For ‘Pappy’ Hannum, mixed duty on Attu’s Ordnance Hill

Last of three parts

Navy aviation ordnanceman Walter Hannum on Attu: He was pay officer, carpenter, truck mechanic, beer hall manager.

Attu is the westernmost island in the Aleutian archipelago, more than a thousand miles from the Alaskan mainland, just below the Bering Sea and so far out in the North Pacific, it’s in the Eastern Hemisphere. It’s a relentlessly gray place of cold, wind, rain and fog about twenty miles wide by thirty-five miles long. There are no trees, but craggy mountains whose peaks are covered with snow year-round. Today, no one lives there.

Walter Hannum remembered the guys would say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes. It’ll change. You won’t like that either.”

I read this 357-page paperback to learn how World War II was fought in the Aleutians. The book was first published in 1969. Author Brian Garfield was a novelist, historian and screenwriter. He died in 2018.

In June 1942, Japanese troops occupied the island. U.S. forces recaptured it a year later in desperate fighting that included a banzai charge by the enemy. The battle lasted three weeks and left more than 500 Americans and 2,300 Japanese dead.

By the time Walter arrived, the Japanese were long gone. It was June 1945, a month after the war in Europe ended, and the Allies were ratcheting up their efforts to defeat Japan. Attu had many thousands of U.S. Army and Navy personnel manning bases that launched air and naval attacks across the North Pacific.

Walter and two aviation mechanics traveled together the more than 400 miles from Adak to their new assignments. When they saw Attu airstrips not paved but made of steel mats, it struck them how inadequate the mats seemed.  

“We were wonderin’ what in the world we were doin’ there.”

A civilian crew came in and worked night and day to remove all of the steel mats, and started laying concrete runways. Four-engine patrol bombers, PB4Y-2 Privateers, arrived with crews that included some of Walter’s instructors from the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis.

“They were gettin’ ready to bomb the hell out of Japan.”

Walter, a Pennsylvanian in his mid-thirties and known to the younger guys as “Pappy,” worked on Ordnance Hill as pay officer. Around him was so much ammo, there was barely room to store it all.

 “Our ammunition was spaced so close, our cook said if anything happened around here, the whole thing would go up. If you were from Ordnance Hill, when you went down the chow hall, they’d give you anything. They figured you weren’t gonna be around long.”

Walter’s skill as a mechanic proved especially useful on Attu. The climate dampened ignition systems, preventing trucks from running on all cylinders. In a shop Walter and his “brother” Ralph built on my grandfather’s farm in 1927, Ralph once showed Walter what to do: Wipe inside the distributor with an oily rag. It beaded the filmy moisture into droplets of water.

This 1945 photo in Walter’s album of Attu images identifies him on the back only as Pappy and the sailor on the right as Gutirez.

“That’s all I did, and when you started the motor, all six cylinders took off.”

When word spread about Walter’s savvy, a higher-up got him to help in the garage. “Just keep those trucks running,” he told Walter, who then took another side job he was also perfectly suited for — as a carpenter.

“And, of course, I inherited the beer hall.”

He got that job as a result of the creepy behavior of a sailor in the Quonset hut that served as a barracks. The “simple nut,” as Walter called him, had found the frozen body of a Japanese soldier and taken off the head, and was keeping it in a bucket in the hut.

“When we’d go to chow at night, he’d put the bucket on a stove, and then when we came back from chow, he’d take the head out of the bucket and he’d start picking the flesh off of it.”

Walter couldn’t stand being around for that, so he’d escape to the enlisted men’s beer hall, a small Quonset hut. He’d take pen and paper along to write home, and spent so much time hanging around there, the sailor who managed the place asked him if he’d tend bar once in a while.

He did that for several weeks, and then one morning at muster, the beer hall guy said, “You’re up there every night. Here’s the cash box and the key. You might as well run the place.”

But what happened with the Japanese head?

“Well, this guy finally got his head cleaned up, and he got hold of some gold paint somewhere and painted it all up, and he hung it over the hut door. And then one of the officers seen it, so that ended that.”

Walter liked the officers, because they were casual about discipline. One morning, he and some other guys heard an officer grumbling after he’d met with the commander at headquarters. One in the group asked, “What’s the matter?”

Walter was authorized to drive vehicles on Attu, and carried this card as proof.

“Oh,” he said, “I went in to see the old man and some guy was salutin’ me down there. I told the old man. He said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stop that. We don’t want that going on around here. Maybe the fella’s new, and he doesn’t know any better yet.’ ”

“You see,” Walter said, “there was no nonsense.”

One day, Walter learned he would have to fly gunnery on a mission to Paramushiro Island, where the enemy had a huge base that guarded the northern approach to Japan. He would be flying in a speedy, twin-engine patrol bomber, the PV-1 Ventura.

“What’s that like?” he asked a fella who had made the trip.

“Well, you sit on the floor for four hours, and then you’re over target and you’re real busy, and then you sit on the floor for another four hours back and hope both engines keep running.”

Walter knew why flying across the bitter North Pacific was scary.

“They didn’t bother giving you a raft or nothin’, because you weren’t gonna live in that water.”

Luckily for Walter, he didn’t have to go to Paramushiro. The atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Japan formally surrendered the next month.

One of Walter’s best friends on Attu was a stray dog named Old George.

Walter with Old George on Attu. The dog was popular with the sailors on Ordnance Hill.

“I guess you’d call him a shepherd. He would stay in the beer hall at night till around 9:30 or 10 o’clock, then he’d go down to the hut, and I’d tell him, ‘George, damn you, when I come down to the hut, don’t you try to bite me,’ because he would raise cane when somebody’d come in the hut.

“So then if you went down to the hut and he was on your bunk, you didn’t give the dog hell, you gave the guys hell: ‘OK, who gave Old George permission to get on my bunk?’ If you weren’t on the bunk, he’d get up and put his nose on it, but somebody gave him permission before he got on it. He was somethin’.

“We didn’t see him for a long while. I’m goin’ down the road in a ten-wheeler one day and here’s this dog runnin’ along in the gutter, and I stopped and I called to him, ‘George, where in the hell are you goin’?’ He got in the truck with me and come back up on the hill.”

When it was just about time to leave Attu, Walter made wooden crates for guys going home with the dogs they’d befriended.

“What about if I make a box for Old George?” he asked the cook, who knew the dog well from his visits to the chow hall.

“No, don’t worry about him. I can’t go home for a while. I’ll take him when I go.”

It’s not the answer Walter hoped for.

“I left George behind,” he said. “He was somethin’.”

Just before Christmas 1945, Walter left Attu for home. Two weeks later, at Bainbridge, Maryland, he was honorably discharged from the Navy as an aviation ordnanceman third class with Pacific and American theater ribbons.

He took advantage of the GI Bill to get his commercial pilot’s license and become certified as an aircraft mechanic. He flew passengers and worked on engines for less than a year.

“It was seven days a week, and I was makin’ $70 a week, and I could make more at pattern-making in only five days, in less hours.”

He returned to Downingtown Manufacturing, quit after a management change he didn’t like, and took another airplane job that didn’t work out. Then he made patterns for a former co-worker who did custom work, but got tired of that and returned to Downingtown Manufacturing. Beloit Corporation bought the company in 1955, and Walter stayed on, making patterns until the plant closed in 1971.

“I was on unemployment for a year. Where was a guy sixty-two years old gonna find a job, anything worthwhile?”

When Walter left the Navy, he and Emma lived in an apartment in West Chester. He liked the idea of getting a trailer, so he could be mobile.

“See, I found pattern-making was a very uncertain trade. If I got out of  [Downingtown], I’d have to go to Philadelphia or Lancaster for a job. So I felt, why tie yourself down with a house and worry about it if you have to move somewheres else to work?”

Emma in front of the plane her husband built, Little Red Shoes

He and Emma bought a trailer for $6,000. His dad offered Walter an acre on his property. “Why don’t you take this ground here with the shop on it?” he said, referring to the workplace Walter and Ralph had built in the twenties. So, in 1954, Walter and Emma parked their trailer up a slope from the shop. Ralph dug a pond for them.

Pop-Pop and Nanny, as we grandkids called them, had made similar offers to my Aunt Hilda and Uncle Mike, and to my mom and dad. As a result, a sizable chunk of contiguous land along Route 113 in East Caln Township, north of Downingtown, belonged to my grandparents and their three children and their spouses. It was a true family compound.

All three young men in our extended family had done their part against Germany and Japan. Besides Uncle Walter’s Navy duty in the Aleutians, my dad was a Coast Guard radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic, and Uncle Mike was a propeller mechanic with the 8th Air Force in England, servicing B-24 Liberator bombers.

Pop-Pop and Nanny had given these veterans a lift up.

Walter lost Emma on the first day of May 1973.

“Em wanted me to mow the yard. I said, ‘It don’t look too bad.’ She said, ‘You got more done around here when you were working than you do now when you’re retired.’ So I said, ‘Oh all right, we’ll mow the yard.’ ”

He was on a tractor he’d built. She was pushing a power mower.

“When I seen her laying with the mower running, I said oh, she got her foot under it. That wasn’t the case. She had a stroke. Em was dead.”

