When describing his service to the nation during the Korean War, Charles Bestgen emits a jovial personality that belies the many hardships, losses and injuries that he has both witnessed and experienced during his time spent overseas. Born in 1930, Bestgen was raised in the Moniteau County community of California, Missouri, in a family possessing a respectable legacy of military service—his father was a veteran of World War I and his two older brothers served during the Second World War.
After graduating high school in 1949, a 19-year old Bestgen went to work for California Manufacturing Company. He soon settled into his post-high school life but the draft notice he received in October 1951 interrupted whatever plans he had made for his future.
“It wasn’t too much of a shock to me,” said Bestgen, while discussing the receipt of his draft notice. “I wasn’t the only one that got one,” he added with a smile.
Several days later, the young inductee arrived at Fort Ord, California, where he underwent a 16-week regimen of intense infantry training that transformed him into a soldier and rifleman for the U.S. Army.
“It didn’t get real cold (at Fort Ord) but there were some mornings when there was ice on the ground,” he said. “The ice didn’t last long and then it got so hot you couldn’t stand it. I guess that’s California for you!” Bestgen chuckled.
After completing his training in February 1952, the soldier came home for two weeks of leave and then returned to California to board a troopship bound for service overseas. Arriving in Inchon Bay, Korea, he was soon assigned as a rifleman to Company A, 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division. As Bestgen explained, although he was given an M-1 rifle when arriving in country, he was soon assigned an air-cooled .30 caliber machine gun to use in defensive emplacements and later while participating as a member of combat patrols.
“You could really put a lot of lead out with that machine gun,” the veteran affirmed. “I think I walked all over Korea packing that thing,” he grinned.
Bestgen recalls beginning a cycle of “living on the front lines in bunkers” for 30 days at a time followed by a return to their base camp for 30 days. However, he further explained, this cycle was soon interrupted when during the month of July 1952, he and his company began frequent combat patrol in the evenings.
“We went out many a night and I don’t see how we did it,” he said. “On one patrol, we had a guy get his arm blown off by a burp gun (a 7.62mm Soviet weapon)—those things would just tear you up.” He solemnly added, “He died before we were able to get him back to camp.”
Bestgen considered himself “lucky” since he was frequently fired upon by enemy soldiers yet never wounded. His providence soon expired when his company received orders to join other elements of the first battalion in attacking and securing ridges known as Jane Russell Hill and Sandy Ridge during the Battle of Triangle Hill on October 15, 1952. While fighting under conditions that required close quarters combat near trenches and slopes filled with Chinese and North Korean troops, Bestgen was proceeding toward the company’s objective when an artillery shell from an enemy barrage landed behind him and exploded.
“I ended up with shrapnel wounds to my left leg,” he said. “They evacuated me to an aid station and removed some pieces of the shrapnel out of my leg but I was eventually sent to the United States for several surgeries,” he added.
In the end, Bestgen recalls, he was sent to the hospital at Camp Atterbury Indiana, where he underwent an estimated four surgeries, some of which included skin grafts. On April 11, 1953, while still recovering from his treatments, the soldier married his fiancée, Margaret Ann, whom he had met before the war. After spending more than eight months in the hospital, he was discharged on July 24, 1953.
The combat veteran returned to his Mid-Missouri home where he and his wife went on to raise four children. After the war, he returned to his previous employment with California Manufacturing and retired after nearly forty years of service to the company. In 2012, Bestgen received the unexpected and memorable opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to see the nation’s war memorials—including the Korean War Memorial—as part of the Central Missouri Honor Flight.
The decades have passed and the Korean War has become little more than an ancient memory to many, thus highlighting its distinction as the “Forgotten War.” Despite its fading remnants, the veteran affirms that remembering his time in combat and the soldiers with whom he served are experiences that will never fade from his reflections.
“Yes, the ‘Forgotten War’—that is more or less what it’s become,” he somberly noted. “It’s truly a shame that a lot of people don’t know anything about the war … all of those brave men that gave up their lives.”
He briskly concluded, “I know the costs; I was there and will never forget.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
As a young man coming of age in the community of Marshall, Missouri, Ray Merrell went to work at a local shoe factory following his graduation from high school in 1941. With World War II continuing to expand and at the same time growing tired of his job, Merrell and a few of his friends enlisted in the Marine Corps—a decision that would soon place him in a newly formed amphibious assault group.
“There was three or four of us that thought we’d rather wear the shoes than make them,” Merrell jokingly explained. “We all decided to join the Marines because we had been reading what they had been accomplishing (in combat) on Guadalcanal,” he added.
A 19-year-old Merrell signed his enlistment papers in November 1942 and was on his way to San Diego for several weeks of basic training. From there, he received additional infantry training at nearby Camp Elliott, a section of which was at the time referred to as “Green Farm.”
“While we were on patrol at Green Farm, one of our lieutenants began hollering for us to stop while we were crawling down a hillside,” the veteran recalled. “There was a rattlesnake in a culvert near one of the Marines and the lieutenant pulled out his pistol and shot it.”
The final days of his training in the mountains of southern California arrived in early March 1943, at which time he and a number of his fellow Marines traveled to the harbor in San Diego to board the USS Mount Vernon—an ocean liner purchased by the Navy and used as a troop transport during World War II. Arriving in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, the Marines began practicing amphibious operations. While there, they were approached by a colonel seeking volunteers interested in becoming part of a new group called “Marine Raiders.” Considered the earliest U.S. Special Forces operation formed in WWII, the Marine Raiders were to serve as an elite light infantry force that could make amphibious landings behind enemy lines. Igniting his interest, Merrell volunteered and soon passed the physical required to qualify as a Raider.
