Author describes Mountain Home's unsung WWII heroes
“This won’t last long,” the draft board official in Mountain Home told John Arrillaga. “You’ll be home within a year.”
That was March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor. Arrillaga, Elmore County’s first World War II-era draftee, didn’t make it home for five long, death-defying years. Five years in which more than 60 million people — 3 percent of the world’s population then — would lose their lives. The suffering, cruelty and devastation in Europe, North Africa and Asia is now almost unimaginable.
Forty-seven years later, John tried to describe the empty resignation many GIs felt. “It got to the point that it didn’t really matter if you got killed or not,” he told a newspaper interviewer. “You don’t ever get used to the death and the killing, but you accept it.”
These heroes are all gone now, with no one but family members, letters and old newspaper clippings to tell the stories of their heroism.
A year and a month after John’s induction, the same draft board sent Bob McLaughlin the following: “You are hereby ordered to report into the Armed Forces of the United States. …” What made Bob’s notice different was that he was on the island of Guadalcanal, in the midst of one of the deadliest battles in the Pacific Theater, when he received it. Years later, he saw enough humor in its absurdity to share it with his family. After Guadalcanal, Bob served in intelligence. He revealed very little, even to his family, about the years that led to his participation in the 1945 invasion of Okinawa and its three-month bloodbath. The carnage took more than 12,000 Allied and 77,000 Japanese lives.
After the war, Bob practiced law in Mountain Home, served as Elmore County’s prosecuting attorney and made a bid for the U.S. Senate. I knew Bob well, but had no idea about his war service. Nor did I know about Leland Gridley, the brother of the neighborhood grocer, who survived the Bataan Death March. Or Dale Knox, the man who delivered gas to our ranch, who took a bullet to the face in an island battle near New Guinea. Or Joe Terrell, my next-door neighbor, who ended up a POW after parachuting out of a doomed plane over Germany. It wasn’t until I read the obituary for Charles Lafontaine, my high school counselor, that I learned he flew missions over Germany as a B17 tail-gunner.
I know that war veterans from Mountain Home were not unique in their sacrifice. I know that similar stories could be told about veterans from every town in America.
I didn’t know that Chuck Hoagland received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for heroism in the Philippines. Chuck never talked about it. He came to my family’s house in the winter late one night to repair our furnace because we had a baby. He was that kind of guy. He trimmed our trees and shod our horses. He had a charismatic sense of humor and the street smarts to do about anything. His son told me that his dad died of war-related radiation exposure from his service in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Growing up in Mountain home in the 1950s, a town much smaller than it is today, I had no idea that so many everyday men had played significant roles during the war. Thinking back, there were other WWII vets I knew when I was young, most of whom lived only blocks from me.
I knew that Max Boesiger, a local general contractor, had been taken as a Japanese prisoner of war when Wake Island fell in 1942. He was one of 1,100 Morrison-Knudsen employees working to build a naval air base on the island. As a college kid, 24 years later, I worked for Max on a construction project. He treated me well. When I mentioned Max’s Japanese prison confinement to someone else, I was told that Murray Kidd, who lived across the alley and a couple of houses down from me, was also on Wake Island for MK and was taken prisoner along with Max. I spent many hours with Murray’s oldest son and other neighborhood kids shooting baskets at a hoop Murray installed over his garage door. Of the 1,100 MK employees on Wake, just 700 returned home after the war. Max went from 166 pounds to less than 100. To my knowledge, except to family, Max and Murray rarely talked about it.
Murray Kidd’s daughter and Max’s son both told me that after the Japanese captured the island, they lined all the captives on the beach and asked for volunteers to board a ship anchored off the island bound for prison camps. Murray and Max must have been standing side-by-side because a Japanese soldier looked at them and signaled discretely with his eyes to get on the ship. The 98 MK employees who stayed behind were lined up and machine-gunned to death.
The camps were horrific. Murray’s daughter told me her dad’s assigned task at Fukuoka Camp 18 — where Max was also imprisoned — was to burn the corpses of dead prisoners. Max’s son said that a guard took pity on his dad and risked his own life by giving Max a handful of rice each day. This small measure of kindness, Max told his son many years later, kept him from starving. After the war, Max tried to locate the guard to thank him for his kindness, as did Murray to thank the guard who motioned for them to get on the ship. Neither man could locate their good Samaritans.
After hearing these stories, I now felt obliged, almost compelled, to ask other natives if they were aware of others from Mountain Home with extraordinary World War II experiences. As I expected, there were more.
“Did you know about John Carr?” a friend asked me. John owned a lumber and hardware store in downtown Mountain Home. John and his wife were good friends of my parents. I learned from John’s son that his dad had trained in England for the invasion of Normandy. He landed on Utah Beach on the third day and fought his way through France into Belgium. In late 1944, as one of Europe’s harshest winters set in, it became so cold in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge that John scavenged newspapers to line his sleeping bag. With his unit, he fought his way into Germany and helped liberate Nazi concentration camps near Nuremberg, the notorious Flossenburg camp likely one of them. John told his son about the heartbreak of carrying out living internees he described as being as “light as feathers … you could see every bone in their bodies.”