They’d had no children. She had taken care of him, even urging him to take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day, which he always did.

Walter built his own equipment — tractors with plows, carts and mowers, a gasoline-powered woodcutter, an excavator tractor with caterpillar tracks. His shop brimmed with tools and machinery. You’d see a technical magazine on aviation or a copy of Popular Mechanics inside. He had plastic model planes hanging from the rafters, a nudie calendar on the wall, an old airplane propeller mounted outside on the front, above the wide sliding door.

Walter rides one of his creations on his property outside Downingtown, Pennsylvania. In the background is the pond his ‘brother’ Ralph dug for him.

For fun, he consumed books about the Wild West, especially cowboy novels.  Mom brought him bagsful of them from the county library, where she was a volunteer book-mender, and I got him some used paperbacks once. He had oversize, illustrated volumes from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Reader’s Digest.

After he died, two weeks into 2009, we went through his shop and trailer. There were dozens of photos of him and Emma, of airplanes and the buddies who worked on them and flew with him, of sailors he knew on Attu. He had saved newspaper clippings of the plane crashes he and his friends survived. Among his books were Early Air Pioneers, Veteran and Vintage Aircraft and The American Heritage History of Flight. He had all seven videotapes of the Warbirds of World War II series.

I still have snatches of memories from growing up next door to him:

  • How the air compressor in his shop thrummed when it kicked on and powered up;
  • Seeing him with his old buddies on folding chairs at the shop for Sunday chats;
  • The time he told me that a dog lifting its leg to pee was “putting it into gear”;
  • A little speech he gave me on the virtues of Hamburger Helper;
  • Watching him drive past our house in his blue-gray Volkswagen pickup truck, never in a hurry.

Just before Uncle Walter died, Mom and I visited him at a nursing home in Honey Brook. He was ninety-eight years old, but still clear-headed. When we left the room, I turned back to look at him lying on his bed.

He had that crinkly grin.

Years before sailor heads to Alaska, a tragedy in the air

Second of three parts

Early aviation buffs (from left) Ralph Hannum, Cliff Young, J. Edwin “Eddie” Mendenhall and Walter Hannum in the mid-1920s at Cliff’s home near Marshallton, Pennsylvania. Ralph was Walter’s uncle, but they were the same age and thought of each other as brothers. Eddie was Walter’s cousin, Ralph’s nephew.

Walter Hannum was just a toddler when his mother died. She was in her late twenties and had taught in Chester County public schools. A newspaper story said she had been ill for six weeks with typhoid fever. It described her as “an estimable woman … of a high Christian character and greatly esteemed by all who knew her.”

Obituary for Walter’s mom, who died June 28, 1915

Until his dad remarried several years later, Walter lived on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. His father had a young brother named Ralph, who was the same age as Walter.

“He was my uncle, but he was only three months older than myself. So we were raised together, and he was more like a brother.”

They would grow up to share an interest in motorcycles and airplanes. But early on, they did chores on the eighteen-acre farm, where the Hannums had three horses and twelve to fourteen cows.

“You went out and hoed corn and picked the bugs off the vines. You kept busy. Ralph and I didn’t get in on the milking back then, but there was a hand pump to pump water. Up in the attic was a big wooden tank, and every evening we had to fill that tank. And this pump, Ralph and I couldn’t work the handle ourselves, so we had to team up to pump this water. And of course, where they watered the cattle, that trough had to be filled. So that was our job every day.”

Initially, Granddad Hannum resisted new technology.

“A way back, the horses were used in the field to plow and pull the wagons, mowers, hay rakes, everything. Dad got to talking about a Fordson tractor. Granddad said no, that they weren’t good for the ground because they packed it down from the weight, when you plowed or harrowed with them.”

He gave in after a big farm nearby got a Fordson.

The Hannums’ 1917 Fordson tractor

“Ralph and I used to go up and run it, like for crops, because they liked a kid on there, because they used the men for the heavy work. Ralph and I would get to fighting over whose turn it was to drive it.”

Walter’s dad bought a 1917 Fordson at an auction for $90. It had iron wheels. The entire differential unit was lying on the ground when he made his bid, and he didn’t know what, if anything, was wrong with it. He took the part home and installed it. The tractor ran fine. Walter and Ralph later improved it with rubber tires.

Walter was a lanky lad with a crinkly grin. Sometimes his granddad had him smarting and scratching his head.

“He had these leather slippers with elastic inside. And you talk about a man with a fast draw! He could whip one of them off and crack you across the back before you knew what. Times I stood there and wondered, well, what was this for? Something I did. I wasn’t always sure.”

Walter Hannum

In time, he thought highly of farm life.

“I look back, and I think it was a good way to be brought up.”

Still, his eyes were on flying machines. As kids, he and Ralph would stand out in the field and gawk at the old Jennys flying overhead. The Jenny biplanes were cheap and available after the First World War. Then once, there was a big, old LWF biplane at the far end of the field.

“Ralph and I had been fussing so much about flying, Grandmother Hannum got in her sugar bowl and she got out $12 for us. It was $6 apiece for a ride. The thing held four. Ralph and I had to face the back. Two people faced the front. We had a ride, and Grandmother figured that would quiet us down. But it didn’t. That was it.”

Walter’s dad, Bill Hannum, remarried in 1921, and the family moved to a house up the hill, across from Northwood Cemetery. Bill and the former Clara Pierce had met at a square-dance. They went on to have two daughters, my Aunt Hilda and my mom, Elizabeth.

Walter’s dad, my grandfather Bill Hannum

During his first and only year of high school, Walter helped an older friend, Cliff Young, build a little biplane. Walter made ribs for the wings instead of studying at night. When he quit school, he signed on as an apprentice in the pattern shop at Downingtown Manufacturing, and stayed with it until Cliff drew him away to a dream job working on airplanes.

Cliff had gotten a job in the experimental department at the Bellanca aircraft factory in New Castle, Delaware. He brought Walter, now about eighteen, into the company. Walter moved into Cliff’s farmhouse near Marshallton, a village about four miles from Downingtown.

“Then I got short on clothes. Cliff brought me home in the Model T. I got the clothes, and my dad gave me the devil.”

Bill told his son, “Those airplanes are no good. You can’t use them for a thing. It’s just some guys fooling around, and you’ll never amount to a damn if you follow that job. You go back and learn your trade – pattern-making.”

Walter did as he was told.

 “It was just as well. The Depression hit, and airplane factories closed up. At least at Downingtown, we were making parts for paper machinery three days a week or three days every other week.”

He kept tinkering with planes and going aloft in them, but not always safely. Once, he and Cliff crashed through a post-and-rail fence during takeoff when a headwind kept them from clearing a stone house. Neither was hurt, but the propeller was broken and the landing gear and bottom wing were damaged.

And then about 11 a.m. on August 9, 1931, the unthinkable happened.

“Cliff had got ahold of a real nice, modern biplane, not a world war surplus. It had a big V-8 water-cooled engine with ninety horsepower, and could haul three people.

“So one Sunday morning, I’m goin’ down the road in my hot ’29 Chevy roadster, and I stopped at Granddad’s, and young Eddie Mendenhall come out. Now he was a cousin, he was just fifteen at the time, and he wanted to go with me over to Cliff’s to fly. He was interested in aviation too.

Fifteen-year-old Eddie Mendenhall of Downingtown and the wrecked biplane, as shown in the Daily Local News of West Chester. The crash on August 9, 1931, killed Eddie and seriously injured Walter Hannum and pilot Cliff Young. The newspaper described Eddie as “one of the town’s promising young lads.” He played football at Downingtown High School.

“Cliff  had his plane there in the field by the barn. Eddie and I got in the front seat, side by side and facing forward. Cliff fired her up and we went flying. Half an hour later, when we came back to land, the engine quit at around 300 feet, and the plane went into a spin. A spin is very simple: If you get that airplane too slow to stay in the air, one side will quit flying first.”

The plane, a Challenger, spiraled into a field, hitting on its nose.

Four men, two of them Cliff’s relatives, hurried to the wreck. So did a friend of Walter’s, who sped there in Walter’s roadster, crashing through farmers’ fences. He found Walter sticking out between the plane’s firewall and gas tank. The engine had smashed back into the forward seats.

Eddie was the worst off. He had broken bones in both legs and both feet, and a fractured skull. He died four hours later in the Homeopathic Hospital of West Chester, where the three fliers had been taken by car.

Cliff, at the controls, had been seated behind Eddie and Walter. When the plane hit the ground, his head snapped forward, and the safety belt knocked out all of his teeth, Walter said.

With no sensitivity, an Associated Press story the next day said Cliff, who was thirty-eight, “suffered many broken bones and shock from which he is expected to die.” But he hung on, and during eight months in Abington Memorial Hospital, he underwent three surgeries.

Gawkers at the crash site near the village of Marshallton

“He never did recover,” Walter said. “Four years later, he died.”

Walter’s injuries included lacerations on his face, bone fractures in his left foot and right ankle, and a broken jaw. He believed he survived because Eddie, seated beside him, cushioned him on impact.

“I think his body protected me when we went in.”

My mom, who was just shy of three years old, says that seeing her brother all bandaged up frightened her.