“We continued to train for several months in New Caledonia doing night hikes, training in jungle operations, setting up defenses and practicing amphibious assaults,” Merrell explained. “When we first started training, I was given a Tommy gun, but before we went into action, I became a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle chambered for the .30-06 cartridge) man.”
A member of a 10-man squad, Merrell saw action in early November 1943 when deployed behind enemy lines in Bougainville—the largest of the Solomon Islands. It was here they remained for several weeks establishing beachheads and relieving troops on the front lines. Next came Guadalcanal, where the Raiders were disbanded and he was transferred to the 4th Marine Regiment, training as assistant gunner on a 37mm antitank gun. In June 1944, he boarded the USS Ormsby, destined for the invasion of Guam; however, because of intense fighting with Japanese forces at nearby Saipan, he remained aboard ship for 47 days. Approaching Guam by landing craft on July 21, 1944, they became stuck on coral reefs and had to drag their 37mm guns to shore through waist-high water.
“It was pretty intense fighting there and I ended up in the hospital for three or four days from dysentery,” Merrell explained. “When the island was finally secured sometime in August, that’s when we were sent to Guadalcanal to train for the invasion of Okinawa.”
Arriving at Okinawa on Easter Sunday (April 1, 1945), Merrell explained that a “fake landing” was made to the south in an effort to distract the Japanese forces while the actual landing, of which he was part, took place at a location further north.
“We were pretty lucky when he got to Okinawa and landed with little opposition,” he said. “However,” he grinned, “we stirred up the Japanese over the next day or so.”
For the next three months, he and his fellow Marines fought to secure the island and participated in a number of “mopping up” patrols. On July 6, 1945, after weeks of fighting and having lost several friends in combat, he boarded a landing craft bound for Guam and additional training. Boarding the USS Grimes on August 15, 1945, Merrell was with a group destined to participate in the invasion of the Japanese mainland, but while he was on the ship, they learned the war in the Pacific had ended. He and many of his fellow Marines were eventually sent to Japan as part of the occupational forces, where he remained until being sent back to the states in November 1945.
Merrell received his discharge from the Marines on December 11, 1945, after having spent 33 months overseas. He returned to Missouri and the following year married his fiancée, Helen, with whom he had communicated during his entire period of service. After the war, the combat veteran worked at a local locker plant, was a manager for an MFA location, managed the meat department at a supermarket in Liberty and sold real estate for a number of years. The father of two children, Merrell affirms his service with the Marines was not only a maturing period, but also an opportunity to build a number of enduring friendships.
“I aged and grew up pretty quick after being sent overseas,” Merrell said. “For many years, a lot of the guys I served with in the Marine Raiders got together for reunions throughout the country … but I think I am the only one now left from my squad.” With a grin, he concluded, “Helen saved all of the letters I wrote home to her during the war and still has them. The ones she wrote to me,” he paused, “are all gone because they got wet when I was huddled in foxholes overseas.”
The 96-year-old Ray Merrell passed away on September 12, 2019.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
The career of Eminence, Missouri, resident Thomas Akers has—in quite literal terms—risen to meteoric heights. A veteran of four Space Shuttle flights made during the 1990s, Akers recognizes that his career as an astronaut was a dream achieved through the boost provided from the training he received in the United States Air Force. Born in St. Louis on May 20, 1951, Akers explained that his parents made the decision to move to the community of Eminence when he was four years old to find a quieter location to raise their family.
“I am a twin and we have an older brother as well,” said Akers during a recent interview. “My father worked in St. Louis as a carpenter and was only home on weekends while we were growing up,” he added.
Graduating in 1969 as valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at the University of Missouri-Rolla to pursue a degree in applied mathematics, a subject he enjoyed. Additionally, he explained, the math teacher at Eminence High School planned to retire in the next few years, which was a position that interested young Akers. He went on to earn his bachelor degree in 1973 and his Master of Science degree in 1975.
“I managed to pay for my college through scholarships and working as a park ranger at Alley Springs during the summer months,” he said. “My wife and I were married while I was still in college and shortly after I finished my education, I was talked into becoming the high school principal at Eminence and did that for the next four years.”
A few months into his employment as principal, he and his wife welcomed their first child, David, into the world. Three years later, an Air Force recruiter visited the high school to recruit their math teacher to fill technical vacancies. The teacher was not interested in pursuing a military career but Akers read the brochures left behind and decided the Air Force might offer a beneficial opportunity.
“I didn’t want to be a high school principal the rest of my life and chose to enlist in May 1979,” he said. “My first three months in the Air Force were spent at Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base (Texas) followed by my first duty assignment at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.”
Throughout the day, Akers, was an air-to-air missile analyst but in the evenings taught math and physics courses at Troy State University. In 1980, while in the midst of a frenetic work schedule, his family grew with the addition of his daughter, Jessica. It was also during this period that the airman received an incentive ride in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom (supersonic jet)—a thrilling experience that not only inspired his desire to fly, but would also lead to his becoming qualified to apply for the astronaut program.
“In 1982, I was selected to attend Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California,” he said. “In one of the buildings on the base, they had photographs of all of the Apollo astronauts hanging on the wall.” He added, “Seeing those photos really got me interested in the potential of becoming part of the astronaut program.”
