Remember the ‘Scorpion’ - Laughton Smith perished aboard U.S. Navy submarine in 1968
The 1960s were a tumultuous period for U.S. naval forces embroiled in intelligence-gathering operations during the Cold War. Dangers abounded for Navy personnel that included tragedies such as the USS Thresher—a nuclear-powered attack submarine lost on a sea trial because of an electrical system malfunction, claiming the lives of 129 sailors and civilians. Such catastrophes did not appear to influence the decision of one aspiring Missouri sailor, who, despite any perceived hazards in pursuing such a calling, forged ahead to become an officer and entered the submarine forces.
Growing up in Jefferson City in the 1950s, Laughton Smith assumed the reflection of many young children of the era. He attended a local Presbyterian church and actively participated in the Boy Scouts, helping conduct classes in boating during summer camps.
“‘Laughton,’" being a rather high-sounding name for such a natural guy, gave way to ‘Smeed’ early in Smeed's grade school years,” noted a brief bio for Smith in the 1965 edition of The Lucky Bag—the yearbook for the United States Naval Academy. The yearbook went on to explain, “Laughton has always had a winning personality, with a bright smile and heartwarming enthusiasm.”
Graduating Jefferson City High School in 1960, Smith hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy; however, fellow classmate Jim Ayers—the principal nominee—was selected. In the interim, Smith attended classes at the University of Missouri-Columbia, until early summer of 1961, when he received his own appointment to the academy.
“There were several of us from Jefferson City who graduated around 1960 and ended up going to a military academy,” said Ayers, childhood friend of Smith. “Laughton and I went to the Naval Academy while a classmate of ours, Robert Davenport, went to the Air Force Academy and was lost in Vietnam” He added, “Joe Hemmel from Helias also went to the Air Force Academy a year ahead of us and was lost in 1967.”
Additionally, William Hentges, a 1959 graduate of Helias High School, went on to receive his commission and graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1963.
In 1965, Smith graduated from the Naval Academy and went on serve as a lieutenant junior grade at Groton, Connecticut. On April 8, 1967, the young sailor embarked upon yet another great adventure of his life when marrying the former Jane Victoria Graham at the Immanuel Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware, the bride’s hometown.
“We were only a grade apart at the academy so I saw him often,” said Ayers. “We both ended up assigned to nuclear submarines during our naval careers.”
The April 9, 1967, edition of the Sunday News and Tribune reported that Smith “will report in late April to the nuclear submarine ‘Scorpion’ which is home ported in Norfolk, Va.” The article also explained that following their honeymoon in Vermont, the couple would reside in Norfolk.
The USS Scorpion was a 3,500-ton nuclear attack submarine and although “the Navy had always portrayed the 252-foot-long sub as a gleaming showpiece,” it was long overdue for an overhaul, as noted in the book “Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.” The authors also wrote, “(T)he crew had taken to calling her the ‘USS Scrap Iron’” because of mechanical issues such as “oil leaks in the hydraulic systems and seawater seeping in through the propeller shaft seals.”
During the early months of 1968, the “Scorpion was one of only four of the Atlantic Fleet’s submarines that was still waiting to be refitted with … safety features” that were identified following the loss of another nuclear submarine, the USS Thresher, nearly five years earlier. Despite not having these safety upgrades completed, the U.S. Navy continued to have the submarine perform Cold War missions.
On May 27, 1968, the U.S. Navy conveyed that the USS Scorpion was missing and that they had last radioed their position six days earlier. The June 6, 1968, edition of the Charlotte News (Charlotte, North Carolina) reported, “At that time … the sub was 365 miles south-southwest of the Azores, approaching the pinnacles and gulfs of an underwater mountain range.”
The May 29, 1968 edition of the Jefferson City Post-Tribune reported that Laughton Smith, who was serving as the submarine’s communications officer, had written his sister weeks earlier that their “craft was having trouble with its communications equipment” and that he had been busy “getting the equipment back in shape.”
