Standing the Watch Alone - Part 1

1 year ago

Map of the May 1958 Mission

“When most people think about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they think of the United States Army. Most are unaware that every time the Unknown Soldier was brought home to the United States mainland it was aboard a Navy warship.”

Gavin McIlvenna, President
Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Pacific – Part 1

The Punchbowl

Fluffy white clouds drifted on the azure blue sky as an orange sun sparkled over the rim of the bowl shaped mountain and onto a vast expanse of open emerald green grass. A slight breeze gently moved the leaves on the two rows of monkey pod trees that lined the road through the 112 acres of green. Even the wind barely whispered in this sacred place where the silence of “au-makua” or the spirit of the dead reaches back to ancient times.[1]

The metallic sounds of long handled shovels striking lava rock and dry, packed, soil in two different grave sites were followed by the ‘krump-krump’ of a half dozen military staff car doors opening and closing. For the first time since January 1949 the remains of America’s war dead were being dug up for removal from Puowaina, the dormant volcanic crater known as the “Punchbowl” or the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific high above the city of Honolulu.

By the morning of Tuesday, April 15, 1958 the Punchbowl held the remains of 16,000 service members from World War II and Korea. Each grave was marked with an inscribed flat stone barely visible in the expansive grass. The Punchbowl is one of only a few national cemeteries that does not mark the graves with white crosses or the Star of David. In 1954 the original white wooden crosses were infested with termites and replaced with flat stones. At the end of World War II the U.S. government initiated a plan called “The Return of the World War II Dead Program.” The Army responded by employing the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS)[2] to remove the approximately 11,000 remains of American servicemen and women from battlefields of the Pacific and move them to a permanent burial site. Many of these remains bore the title “Unknown”. For example, the 388 unaccounted-for Sailors and Marines who died on December 7, 1941, in the sinking of the USS Oklahoma are buried in 61 caskets at 45 separate grave sites.

The bodies of these fallen Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines had been carried by ship and plane to the Punchbowl from distant beaches and jungles across the Pacific. From the black sands of Iwo Jima, from the jungles of Guadalcanal, from the last battle of the war in the Pacific – Okinawa where America lost 26,000 killed, missing and wounded and from seldom mentioned sites like Finschhafen, New Guinea[3] the remains of fallen Americans were respectfully disinterred from temporary battlefield graves and their caskets covered in the red, white and blue stars and stripes and moved to a final resting place under the soft green grass of The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific or the Manila American Cemetery (formerly Ft. McKinley National Cemetery in the Philippines).

The average age of service members during World War II was 26, with an average overseas duration during the war of 33 months – almost three years. Three years away from family and friends in America. Three years of Christmas and Thanksgiving away from mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters laughing and enjoying the holidays together. Total American military killed or missing in the Pacific theater of operations was 111,606 American service members. The Army Air Corps suffered 24,230 casualties; the Navy lost 31,157 in naval engagements; the Army, in ground operations suffered dead and missing of 41,952; and the Marine Corps lost 23,160 killed or missing[4]. These are numbers on a paper – cold statistics that might raise the eyebrows of the reader today. But each one of these dead and missing brought grief and suffering to family and friends waiting in the America of the 1940s. Their heart ache, tears and lost futures cannot adequately be described on paper.

Probably the most feared person during World War II was the Western Union telegraph messenger. Any mother, father or wife who has a son or husband serving during a war will tell you the fear of hearing a car door slam in the middle of the night – this sound is the one that runs an electric shock up your spine, causes a throat to instantly turn dry and pushes tears to the edge of your eyes. One such Western Union messenger was Dewey Alley who rode his bicycle delivering the yellow envelopes in Greensboro, North Carolina during World War II[5]. He never had to explain himself at the doorstep. Often, mothers started screaming when they saw him coming up the driveway in his telltale leggings and brimmed cap. The first telegram Alley delivered, “when she opened the door and saw me, she went into almost hysterics.[6]

The grim notice of death came at all times of the day during World War II. There was no preparation for the acceptance of the reality a loved one’s life was gone –no home coming with open arms on the front porch. The next reality would be the military funeral with a flag draped coffin and an escort of polished Soldiers, Sailors or Marines in their dress uniforms. But not even this painful closure came to many families – their loved one’s bodies were never found – blown to pieces – lost at sea in a sunken ship, smashed into the ground in a downed aircraft or buried in a grave with the simple title of – “Unknown”.