Returning to Eglin in 1983, Akers worked on weapons develop programs for several types of aircraft. He applied for the astronaut program through the Air Force in 1985 but was not selected. The following year, he again went through the application process; however, the program was temporarily suspended after the Challenger incident in January 1986.
“In 1987, I again applied for the program and was selected,” he said. “As part of the selection process, there were approximately 100 individuals interviewed for a final class of only 15 astronaut candidates,” he said.
As Akers explained, he remained a member of the Air Force but was assigned to NASA. Completing about a year of astronaut candidate training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, he participated in his first space flight in October 1990, assisting in the deployment of an interplanetary probe. The Space Shuttle Endeavor made its maiden flight in May 1992 with Akers aboard for his second mission. The astronaut would again travel to space in 1993 and 1996, finishing his NASA career after accumulating more than 800 hours of space flight and 29 hours of space walking over the course of four missions.
“I left NASA in 1997 and the Air Force assigned me as commander of the ROTC program at the University of Missouri-Rolla,” Akers explained. “I retired from the Air Force two years later at the rank of colonel.”
The veteran remained at Rolla for a number of years, serving as an instructor in the university’s math department until retiring in 2010. He and his wife now reside on a small farm near his hometown of Eminence. Reflecting on his fascinating experiences, Akers acknowledges his professional achievements were made possible through the military, a supportive family, and God’s guidance and blessings.
“The greatest benefit I learned in the Air Force is the value of teamwork—each person relies on everyone else to accomplish the mission,” he affirmed. “Additionally, in the scientific and engineering fields, you don’t place much value on positions or titles but rather on competencies and abilities, all of which helped prepare me for NASA.”
He added, “And all of this would not have happened without the support of my wife, Kaye. She understood the risks during the entire time I was flying and performing space flights but never let on as to any worry. However,” he concluded, “once I finally stopped flying, she told me how worried she had actually been.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, a 71-year-old Enoch Enloe Sr. had been living near the fledgling community of Russellville for three decades. One of the original pioneers of the area, he eventually set down roots on a farm on property that is now the Enloe Cemetery. He would go on to demonstrate zeal and ambition by establishing the community’s first grist mill, running a blacksmith shop, stable and hotel, in addition to serving as the first postmaster for Russellville.
Enloe and his wife raised a large family despite losing several children at an early age. Records of Enloe Cemetery indicate that prior to the Civil War, he and his wife had already buried three young sons on his farm. After the Civil War erupted, he had older sons who served with the Union army as part of the Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM), which the State Historical Society of Missouri describes as a “state force” that was “primarily mobilized as needed.” Designated as protection for their home areas, members of the EMM were not issued uniforms and were encouraged to use their own weapons.
The elder Enloe, while working the farm and running his various business endeavors, heard accounts of guerrilla activity in the area and later learned of the approach of a massive Confederate army. In an effort to protect both his family and property, he erected a location to conceal both his valuables and a firearm, the latter of which he could reach quickly if a threat emerged. Near the gravesites of his sons, the hardy pioneer erected a raised limestone block that possesses all appearances of a burial spot. Under the bulky stone is an area that was dug out where items could be concealed from view.
“One lady told me, when Great, Great Grandfather Enoch Enloe heard that Price’s army was coming he hid his old musket gun under a large flat grave rock,” wrote Reba Alexander Koester in her 1976 book “The Heritage of Russellville in Cole County.” She added, “At the time he hid the gun, the big rock was surrounded by a thick growth of tall blackberry bushes.”
In “The Civil War in Missouri Day by Day: 1861-1865,” Carolyn Bartels explained that Confederate forces “burned the Osage Bridge on the river (near the present community of Taos) on October 6th (1864). After skirmishing near Bode Ferry, these troops, under the command of General ‘Jo” Shelby, moved west toward Jefferson City to meet up with General Sterling Price, who intended on capturing Jefferson City. Though leading an army of an estimated 12,000 soldiers, General Price believed the Union forces protecting Jefferson City to be too formidable. Price then began a westward movement following the Old Versailles Road, much of which is now Route C. When passing near Lohman, his soldiers shot and killed two Bavarian immigrants—Erhardt Kautsch and Friedrich Strobel.
Price’s army was pursued by a mounted force organized by Union general John B. Sanborn. “On Sunday, October 9 (1864), Sanborn’s men covered another four miles and faced ‘lively skirmishing’ just two miles shy of Russellville,” wrote Mark A. Lause in his book “The Collapse of Price’s Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri.” The skirmishing passed through the Russellville area and near where the Enloe Cemetery is now located. The fleeing Confederates were pursued throughout much of western Missouri until they were eventually confronted by Union forces in the Battle of Westport.
Local metal detectors Chris Heimsoth and Michael Kisling have tracked much of the route of Price’s Expedition through Mid-Missouri. With the permission of the board of Enloe Cemetery, they detected open areas of the cemetery in an attempt to locate evidence of skirmishing—such as dropped coins, cannon balls, fired bullets and uniform buckles and buttons. No evidence was discovered, leaving the pair of amateur historians to speculate that the Confederate troops took a route a short distance to the south of the current cemetery location.
As noted in the “Russellville Sesquicentennial 150 years” published in 1988, the Enloe Cemetery was founded on October 16, 1866 when Enoch Enloe donated “two acres of land … to be used as a burial ground for his children, relatives and friends of the family.”
The musket Enloe hid under the stone remained in the family for a number of years and was passed down from one generation to the next, explained Ruby Koester in her aforementioned book. Nevertheless, in 1976, it was donated to the Cole County Historical Society “for safe keeping and so other Cole Countians could enjoy it.”