Speculation abounded as to the cause of the mysterious disappearance of the submarine with a complement of 99 crew members. It was the height of the Cold War and an initial suspicion was that it had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine or surface vessel, while others believed it might have struck an underwater mountain or ridge. Following a five-month search, the wreckage of the vessel was eventually located in more than 10,000 feet of water 400 miles southwest of the Azores (in the mid-Atlantic); where more than eight dozen sailors remain in their watery grave. Although the Navy prepared a report in 1968 detailing its findings regarding the submarine’s loss, it was withheld from the public for a quarter-century.
“This week, the Navy released a report saying the Scorpion may have been destroyed by its own torpedo,” reported the Springfield News-Leader on October 29, 1993. “The report concluded of the accident, ‘The torpedo was released from the tube, became fully armed and sought its nearest target, Scorpion.’”
James Ayers sorrowfully explained, “Of the four of us from the Class of 1960 in Jefferson City who went on to our respective military academies, I was the only one who survived my period of service.” He added, “Laughton’s loss truly struck a chord within me because he was my best friend in high school and our families had been so close. He was only 26 when he disappeared, and it is easy for the community to forget that. I want to make sure that the community is aware of his service to the nation and remembers his sacrifice in addition to all others who died during their service as well.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
First in the family - First WWII casualty of Rich Fountain drowned off the coast of Italy
The fourth of six children, Stephen Boehmer grew up with an intimate understanding of both hardship and hard work. His mother passed away when he was only five years old and, when not attending the local one-room Reichel School near the Osage County community of Rich Fountain, he joined his siblings in assisting their father in completing various chores around the family’s farm.
As the years passed, Boehmer graduated from Freeburg High School in 1941 and, several weeks later, registered for the military draft with his local draft board in Linn. Returning to his employment at Uncle Willie’s Café in Rich Fountain, he became the first of the four Boehmer sons to enter the service when drafted into the U.S. Army at Jefferson Barracks on February 18, 1943.
“His family was very close, I think because of the passing of their mother,” said Diane Rackers, one of Boehmer’s nieces. “He also wrote home and spoke about having enjoyed attending dances in the Rich Fountain area,” she added.
The 19-year-old draftee was sent to Camp Sibert, Alabama, to complete several weeks of basic training. Dedicated on Christmas Day 1942, Camp Sibert became the primary training camp for chemical warfare soldiers during World War II and closed shortly after the end of the war in 1945.
“In June 1943, after three months of basic training, he was sent overseas, headed to North Africa after passing through England,” said Diane Rackers.
Following his arrival in North Africa, Boehmer eventually received assignment to Company D, 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion, who had been in the country since May 11, 1943. A brief period of invasion training ensued and the young soldier soon entered combat as part of the Allied invasion of Sicily, supporting numerous attacks and counterattacks using such weapons as the 4.2-inch mortar.
Diane Rackers explained, “In a letter that was later sent to Stephen’s father by Lt. Alfred H. Crenshaw, he wrote, ‘Stephen saw many grueling days of combat. Throughout all of this he acquitted himself in a manner that is a credit to both you and his country.’”
Remaining stalwart in the face of heavy resistance, Allied forces pushed northward into the Italian mainland and were able to secure the port of Naples in addition to vital airfields as part of a nearly three-month campaign named “Operation Avalanche.” In a letter dated November 17, 1943, Boehmer indicated he was “sleeping in foxholes in wet clothes and blankets” with bullets “whistling” above his head. Ten days later, he wrote of another “enemy” the men of the battalion faced—the weather, with rain falling regularly and creating “an awfully lot of mud.”
In his book, Bastard Battalion: A History of the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion in World War II, Terry Lowry notes that Daniel Shields, one of Boehmer’s fellow Company D soldiers, “said it rained so much he could not stay in his foxhole and eventually sought shelter in a church.”