On June 24,1946 Congress passed a bill, (H.R.3959) sponsored by Congressman Charles M. Price of Illinois, a veteran, to return an Unknown Soldier of World War II to Arlington National Cemetery. During 1948 the United States Army developed plans for the selection and burial in Arlington National Cemetery of an Unknown Soldier of World War II. Before the plans could be set in motion the North Koreans, with the backing of China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea in June 1950 and the Army put the plans on hold.

President Truman and the American press referred to the war in Korea as a “Police Action”. When hostilities were suspended in 1953 over 36,516 Americans had died in this “Police Action” with 4,759 listed as missing in action. After the Korean Armistice was signed in 1954, the remains of more than 3,000 Americans were returned to American custody by North Korea through a plan called Operation Glory. In addition, the U.S. Graves Registration teams identified thousands of remains buried in South Korea. In 1956, 848 sets of remains that could not be identified were buried in the Punchbowl Cemetery Hawaii. Korean War veterans refer to the conflict in Korea as “The Forgotten War”. But not forgotten to the families of the dead and missing were the memories of those who never returned.

The selection of the World War II Unknown candidates from the National Cemetery of the Pacific followed a plan developed by three organizations: Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, the 6486 Air Base Wing at Hickam Air Force Base (AFB) and Headquarters Army Pacific Base Command.[7] Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) John H. Klaas, Headquarter Pacific Air Forces was named Project Officer. At the direction of Lt. Col. Klaas the records for six unknown graves were randomly selected and recorded on plain white cards. On April 15, 1958 the cards were placed in unmarked white envelopes and dropped in a round container. Lt. Col. Clarence E. Hobgood, Chief Chaplin Hickam (AFB) then picked two envelopes from the bowl and handed them to Joseph V. Darby, Superintendent of the National Cemetery of the Pacific. The two unknown graves selected were then opened and the caskets removed for examination by a team led by Major David H. Beter at the Army mortuary at Kapalama Basin. Lt. Col. Klaas then destroyed all records used to choose the two candidates. These steps were similar to procedures followed in 1921 with the selection of the World War One Unknown Soldier in France.

As the sun rose on Tuesday afternoon, April 15th, 1958 the temperature in Honolulu moved into the mid-70s. Inside the Army’s mortuary building at Kapalama Basin, a World War II warehouse designated Building 914, air conditioners and fans kept temperatures in a cool range as the two exhumed caskets of World War II Unknown candidates taken from the Punchbowl earlier in the day were placed on biers for examination to ensure no evidence of identification existed. The remains stayed here under constant guard until the selection ceremony on May 16th at the Punchbowl.

In the Philippines, the Headquarters of the 13th Air Force located at Clark (AFB), issued Secret Letter, PFFMS-S, on March 17, 1958 to give direction for the selection, examination and transfer of the remains of Trans-Pacific candidates from Ft. McKinley National Cemetery near Manila, Philippine Islands. The letter named Charles A. Gould, a GS-12 federal employee, to serve as project manager for the selection process. At the request of Mr. Gould the secret letter directed the 13th Air Force historian, William T. T. Ward to document all events related to the disinterment of unknown candidates from Ft. McKinley National Cemetery.[8] Mr. Owen A. Brook with the Air Force mortuary office was designated to lead the examination of the remains to ensure that no identification could be associated with those disinterred. The letter from Headquarters 13th Air Force also closely followed procedures established for the selection of the World War I Unknown Soldier from France in 1921.

The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, formerly the Fort McKinley National Cemetery, holds 17,184 graves, the largest number of American war dead from World War II. The cemetery occupies 152 acres located on a plateau inside the boundaries of Ft. McKinley and not far from the center of Manila. For 30 days in 1945, from February 3rd until March 4th, a fierce street to street battle took place to free Manila from the Japanese. An estimated 100,000 civilians died in the fighting along with approximately 17,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors. American liberation forces lost 1,010 dead and 5,565 wounded.