Norris Siebert of Russellville, a descendant of Enoch Enloe and longtime member of the Enloe Cemetery board, noted that although many have speculated whether someone is buried beneath the raised stone, his use of a dowsing rod—an ancient process used to locate certain buried objects—demonstrates there are no human remains buried there.
“Sharing tales of those we’ve lost is how we keep from really losing them,” wrote Mitch Albom in his novel “For One More Day.”
The decades after the Civil War saw grand monuments erected to honor those who gave their lives in the deadliest of all U.S. conflicts. In a cemetery near Russellville; however, exists a small limestone block that to this day serves as a story that continues to be shared in the community and a link to the rough-hewn pioneer who built it.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
The First World War mushroomed into a major overseas commitment for the United States, leading to the implementation of the Selective Service Act in 1917, which resulted in 2.8 million men being drafted into military service. Following the armistice, soldiers returned from the war and most went on to pursue careers, marry and raise children. These brave warriors likely never thought that, many years after storing away their military uniforms, a new draft would be necessary and enlist the service of their children.
“My dad served in the Army during World War I and took part in five major campaigns,” beamed local resident Roman Borgmeyer, when pointing to a black and white picture of his father in his Army uniform.
Returning from the war, the elder Borgmeyer later became a farmer. However, a few years after finishing his education in rural Osage County, the son followed the father’s example when receiving his own draft notice in the mail.
“My notice came in November 1943,” the younger Borgmeyer clearly recalled. “I knew it was coming; everybody else around my age was getting theirs.” He added, “I figured they would get me too … it was simply a matter of time.”
Within three weeks, the draftee was in Camp Blanding, Florida, for basic training, which became an event, he solemnly recalled, that was extended by six weeks as he lay in the camp hospital with “some kind of fever.”
In the mid-spring of 1944, Borgmeyer traveled to a training site near San Diego, Calif., and was attached to the 86th Infantry Division, completing several months of amphibious training alongside the Marine Corps and preparing for what he believed to be assaults on Japanese-held positions in the Pacific.
“That’s when the war (in Europe) started to get hot,” he said. “They loaded the division on a train and sent us to Boston, and then,” he continued, “we all boarded a troop ship bound for France.”
When the division arrived in port at La Havre, France, in early March 1945, they were placed on railcars and traveled east, eventually transitioning to trucks and arriving at the Rhine River where they helped relieve the battle-weary 82nd Airborne Division.
“We dug in along the Rhine for about a week,” he recalled. “There was a sniper on a sunken barge in the middle of the river … he almost got me. But the company sent a patrol over one night and they got him off of there,” he wryly added.
Borgmeyer served as a “BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man”—the assistant gunner for a three-man team assigned to the .30 caliber machine gun.
“It was a great weapon … very destructive,” he said.
The 86th Division soon “hooked up” with General Patton’s Third Army and fought their way south through Germany, eventually reaching Austria near the “Eagle’s Nest”—Hitler’s mountain hideaway near the town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. With the war in Europe ending, the division returned to the United States in June 1945, thus concluding a period of service that earned Borgmeyer three Battle Stars and a Bronze Star for “meritorious achievement in ground combat against the armed enemy …”
Yet as the young soldier would soon discover, the war continued to rage in the Pacific and would necessitate extended service from many of the soldiers who had served in the European theater, especially those who already possessed amphibious training.
“I didn’t have enough points to get out, so after 30 days of leave and some time at camp in Oklahoma, they sent us back to California and we boarded a troopship for the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan.”
While in transit to his new duty assignment, he learned of the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, an event that provided the division with great relief but did not herald an end to their military service.
“We were all glad we didn’t have to invade Japan, because I don’t think that I would be here now if that had happened,” he solemnly affirmed.
For the next six months, Borgmeyer remained on the Philippine island of Luzon, during which he helped oversee Japanese prisoners of war placed on various work details. In April 1946, he returned to the United States and was discharged from the Army at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. In later years, he married his wife, Hazel (who has since passed), moved to Jefferson City, and went on to enjoy a 34-year career as a city bus driver.
As the son of a World War I veteran explained, although his own time in uniform had its share of “close calls,” these incidents have helped him to understand that the history he became a part of was anything but futile.
“It was some pretty tough times back then,” he said. “I can remember one time when a guy that was standing just a few feet from me was shot in the chest by a German sniper—there were a lot of close calls like that, you better believe! But I’m glad I was there and didn’t get wounded … I was lucky,” he continued.
“And I hope that my story can help preserve a little of that history, to show that what we did wasn’t in vain because we all helped put ol’ Hitler out of business,” he grinned.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
‘What they went through’ - Army veteran served in Italy with antiaircraft artillery battalion in WWII
For an account of a veteran’s military service to survive the passage of decades, it often needs a conduit through which to be shared. Loretta Raithel of Russellville had suspicions that once her brother-in-law, Virgil O. Shikles, passed away when only 55 years old, followed by his the death of his son in 2004 and his wife several years later, there was no one left to preserve his legacy of service in World War II.
“When my sister passed in 2012, (Shikles’) military records and photographs could have easily been discarded, but I have hung on to them to help preserve the memory of what he had done in the war,” Raithel said, sifting through papers related to the military service of her brother-in-law.