War experiences are peppered with irony. John survived the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and the march to Berlin with no serious injury. At the war’s end in Nuremberg, as he knelt “on deck” waiting to bat in a camp baseball game, the barrel of a broken bat smashed into the back of his skull. John was injured so severely the doctors rushed him onto a hospital ship for the trip home to America. He was in a coma and not expected to live. But during the voyage, the damage in his skull from the bat miraculously healed. John was on his way to a full recovery.
Joe Terrell lived next door to me and was the administrator of our local hospital. He was a crew member on a B17 in Europe. He was a caring neighbor and a meticulous gardener. He mowed his lawn twice a week and trimmed both sides of the hedge that formed the boundary between our property and his. His daughter, a schoolmate of mine, told me that her dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps in February 1942. He was trained as a B17 navigator/gunner. On his first mission over Germany his plane was shot down; half the crew perished. Joe parachuted to safety but was injured in his landing, captured by the Germans and held in POW camp Stalag 17 from April 1943 to October 1945. For his heroism Joe was awarded a Purple Heart and a Congressional Medal of Valor.
Charles Lafontaine was my high school counselor. I learned from his obituary that he flew 35 missions in Europe as a tail gunner on a B17, 11 of those while he was still 18 years old. In his first mission he flew with 1,200 bombers over Cologne, Germany. He was recalled in 1951 for the Korean War and flew 34 missions as a tail gunner on a B-29. I’ve talked to many of his former students and not one of them knew about Mr. Lafontaine’s heroic service. He was quiet and went about his job without fanfare. He administered achievement tests for his students, met with them individually about their plans for the future and popped popcorn for the concession stand at every home game I ever attended.
Leland Gridley, the brother of the neighborhood grocer, lived alone in a small house half a block from my house. I didn’t know him well. He seemed quiet and kept to himself. His nephew, a Vietnam vet, told me Leland died young, possibly of complications from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Leland, I was told, suffered one of the most horrible experiences of the war — the Bataan Death March. On the island of Luzon in the Philippines after the Allied surrender to the Japanese in April 1942, American and Filipino prisoners were force-marched 65 miles in tropical heat without food or water to a railhead where they were crammed into box cars and transported to prison camps. As many as 11,000 prisoners died during the march and the subsequent train ride. Many later died in the prison camps, Camp O’Donnell being one of the more notorious. I tried to remember Leland, but his image has faded from my memory. I was unable to locate a photo.
Dale Knox lived near us across from Carl Miller Park. His children and their spouses are good friends of mine. Dale owned the local Texaco oil distributorship and delivered gas and diesel to our ranch. Here’s what I didn’t know about Dale: he took a bullet to his face during an unsuccessful amphibious landing attempt as his unit tried to take an island off the coast of New Guinea. He swam away from shore holding a fellow soldier who was more severely injured. Dale struggled in the water for six hours, keeping his buddy from drowning. Saltwater staunched their wounds and kept his buddy from bleeding to death. A rescue boat finally saved them from a watery grave. Dale was awarded two Silver Stars, a Purple Heart and a battlefield commission.
George Ascuena was a Mountain Home farmer and high school Spanish teacher. George, a Marine, was on Oahu during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but at another air field across the island. Near the war’s end in February 1945, during intense sniper fire in the jungles of the Philippines, he dragged his mortally wounded Marine commander away from the Japanese so the commander’s body could be returned to his family. At the time, George, another sergeant and their commander were attached to a Philippine guerrilla unit, a dangerous assignment because of the deep Japanese hatred for the guerrillas. George was awarded a Silver Star for his bravery. I knew George well and knew that he’d been in Hawaii during the attack, but I did not know about the danger he faced in the Philippines.
George Brennan lived just two blocks from us. His son was a year behind me in school; his daughter was a good friend of my youngest sister. George was one of the glider pilots who flew over the Normandy beaches during the early hours of June 6, 1944, in advance of the Allied invasion of Europe. After landing, he remained on the ground with the troops he’d transported. They engaged the Germans in ferocious combat for an entire week. After the fighting, he and the squadron’s surviving glider pilots were transported back to England to prepare for more operations. His last glider flight was into Holland for Operation Market Garden. He was badly wounded by ground fire and crash-landed in unfamiliar territory. Within hours he was in a firefight with the Germans. He was captured and, later, surprised his captors with a knife attack and escaped. His harrowing story is the kind movies are made of. It was retold in a June 2001 Idaho Statesman story by Dan Popkey. “He was a highly decorated pilot and received numerous medals from the governments of the United States, France and the Netherlands,” George’s obituary read. Among those awards was The Netherland’s highest decoration for bravery, the Militaire Willems-Orde Degree of Knight of the Fourth Class.
Richard Aguirre, son of a local sheep rancher, was a B17 navigator. On a mission in May 1943 in the Pacific over the island of Rabaul, his plane took intense fire from a Japanese J1N1 Night Fighter. The cannon fire penetrated the thin skin of the B17 and ignited its incendiary bombs, spreading fire throughout the plane. Richard died from either burns or cannon fire. Two crew members who parachuted to safety recounted the action. Richard Aguirre Park in Mountain Home is named in his honor.