During Christmas of 1943, Boehmer wrote home that he received a welcome respite from combat operations and was able to attend midnight mass while on a five-day pass, during which he had the opportunity to sleep in a bed and watch some films. The following month, on January 25, 1944, he was one of more than 600 men to board LST 422—one vessel in a convoy of thirteen ships that departed Naples for the Battle of Anzio. Early the next morning, LST 422 encountered inclement weather and high winds, which blew the ship into a known minefield; the resulting explosion caused the ship to break in two and sink off the Italian coast.
“Stephen (Boehmer) was reported missing in action in Italy,” said Diane Rackers. “In a letter sent by Lt. Alfred Crenshaw, he explained that Stephen ‘was aboard a ship that was destroyed about three miles off the enemy coastline and had to be abandoned.’” Somberly, Rackers added, “The letter went on to state that the water was very rough and after a ‘hard fought contest,’ he finally ‘succumbed to the overwhelming might of the sea.’”
One of several hundred casualties, Boehmer’s body was recovered and was initially interred in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. His remains were returned to the United States in 1949 and re-interred at the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Rich Fountain, the veteran’s home parish. Following his death, Boehmer’s three brothers were all drafted into the military because of World War II, surviving their service and returning home to marry and raise children.
Decades have since passed since Boehmer lost his life in a violent storm off the Italian coastline; however, his nieces and nephews have found ways to honor the memory of an uncle they never met.
“Stephen was in the military for only 11 months when he gave his life for ours—a deed we must all remember in thought and prayer,” said Betty Dickneite, one of Boehmer’s nieces. “That is why we held a special ceremony at his gravesite on November 3, 2018—74 years after his death—to present his Purple Heart, Missouri WWII awards and a memorial notebook to his brother’s son, Stephen, who was named in his honor.”
Stephen’s sister, Mary Kay Hager, added, “We know that he will cherish these items and it is our family’s hope that they are passed on to his heirs as a remembrance of Stephen Boehmer’s sacrifice for the United States of America.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
The battles of Batdorf - Career of late National Guard colonel characterized by political strife
The Missouri National Guard has before struggled with unique political concerns due a blending of both state and federal authorities. This organization has labored to maintain its distinction as the state militia, which has led to some curious situations such as one characterized by a conflict between a former state governor and the late Colonel Edwin Batdorf during the Spanish-American War.
Born near Dayton, Ohio, on October 4, 1853, Batdorf moved to Kansas in 1871, where his father operated a hotel. Years later, the July 28, 1898 edition of the Newton Daily Republican (Newton, Kansas) reported, the young Batdorf moved to St. Louis to clerk in a hotel and “afterward engaged in the commission business …”
In addition to working full-time, Batdorf became a private with the First Regiment—a former Missouri National Guard regiment located in St. Louis—and quickly rose through the ranks to become an officer. The budding officer soon discovered, however, that military organizations were subject to funding uncertainties originating from the state capitol in Jefferson City.
“On May 23, 1887, the First Regiment was disbanded owing to the fact that the State Legislature failed to provide for its support,” notes the 1934 book History of the Missouri National Guard. The book adds, “In the late summer of 1887, through the efforts of Lieutenant Edwin Batdorf, a battalion was organized, which was later expanded into a regiment and became the First Regiment, National Guard of Missouri.”
After becoming colonel on June 21, 1893, Batdorf did not enjoy a peaceful tenure in uniform and his reputation was scarred by altercations with the state leadership over his vocalized concerns, the most notable relating to the formation of the Missouri National Guard Association. During the meeting that formed the association in January 1897, Adjutant General of the Missouri National Guard, Brigadier General Joseph Wickham, became the organization’s chairman. As noted in the January 3, 1897 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it was proposed that the colonels of the state’s (then) four regiments and the captains of the two artillery batteries serve as vice-presidents.
Col. Batdorf “at once took violent objection to it on the grounds that Battery A, which had only seventy members, was awarded as great a representation as the First Regiment, with its membership of 700,” the newspaper explained. Following this incident, Batdorf and many officers of the First Regiment chose to boycott the newly formed association.