On Monday April 21, 1958 the number one song in America was “Twilight Time” by the Platters. At 9:35 that morning the initial selection of burial records was held at the main office of the Ft. McKinley National Cemetery. Mr. Gould and his team randomly chose 32 locations where unknown soldiers were buried. Each location was recorded on a blank 3x5 index card and placed in an unmarked white envelope. The unmarked envelopes were then placed in a container. Standing on a red tile floor polished to mirror perfection, Lieutenant Colonel T. B. Jack Donalson, Commander of the 26 Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Clark AFB, reached into the box holding the envelopes and picked four envelopes one at a time from the 32 in the container.

Lt. Col. Donalson was no stranger to Clark Field. Sixteen years earlier on December 8, 1941 as a Second Lieutenant, he flew his P-40 above the field engaging attacking Japanese aircraft. He was one of only a few pilots to get airborne during the attack and destroyed two enemy aircraft while protecting the field. Later when it was apparent the Japanese would capture the Philippines, Lieutenant Donalson was ordered to fly his plane from Luzon to Australia. During the war in the Pacific Donaldson became an ace and was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals.

Mr. Gould gave the four selected locations to workers of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission (ABMC) on April 22, 1958 with instructions to disinter the remains of each grave.

During the day on April 23rd the four caskets of the selected candidates were taken by closed truck under escort to the Air Force mortuary on Clark AFB. While under guard at the mortuary, Mr. William T.T. Ward led a team that examined the remains of each candidate to verify nothing existed to later provide an identity. At the end of this process, each of the remains was wrapped in an olive drab army blanket and then placed in separate Air Force transfer cases.

Four days later, on Sunday April 27, shortly after the sun had set at 6:12 p.m. brief services were held at Clark AFB Terminal by Protestant Chaplin Major Russel C. Naggard and Catholic Chaplin, First Lieutenant Mercellus C. Aser as a Military Airlift Transportation Service (MATS) four engine C-124, tail number 0125, waited to receive the flag draped caskets of the four unknown candidates. At 6:45 p.m. the caskets were loaded aboard MATS flight 656/27 for transport to Hickam AFB Hawaii. Sergeant Robert A. Pitcher USAF boarded the plane as escort to the unknown candidates and to stand watch over them alone during their journey to Hawaii.

Air distance between Clark AFB in the Philippines, and Hickam AFB in Hawaii is 5,302 miles. Known as “Old Shaky”, the C-124’s cruising speed was 230 miles per hour. At that speed it would have taken 24 hours for the big plane to reach its destination at Hickam AFB. A fuel stop was necessary along the route plus the weather in the Pacific was turbulent. The departure on Sunday, April 27th was made a day before tropical storm number two approached the coast striking the Philippines on April 29th with winds of 70 miles per hour.

On Tuesday, April 29th, the silver four engine C-124 Air Force cargo plane of the 1502nd Air Transport Wing, MATS landed at Hickam AFB and taxied to Butler Hanger at 12:30 p.m. with the remains of four World War II Unknown candidates from Fort McKinley American Cemetery Manila.

After moving the remains by four hearses to the Army Mortuary building, all six remains were placed in special caskets as a prelude for the selection ceremony scheduled for May 16, 1958 at Hickam AFB to designate the Trans-Pacific World War II candidate. A twenty-four hour guard was posted inside the mortuary building at Kapalama Basin.

In parallel with the selection process of the World War II Trans-Pacific candidate, the National Cemetery of the Pacific held the remains of the unknown Korean War dead, one of which would be selected for interment in Arlington National Cemetery as the Korean War Unknown Soldier. In early May 1958 four unknown Korean War graves were randomly chosen and the bodies removed to the Army Mortuary at Kapalama Basin where each of the remains was inspected to insure nothing existed to identify the bodies. The remains of the candidates were carefully wrapped in fresh burial sheets and blankets and placed in identical caskets in a guarded, separate room inside the mortuary.