Virgil Shikles was born October 27, 1913 and raised near the rural community of Enon, the second oldest in a family of six children. Records indicate the 26-year-old registered for the military draft in Washington, Missouri, on October 16, 1940, more than a year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, creating the country's first peacetime draft and officially establishing the Selective Service System.” The act required all males between the ages of 21-36 to register during the first draft registration held on October 16, 1940, the date listed on Shikles’ registration document.
At the time of registration, he was employed by the former Missouri Pacific Railroad headquartered in St. Louis. In his position as a “trackwalker,” he was responsible for walking sections of the railroad’s track system to examine the condition of joints, rails and ties, ensuring there was no damage that could cause a train accident.
Statistics from the National World War II Museum state, “By the end of the war in 1945, 50 million men between eighteen and forty-five had registered for the draft and 10 million had been inducted in the military.” Of those drafted, Shikles received his own call in early 1942, approximately six weeks after the U.S. declared war. The “Enlisted Record and Report of Separation” for Shikles shows he was inducted into the U.S. Army at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis on January 21, 1942, beginning a period of military service that would extend nearly four years.
As the weeks passed, Shikles was assigned to the 401st Coast Artillery (CA) and began training at Camp Haan, California—a military reservation established in 1940 to serve as a Coast Artillery Antiaircraft Replacement Training Center. In April 1942, the 401st CA was re-designated the 401st Antiaircraft Artillery (AAA) Gun Battalion. Equipped primarily with the M1 90mm antiaircraft guns, which were towed behind vehicles, Shikles trained as a radar crewman for the battalion, learning to assemble and disassemble the battalion’s mobile radar equipment in addition to operating the radar to detect and locate possible aerial threats. The battalion would also participate in desert maneuvers at Camp Young, California.
Shikles and the 401st AAA Battalion went on to train at Camp Pickett, Virginia, before “boarding an LST in April, 1943, for an unknown destination overseas,” reported the July 21, 1944 edition of the Folsom Telegraph (Folsom, California). The paper further noted the battalion landed at Arzew—a port city in Algeria—where they were attached to the Fifth Army.
Following a short period of training, the battalion boarded LST’s (Landing Ship Tanks) in early August 1943 bound for Tunisia, met up with a convoy of American troops and then sailed for Sicily. Weeks later, they were sent to the Italian front, where they began defending supply depots, roads, bridges, airfields and critical military installations.
The battalion continued to move up with the front lines and, on May 1944, “the whole Italian front exploded into action and the big drive for Rome was on,” noted the November-December 1946 edition of the Coast Artillery Journal. The journal further listed the challenges encountered by U.S. forces during this campaign: “Enemy aircraft flew in low from several directions toward the points of attack making 90mm fire extremely difficult. Radar control was often unsatisfactory due to terrain interference and large quantities of (chaff) dropped by the Germans.”
By the time the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, Shikles earned five Bronze Stars for his participation in five major campaigns in Italy. The 401st AAA Battalion remained overseas until boarding ships bound for the United States in October 1945. Within days following his return, Shikles took a train to Jefferson Barracks, where he processed out of the U.S. Army and received his discharge on November 6, 1945, having served more than three years and nine months in military uniform.
“After he returned home, he married my sister, Evelyn Scott, in February 1946,” said Loretta Raithel. “They later moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and raised a son, Gary.” She added, “He then went to work for General Motors until he became so ill with Parkinson’s disease that he was no longer able to maintain his employment.”
The World War II veteran passed away on August 12, 1969 at the age of fifty-five. His son, Gary, who later served with the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, also died from complications related to Parkinson’s in 2004; he was 56 years old and had no children. Like his father, he was laid to rest in Enloe Cemetery near Russellville.
“All of my brother-in-law’s records went to my sister and when she passed away in 2012, I made sure to hang on to them because they would have disappeared since his family is all gone,” said Raithel. She continued, “Those guys in WWII never really talked about their service … at least the ones that I knew. It’s important to save their stories, and those of other WWII veterans, so others can appreciate what they went through during the war.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
With keen insight and enviable memory, local veteran Wilburn Rowden seamlessly recalls hardships more than seven decades past, which helped strengthen a love and devotion for his country. As a young man growing up during the early 1940s, Rowden came to realize that military service was an inevitability for most young men. Following his graduation from Vienna High School in 1941, he began working as a civilian at Fort Leonard Wood and the Vichy Memorial Airport.
However, an event soon unfolded that forever changed the direction of his life.
“On December 7 (1941), the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,” he recalled. “Later the next year, I received notice from the draft board stating that I had been selected to serve in the military.”
He reported to Jefferson Barracks (located in south St. Louis) for his in-processing in January 1943, and was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Forces. From there, he was then sent to Miami Beach, Florida, to begin his basic training. Upon completion of his initial training, he went on to attend radio school at Scott Field, Illinois (which later became Scott Air Force Base). The next stop in his military journey was at Pendleton Field, Oregon, where he received assignment to the 392nd Bomb Group. The young airman soon began crew training on a B-17 Bomber.
His training continued with a couple of brief stateside assignments until he and his fellow trainees were advised of an approaching overseas deployment. In January 1944, Rowden and several thousand of his fellow service members traveled to England aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth (former luxury liner utilized as a troopship).
Assigned as a radio operator with the 731st Squadron of the 452nd Bomb Group, Rowden became part of a 10-man crew serving aboard a B-17 Bomber that had been affectionately named “Sleepy Time Gal.” He participated in several bombing missions concentrated on targets in France, Poland and Germany; however, his sixth and final mission proved to be the most intense of his brief aviation career.
