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We Regret to Inform You: After the battle, the fight to survive began

Editor's note: This is the 12th installment of a series of stories about Ashland residents who lost their lives in military service during World War II. It continues through Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Incredible stories came from Ashlanders who faced unbelievable odds yet through a combination of luck, training, and willpower, managed to survive. Army Air Force Capt. Louis S. Zamperini who survived 47 days adrift at sea and two years as a prisoner of war said, “A part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It's not so strange. Where there's still life, there's still hope.”

Second Lt. Owen L. Mayberry knew this well. He enlisted in the US Army Air Force in 1942, and was assigned to the 365th Bombardment Squadron, 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy). At 24 years old, Owen was described by his crew members as the “the oldest, tallest and the friendliest”. Six feet tall, he had to sign a waiver before he could fly in a B-17, which had been designed for much smaller men.

A co-pilot, he and his crew successfully ran daylight bombing raids over Nazi-controlled Europe throughout the winter of 1942. On Nov. 26, 1944, their good fortune ran out. As part of a large formation whose mission was to target a military installation at Munster, Germany, their B-17 was badly damaged by a hail of anti-aircraft fire. It quickly became clear they couldn’t make it back to England and were going down over German-occupied northern Holland.

While the crew jettisoned all loose equipment and dumped their flak jackets, steel helmets, and extra ammunition in a desperate bid to reduce weight, the pilot signaled three bells to bail out. Owen pulled the emergency handle on the hatch but one of the pins was stuck, jamming it shut. Remaining focused and calm, Owen finally was able to wrench it open so that the crew was able to get out before the aircraft crashed.

Landing in the vicinity of Olst, Holland in different locations, they each remained hidden hoping for rescue. As luck would have it, Owen was found that night by a farmer in the Dutch Resistance and led to a home a half-mile away where he was hidden and fed. He was joined shortly after by Sgt. Theodore E. Roblee, his bombardier, who had evaded capture by hiding in a newly dug grave. Their other six crewmates had been captured almost immediately by the Germans and taken to Stalag Luft I and IV prison camps.

Throughout December, Owen and Theodore remained hidden with a Jewish family before being moved several more times and joined by two other servicemen. They remained in hiding for another 3½ months before being rescued by the Canadian Army. By 1944, there were more than 300,000 downed Allied airmen, Jewish families, underground operatives and draft-age citizens in hiding all across Holland, thanks to the brave efforts of Dutch men and women who risked their lives to save them.

It is said that those who escape disasters are able to do so in part because they take immediate action. Seaman Second Class William C. Willits graduated with Ashland High’s Class of 1941 and was stationed on the USS Boise (CL-47). At 11:46 p.m. while sailing west of Guadalcanal on Oct. 11, 1942, the USS Boise and her task force were attacked by a group of Japanese cruisers and destroyers.

Hit six times, the multiple explosions riddled the ship with deadly metal fragments up to 2 feet long and 4 inches wide, which passed downward from the main deck to pierce vent pipes, doors and hatches. Large holes were blown in the USS Boise’s bulkheads and main deck, electrical systems damaged, a fuel oil tank exploded and flames spread through the ventilation ducts. Parts of the ship were flooded with up to 4 feet of water and oil as men frantically tried to plug leaks with mattresses.

One hundred and seven seamen perished that night and many were severely injured by shell fragments, burns and poisonous gases. With his ship on fire and with injuries to both his eyes and ears from shell bursts, Bill made countless trips from the deck to a makeshift medical room, carrying the wounded over his shoulder and offering to donate his blood in a direct transfusion on the spot.

This terrible disaster and Bill’s role in it are recounted in the 1943 book, "Pick out the Biggest: Mike Moran and the Men of the Boise” by Frank D. Morris. Bill’s willingness to serve in the face of grave danger was held out as an example epitomizing the generous spirit, courage and dedication of the USS Boise seamen to each other. While his ship underwent four months of repairs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Bill recovered from his wounds at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Swarthmore, Pa.

Radio Technician First Class Richard W. Putney, known as Dick to Ashland High’s Class of 1940, was also part of an extraordinary rescue saga. On May 29, 1944, his escort carrier, USS Block Island (CVE-21), was sailing near the Canary Islands. While Dick and the rest of the crew were looking forward to a late dinner of steak and eggs, a torpedo from a German submarine, U-549, slammed into the USS Block Island’s bow. Four seconds later, a second penetrated her oil tank and ordinance magazine followed by a third, which caused catastrophic damage. Within 10 minutes, Capt. Logan C. Ramsey gave the order to abandon ship.