On Thursday morning May 15, 1958, a warm spring day, a military police escort of motorcycles accompanied four hearses carrying the remains of the Korean War candidates, from the Army mortuary building to the entrance at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. At exactly 9 a.m. the procession arrived at the entrance to the cemetery where pallbearers waited on both sides of the road. They solemnly marched beside the hearses to the oval area where the ceremony was scheduled to take place at 11 a.m. An Army band played patriotic music during the placement of the four identical flag covered caskets near the waist high hedge that formed a screen around the flag pole. After an invocation by Army Chaplin, Colonel F. B. Henry, General Robert M. Cannon spoke a few words and introduced Master Sergeant Ned Lyle, a Distinguished Service Cross recipient, for the selection of the Korean War Unknown Soldier.

Ned Lyle was born on September 5, 1925 in Unicoi County Tennessee. Master Sergeant Lyle, serving with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism and leadership repelling a numerically superior attack by enemy forces at Mundung-Ni Korea on October 21, 1951 where he charged an enemy machine gun position with only a bayonet. When the enemy ran from their position, he turned the machine gun on them killing many of the fleeing attackers and allowing his unit to retake the ground from where they had withdrawn.

Master Sergeant Lyle also distinguished himself fighting on the front lines in the European Theater of Operations as a 17 year old soldier where he earned the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and was awarded the Purple Heart. He was captured by the Germans and threatened with a pistol to his head to disclose the location of his unit. He responded with a two word answer and spat on the ground. After serving in Korea he returned to duty as a First Sergeant. A former recruit in basic infantry training at Fort Jackson, SC in 1959 described him: “First Sergeant Lyle was a wiry redhead with freckles all over him…and those people will kick your ass.[9]” He retired from the military, but left retirement to serve in Vietnam as a special volunteer.

With 1,200 visitors and military members watching, Master Sergeant Lyle took a wreath of blue and white carnations representing the Korean Service Ribbon and stood for approximately one minute facing the four caskets. He then moved to the end casket at his left and placed the wreath. After taking one step back, he rendered the hand salute.

Then the military formation was brought to "Present Arms" and the band played the National Anthem. Following the selection, General Cannon gave custody of the Korean Unknown Soldier to Admiral Hopwood for transportation by the Navy to the United States. [10] A Navy ambulance then carried the Korean War Unknown Soldier to the Army mortuary building where the casket would be guarded during preparation for air transportation to the USS Boston (CAG-1) on May 17th. The unselected Korean War candidates were reburied at the Punch Bowl.

On Friday May 16, 1958 four weeks after the two World War II Unknown candidates were removed from their graves in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii and two weeks after four World War II Unknown candidates arrived at Hickam AFB from Fort McKinley in the Philippines, the selection ceremony at Hickam AFB on the island of Oahu began under grayish white clouds with a temperature in the mid-seventies. The 501st Air Force band played funeral music for the assembled visitors and escorts before Air Force General Lawrence S. Kuter, Commander in Chief Pacific Air Forces stepped to the podium to begin the ceremony.

Colonel Glenn T. Eagleston of the 313th Air Division, a combat pilot with an impressive record in both World War II and the Korean War, received the designation by General Kuter to select the World War II Trans-Pacific Unknown candidate. Colonel Eagleston was born in Farmington, Utah on March 12, 1921, and joined the US Army Air Corps as an enlisted man in 1940. He became an aviation cadet in 1942, graduating at Luke Field in September as a Second Lieutenant and was known as a "fighter pilot's fighter pilot."

He flew almost 100 combat missions in P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts in Europe, some as a 22-year-old Squadron Commander. Eagleston was the leading ace of the Ninth Air Force in Europe in World War II. During the air campaign over Europe the Army Air Force lost more than 26,000 men shot from the skies – some crash sites would never reveal the bodies of the airmen lost. In Korea he flew 84 combat missions in the F-86 Saber jet where he served as Squadron and Group Commander.