So, why did the plane’s engine quit? Walter knew the answer.

“It was carburetor ice. In them days, they knew nothing about it. It was in August, and who would’ve thought you’d have ice in the carburetor in August?”

In the Homeopathic Hospital, Walter met student nurse Emma Collier, a 1928 graduate of Radnor High School. “Emma is a girl who, no matter what happens, is always ready to laugh” and has a “musical giggle,” according to the yearbook blurb alongside her photo. She was an athlete, with a letter in track. “In jumping, she cannot be excelled,” the blurb’s writer said.

Emma Collier (standing, second from left) as a student nurse at the Homeopathic Hospital of West Chester

Walter had a couple of dates with Emma after he got into shape. He courted her with his Chevy roadster, taking her to movies at the Warner Theater in West Chester. But there was a hurdle: She had a boyfriend. Walter talked with him one night about automobiles and soon had him out of the picture.

“I kind of overcome him. He lost out,” he said with that crinkly grin.

Often, Walter didn’t have enough gas money for his car, so he rode his Harley to see Emma.

“Her parents lived down back of Paoli, so I’d bum a quarter off my dad – I could buy a lot of gasoline with a quarter back then for a motorcycle – so I’d go down to see her on the motorcycle. So then her parents, they made me park it out on the main road and walk in, because I guess they didn’t want the neighbors to know that Emma went with a lowlife that rode a motorcycle.”

In 1932, the year after the plane crash, Walter was riding his Harley on Baltimore Pike one Sunday morning when someone in a Buick roadster pulled out from a stop sign and hit him. That was the end of the motorcycle. Walter was banged up, too, and landed in the hospital again.

Emma and Walter on the Fourth of July 1934, three months after their wedding

He and Emma were married on April 12, 1934, but on the sly because she was still a student nurse and would have been canned if word got out. The students’ house mother knew about the nuptials but covered for Emma.

Walter told his dad about getting hitched and had a moment of dismay.

“Well, there’s no use in telling you anything,” Bill told his son in disgust, and walked away. Then he turned to come back and said, “Well, she seems like a nice girl. I think you’ll be all right.”

The couple lived for a few years in an apartment above a garage on Downingtown’s Brandywine Avenue, then rented a bungalow along Route 113 owned by Walter’s Aunt Marie for $20 a month.

Walter was still working at Downingtown Manufacturing, where on March 7, 1931, he had completed four years’ pattern apprenticeship and the vice president wrote, “We cheerfully recommend him as trustworthy and competent.”

When his “brother” Ralph bought a plane, a Taylor J-2 Cub, while working in Ohio, Walter and a pal became part owners for $200 apiece. Ralph brought the Cub to the Main Line Airport in Malvern, where Walter took flying lessons. In 1941, he got his pilot’s license.

Four years later, with Walter in the Navy and World War II almost won, he left Washington state’s Whidbey Island for Adak in the Aleutians. He found out what “further transfer” meant.

He was going to Attu.

Part 3 coming Friday, August 13

From deferment to duty: a motor-minded sailor’s journey

First of three parts

My Uncle Walter liked to say that if he’d kept his mouth shut, he wouldn’t have landed in the Navy and ended up at one of the most desolate, unforgiving outposts of World War II.

Walter Hannum and his wife, Emma, in 1944 or ’45.

Walter Leroy Hannum was my mom’s older brother, born in 1910 to a southeastern Pennsylvania farmer and his schoolteacher wife. In his youth, he crafted wooden patterns for machinery, rode motorcycles, built biplanes and learned to fly. As a thirty-something sailor in the North Pacific, he specialized in aircraft ammo and bombs bound for Japan. Back home, he used the GI Bill to earn a commercial pilot’s license.

The lure of machines almost cut his life short.  When he was twenty, a biplane he was riding in dived into a field, killing a young cousin and critically injuring the pilot. Walter was seriously hurt, but the accident gave way to good fortune. While laid up in the hospital, he met a student nurse, his future wife. The next year, a motorcycle crash banged him up again.

Undaunted by the plane disaster, he got a private pilot’s license in 1941. When America entered the war that year, he was exempt from the draft because his employer, Downingtown Manufacturing Company, did defense work. In peacetime, the plant built paper-making machinery, for which Walter made patterns for casting. Now it made steam winches to raise anchors and lift cargo onto Liberty ships, and produced the steering mechanism for airplane rudders. Walter once made a pattern to carry the breech mechanism on a submarine’s five-inch deck gun.

Walter with a plane he built, Little Red Shoes, in a photo taken in the early 1950s

He liked the work but bristled over the plant’s personnel manager, who’d come down to the pattern shop and tell Walter, “I got you a deferment. Isn’t that pretty nice?” Walter steamed over it.

“I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like him, and I didn’t like him having me in debt to him,” he told me in 1997, when he was eighty-six.

The manager told Walter again and again: “I got you another deferment. Isn’t that pretty nice?”

Then in 1944, when it got near the time for another one, Walter told his foreman, “It’s about time for that big SOB to come down and tell me I have another deferment and isn’t that pretty nice. I’m goin’ up to Personnel and straighten him out.”

He confronted the manager. “I don’t want no more deferments.”

“Well, if you feel that way, I’ll just take you off of it.”

That was a Wednesday. The following Monday, Walter was on a train to Philadelphia to report for induction into the military. He was married and thirty-three years old.

With his background in aviation, he hoped to get into the Army Air Forces as a mechanic. “If you wanna go in the Air Force,” he was told in Philly, “you gotta go in the Army first.” Walter had a problem with that. He didn’t want to do a lot of marching. The heck with that, he thought.

“I’ll take the Navy,” he said, but with no promise of getting the kind of job he wanted. He was inducted on May 5, 1944, a month before the D-Day invasion of France that doomed Nazi Germany.

“Boy, was I wrong about the Navy!” he said. “I went to Camp Peary in Virginia for boot camp, and we marched from 8 in the morning till noon, and you went and got somethin’ to eat, and you went out and you marched from 1 till 5 in the evening for seven weeks.”

One day, the trainees were tested on math, history, geography. A proctor said, “Anybody that’s interested in an aviation rate can stay for a special test.” Walter didn’t think he could pass it, but took it anyway.

Walter (right) with his dad, Bill Hannum

“I guess I passed because they interviewed me one day about what I wanted to do in the Navy, and they found out I had seventeen years’ pattern experience. They wanted to put me in pattern-making.”

He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to get into aviation.

“No, you can’t,” one of his two interviewers said, noting Walter didn’t have enough education, just one year of high school. But the other said, “Look at his aptitude test,” and with that, he got a green light for schooling.

He was off to Memphis, Tennessee, to the Naval Air Technical Training Center, where right away the trainees had to pass a math test to stay. Walter fretted again, but he passed. He wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t taken an International Correspondence School course some years earlier – a course that opened a life’s worth of work for him.

“If I hadn’t taken that ICS, I never would’ve made nothin’.”

Now, Walter was among twenty-one students in a class studying aviation ordnance – bombs, fuses, ammunition, machine guns, all of the armament for airplanes.

“We had classes all day, and all day Saturday you took tests on what you studied that week. The next week started, you were on an all-new subject. And if you didn’t pass all those subjects, you had to go at night to try to pick up what you failed.”

An officer urged Walter to volunteer for aerial gunnery, but he balked. He’d seen what fighter planes did to a target with six .50-caliber machine guns, and didn’t want anyone shooting at him.

Walter’s Navy portrait

“Are you afraid to fly?”

“No,” Walter said, “I’m a civilian pilot.”

But he changed his mind about gunnery when classmates pressed him to join them. The draft for gunnery school was filled, though, meaning he couldn’t go. He was in sick bay with a cold and fever when he got word that a slot had opened up for him.

Others in sick bay razzed him that he’d made a mistake.

“Boy, are you foolish! You have the highest marks in our class, and there were two openings at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”

That didn’t matter to Walter. He didn’t like the cold and thought he’d be learning aerial gunnery where it was warm, in Florida.

“When they read all the drafts out, it was Whidbey Island. I asked somebody if Whidbey Island was off the coast of Florida. He said no, it’s off the coast of Washington – the state of Washington. Good Lord, that’s up there in the Northwest and this is December!”

But Walter found the weather up in Puget Sound, above Seattle, was pleasant that winter of 1944-45. The place was Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, home of Fleet Air Wing 6, where he studied weapons in a classroom and then went outside to fire them.

“Your platform was moving and what you’re shooting at is moving, and you’re only allowed to fire in bursts of twelve shots, because you had an air-cooled gun. If you fired too long, your gun would get hot and quit.”

Walter inspects the engine of my brand-new Mazda3 in 2005.

He shot at all kinds of targets, instructed to always lead them, and learned to use a turret.

“I liked the hydraulic turrets. I could get that gun right where I wanted it. But the electric turret was kind of uncertain. You moved your control, it went too far. If you tried to move your control to slow up, then it was too slow and your turret was erratic trying to follow a target.”

Walter finished the course and worked as an instructor on the firing range while waiting for reassignment.

“All we had was cotton for our ears. You had four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon of these guns firing. After two weeks, my ears were ringing night and day.”

