed kind of jokingly disappointed that it wasn’t about him, but he sent me some materials on the Buna campaign, including some newspaper clippings and articles plus some photos showing the two Bill Sikkel’s together later in life.  He did remember journalists George Weller (Chicago Daily News) and Ed Widdis (AP) and had personal interactions with these two, but said that he never saw a Time or LIFE journalist there.

Notwithstanding, those batches of Xerox copies contained some significant clippings that proved to be harbingers of more to come.  The first was a program from a Memorial Service held in early ’43 to honor the fallen members of the 126th Regiment, which would eventually reveal the names of three officers later addressed in the book. The second was a faded newspaper clipping, a picture from the Chicago Daily News ca. 1942, showing four named American officers posing in or around a slit trench.  They were: Hoyt Hill, Herman Davis, John Fenton, and William Sikkel (“Bill” not “cousin Bill”).  The caption gave each one’s hometown; Hill’s was listed as “Lake City, S.C.”, which is near the coast.

buna_guys1

Lt. Hoyt B. Hill, Jr., at far left, in this AP wire photo from the Sanananda-Soputa Trail, near Buna, Papua New Guinea, 1942. From Bill Sikkel’s (shown far right) personal collection.

Very fortunately for our correspondence, Bill enjoyed computers, and he used email daily.  Otherwise, I think I would have annoyed him tremendously over the years with phone call after phone call.  In one particularly significant email, I asked, “Bill, how in the world did a South Carolinian get into a Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard unit?”  Bill responded (paraphrased) that he actually recalled several Clemson graduates who were officers with him in Papua New Guinea in 1942.  They, he said, were all good officers and “true Southern Gentlemen.”

The search for Hoyt Hill eventually led to Clemson University, to Professor Don McKale and his book Destined for Duty published (1990) through Clemson University Press in honor of the Class of 1941.   Hill thus was the first of many South Carolina officers to be discovered during this study, and it was the revelation of this photo that begat this fortuitous unraveling of the thread.

Fittingly for today, Hoyt Hill’s importance reached far beyond his service with the Red Arrow Division in the first offensive against the Japanese in New Guinea.  As the book relates, Hill chose to devote his post-war career to helping veterans of all wars.  He returned to South Carolina and accepted a position with the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs.  In 1951 Hill was appointed Assistant Director and ten years later rose to the position of Director, where he stayed until his retirement in 1988, in all a total of 44 years devoted to the welfare of South Carolina veterans and their dependents.  In 1974, he was presented the Order of the Palmetto by then-Governor John C. West, one of several similar awards for his service to veterans and the community.  Following his death in June of 1990, a motion was made in the South Carolina State Legislature to dedicate the courtyard of the Richard C. Campbell Veterans Nursing Home in Anderson, SC –a facility then nearing completion, and which Hill had pushed very hard to get established–in his honor.

This could perhaps be one of a new series of back-stories to follow.  To be continued …

[JHC]

11 November, 2016

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4 thoughts on “Veterans Day Edition: Origins of 32 Answered

  1. This is SO AWESOME! I just opened it up and skimmed through it. I will read it more carefully later. I wanted to quickly tell you thanks for this gift on Veteran’s Day!! I will forward it to the whole family, and be sure to stop over and read it to my mom! So thankful that my dad could be helpful to you. It was a gift for him to use his knowledge, experience and good memory to help you! He was honored to have this relationship with you, and we are honored to hear this great story! Thanks Joe! Nancy Tanis

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I am so glad to see an update here! I have always wondered what started the fire for this project Joe. I look forward to reading more!

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  3. Hi JOE!

    I am SO sorry that I called you Jim! I was so excited when I saw your email. I was on my way to an event and in a hurry. I must have had James Campbell on my mind when I signed off. Anyway, I wanted to apologize to you Joe! I think this is such a wonderful story of how you and my dad were able to connect! My belief is that God was up to something. He so beautifully weaves our paths, and presents us with opportunities in life. SO grateful that you chose to reach out to my dad, and that he chose to respond, and then be of assistance to you! What a great story and a gift for many! You are an amazingly busy man! Thanks for all that you do!

    Enjoy your weekend! Nancy Tanis

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    1. LOL, no worries, I was able to fix it pretty innocently in the earlier post but you must have received an email update. True, Jim and I both consulted with your dad countless times, in my case maybe more frequently and over a prolonged period. In fact, in the months after this book was completed, I encountered others who at one time or another had corresponded with your dad on questions in their own research, mostly MIA searches or plane crashes in New Guinea. He was a go-to source for sure; for this book getting underway, I owe nearly everything to him– his sharp memory, his encouragement, and this odd discovery in his scrapbook. And yes indeed I agree this was all very Providential; no way it was all mere chance. Hope you and yours are all doing well; keep in touch. Kindest regards, Joe C.

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