On March 8, 1944, his squadron was destined for targets in the Berlin area. While en route, their escort of P-47 fighters had to leave the squadron in order to refuel in England. One of the crew members on Rowden’s B-17 Bomber noticed planes approaching believed to be P-51 Mustangs replacing the now-absent P-47s. Instead, they soon discovered, the aircraft were German Messerschmitt fighter planes.
The Germans attacked the American formation and knocked out two of the engines on Rowden’s plane. Catching fire, the plane began to quickly lose altitude. Short parachutes, the pilot made the decision to crash land the plane, but not before first giving the order for the rest of his crew to evacuate.
“The pilot crashed the plane in a swampy area and survived,” Rowden explained. “But the copilot and the bombardier did not survive.”
After parachuting to the ground, Rowden noticed that he was bleeding from his arms and legs—injuries that were the result of shrapnel from the German attack on his aircraft. He was soon captured by six Luftwaffe (German Army) soldiers and taken to a dispensary on a German airbase where he received rudimentary medical treatment for his injuries. Following interrogation at Dulagluff, Rowden was sent to a Stalagluft VI (German prison camp) in East Prussia.
“When we got to the camp, one of the prisoners yelled, ‘You ain’t gonna like it here,’” Rowden recalled. “Truer words were never spoken.”
During the next 13 months, the young American was held in two separate prison camps, survived near starvation and endured a 500-mile forced march over an 87-day period. His strength and stamina paid off whenhe and fellow captives were liberated by the 104th Division on April 26, 1945.
Rowden returned home in June 1945 and married his long-time girlfriend, Laura Helton, a few months later. The following November he was discharged from the service. In the years after his wartime duty, Rowden went on to join the Missouri National Guard and retired in 1983 with more than 38 years of service.
Remaining active in local veterans’ events and organizations, the proud recipient of an Air Medal and Purple Heart encourages the younger generations to study and take an interest in the country's history.
“They (the schools) don’t teach much about World War II history nowadays,” the former prisoner of war remarked. “Being able to speak to the kids about the camaraderie and teamwork that develops between soldiers in difficult and trying circumstances is important."
He added, “This really provides them with a historical perspective that they aren’t able to get from a history book.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
During the Vietnam War, the mettle of many a young citizen—often barely out of high school—was tested in what remains one of the controversial conflicts in our nation’s history. Local veteran Steven P. Amick remains cognizant of the sacrifices he and his fellow veterans made during the war, and remains proud of the tumultuous journey that delivered him to adulthood.
Born in 1947, Amick was raised in the Dixon area until his parents moved to Jefferson City during his sophomore year of high school. Graduating from Jefferson City High School in 1965, he enrolled in classes at Lincoln University.
“I attended class for about six weeks,” recalled Amick, “and decided it wasn’t for me.”
When walking out of one of his classes, Amick’s friend Ron Saucier asked him what he planned on doing.
“I’m going to join the Marines!” Amick exclaimed.
“Not without me!” was his friend’s immediate reply.
Amick and Saucier enlisted in the Marines in October 1965. When asked why he chose to join the the Marines during a very chaotic period in American history, Amick humorously noted, “I wanted a change and a little action…and I ended up finding more than I wanted of both.”
After graduating from boot camp in December 1965, Amick was promoted to private first class for serving as a squad leader and being one of the top Marines in the training command. He then returned home for 20 days of leave during which time his friend Saucier was married. In January 1966, he traveled to Camp Pendleton, California, where he completed radio relay school. When his 2-1/2 months of specialized training was finished, he was transferred to Camp Lejune, North Carolina, and participated in various field training maneuvers. Shortly after his arrival at the new duty location, Amick received the chance to embrace the action he believed he would find by joining the Corps.
“One day an officer came around and asked if anyone would like to volunteer to go to Vietnam,” Amick explained. “Me and another Marine raised our hands…and that’s when I learned that you don’t volunteer for anything in the military,” he joked.
In June 1966, Amick departed the states and arrived in Okinawa, where he spent a few days receiving shots and orientation classes on Vietnam, the people and their culture. He then boarded a flight into Da Nang that provided the veteran with his first taste of the excitement associated with war.
“We landed at night; all of the lights were off on the plane,” he recalled. “We were taking sniper fire because you could see all of the tracer rounds zipping by the windows. The stewardesses were scared to death…and to be honest with you, so was I,” he modestly added.
Following an overnight stay, Amick boarded a plane to Chu Lai. Upon arrival, he was assigned to Headquarters Co., 5th Marines located on Hill 35—just 15 miles north of Chu Lai. Amick quickly learned that service in a combat zone was full of surprises and replete with action.
“As soon as I got there, the gunnery sergeant told me they had just been hit the night before,” he noted. “Apparently the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) was doing some probing.”
When it was discovered that the young Marine possessed an electrical background, his sergeant assigned him to the generator section. Not satisfied with such an assignment, Amick was granted a transfer five months later to work in the radio relay section.
“We would set up on hills with the grunts to establish radio relay stations,” recalled Amick. “The stations made great targets; we’d set them up during the day and get the hell shelled out of us in the evening,” he said. “That’s when I began to ask myself what in the world I was doing there.”
On another occasion, his unit was set up in a compound with other military branches as part of Operation Colorado—a search and destroy mission.
“Mortars began coming in and striking the Army side of the compound,” he noted. “Bullets were ‘wizzing’ by us and you could hear them pop when they went by your ears. Thank God they couldn’t hit anything,” he jested.