His chief said he could stay on as an instructor or put in for a draft out of Whidbey Island. Walter opted for the draft, figuring anything was better than the bedlam in his ears. In the meantime, he went on seaman guard at night, keeping watch on the station’s patrol planes.

One Sunday morning, after he and others finished six hours on guard duty and were crossing a field, they came across a petty officer. He told one of the weary sailors to square his crooked hat. The sailor made a disparaging remark and was put on report. That sealed it for Walter.

“I thought, I’m tired of this chicken nonsense around here.”

He asked to leave the island. It was early June 1945. A pal who worked in the station’s draft office told him that an officer saw Walter’s application and said, “We’ll fix him up.”

When Walter’s orders came through, he couldn’t make out where he was headed. His assignment was just a bunch of letters across the top of the page, “alphabetical soup,” he called it. He went to the post office to get his address changed, and the clerk asked, “You know where you’re goin’?” Walter hadn’t the slightest idea. “You’re going to Adak for further transfer.”

“Where’s Adak?”

“That’s up in the Aleutian Islands.”

Walter went to the library to look at a map and saw that Adak is about midway out the Aleutian chain from mainland Alaska.  

Good Lord! he thought. Alaska! He worried about the “further transfer.” Where would it take him?

Part 2 coming Wednesday, August 11

Dark war memories of a fun-loving uncle

Uncle Louie was a rascal and a jokester.

“He was kind of a character, wasn’t he?” his older brother Frank said. “He was a fun person, always out for a good time.”

Uncle Louie works the grill and his hips in this snippet from a June 1969 home movie.

Yes, he was great for laughs, but I saw another side of him.

Louie, Frank and their brothers Sam and Carmine, my dad, all went to war against Germany and Japan. They’re on the Honor Roll of Malvern, Pennsylvania, for their service in World War II. Frank was an Army medic in Panama and at a Long Island psychiatric hospital run by the War Department. Sam was in the Army Coast Artillery in the South Pacific. My dad was a Coast Guard radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic.

Louis Charles Venditti was born in Lewistown, in the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians of central Pennsylvania, and went to school only as far as eighth grade.

Louis Charles Venditti

(When my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Italy, his name was recorded as Venditta instead of Venditti. Louie and an older brother, Tony, reclaimed the original spelling. My dad and the other siblings – there were a dozen children in all — did not.)

In his late teens, Louie worked at chemical company Foote Mineral, operating a furnace. He joined the Army Air Forces early in 1943 and arrived in England that November, a week after turning twenty. He was a private first class, a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force. What kind of unit? “Pursuit!” he told me, and said of the hotshots who flew the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs, “Oh, those guys were sharp.”

Louie was assigned to the 77th Station Complement Squadron at Wattisham in East Anglia. His specialty was running heavy-duty automotive equipment. “Hauled personnel, supplies, and equipment,” his Army separation papers say. “Drove fire truck, answering emergency calls to extinguish fires caused by aircraft accidents. Made minor repairs to vehicles.”

Louie was a ground crewman on a fighter base in England.

Wattisham Station 377, about sixty miles northeast of London, was the base for the 479th Fighter Group, known as “Riddle’s Raiders.” It had three fighter squadrons that used P-38s and P-51s for ground attack and bomber escort.

One day was seared into Louie’s memory. He told me about it in the spring of 1995, as the family gathered after the funeral of his sister Josie.

A crippled P-38 was returning to the base from Nazi-occupied Europe. Its pilot might have been injured. He had to crash-land the twin-engine fighter, and when it hit the ground, it flipped over and caught fire. Louie rushed to the scene in a firetruck, but the plane had turned into a fireball. There was little that Louie and the other responders could do. Through the flames, Louie saw the pilot upside down in the cockpit, banging on the bubble canopy with his fist. He could not be saved.

“That really got me,” Louie told me, and then he looked away and his voice trailed off. “It got me for a long time.”

He left England in February 1946 and was honorably discharged a few weeks later at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, pocketing a Good Conduct Medal for three years of active duty. He and his brothers made it through the war unharmed, except for Sam. A noncombat brain injury on Bora Bora Island in French Polynesia got him a disability discharge in the spring of 1943. Blackouts dogged him for seven more years, until he had one and never came to.

Louie with son Nicky in June 1969, just before Nicky left for Vietnam.

As Uncle Louie and I talked after his sister’s funeral, he nodded toward Ernie Beam, Josie’s husband. Uncle Ernie was a bear-size man who served in North Africa during the war as an Army military policeman. He was chatting with mourners outside his home and making sure there was plenty to eat and drink.

“Look at him,” Louie said. “He’s all right now, surrounded by all these people, keeping busy. But just wait until tonight when he’s alone in the dark and thinking on his pillow. That’s when it’ll really hit him.”

He turned to me, his eyes moistening.

“I know what that’s like. I’ve known that ever since I lost my son.”

Nicky Venditti, twenty years old, was an Army helicopter pilot. He died July 15, 1969, his eleventh day in Vietnam, as a result of a training accident involving a grenade. His dad’s anecdote about the doomed fighter pilot is in my book about Nicky and the accident, Tragedy at Chu Lai.

Louie’s heart failed in 1996. He lies at the foot of Nicky’s grave.

My dad, Carmine, with his older brother Louie, who’s holding their nephew Frankie. The little girl in front is Frankie’s sister Anna. The other girls are Rita (left) and Patty, my dad and Louie’s sisters. Frankie and Anna are my Uncle Tony and Aunt Laura’s children. The photo was taken in the early 1940s in Malvern.

Slip of paper 186 years old reveals error on Alamo defenders list

You might remember my blog about an ancestor of mine, James Hannum, a fighter in the Texas Revolution who’s on the official list of Alamo defenders.

Seven months after the post, I now have solid evidence he didn’t sacrifice his life in the fabled stand against Mexican troops near San Antonio. The truth is that he died almost three months earlier, a hundred miles from the old Spanish fortress.

The proof is an 1835 document recently uncovered in Austin, Texas.

The Battle of the Alamo lasted 13 days, culminating on March 6, 1836, when thousands of Mexican troops overwhelmed about 200 Texan volunteer soldiers at an old Franciscan mission near San Antonio, Texas. My ancestor James Hannum, who joined the fight for Texas’ independence, is incorrectly listed as an Alamo defender.

In my blog last July, I wrote about the findings of a former Army military policeman and criminal investigator, Thomas Ricks Lindley, who spent many years researching the Alamo battle. In his 2003 book Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions, he made the case that some men on the list of Alamo heroes didn’t die there. Hannum was among them.

Lindley cited a record noting Hannum died December 14, 1835, at a frontier fort in Goliad, Texas, commanded by Captain Philip Dimitt, or Dimmitt. The notation appears on a morning report, a daily accounting of personnel.

Where did Lindley find the report? He gave the source as the Philip Dimitt Papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Eager to see for myself, I emailed the Briscoe Center asking for Dimitt’s morning reports, but it was closed because of COVID-19.

“At this time we are unable to access any of our physical, onsite materials and services, including the Philip Dimitt Papers,” reference intern Marisa Jefferson wrote on June 23. “However, I was able to access a more comprehensive listing of the items in this collection.”

That offered hope, but then she followed up with this: “I do not see any suggestion in this finding aid that the morning reports you are looking for would be in the collection.”

What? Could Lindley, a ferocious fact-hunter, have made a mistake?

Six months passed. Then out of the blue, in mid-December, I got another email from Jefferson. She said the Briscoe Center had reopened to staff on a limited basis. I could put in a request to have materials in the Philip Dimitt collection scanned and emailed. To give her a handle on what to look for, I sent the link to my July 2020 blog.

A breakthrough came in January, when she looked in the designated box of Dimitt papers and, to her surprise, found several morning reports. I wanted to see them all. She arranged it, and a staffer in Duplication Services sent me the scans of two morning reports. Again, no luck. They were from December 24 and 26, 1835, and don’t mention Hannum.

“Nice try, though,” I wrote to Jefferson. “Thank you for that.”

She offered to take another look at the collection. This time, she found the December 14 report mentioning Hannum, just as Lindley had described it in his book. A part of the one-page document labeled “Remarks” says: “DIED – This Morning James Hanum [sic], Private.” The name is underlined.

An image of the barely legible line is below.

This is a detail of a scan from Captain Philip Dimitt’s morning report of December 14, 1835, at Fort Goliad, Texas. It reads: “Remarks DIED — This Morning James Hanum, Private.” (The name, which is underlined on the paper, is misspelled. It’s actually “Hannum.”) The morning report is among documents in the Philip Dimitt Papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

This morning report is definitive, a primary source. It confirms that Hannum, twenty or twenty-one years old, was a soldier in Texas’ struggle for independence, but that he didn’t die with William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say how Hannum died.

Also still unanswered is why, eighteen years after Lindley found fault with the list of Alamo defenders, Hannum’s name is still on it.

Since my blog last year, I’ve had email contact with Stephen Harrigan, author of the best-seller The Gates of the Alamo, who wrote the foreword to Lindley’s book.  Harrigan put me in touch with historical consultant Richard B. Winders, former historian at the Alamo.

“The defenders list is an interesting subject,” Winders emailed last September. “The general opinion is it is some certified list kept by some organization or agency, but in reality it is just a list of names that has been printed over and over.”