Bill Cochran, my uncle, was in the second wave of Marines who took the beachhead in November 1943 in the terrible and senseless battle on the island Tarawa in the Pacific. He was shot in the leg on the second day while his platoon surged forward under heavy fire to cross an airstrip. He received a Purple Heart. At the end of the war, in gratitude for his leadership, his men gave him a large polished Japanese shell casing engraved with each of their names and the names of the islands they fought with him on: Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian. In those five engagements, more than 12,000 Allies and 70,000 Japanese lost their lives. Tinian, Bill’s last engagement, was seized in the summer of 1945 so a runway large enough to support B29s could be built. It was on this runway that Little Boy was loaded onto Enola Gay, the B29 that flew its historic mission over Hiroshima.
Worth Lee was my dad’s best friend when I was young. Worth, a rancher like my dad, lived with his wife and daughter directly across the alley from us. After Worth’s death in an airplane accident in 1963, Dad told me about his best friend’s service.
Worth participated in Operation Torch, the October 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa at Casablanca. He fought with Patton’s II Corps to help defeat German Field General Erwin Rommel and participated in the subsequent invasion of Sicily. As a member of the 45th Infantry Division, he participated in the attack on Salerno in the 1943 Italian campaign. His division slowly advanced through Italy, fighting at Anzio and Monte Cassino. The division helped push the Germans north through Italy and France and in April 1944 captured the city of Munich. Once in Munich, the unit was ordered to participate in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. His daughter told me she saw photos he took of the internees he liberated; she’s haunted by those photos to this day and suspects that her dad suffered from PTSD. At some point in Italy, Worth was wounded. His former wife, a beautiful Swiss woman he met on leave at a German ski resort, told me that Worth had dark shrapnel wounds on his legs — but said only that he was wounded in the war. His daughter has his Purple Heart.
Worth was eligible for an exemption from duty because his ranching father died in 1942, leaving only Worth to run the ranch. Worth chose to serve his country.
John Arrillaga was the bar manager at Mountain Home’s iconic Joe’s Club. Like Worth, he was sent to North Africa with Patton’s II Corps. He served as a courier for Patton, first in a Jeep and later, as the fighting intensified, in a tank. John stayed with Patton through the invasion of Sicily and the capture of Palermo. John’s next assignment was to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion. He was in the third wave of landings at Omaha Beach in June 1944. His Second Armored Division faced desperate combat for two months before breaking the Germans’ hold on Normandy. He later rejoined Patton after Patton was given command of the Third Army. The Germans’ surprise attack on the Third Army in December prompted the two-month Battle of the Bulge. John kept his war experiences to himself until 1988, when he was interviewed for a newspaper article that John’s son saved and shared with me.
Harry Hamada owned and operated Little Harry’s, a convenience store in Mountain Home and a favorite lunch and after school hang-out. Harry sold garden supplies and farmed not far from town. He was of Japanese descent. I didn’t know him well, but it seemed everyone else did. He was active in the American Legion and participated in the Honor Guard at veterans’ funerals. Until his daughter told me, I didn’t know that Harry fought with Company K in the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
Online, I learned the 442nd was the most decorated regiment in the history of American warfare. It was composed entirely of Americans of Japanese descent, one of whom was Daniel Inouye, the respected U.S. Senator from Hawaii. They fought heroically in Italy, southern France and Germany. Of the 14,000 who served the regiment, 9,486 received Purple Hearts and 21 were awarded Medals of Honor. The regimental motto was “Go for Broke.” A movie of the same name was made in 1951 starring Van Johnson.
In November 1944 Company K was ordered by General John Dahlquist to rescue the “Lost Battalion,” 275 men cut off by the Germans in the Vosges Mountains in southern France. Following the rescue, Dahlquist ordered a formation ceremony requiring all the men of the 442nd to stand in review. Annoyed that Harry’s company, Company K, had only 18 of its 400 infantrymen present, Dahlquist ordered the company’s colonel to provide an explanation. The colonel responded, “That’s all of K Company left, sir.”
Harry and the soldiers of the 442nd fought bravely for their country overseas despite the heartbreaking irony that many of their families and fellow Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps back home. Harry, who died in 1988, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
These heroes are all gone now, with no one but family members, letters and old newspaper clippings to tell the stories of their heroism. They rarely spoke of the war. It was only by contacting family members and friends that I was able to honor their sacrifices and incredible contributions to the freedom we enjoy today. Almost to the man, they were modest and reluctant to talk, so I am sure I missed contributions by others from my hometown. For this I am sorry. Also, I am under no illusion that war veterans from Mountain Home were somehow unique in their sacrifice. I know that similar stories could be told about vets from every town in America.
On Veterans Day this Friday, more than 71 years after the end of World War II, I wish to pay my respects to all the veterans who served our country to protect our freedom throughout our rich history, particularly those heroes I knew as a child growing up in one small American town.
R.W. Bennett, a fourth-generation Idahoan, grew up in Mountain Home in the 1950s and ’60s. He’s the author of several magazine articles. “Rock Creek,” his new novel, will be available on Amazon.com Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24. Email Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org.