Dick and his shipmates slid down 40-foot rope ladders into the oily water to wait for rescue, watching as the USS Block Island took her final plunge. Nine hundred and fifty-one men held onto life rafts and floating debris for three hours until rescued. The bodies of five of their ship mates went down with the ship. Just 12 days later, Dick was assigned to serve on the second USS Block Island (CVE-106), which was named after his original ship.

There were many who came home wounded with long- and short-term disabilities that required additional care and rehabilitation. Staff Sgt. James F. DeLisle, called Frank, was one of them. His father wrote the Ashland Tidings that his son, blinded in both eyes and suffering injuries to his left leg and right arm from fighting in Germany, was evacuated to Dibble General Hospital in Menlo Park.

Mr. DeLisle added, “The people of Ashland can rest assured that should any of theirs be among the wounded, they will receive the best of care and everything will be done for them.”

He also mentioned that the Red Cross was supplying hospital “blind wards” with the latest in adaptive equipment and care, and that he had heard “not a single complaint” from the men convalescing there. After being discharged, Frank reported to Avon Farms in Connecticut, a rehabilitative facility helping blind veterans to learn a trade and enter back into civilian life.

Also recovering at Dibble General Hospital, was 22-year-old Staff Sgt. Alfred B. Culver, Jr., a right-waist gunner with the 511th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group. He had had already seen one mission go bad when his aircraft ran out of gasoline and was forced to crash land in a field. This, his sixth mission, had been ill-fated from the start. While over Germany, his B-17 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he was shot in the shoulder by a 22 mm cannon projectile. Coming in for a landing back in England, the pilot crashed into a stone wall and their aircraft split in half and exploded. Alfred was lying on the floor when it belly landed. He was lucky to escape with just badly burned feet.

Sgt. Stuart Good, a cook on the USS Hugh W. Hadley (DD-774), was left with severe burns and an injured leg when, on the morning of May 11, 1945, northwest of Okinawa, 10 enemy planes surrounded his ship and attacked simultaneously. On board, fires raged, ammunition exploded, and both engine rooms and a fireroom flooded. At some point, Stuart was blown off his ship and into the water. That day, 28 USS Hadley seamen were killed and 67 more wounded. The ship’s chaplain wrote to Stuart’s wife and parents that Stuart had been rescued and was “resting comfortably on board a hospital ship en route to the Fleet Hospital.”

“Combat fatigue,” as it was called by the military, accounted for one in four casualties during the war. In 1943, 40 percent of medical evacuations in the Pacific Theater were for psychiatric reasons — 26,000 cases on Okinawa alone. The course of treatment including providing them with a safe place to relax, get hot meals and be able to clean up. Within three days, the military expected 50 to 70 percent of those stricken could return to combat.

Capt. L.D. Kaegi of Ashland demonstrated that rank did not exempt one from the emotional toll of war. He wrote this to his parents and brother: “I don’t know exactly how to begin but here it goes. For the past two weeks, I have been in the naval hospital here (in Sydney, Australia) — I had a nervous breakdown or something… . The doc says I have had all the combat I can stand.”

Twenty-seven months of hard fighting in the China-Burma-India Theater with the 10th Air Force proved to be the tipping point for Sgt. Lynn R. DeMille. Sent to a convalescent hospital at Fort George Wright near Spokane, he “decompressed” with other pilots and air crews. His care included occupying his mind and body with an individualized schedule of activities like reading the classics, doing metalwork, participating in sports and hunting.

One of the most important concerns of soldiers was not to worry their families back home. When Pvt. Andrew L. Stewart was wounded by machine gun fire on Italy’s fighting front on March 24, 1944, he wrote his parents that although he had been shot “around the face and shoulder” and his jaw was wired shut, his condition wasn’t serious. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I am okay and will keep you posted as to my progress.”

Andrew died three months later still convalescing, most likely at the Newton D. Baker Hospital in West Virginia with thousands of other injured soldiers.

On Monday, Nov. 9: Remembering Those Honored For Their Service.