He said Lindley pressed for a revision of the record, but after his death in 2007, the issue faded away.

Still, while Winders was historian at the Alamo, he assigned a member of the staff to work on the defenders list. “Specifically, I was interested in how many lists there were and what were their origins,” he said. “My hope was that the Alamo and GLO would cooperate in evaluating and establishing the veracity of the list together.”

GLO is the Texas General Land Office, which the Texas Legislature put in charge of the Alamo’s care in 2011.

It’s unclear where the research stands. Winders heard that after he left, the Alamo allowed the staffer to keep working on the list. Winders gave me the email address of the shrine’s curator. I wrote to him but got no response.

War stories: How and why I wrote them

My brother John, director of the Eastern Shore Regional Library in Maryland, invited me to speak to his Salisbury Sunrise Rotary Club. In the Zoom meeting last week, I talked about interviewing war veterans. Here are excerpts:

In 1999, we at The Morning Call in Allentown wanted to do a project on military veterans to mark the end of the century. The idea was to invite Lehigh Valley vets to write about their wartime experiences, and we would publish their accounts in a section called War Stories of the Century. When we didn’t get as many submissions as we hoped, I grabbed a tape recorder and set out to do some interviews.

This is The Morning Call’s special section for Veterans Day 1999, which I wrote for and edited. The veteran on the cover is Olaf Marthinson of Allentown, who served in the Pancho Villa campaign in 1916.

It was a big learning curve. I’m not a veteran, and I didn’t have any particular interest in the military. But I was interested in the personal accounts. These were people who had put on a uniform for the country and had seen and done extraordinary things. Many were lucky to have survived.

One of the first vets I met with was Olaf Marthinson. He was 102 years old. He had helped to defend the country from Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa in 1916. A friend introduced me to Olaf, saying, “Come here and shake hands with history.”

That was the start for me, and I was hooked. Over the next 17 years, I interviewed more than a hundred war veterans, most of them from World War II, but also some from the Cold War and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. These were everyday people who had played a role on the world stage at critical times in our history.

How did I know that the people I was interviewing were the real McCoys, that they did what they say they did? Right off the bat, I insisted that they show me their discharge papers, which give a summary of service. These are absolutely important, but you have to keep in the back of your head that documents don’t always tell the truth.

If the vets had a medal or claimed to have one, I asked to see the citation that says why they got it. I once came across a veteran who wore a medal for valor he hadn’t earned. He was in his late 90s and confused. He had indeed shown bravery in combat and sincerely believed he deserved the medal, so he got it from a military medals dealer he knew.

If I wasn’t sure about something, I asked an expert. A Navy cargo pilot said he flew the Hiroshima bomb’s tail assembly to the Pacific. I contacted a historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He saw no red flag. An Army cryptographic technician said he decoded and delivered an urgent message to Patton. It was from Eisenhower, setting the final date of the Normandy invasion. I spoke with the keeper of Patton’s papers. He said that’s plausible.

A Navy crewman on a landing craft said he saw Eisenhower and the king of England together on a dock in the run-up to D-Day. One of Britain’s top military historians, Antony Beevor, emailed that George VI had gone to the coast before the invasion, so it was plausible.

For fact-checking, there’s a wealth of resources you can tap — many books and a vast amount of information online, on authoritative websites. Things like unit histories. A Marine who lost his legs in the Korean War told me it happened during a mortar attack. I found his unit’s after-action report online and was able to confirm his account and add more detail.

There’s a D-Day order of battle, listing the units that participated in the assault. That helped me with two vets I interviewed who said they landed in France on D-Day, but when I checked, it turned out they hadn’t. They had landed on Normandy beaches, just not on June 6, 1944, but later. They weren’t trying to put one past me. It’s just that over time, they had become confused.

When I did these interviews, usually I had at least three meetings with the veteran, often more than that, and sometimes over several months. Each visit, the story became richer. I think it’s because the interviews got them thinking more. It was in their heads, working on them. So with each visit, more details got layered on. When I was done, I asked the vet to read the story for accuracy, and that would sometimes yield more material.

One of the last steps before publication was having a photographer shoot video of the veteran. I always attended these sessions and ran my own recorder, because magically, when the vet got in front of a camera, he or she remembered even more, or said something in a more meaningful way, and I could add that to the story.

Getting back to the idea of shaking hands with history, Marthinson, the vet in the Pancho Villa campaign, saw “Black Jack” Pershing in the Arizona desert. Bob Carl was a merchant seaman at the start of World War II. When he was a boy, he met Lawrence of Arabia. Carl Schroeter, before he was drafted, worked in the bakery at Princeton. On his way to work early in the morning, he’d exchange hellos with a wild-haired old guy on a bench. It was Einstein.

Through these veterans who were sitting right in front of me, I had a connection with some of the most famous people in history.

Sometimes the interviews did not go smoothly. Joe Poster was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a POW of the Japanese. He got mad at me one day. He said I was making him remember horrible things and it was giving him nightmares.

We met weekly for several months. When the two-part story was about to be published, he got cold feet. He worried that people wouldn’t believe what he had endured. I told him that he had told his story from the heart, and I thought the readers would believe him. The story ran. Here’s how it ended:

I think to myself, my God,  Joe, what you went through! I can’t say how I made it. I lived day to day. I was scared all the time. I thought maybe tomorrow those Japanese will kill me. I never knew whether they were going to murder us or not. That’s the way it was for three-and-a-half years, even till the last day.

Joe was glad it was published. When he went out to dinner, the people in the restaurant recognized him from the newspaper and stood up and applauded him. He was amazed. He told me, “Since that story ran, I can do no wrong!” He would be gone in a year.

Sometimes you learn little things you never heard anywhere else. Bob Hutchings was a clerk for Eisenhower. He said that when Eisenhower was in North Africa, he had his own cow. He had a private who did nothing but take care of this cow.

Most of these generals had stomach problems, because those guys had to be under tension all the time. Eisenhower was not exempt from that. He drank the milk for his stomach.

Part of the wonder of storytelling is that you can paint a picture with words. Here’s Dan Curatola, who was in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day:

When I got to shore, a shell hit and I went down. I tapped a corporal in front of me and said, “Boy, that was close, wasn’t it?” He didn’t answer. I saw he was dead. Thank God, I had seen dead men before, in Africa and Sicily. But some of the younger troops who hadn’t seen action just went out of their minds. You’d see them screaming and running the wrong way.

Sometimes the vet just doesn’t have much to say. That was true of Alton Knappenberger. He lived in a trailer in the woods, where I interviewed him. In 1944, he got the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off a German attack near Anzio with a Browning automatic rifle.

I just did what I had to do. You go in there and just try to get them guys before they get you.

Sometimes I had to do a little prompting to get someone to open up. Charlie Toth was a Marine who fought on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. The first time I sat down with him, he started rattling off facts and figures. He said his unit went to this island and then to that island and did this and that, and so on. After maybe 10 minutes, I stopped him. “Charlie, I need you to tell me about your experience.”  He just stared at me. What he said next became the beginning of his story.

A collection of 34 of my interviews with veterans from the World War I era, World War II, the Cold War, Korean War and Vietnam War. It was published in 2011 by The Morning Call.

If I started telling you what I have seen, I would never sleep again. Sometimes, the picture comes. You see the flames, you see the explosions. It’s right in front of you, broad daylight, right there. It never goes away, and there’s no medicine for it.

I interviewed a couple of guys who fought in the German army. One was Eddie Sakasitz, who was machine-gunned while riding a motorcycle in Italy and almost died. What he said about going up against the Americans in Italy was almost funny.

We were bombarded day and night. Our artillery would fire 20 to 25 shells at the American positions and get 20,000 shells in return. We wished our artillery wouldn’t fire at all.

Some scenes are horrifying and heartbreaking. Horace Rehrig was aboard the carrier Ticonderoga when kamikazes attacked it. He found his best friend lying on the hangar deck. He was flash-burned, and his right arm was blown off at the shoulder. Tears streamed down Horace’s cheeks when he described what happened.

I quick took some packing and held it on his wound and put his head in my lap and tried to comfort him. He was crying. He kept saying, “I’ll never make it.” Finally we got him down to sick bay. The doctors put him on an operating table. He had his knees up and was waving them back and forth. And then they just stopped. It just plays hell with you when you see stuff like that. I felt so bad about it that I just can’t ever forget it.

One of the women I interviewed was Cecilia Sulkowski, a front-line Army nurse. A week after the Korean War broke out, she arrived in Korea with a MASH unit.

My most traumatic experience was seeing our first patients. It still leaves me teary, still affects me with the most sadness. They were seasoned soldiers, not rookies. Some of them were old enough to be my father. Physically, they weren’t hurt, but they were completely broken down mentally. They’d reach out to you. You’d sit on their cot, or squat by it, and hold their hand, tell them that you understand why they’re feeling the way they are. It was a female presence, a softer voice and gentler touch.

Dick Richards lost his jaw to a German shell. Doctors rebuilt it, but he was forever disfigured. After many months in a hospital, he went home to his wife.