While serving during the war, Amick fell victim to an affliction that wasn’t the result of enemy fire.
“I caught malaria and spent 38 days in the hospital,” he recalled. “I was terribly sick and and ended up losing 50 pounds.”
With a 13-month overseas deployment under his belt, Amick returned to the states in July 1967. His combat service earned him the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and a Presidential Unit Citation. Prior to his return to Jefferson City for a brief period of leave, the combat veteran was advised by military personnel of the current situation in the states—primarily the protests that were going on with regard to the war.
“We were called ‘baby killers’ and spit upon in the airport,” he stated.
After the war, he spent a few more months in the service and was discharged in September 1967. Since that time, Amick has worked as an electrician and has even operated his own electrical business. He went on to retire from state government and now enjoys spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren. A member of the American Legion, he twice served as the commandant for the Samuel F. Gearhart Chapter of the Marine Corps League.
Having battled many of the demons that afflicted so many returning veterans of the Vietnam War, Amick remains proud of his service and the time he spent in his beloved "Corps."
“When I first got back from the war I didn’t tell anyone I was a vet; I didn’t want to have to explain myself,” he said. “From the time I got to Vietnam until this day, I know I did the right thing … at the time I was just too young to understand it.”
Jeremy Amick is the nephew of Steven Amick and writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
A native of “The Hill” district of St. Louis, Yogi Berra, right, was inducted into the U.S. Navy in 1943, and went on to experience combat during the D-Day landings and the Allied invasion of Southern France weeks later. After the war, he became a Hall of Fame player with the New York Yankees. Berra is pictured with his childhood friend and fellow major league player, Joe Garagiola. Courtesy of Steve Garagiola
The son of Italian immigrants, Lawrence Peter Berra grew up in the historic Italian district of St. Louis known as “The Hill,” where he was given the nickname of “Yogi” by a friend noting his resemblance to a snake charmer seen in a movie of the era. Berra spent countless hours of his youth playing baseball in the sandlots of St. Louis, enjoying the company of neighbors such as Joe Garagiola, who himself earned a World Series ring as a St. Louis Cardinal in 1946. Berra went on to establish himself as a celebrated player after entering the New York Yankees farm system in 1942, but his career was initially delayed when he entered the Navy in World War II, and went on to participate in the famed D-Day landings.
In the 1952 book written by Joe Trimble and aptly titled “Yogi Berra,” the late baseball icon noted that he was playing baseball for the Norfolk Tars—a New York Yankees affiliate—near the U.S. Naval shipyards along the coast of Virginia, when he received orders to take his military examinations at the Army Induction Center at Richmond, Virginia. Passing his physical, Berra explained that the inductees were asked what branch of service they wanted to join, with the Yankee prospect finding the U.S. Navy the most appealing.
“But when we finished the physical and knew we passed, the officer told us that anyone who took the Army got a three week’s extension of time before being sworn in but that the Navy guys would only get one week,” noted Berra in the aforementioned biography. He added, “So I took the Army, because I wanted to go home for a while. It didn’t quite work out that way, however.”
A warrant officer who coached the Norfolk Naval Training Station team heard about Berra, and needed replacements for his players who had been shipped to overseas assignments. He was able to wield some influence and change Berra’s branch selection.
Separation papers accessible through the Missouri State Archives note Berra was inducted into the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 23, 1943, a little more than four months following his eighteenth birthday. Completing his initial training at Bainbridge, Maryland, a twist of fate ensured that Berra never played for the Norfolk team despite the wishes of the warrant officer who changed his assignment. Berra soon received orders for the Navy Amphibious Training Center at Little Creek, Virginia, arriving in January 1944.
“The Amphibious Training Base (also known as ‘Little Creek’) was the center for all types of amphibious training and the training of ship's crews …,” noted an article on the website of the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. The article went on to explain, “In a commendably few months the trained men who were to land fighting forces from Africa to Normandy were ready for sea. During World War II over 200,000 Naval personnel and 160,000 Army and Marine Corps personnel trained at Little Creek.”
In March 1944, following two weeks of additional amphibious exercises at Lido Beach, Long Island, Berra was aboard LST 508 (Landing Ship, Tank). Traveling in a convoy to Glasgow, Scotland. Following his arrival, Berra spent the next several weeks training for amphibious assaults and, prior to D-Day, was assigned as a gunner’s mate aboard the attack transport USS Bayfield.
An article by the Naval History and Heritage Command explained, “… (The) Bayfield and the other transports reached their designated positions early on the morning of the 6th (June 6, 1944, D-Day) and debarked their troops. Once the troops left Bayfield, she began service as a supply and hospital ship in addition to continuing her duties as a flagship.”
As part of a group of vessels launched from the Bayfield, Berra was aboard a 36-foot rocket boat operating off Omaha Beach prior to the landing of ground troops, firing upon and neutralizing German shore batteries. Berra noted in his biography, “There wasn’t time to be scared. My job was loadin’ the gun, which was mounted on a little deck toward the back of the boat.”
Surviving a major amphibious assault that cost the lives of thousands of his fellow service members, Berra went on to serve with the Navy in Italy and, in July 1944, arrived in North Africa. He went on to participate in the Allied invasion of Southern France known as “Operation Dragoon.” While aboard a rocket boat, a couple hundred yards off the coast of Marseilles, Berra and the group of boats in his attack group began firing upon a resort hotel used to conceal a German machine gun nest. During the exchange of fire, Berra was nicked in the hand by a German bullet—a war wound he never reported. When later asked about the wound, Berra responded that he did not apply for a Purple Heart because “I didn’t’ want to scare my mother,” he recalled in his 1952 biography.