All personnel came to attention. There was an empty bier in the center of the lawn where a white carnation lei rested. The empty bier was placed to accept the selected candidate. The audience rose as Colonel Eagleston lifted the lei from the empty bier. He approached the six caskets under the canopy, and, after a few seconds hesitation, placed the lei on the third casket from the left. Accompanied by a muted roll of drums, military pallbearers then carried the selected Trans-Pacific candidate to the empty bier. Pacific Air Force Staff Chaplain, Colonel Howell G. Gum delivered a prayer at the conclusion followed immediately by the National Anthem.

Major General Matthew K. Deichelmann, representing the Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Forces, gave a brief address. Like the Korean War Unknown Soldier, the Air Force gave over custody of the Trans-Pacific Candidate to Navy Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Herbert G. Hopwood.

Admiral Hopwood spoke a few simple words of acceptance: "On behalf of the Department of the Navy, I accept custody of this honored Unknown of World War II in the Pacific for transportation to the final ceremony at sea on the USS Canberra off the Virginia Capes.” The Navy accepted responsibility for the transportation of both caskets and for the final selection of the World War II Unknown Soldier at sea onboard the USS Canberra (CAG-2). A Navy honor guard then carried the Trans-Pacific candidate to a waiting vehicle that drove to the Army mortuary for transportation preparation to the Navy base at Guantanamo, Cuba. The candidate remains that were not selected were buried in the Punch Bowl.

In the early morning hours of May 17, 1958 a four engine C-54 Skymaster, referred to by the Navy as an R5D, of the Fleet Tactical Support Squadron VR-21 received the Korean War Unknown Soldier and the Trans-Pacific candidate and lumbered down runway two-four at Barbers Point Naval Air Station (NAS) heading for the Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba. The big silver cargo plane became airborne and rose into a cloudy Pacific sky climbing above the Air Station’s neatly kept green ball fields and the cinder block base school house. Robert Whalen was an eleven year old dependent attending school that day, his father John Michael Whalen was a First Class Petty Officer working in the maintenance division at the airfield. VR-21 flew 16 aircraft – two R5Ds[11] were for special hauls one of these was now on the way to Guantanamo Bay where the Boston was anchored in the harbor waiting to accept the caskets. Arriving at Mc Calla Field NAS Guantanamo, twelve Sailors accepted the caskets with reverence and respect and transported them to the Naval Hospital where a twenty-four hour guard was posted.

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[1] ETIN Honolulu, TH, November 29, 1958 pg. 17

[2] The Quartermaster General created the AGRS in August 1917

[3] Private Junior N. Van Noy received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his bravery on October 17, 1943 defending beach positions against a Japanese landing during the Finschhafen campaign.

[4] The Pacific War On Line Encyclopedia

[5] The News and Observer Raleigh North Carolina November 10, 2017 He Carried News of Every Soldier’s Death

[6] Ibid

[7] Selection of the World War II Candidate-Unknown, Pacific Area, SUPP DOCU No. 1

[8] Ft. McKinley National Cemetery later renamed Manila American Cemetery

[9] Phil Hudson October 9, 2015 Face Book post to Ron Howard

[10] U.S. Army Quartermaster Foundation – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier January-February 1964

[11] Information on VR-21 provided by Robert Whalen and Brad Hayes author of the history of Barber’s Point

[12] Quartermaster Mortuary Service Historical Report Unknown Soldier Candidate Selection Program pg 5 Disinterment Schedule

[13] Quartermaster Foundation – Tomb of the Unknown Part II

[14]Headquarters United States Army Quartermaster Mortuary System, Europe Historical Report World War II Candidate Selection Program

[15] TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIERS The Quartermaster Review January-February 1964

[16] Ibid

[17] The Sentinel Issue 15, volume 2 Transfer at Sea by Larry Seaton

[18] Information on the Boston related by Art Hebert, Secretary USS Boston Organization

[19] Operation Order COMCURLANT No. 2-58 April 9, 1958

[20] If a sailor has qualified for a rate, but has not yet become a petty officer, he is called a designated striker, and is identified by a striker's badge that displays the sailor's rating, along with his group rate marks.

[21] The chaplains of four faiths were onboard for the burial at sea of the candidate for World War II who was not chosen

[22] The Ledger Newspaper by Bill Rufty November 10, 2011

[23] R. K. T. Larson Virginia Pilot Managing Editor

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