Betty told me once that she hadn’t expected to see me looking the way I did. She said it took her the longest time to accept that that’s the way it was going to be. And she said she knew that I could go on, and she was going to help me however she could.

Don Miller was a B-17 flight engineer. He told me about one of the saddest days of his life. He couldn’t go on the 12th mission with the crew he’d trained with in the States, because he had a bad head cold. His B-17 was shot down over Germany on that mission, and all of his crew mates were killed. After his story ran, a restored B-17 came to Lehigh Valley International Airport, and its crew offered to give World War II fliers a free ride. I asked Don if he’d like to go, and he said yes, but warily.

As we drove to the airport, he said he was afraid that when he got on the plane, he would see his buddies at their positions, the pilot and co-pilot, navigator, gunners. He was afraid he would see their faces, and it would be too much for him.

We went on the plane ride together. Afterward, I asked him if he’d seen his old crew mates. “I did,” he said, “but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

There are many more stories about sacrifice and courage. Most of the veterans I’ve interviewed have since died. But their personal accounts, as I recorded them, are still with us. They’re online and, in the case of World War II veterans, hard copies are at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Everyone who served in a war has a story to tell, even if they never saw a shot fired in anger. It’s unfortunate that many of these stories never emerge or are lost to the ages. I see my own role in preserving some of them as payback, as my way of saying, “Thank you for your service.”

A World War II Seabee remembers Okinawa

When my dad was a teen in the early 1940s on Philadelphia’s Main Line, he ran around with a wiry farm boy named Luther Beam.

Luther had a ’32 Chevy, a two-seater, they occasionally drove to the middle of Pennsylvania, to Mifflin County, where my grandfather once worked in a Bethlehem Steel limestone quarry and Dad was born. They’d go on a Friday, visit Dad’s relatives, and return in the predawn on Monday. The trip was about 140 miles each way.

Luther Beam as a Seabee in World War II. He joined the Navy in October 1944, when he was seventeen, served in the Pacific and was honorably discharged in May 1946 as a machinist’s mate third class.

With a war on, they’d soon travel a lot farther to do their part.

My dad’s family and Luther’s once lived at a country crossroads called Valley Store, in an eastern wedge of Chester County. In 1938, my grandparents moved a few miles to Malvern, renting and later buying a two-story house on the main street. Luther and his older brother Ernie lived with them for a while.

The house goes back to the 1880s. At one time, folks could buy shoes or have them repaired in a front storeroom at sidewalk level. Luther, Ernie, my dad and his older brother Louie slept in the room. It wasn’t the best arrangement for my straitlaced dad and Luther, because Ernie and Louie were rascals, but it worked.

“I can still see Mom Venditta’s pot of spaghetti cooking on a Sunday morning, and the bubbles coming out of it, piece of chicken in there, a pork chop or whatever. Might’ve been a 5-gallon pot,” Luther said recently, a few days after his ninety-fourth birthday, as we sat in the kitchen of his youngest daughter’s Berks County farmhouse near Hawk Mountain.

Dad and Luther signed up for the military in the fall of 1944. Both were seventeen, with Luther older by six months. Dad, now graduated from Tredyffrin-Easttown High School, chose the Coast Guard. Luther had gone to trade school, what was then called shop class, in West Chester. He joined the Navy and became a Seabee.

Carmine Venditta, my dad, with the Coast Guard. He signed up in November 1944 at age seventeen, served in the North Atlantic and was discharged in May 1946 as a radioman second class.

My dad went to radio operator school in Atlantic City – 24 weeks. Finishing in the top third of his class, he had his choice of postings. He wanted to go where it was warm and picked what he thought was Argentina. But it was Argentia, a Navy base in Newfoundland. His duty in 1945 was aboard the patrol frigates Abilene and Sheboygan, on weather and plane-guard duty in the North Atlantic. So instead of South America, he found himself shivering off Greenland and Iceland.

Luther took basic training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and Seabee training at Davisville, Rhode Island. He shipped out with the 139th Naval Construction Battalion, headed for the Japanese island of Okinawa via the Hawaiian Islands.  “We were in a convoy. From what I heard, half of our battalion was on one ship and half on another.”

The transport carrying Luther and about 600 other Seabees was an old Dutch cargo ship, he said. “The Pacific was calm. I didn’t get sick, but some guys did. One got sick and said, ‘Somebody shoot me.’ ”

On April 1, 1945, U.S. soldiers and Marines stormed Okinawa. It would be the last major battle of the war and one of the most horrific.

“When we were a day or two out from landing, they got on the loudspeakers and said, ‘OK, fellas, from now on, there’s no smoking on deck at night, and there’s no lighting matches. We’re getting close to our destination. Anything that happens now is the real thing.’ ”

Luther Beam (second from right) with grandsons (from left) Sam, Matt and Greg Esser and a roasted pig this year at the family’s farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Luther was “pretty sure” his ship reached Okinawa on May 1. “I saw our ships shelling the island. I seen one kamikaze come in – it happened so damn fast. The gunners must’ve caught his wing, and he went down in the drink.”

The Seabees rode landing craft in to Brown Beach, he said. It was the southernmost invasion point. Though the enemy had been driven inland, the fighting on the island would grind on for two more months.

“The Marines and Army had pushed them back,” Luther said. “There were still snipers, but we were 90% safe. We had 30.30 rifles, carried them all the time. We were never alone, always had two or three guys in a group. We just kept our eyes open.”

They built roads and Quonset huts, “a little bit of everything,” he said, working twelve hours a day. “I was a grunt. One-fourth of our outfit was fellas that were operators – bulldozers and stuff like that — and had experience with carpentry and plumbing. Us younger guys just did what we were told.”

Carmine Venditta (left) and Luther Beam

Nights on the island were cold, he said, but it was nice in the daytime. “We slept on cots in tents, four in a tent, and ate C rations and K rations at first. We got a little box with cigarettes, a piece of cheese, crackers. That cheese was pretty good. I never smoked, so I gave my cigarettes away. Then we started getting some decent food. We ate in a chow line.”

After getting organized, they came up with a way to sleep more comfortably. “Some of us took a couple of two-by-fours and cut big inner tubes in slats, and put the inner tubes around the two-by-fours and made a bed out of that. It was softer than the cots.”

During storms, they’d move to the safety of higher ground. “We went up in them caves, the tombs, I guess they were, where they buried their dead. Just big enough for three or four guys to get in there.”

They weren’t supposed to have contact with the islanders, but did see them. “Some of the Okinawans would come down to the docks at night and want food. They would say ‘We Okinawa-Americans.’ We didn’t know who they were, really. We stayed clear of them. We weren’t supposed to do anything but what we were doing.”

The 139th was inactivated on Okinawa at the end of 1945, four months after Japan’s surrender. By then, Luther said, the Seabees were teaching the islanders how to drive.

Luther and Dad came home in the spring of 1946. Other Beams and Vendittas had also served in the war. Luther’s brother Ernie was an Army M.P. in North Africa. His brother George was in the Navy, working on a tugboat in Australia. My dad’s older brother Sam was with the Army Coast Artillery in the South Pacific. His brother Frank was an Army medic in Panama and later at a psychiatric hospital on Long Island. Frank’s wife, Florence, was in the Women’s Army Corps. Louie, who would lose a son in the Vietnam War, was a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force in England.

“After I was discharged at Bainbridge, Maryland,” Luther said, “they put us on a bus to Philly. They offered us $20 a week for fifty-two weeks. Fifty-two twenty, they called it, and you know I didn’t take it. I was too proud. It was, ‘They don’t owe me any money. They don’t owe me anything.’ So I come home and started working on the farm a little bit, got my legs underneath me, and went on from there.”

Luther worked at Foote Mineral, which made lithium metal and chemicals for the metals industry, then followed Ernie to Peco, the electric company. He did line work, climbing poles — “Probably why my knees are bad” – and stayed with the company for thirty-eight years.

Norma Slider as an eighth-grader in East Whiteland Township, Chester County. She went on to graduate from Tredyffrin-Easttown High School and married Luther Beam in 1953.

One day, Luther’s sister Ruth had a cooking demonstration and asked her friend Norma Slider to sit at the table. Luther remembered it: “Norma come up with a little pink dress on, just out of high school. I thought, damn, she was the cutest thing! That was the end of my freedom.” (His favorite song, he said, has always been ‘Don’t Fence Me In.”)

Norma was a bookkeeper at Foote Mineral and later at Chester County Hospital. They were married in 1953 and went on to have two boys and three girls. Luther and Dad stayed pals, but more than friendship linked our families. Ernie married one of my dad’s sisters, and Norma’s brother married one of my cousins.

I remember being a kid riding in the bed of Luther’s pickup truck with my brother John and Luther’s sons, Jim and Sam. We were on Route 322 between Downingtown and West Chester, pumping our arms to get truckers behind us to sound their horns. When they did, we laughed and shouted.

My family lived just outside Downingtown on what had once been my grandparents’ dairy farm. Pop-Pop, my mom’s dad, stopped milking cows in the mid-1940s and raised steers instead. There were sixteen acres, a barn, sheds, a corn crib where Pop-Pop’s heart gave out in 1964. Dad got the idea he wanted a steer for meat, and so Luther, a veteran at raising steers, helped him get one.