Berra spent the next several months in Bizerte, Tunisia, before returning to the U.S. in January 1945, where he was assigned to the Navy base at New London Connecticut. It was here that he was placed in “Welfare and Recreation,” and began to play baseball for the Navy. He received his military discharge on May 7, 1946.
In the years that followed, Berra entered the annals of baseball legend not only because of his abilities as a player, but also for his colorful and unique quotes such as, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” As with many veterans of the WWII era, the Hall of Famer did not boast of his time in the military despite the pride he maintained for having served his country.
In a June 1, 2005, interview with the Academy of Achievement, the former Yankee slugger known for his simplistic descriptions, said of his D-Day experience, “Fortunately enough, nothing happened to us. We were lucky.” Berra added, “I wasn’t scared. Going into it, it looked like the Fourth of July.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
Decades before he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame for his success as a high school football coach, John “Pete” Adkins collected a treasure trove of experiences with his first team—the U.S. Navy—in World War II. These days, however, when it comes time to assemble a team, it is in support of veterans’ events to honor those who never made it home from the war.
A 1943 graduate of Mexico High School, Adkins and a small group of friends decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy before the military draft process made the decision for them.
Adkins reflected, “We went over to enlist at a recruiting office in Mexico and they sent us to Jefferson Barracks (St. Louis) for our induction in July 1943. Then, a day or so later, they put us on a troop train and sent us to Farragut, Idaho, for boot camp.”
Established in 1942 as the Farragut Naval Training Station, Adkins said it appeared as though “they took a hillside, some flatland and then carved a naval base out of it.” For the next eight weeks, he and his fellow recruits underwent their initial training. When many of the trainees began to depart for additional training at other locations, Adkins remained at the Idaho base for another eight weeks to become a signalman—a specialty, he recalled, the Navy selected for him.
“Everything in signal training was visual; we didn’t use any radios for communication,” said the veteran. “We used flags and flashing lights to signal in Morse code. It was our job to learn to direct ship traffic in and out of harbors, making sure they knew where to moor, when to depart and so forth.”
Much of their training, he recalled, was spent in the classroom learning skills such as communicating letters of the alphabet using flag signals known as “semaphore.” Additionally, they spent time in a mock signal tower demonstrating they had acquired the skills necessary to direct harbor traffic. From there, the untested sailors were transferred to San Pedro, California, to apply their new skills in a live training environment.
“We were there for about 4 or 5 weeks,” he said. “They had a signal station in the harbor and they indoctrinated us into doing live signal work by directing ships.”
They spent additional training time in San Francisco before traveling to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, where they received an issue of uniforms, weapons and equipment. They were then sent into the mountains for a brief period of training by the Marines, much of it focused on weapons familiarization, before traveling to Shoemaker, California, to board a troop ship. Following an overnight stop in Pearl Harbor, Adkins and his fellow signalmen sailed for the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific. They arrived in late March 1944 on the Eniwetok Atoll, which had been the site of a brutal battle a month earlier.
Eniwetok “was defended by a garrison of 3,400 men,” wrote Trevor Dupuy of the Japanese occupation in his book “Asiatic Land Battles: Japanese Ambitions in the Pacific.” He added, “A combined landing force of Army and Marine units, totaling nearly 8,000 men, landed there on February 19 (1944). The (Japanese) defenders were overwhelmed in four days of vicious fighting.”
“The island was said to be the largest natural harbor between Hawaii and Japan,” Adkins said. “When we got there in March, the Seabees had already built a signal tower that rose above a stockade that held a small group of Japanese prisoners of war.”
As the former sailor explained, the Japanese prisoners were soon moved elsewhere but he remained on Eniwetok, spending the next two years applying the signal instruction he had received stateside by directing naval traffic in the harbor.
“About the only time I left Eniwetok during the two years I was stationed there was for 11 days of leave in Hawaii—that was it,” Adkins affirmed. “We lived in a tent city that entire time and we had outdoor showers set up on the beach.”
In the early days of August 1945, an assortment of naval vessels began to assemble in the harbor, leaving Adkins and his fellow signalman to speculate that a major military operation was in its beginning stages.
“We found out several days later that the ships were there for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland,” Adkins said. “But they ended up dropping the atomic bombs on Japan and the war was over.”
Remaining on Eniwetok until March 1946, Adkins returned to the United States and was discharged on April 3, 1946. After going home to Mexico, he married the former Lorraine Fenner in 1948 and utilized his G.I. Bill benefits to earn his master’s degree in education. As the years passed, he became head football coach for Jefferson City High School, retiring in 1995. Throughout the course of his 45-year career, he compiled a 405-60-4 record, resulting in his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in April 2013 for being the most successful high school football coach in the nation.
His victories on the gridiron notwithstanding, Adkins values his service in the U.S. Navy and maintains it helped instill the lifelong aspiration to recognize his fellow veterans while also refining many positive qualities he has embraced throughout his career.
“The military does a lot for a person—the discipline, the work ethic and the fact that we had to learn to live very sparingly,” Adkins said. “I can tell you, living in a tent for two years will make a believer out of you and made me appreciate home.”
He added, “Since that time, I have always remained active in veterans’ events to help honor those men who were killed taking that island before I got there in WWII. And when you go to a veterans’ function, it’s special because we all have something in common … we have all developed a respect for those who have served.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.