The expression of Batdorf’s concerns certainly did not endear him to state authorities but the arrival of a major mobilization of troops the following year would provide him yet another opportunity to distance himself from any favor with both the adjutant general and governor. As noted in the 1939 edition of the National Guard Historical Annual, State of Missouri, during the Spanish-American War, Missouri was given the allotment of 5,000 volunteers as part of the president’s call for 125,000 volunteers on April 22, 1898, one day following Congress’ resolution of war with Spain.
The First Regiment became one of six Missouri regiments and a light battery of artillery mobilized during the conflict. Col. Batdorf and the men of the First mustered into federal service at Jefferson Barracks on May 13, 1898 and then left their St. Louis assembly site on May 19, 1898, bound for Camp George H. Thomas at Chickamauga Park, Georgia. Despite the rather lackluster circumstances the regiment experienced while at camp in Georgia, any privations they were forced to endure were overshadowed in the newspapers by altercations between Batdorf and Missouri Governor Lon Stephens.
Appointed as an acting brigadier general during the greatest part of his Spanish-American War service, Batdorf and several officers of First Regiment quickly drew the ire of the Missouri’s governor when they refused to accept officer commissions issued from the governor. Gov. Stephens received more unwanted news when Secretary of War Russell Alger submitted a ruling essentially nullifying the state commissions and affirming “the regiments were to remain as mustered in from the Stated Guards…,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 16, 1898.
Months later, the First Regiment returned to St. Louis, never having left the United States during the brief war. It was at this time Gov. Stephens gained somewhat of a victory over Batdorf when he reorganized the regiment and excluded Batdorf from the new command structure. However, Batdorf again set the newspapers abuzz when he filed suit against the governor, seeking $50,000 in damages because of a “number of interviews with Gov. Stephens printed in various newspapers of St. Louis reflecting (unfavorably) upon Col. Batdorf as an officer and a gentleman,” wrote the St. Post-Dispatch on September 21, 1899.
The lawsuit was later dismissed and the colonel faded from public light until 1903, at which time Adjutant General W. T. Dameron, following the expiration of Gov. Stephens’ term, added Batdorf’s name to the honorary roll of retired officers of the Missouri National Guard.
In the years after his release from the National Guard, Batdorf’s life gained some semblance of normalcy as the married father of one son served as treasurer for the former Forest City Building Company in St. Louis.
The retired colonel received further recognition in 1920, seven years prior to his death, when Adjutant General Harvey Clark issued him a special medal authorized by the Missouri Legislative Assembly for the state’s veterans of the Spanish-American War.
Col. Batdorf passed away on January 14, 1927, when 73 years old, at Westgate Hotel in St. Louis and was laid to rest in his native state of Ohio. Though much of his embattled service with the National Guard has been forgotten, the words of another Missouri governor 20 years following Batdorf’s death stressed the importance of preserving the state’s military legacy, however controversial.
In a letter to the 49th Annual National Encampment of the United Spanish War Veterans in 1947, Gov. Phil Donnelly stated, “We revere the memory of the men who volunteered in Missouri Regiments in the Spanish-American War …,” adding, “(and) I am sure the pages of history will record your services, and the campaigns in which you engaged …”
Jeremy P. Ämick is a military historian and author of the recent Arcadia Publishing release “Missouri in World War I.”
'You can make it in life’ - Tuskegee Airman veteran enjoys sharing story of WWII service
His hair may have grayed and his “ol’ knees have tightened up a little,” but 97-year-old James Shipley of Tipton clearly recalls many of the details of his service with an all-black fighter squadron in World War II, an experience that bestowed he and his military colleagues with coveted titles of “Tuskegee Airmen” and “Redtails.” The role he played during World War II have made him a sought after speaker, affording him opportunites to describe the lecacy of his service with the famed flight group that fought overseas for some of the very freedoms they were denied back home.