“Him and I went to a sale, and we got a little black Angus steer and we brought it home and it must’ve got discouraged or somethin’ and it died. I felt so bad about that. A steer can be born out in the field, in the dead of winter in the snow, and it’ll live. But if you pick a calf up at a sale and bring it home, it just seems to have an effect on it.”

The scene sticks in my mind: Dad and I were in the barnyard with the calf. It was in distress, gasping and thrashing about as Dad tried to hold it. He didn’t know what to do. He was flustered that he couldn’t save it.

Luther drove this 1917 Fordson tractor when he helped our family bale hay in the 1960s. My mom’s dad, a dairy farmer, had gotten the tractor as a fixer-upper decades earlier. Mom says her brother and an uncle replaced its iron wheels with rubber tires and fixed the ignition. Still, it was ornery. You had to hand-crank it and be careful the crank wouldn’t fly back and whack your arm hard. My brother Bill had the Fordson restored in the 1990s.

My brother Bill, sister Carol and a cousin had horses on the property, and there were a couple of ponies, too. In the late Sixties, Luther helped us bale hay to feed the animals. He drove the 1917 Fordson tractor that hauled the baler and a wagon. “The Fordson was a bugger to drive,” he remembered.

While Luther was climbing poles for Peco, my dad was crunching numbers. He was an accountant. It was a thing of beauty to see his fingers race over an adding machine, rapid-fire clacking, his eyes glued to a balance sheet. That dexterity served him well as a wartime radioman. A couple of times in the 1980s, he showed me how he’d tapped out Morse code, saying “dit” and “dah” for dot and dash.

Dad couldn’t hold onto his memory and never got to enjoy retirement. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1993 and sailed ever deeper into the fog until his death in 2004 at seventy-six. I have his Coast Guard papers, manuals and even his pea coat.

Luther Beam with his son–in-law David Esser and youngest daughter Joyce on July 7, 2020, at their house near Hawk Mountain.

Luther says he’s fine, other than his balky knees. He’s been staying with his daughter Joyce Esser and her husband, David, on their farm for more than a year. Norma died in 2006. Two of his children have also passed – Sam, in 2012, and Donna, this past September. A few weeks after she died, he lost his brother Ernie.

Of his World War II service, Luther said: “It was just one year of my life. I was young and didn’t think too much about it. That was it.”

For two children of World War II POWs, a heartfelt journey

A story I wrote about two Pennsylvanians whose fathers were prisoners of the Japanese ran in Sunday’s edition of The Morning Call of Allentown, my former employer.

Szczepanski family

The Szczepanskis (from left) Catherine, Rick, Tom and Joe at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado on Easter Sunday 1958. Another son, Michael, was born in 1964.

Dawne Clay and Rick Szczepanski are retirees who belong to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society. They’ve spent many years trying to understand what troubled their fathers, both now deceased.

Dawne’s dad, Wayne Miller, grew up on a Berks County farm. Rick’s dad, Joe Szczepanski, was from coal country, Luzerne County. Both joined the Army Air Corps, which became the Army Air Forces. They were captured in 1942 in the Philippines and held until the end of the war — Wayne in Manchuria, Joe in Japan. Their experiences haunted them.

Last year, Dawne and Rick went to Japan as guests of its government through the Japan POW Friendship Program, which strives for reconciliation and healing.

I’d written about Rick before, in 2009, several years after he got deeply interested in his father’s life. I ended that piece by saying Rick hoped to go to the Far East someday to follow his dad’s path. Ten years later, he called and said, “I’m going to Japan.” I told him that when he came back, I could do a follow-up for the newspaper.

Wayne Miller in wartime.

Wayne Miller in wartime. In 2010, just before he died, he received a Silver Star for gallantry on Corregidor.

After Rick returned, he told me that a woman who lives in the area was also on the trip, and he put me in touch with her. That was Dawne. I decided to interview both for a story that would run around the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Japanese surrender ending World War II. That’s how it played out.

Here’s the link: https://bit.ly/347H7E3

I hope you like the story.

An Alamo misfire: What really happened to James Hannum?

Mom was strolling on the Alamo grounds when a stone bearing a familiar name stopped her cold.

She turned to a friend and exclaimed, “What’s he doing here?”

The name was James Hannum. It’s on the stone for his sacrifice in the battle that became a rallying cry in Texas’ war for independence. He’s one of 189 men hailed for their heroic stand against thousands of Mexican troops.

Alamo in 1912 painting by Percy Moran, 1912

A romanticized image of the Alamo battle of March 6, 1836, in a painting by Percy Moran, 1912. James Hannum is on the official list of Alamo defenders.

My mom is a Hannum. Her ancestors settled in southeastern Pennsylvania way back in the 17th century. She couldn’t imagine how a Hannum had ended up 1,700 miles from home.

“I was surprised that one of us had made it all the way down there,” she told me recently.

Mom and her friend visited the revered site in San Antonio years ago. From time to time, she’s mentioned seeing the name. I thought it was worth looking into and made a note of it. After all, how many folks can claim that an ancestor fought at the Alamo? But I never did anything about it until this year, when the coronavirus lockdown gave me the time.

In my first search online, I saw that James Hannum is on the Alamo shrine’s official list of defenders. He was born August 8, 1815, in Pennsylvania to Washington Lee and Martha Hannum. A member of the Alamo garrison, he was twenty-one years old when he died in the battle on March 6, 1836. (Actually, if his birth date is correct, he would have been twenty.)

Hannum family history, 1911

The Hannum family history suggests James Hannum was executed with several hundred other prisoners in Goliad, Texas, three weeks after the Alamo. The book, “A Record of the Descendants of John Hannum since 1686,” was published in 1911 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Now I needed to know how, or whether, we were related. I turned to Ancestry.com and a century-old Hannum family history my older brother lent me. The oversize book, A Record of the Descendants of John Hannum since 1686, takes up 696 pages. It was compiled by a Curtis H. Hannum, who worked on it for twenty-seven years before having it published in 1911.

The answer is yes, I’m related to James, but indirectly and very, very distantly. My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and James’ great-grandfather were brothers. Their father was the John Hannum in the book’s title. He lived in a part of Chester County, Pennsylvania, that’s now in Delaware County, and ran a tavern.

The against-all-odds fighting spirit that put James in the thick of the Texas Revolution might have come from his grandfather, John Hannum III. He was a Chester County leader and Revolutionary War colonel who served with George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine.

It seemed that everything about James was falling into place, but the book’s entry on him raised a yellow flag.

For starters, there are no specific birth and death dates, only that he was born in 1816 – not the year before, as the Alamo site and Ancestry.com put it – and died in 1836. It doesn’t say exactly where he was born, but points to Tennessee, not Pennsylvania. He was the fifth-born of seven children, and several of his younger and older siblings are listed as having been born in Nashville. That’s where their father, a lawyer, had met and married Martha “Patsey” Robertson.

The book answers Mom’s question of how James got to Texas. His father was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and, soon after being admitted to the Chester County Bar in 1797, moved to Tennessee. According to James’ sister Elizabeth, the family moved from Nashville to Somerville and then to Memphis. Patsey died in 1833, and in 1835 or ’36, the family left for Mexican Texas.

They arrived by boat near Matagorda, on the Gulf Coast, and traveled some sixty miles northwest to Texana, which disintegrated into a ghost town years later and now lies under a reservoir. Washington Lee Hannum left three of his children with a local family and went to New Orleans on business. While he was gone, the family and Texana’s other white settlers fled as a Mexican army bore down on the town. The Hannum kids camped out in a woods. Their father found them when he returned, but only after a long and arduous search.

Elizabeth said her brother Lucian “had no saddle – his father went to the town of Columbus, which was almost entirely abandoned, to get a saddle, and while there he was captured by the Mexicans a few days before the battle of San Jacinto took place [on April 21, 1836]; soon after this he returned to Matagorda and died. His library and family records were burned by the Mexicans.”

A paragraph that starts with “It is also said that …” gives a further account of Washington Lee’s fate. It says a son was captured with him, “that they made their escape, and were several days without food except the fruit of the cactus, when they came upon a pecan tree full of nuts, of which they ate freely; they succeeded in getting within the American lines, but soon died from the exposure and improper diet.”

Washington Lee Hannum was fifty-nine when he died on October 6, 1836, according to Ancestry.com, and was buried in Matagorda. If the escape tale has a ring of truth, it’s unclear which of his sons made the final journey with him. None is listed as dying in 1836 except James, who died well before the Mexicans seized his father.

And not, according to the family history, at the Alamo.

The one sentence the book has on James Lee Hannum casts doubt on whether he was with William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett. It says Hannum “was a soldier in Fannin’s company during the Mexican War, when Texas became an independent State, and died at Goliad, Texas.”

A quick note: Curtis Hannum’s tome confuses two wars a decade apart. In the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, colonists from America and Texas Mexicans, called Tejanos, rebelled against the centralist government of Mexico. In the Mexican-American War, from 1846-48, the United States and Mexico fought over a disputed border after the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas.

That aside, who was Fannin and where was Goliad?

James W. Fannin Jr. was a Texas army commander who led his men to battle against the Mexicans near Coleto Creek in Goliad County, some 100 miles southeast of San Antonio. The clash took place two weeks after the Alamo fell to General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

On an open prairie, Colonel Fannin’s troops formed a square and beat back several charges. But they were low on ammunition, desperate for water and unable to care for their wounded. They surrendered the next day, March 20. A week later, in what’s known as the Goliad Massacre, the Mexicans executed Fannin and about 350 of his men. They had been unaware of what was in store for them.

If the Hannum book is right in saying James was with Fannin and died at Goliad, it could mean he was among the prisoners who were shot, bayoneted or lanced to death.

There’s reason to be skeptical. Family histories tend to be the work of well-meaning amateurs and aren’t always reliable. It’s not clear where Curtis Hannum got his information on James, because he doesn’t list a source. It might have been Elizabeth, but how would she have known what company her brother was with and where he died?

Then again, if the book has it right, it would mean James doesn’t belong on the Alamo’s list of defenders.

I pressed on and found a stunning, third version of what happened to James. This one, from a primary source, has the weight of authority.

Alamo Traces cover

Thomas Ricks Lindley’s 2003 book examines the case of James Hannum, who died “in the service of Texas.”

In 2003, a former Army military policeman and criminal investigator came out with an Alamo book that capped fifteen years of intensive research. His name was Thomas Ricks Lindley, and his book is Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions.

Historians were impressed with his detective work. One of them, Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo, wrote the foreword. He says Alamo Traces “burrows deep into the historical record, shovels away deposits of myth and folklore and faulty assumptions that are generations deep, and never wavers in its search for a bedrock level of fact.”

One of the facts Lindley uncovered is that the official Alamo honor roll is “flawed” as a result of a 1931 doctoral dissertation that became the bible of reference works on the thirteen-day siege. He found that the list of Alamo heroes contains the names of some men who didn’t die there, or whose deaths aren’t backed up by the sources given. He gives the names of ten.

James Hannum is among them.

Lindley blamed Amelia W. Williams, who wrote “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of its Defenders” for her Ph.D. at the University of Texas. Though some historians pecked at her scholarship, the paper became the definitive academic work on the battle. In 1936, when Texas celebrated its 100th birthday, Williams’ research was the basis for determining the Alamo defenders who would be memorialized in bronze and stone.

But her study was rife with errors, probable fabrications and unfounded conclusions, Lindley says. In a section of his book called “Incorrect Alamo Defenders,” he shows how Williams wrongly identified James Hannum as a slain hero of the battle.

Lindley wrote that “the name ‘Hannum’ or a variant is not found on any of the Alamo lists that Williams investigated. Just how Williams came up with this name remains a mystery.”

Still, he says, Williams asserted that Private James Hannum, twenty-one years old, died at the Alamo. Her sources weren’t muster rolls but land-grant certificates in the Texas General Land Office. Land grants were issued to the estates of Alamo defenders and others. The certificates Williams cited for James bear the names of places in Texas and a file number: Milam, 1212; Refugio, 154; I Milam, 53 and 202.

Lindley examined the documents. The Milam 202 grant was issued to Lucian Hannum, not James. Lucian, a single man, is identified as deceased, but the file doesn’t say he was an Alamo defender. The Hannum history lists two Lucians as brothers of James. One died as an infant in Nashville. The other died in 1838 when he was nineteen or twenty years old and was buried in Milam County, Texas.

James’ heirs did receive Milam 1212 and Refugio 154. According to the Milam grant, James died in the service of Texas and was a private in Captain Philip Dimmitt’s company, based in Goliad. The Refugio grant and Milam 53 don’t indicate that James was killed at the Alamo.

Lindley says James’ age isn’t on any of the land-grant certificates. Where did Williams get it?

Finally, hard evidence that James wasn’t at the Alamo – and couldn’t have been there – exists in papers Lindley found at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. These are Captain Dimmitt’s morning reports, which are daily notes on personnel.

Dimmitt’s morning report for December 14, 1835, says: “REMARK – DIED – This Morning James Hanum [sic], Private.”

That was almost three months before the Alamo.

Dimmitt, a trader and merchant, commanded a frontier garrison at Goliad starting in mid-October 1835. According to the Texas State Historical Association, on December 6, Dimmitt led a small force to join a siege against a Mexican army at Presidio de Bexar, a San Antonio fort near the Alamo. He returned to Goliad about December 14, the day James’ death was recorded.

Had James gone to San Antonio with Dimmitt? Was he badly hurt storming the fort, and did he die when the troops returned to Goliad?

That’s unlikely, from what Lindley says. He contends that Dimmitt didn’t go to San Antonio and that he sent a Tejano company to participate in the final, successful assault on Bexar.

I wanted to see Dimmitt’s morning report for myself, so I emailed the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Working remotely because of the coronavirus, a reference intern accessed a list of what’s in the Dimmitt papers and sent it to me with this note: “I do not see any suggestion in this finding aid that the morning reports you are looking for would be in the collection.”

Neither did I. That means there’s more work to do.

I would have liked to speak with Lindley, but he died in 2007 at age sixty-four. He was buried in the town where he was born and lived – Nixon, Texas, about fifty-five miles from San Antonio. You can see him on a C-SPAN video of an Alamo panel discussion held November 9, 2003, in Austin.

How Private James Hannum died remains in question. Unless some long-dusty record rises from obscurity, we won’t ever know whether it was homicide, suicide, illness, injury or battle wounds.

But it’s clear from Dimmitt’s morning report that the Alamo roster of heroes has at least one mistake, and the Hannum family history book is wrong, too. James wasn’t with the volunteers who bravely faced Santa Anna’s men at an old Spanish fortress, and he wasn’t with Fannin’s troops when the Mexicans murdered them at Goliad. He was already gone. He didn’t make it to 1836.

It’s unclear why, seventeen years after publication of Lindley’s book, the Texas nonprofit corporation that runs the Alamo hasn’t corrected its defenders list. I haven’t been able to ask about it, because the shrine has been closed during the pandemic.

Certainly, our record of the past should rest on solid ground. The faulty narrative of James’ fate originated with Amelia Williams’ doctoral dissertation. Ten years later, she admitted she wasn’t sure that all of the names on her list were accurate. It’s an example of how easily mistakes can distort the truth, proliferate and go unchallenged for generations, or even forever.

Some light shed on RAF air gunner W.J.D. Carter

Years ago, I wrote a couple of blogs about a young Pennsylvanian who ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II. Bob Riedy, a 1938 Allentown High School grad, became a pilot and was killed on a training flight in England.

Bob Riedy with the RCAF in England, 1942 Bob Riedy of Allentown, Pennsylvania, with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England, 1942

Flight Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy was co-piloting a Wellington medium bomber that crashed moments after taking off from a Royal Air Force base near Oxford. He and the pilot were killed on impact. The only other crewman, a gunner, survived with serious injuries.

This was Sgt. William John Donald Carter of the RAF Volunteer Reserve. His job was to man one of the Wellington’s .303 Browning machine guns.

I always wondered what became of Carter. Now, thanks to a reader in the U.K., I know more about him.

The accident happened at 1:25 p.m. March 18, 1942, at Mount Farm in Oxfordshire, a satellite base for No. 15 Operational Training Unit. Flight Sgt. C.G. Wiley of the RCAF was the captain/pilot of the twin-engine Wellington Mk. 1. During takeoff, the plane hit a stationary Hudson light bomber on the edge of the fire track, climbed 200 feet, stalled and crashed.

Wellington Mk. 1 Wellington Mk. 1 medium bombers

Carter would have been seated close to the wing root, the part of the wing nearest the fuselage. He was pulled from the wreckage and taken to Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, with serious but unspecified injuries. After that, the paper trail falls off. I tried in vain to find him or a relative, and in my blog three years ago, I said his fate was a mystery.

Enter Andrew Radgick, who lives in the town of Bracknell in Berkshire, England. He was trying to identify a Canadian airman killed in a plane crash there during the war. When he saw Riedy was listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, he searched for him on Google and saw my blog about the Carter “mystery.” He took up my case on his own.

Using his U.K. subscription to Ancestry.com, Radgick found Carter. (That’ll teach me. I only have the U.S. subscription.) He was born December 11, 1921, in Southampton, making him 20 years old at the time of the Wellington crash. There were two possible marriages, one in 1943 and the other in 1956, and no children from either. He died in July 1997 in Southampton – a few years before I started looking for him.

Radgick sent me this information via my blog site, and when I got back to him, he offered to look for Carter’s siblings and see if there are any other relatives still alive. He wrote back saying he’d compiled Carter’s family tree. “Fortunately they continue to live in the Southampton area as the name Carter would otherwise be difficult to trace as it is so common.” There are two nephews, one born in 1945 and other in 1950.

With that, I searched Facebook and found two Carters who live in Southampton and seem to be the right ages. I sent Facebook messages to both, but it appears to be a dead-end. Weeks have passed, and neither has gotten back to me.

I knew that Carter survived the war, because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission doesn’t list him as a casualty. I still don’t know whether he got fit again and continued to fly with the RAF, or whether he was permanently grounded because of his injuries.

But thanks to Radgick, at least I know there was a postwar life for Carter, and he lived into his mid-70s.