“Other than the time I was in the service, I have lived in Tipton my entire life,” said the veteran. “When I was a kid, I attended Harrison School, which was for the black students in the area since the school system was segregated back then.” He continued, “We never had any race problems growing up … that I can remember. We’d go over to the homes of the white kids to play marbles and they’d come over to our homes to play. Once in awhile, one of the kids might call us a name and you’d throw rocks at them, but the next day you were playing together like nothing happened.”
Throughout the last several years, as the impressive wartime record of the Tuskegee Airman rose to prominence through books and films, Shipley has traveled far and wide to regale audiences with his country-born wisdom, revealing the contributions that he and his fellow African American airmen made during the war with generations of individuals who never lived through the days of segregation.
“While I was growing up, some of my older relatives took the time to show me how to work on engines,” he said. Pointing to a tree near his house, he added, “They’d hang motors from that ol’ tree right over there and that’s where I first learned how to become a mechanic and tear those engines apart.”
During World War II, he enlisted with an “all black air force” after meeting a military recruiter at the post office in Tipton. He later served in Italy as a crew chief and mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen, maintaining historic aircraft such as the P-51 Mustangs that later became celebrated for their successful escorts of American bombers on bombing missions. After receiving his discharge in 1946, the veteran mirthfully recalls meeting a lovely young woman from Boonville named Mildred, when accompanying his father to a track meet in the late 1940s. He and Mildred were married in 1949 and raised two sons and a daughter.
Grinning, he explained, “I can remember when Millie and I got married because it was the year after I bought a 1948 Chevy.”
Like many young men returning from war, Shipley set his sights on endeavors that would afford him opportunities to supplement the meager income he earned as a mechanic. One such memorable account involves a rather elderly horse and seven dollars.
“Shortly after the war, I decided I was going to buy a horse to plow up some ground to plant roasting ears (of corn) to sell,” he explained. “I found this old horse in Syracuse (Missouri) and paid seven dollars for it.”
The horse, he recalled, was so old that it had lost all of its teeth. After making the purchase, he then rode the horse the five miles back to Tipton.
“It turns out that I was severely allergic to the horse,” his face lit up in recollection. “Not long after I got back, I swelled up really bad and had to go to the doctor to be treated.”
At the time, the local physician was “a really old Army doctor” who reached into his bag, removed a syringe and administered an injection to the suffering Shipley. Applying what Shipley called “Civil War medicine,” the doctor then charged the young, aspiring farmer seven dollars for the treatment he was given.
“Well, I didn’t really know what I was doing and fed the horse whole corn,” he said. “Since he had no teeth, he couldn’t chew it up and he ended up dying. Then,” he concluded, “I sold the horse to a local fertilizer plant for seven dollars … and that’s my story of the seven-dollar horse.”
Following his marriage, he and Mildred purchased a two-bedroom house in Tipton for $200 that is located next to the Harrison School he attended as a youth. In the years that followed, their family grew and they built additions onto their home, where they continue to reside to this day. Eventually, he was hired as a mechanic with Co-Mo Electric in Tipton, retiring after 29 years of employment with the company. His background and legacy have led to his becoming a celebrity in the Tipton area and, early this year, he graduated with the Tipton High School class of 2020 since he was unable to finish school decades ago because of his WWII service.
Recalling some advice he gave one of his nieces several years ago, a young lady who went on to excel academically and has since become an attorney, Shipley’s frank and sage words continue to resonate as powerfully for all citizens just as they applied to his own postwar endeavors.
“If you work hard, you can make it in life,” I told my niece. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
‘Through God’s will' - Army veteran served as infantryman with combat assault teams in Vietnam
An animated bearing, humorous reflections and wide grin seem to define the demeanor of Larry Siedenburg. His effusive personality, however, belies many of the hardships and losses he experienced as a combat soldier during the Vietnam War—service that earned him promotion to sergeant and the award of two Bronze Stars for valor in addition to an Air Medal.
“I grew up in the small community of Lone Elm and attended a Lutheran School there through the eighth grade,” Siedenburg recalled. “I eventually graduated from Bunceton High School in 1967 and decided to continue my education at Capitol Business College in Jefferson City,” he added.
Earning his degree in business administration and accounting in the spring of 1970, he was employed as a management trainee with J.C. Penney in Kansas City, Kansas. A few months later, he received his draft notice and was inducted into the U.S. Army in June 1970.
“I entered the Army in Kansas City and then they put a group of us on a bus and sent us to basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood,” he explained. “My training company did quite well and we actually set records with the number of soldiers that qualified as experts on the rifle range and also in several aspects of our physical training.”
Siedenburg also noted that when his basic training was finished, the Army made the decision that he should serve as an infantryman, sending him to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, to begin advanced infantry training. Throughout the next several weeks, he and his fellow soldiers trained with rifles, grenades, and mortars in addition to performing combat patrols while learning map reading land navigation.
“I was a squad leader during the training and it was fun,” he said. “Overall, everyone there wanted to learn everything possible because we all figured that we were headed to Vietnam as soon as the training was finished.”
His suspicions were proven correct after completing his advanced training in October 1970, at which time he received orders to report to Fort Ord, California, in preparation for deployment to Vietnam. For the next “week or so,” he performed guard duty and other seemingly mundane tasks while waiting to board the commercial aircraft for his overseas flight. Upon arrival in Vietnam in November 1970, he was assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry under the 196th Infantry Brigade, operating out of a U.S. Army base at Chu Lai. Shortly after his arrival, Siedenburg explained, he transferred to a nearby site named “Hawk Hill.”
“Hawk Hill was a fire base and we made our patrols from that location,” he said. “We were a ‘swing battalion,’ so wherever there was a hotspot with regard to enemy activity, that’s where they sent us.”
The veteran explained that he participated in a number of combat assaults and was often inserted into these hotspots by helicopters.
“When the helicopter flew in to deliver us to an assault area, we had three seconds to get off the aircraft or else you were taking a big jump because they had to get out of there quickly or risk being shot down,” he said.
There were many missions, he affirmed, where it appeared they were needlessly expending both time and lives of soldiers when taking certain objectives.
“On occasion, we were sent in to take a certain area by pushing out the enemy in that area,” he said. “Then we would pull back and the enemy would come back in and take the area over again, which was followed by us going back in and pushing them back out,” he shrugged in disbelief.
On another mission, he recalls being a member of a team of approximately two dozen infantrymen sent into an area swarming with enemy forces in an effort to retrieve a pilot and an intelligence officer whose helicopter had been shot down.
“We located the helicopter but the two guys were not there,” he said. “After the mission, I learned from a friend that we weren’t expected to make it back because they had already prepared letters to send home to our parents informing them of our deaths … but we surprised them!”
Several months into his assignment, Siedenburg began to suffer from multiple and persistent boils that developed from infected mosquito bites. This medical complication resulted in his reassignment to the brigade’s ammunition depot, eventually becoming the non-commissioned officer in charge.
“While I was in Vietnam, I extended to stay in country for one month and seven days because that would give me less than 180 days left on my commitment when I returned to the states,” he said. “If you had less than 180 days when you got back to the U.S., they gave you an early discharge.”
Leaving the U.S. Army in December 1971, he established his own construction company, which he operated for several years. In 1981, he married Helen and the couple raised four daughters. In later years, he was hired by the Missouri Department of Conversation and retired with 31 years of service. In recent years, Siedenburg has remained committed to his faith and has served in many capacities with Immanuel Lutheran Church at Honey Creek. He acknowledges that although many of his fellow veterans who returned from the war experienced issues related to post-traumatic stress, he believes his faith has granted him peace in spite of the trauma he witnessed.
“I lost a close friend, Keith Haney, over in Vietnam,” he bluntly remarked. “There were a lot of good guys killed over there and you didn’t try to make any new friends because you didn’t know how long those people would be around. I believe that being a God-fearing person—knowing that He protected me during so many dangerous situations—factored into me coming home without too many problems. It was through God’s will that I made it back safely.”
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.