On September 14, 1953 in a roadside park on Ten Mile Drive west of Jefferson City was the dedication of the area’s first Blue Star Memorial marker. Pictured here is the unveiling of the marker by Mrs. Frank Voss, left, Blue Star chairman of Hawthorn Garden Club and Mrs. Ernest Levy, president of Hawthorn Garden Club. Attendees at the event included Rex Whitton, who was then chief engineer of the Missouri State Highway Commission and Harris Rodgers, chairman of the commission.
During the construction of the Capital Mall in the late 1970s, the marker was moved to make room for expansion of the roads in the area and placed in the roadside park across from Steak ‘n Shake on Missouri Boulevard that was once home to a Spanish-American War statue; however, the marker has since been moved and placed at the entrance to Washington Park.
The late Major General Don D. Pittman--a Jefferson City, Mo., native and 1943 graduate of St. Peter's High School--took these photographs during the retirement ...of the Air Force's fleet of SR-71 Blackbirds at Beale Air Force Base, California, on January 26, 1990.
The Blackbird cadre was formed at Beale AFB in January 1965 with the first aircraft arriving the following year. In May 1973, Maj. Gen. Pittman became commander of the 14th Air Division at Beale AFB and had under his command several reconnaissance, bombardment, airborne command and control and refueling organizations, some of which were equipped with the SR-71.
For nearly 25 years, the SR-71 performed worldwide aerial reconnaissance operations and broke a number of speed and altitude records. Regardless of its performance, a dwindling defense budget combined with the high cost of maintenance eventually heralded the end of this legendary aircraft.
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, Kan.) 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…,” as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 16, 1898. Months later, the First Regiment returned to St. Louis, never having left the Unites 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.
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 upcoming Arcadia Publishing release “Missouri at War.”
The issuance of General Order 135 during the Civil War was the beginning stages of a concentrated effort by the Union Army to recruit men for the United States Colored Troops (USCT). This order, which compensated slave owners up to $300 for each slave they enlisted, not only provided soldiers for the Union, but also resulted in the freedom and education of many who had previously lived in bondage. Once many of these former slaves turned combat-hardened soldiers tasted the empowerment of an education while serving in uniform, they often dedicated the rest of their lives to teaching others, leading to the establishment of fine institutions such as Lincoln University.
John Jeffreys, according to his death certificate, was born in Virginia on March 31, 1844, and began his journey toward freedom while living as a slave in Missouri. According to “Descriptive Recruitment Lists of Volunteers for the United States Colored Troops for the State of Missouri, 1863-1865,” accessible through the Missouri State Archives, the young slave was enlisted in the Union army by his owner, Arthur Paine of Boone County, on December 2, 1863 in Jefferson City.
Assigned to the 1st Colored Missouri Infantry, Jeffreys and other black recruits traveled to Benton Barracks—a training site established in St. Louis in 1861 by General John C. Fremont. (Benton Barracks was located on the present day site of Fairground Park.) Their battles for equality were only beginning, even within the military forces they were enlisted to support, as the soldiers contended with a lack of proper food, poor sanitary conditions and a shortage of adequate clothing. Historical records indicate that as many as one-third of the black soldiers enlisted had died at the post from various undiagnosed diseases.
Attached to the “District of St. Louis, Mo., to January 1864,” as noted in Volume 1 of the Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, the regiment was later ordered to Port Hudson, La., where they were redesignated the 62nd Colored Infantry on March 11, 1864. Despite many prejudices the men of the regiment were forced to overcome, they proved their mettle in training and so impressed Brigadier General Daniel Ullman that he wrote of the men on July 30, 1864, “This regiment is the best under my command …”
Expectations for learning soon became a reality within the 62nd through persuasions such as General Order No. 31 dated July 3, 1864. In the order, Lt. Col. David Branson stated, “All non-Commissioned officers of this command who shall fail to learn to read by or before the 1st day of January 1865 will be reduced to the ranks and their places filled by persons who can read.”
Weeks later, while the regiment was stationed at Brazos Santiago, Texas, an order was issued that, although intended to stop gambling among the soldiers of the regiment, was added to a handful of previous orders—all of which would later inspire the founding of an educational institution in Jefferson City. In her book “Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort,” author Patricia Richard explains that “literacy was used as a punishment for gambling” and any offenders “were placed standing in some prominent position in the camp with book in hand, and required then and there to learn a considerable lesson in reading and spelling.”
As their service in the war progressed, Jeffreys and the 62nd participated in notable military engagements including the Battle of Palmito Ranch (Texas) on May 12-13, 1865, which has the distinction as the last battle fought in the Civil War and was considered a Confederate victory, resulting in 118 Union casualties. After the war’s end, the men of the 62nd remained in Texas until March 1866, during which Jeffreys and fellow soldiers of both the 62nd and 65th USCT donated money to raise funds for what would later become Lincoln University.
Having attained the rank of sergeant major—the highest enlisted rank and evidence of his performance of duty—Jeffreys was discharged on March 31, 1866, as noted on muster rolls from the Missouri State Archives.
Though it is uncertain as to any specific role Jeffreys played in the founding of Lincoln University other than donations to help establish the institution, newspaper records note he embarked upon a personal vocation of helping to educate black citizens of Mid-Missouri as early as the 1870s.
“The colored school was provided for by the election of J.O. Jeffreys, the most successful teacher that has yet had charge of that school,” stated an article in the July 5, 1877 edition of the Rolla Herald. The ensuing years saw the veteran continue to leverage the education he received while in the service when, in 1879, he was “unanimously elected as principal of the colored school (in Rolla).” The same year he married Minerva Marr and the couple raised two sons and a daughter.
Property inventories available through the Missouri Office of Historic Preservation note that in 1882, “the (Rolla) school board voted to improve the African American school, to be called Lincoln School.” The school remained in operation until the 1950s and the original brick building remains a historical landmark in the community. In 1890, Jeffreys left teaching and purchased what eventually became the Rolla Steam Laundry, which he operated until failing health required him to retire. The veteran passed away on November 5, 1922 and is buried in Rolla Cemetery.
Once property of another, Jeffreys admirably fought on behalf of a nation struggling to come to terms with the concept of “inalienable rights,” choosing instead to focus his energies in establishing a path to an education that he and other black citizens had once been denied. And if we might assume there were ever any words wholly embraced by Jeffreys and the founders of Lincoln University, it was the command issued to the men of the regiment by Lt. Col. David Branson on July 3, 1864.
“All soldiers of this command who have by any means learned to read & write, will aid and assist to the extent of their ability their fellow soldiers to learn these invaluable arts.”
Decades later, Lincoln University continues to serve as an enduring tribute to men such as Jeffreys, who sought to extend the privilege of hard-earned freedom and share the benefits of the education they received while serving their nation.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
In his rustic home situated on 66 acres of woodland in rural Moniteau County, Richard Schroeder shared many chuckles while discussing the circumstances that led him into service with both the Navy and Marine Corps … more than sixty years earlier. A 1950 graduate of Jefferson City High School, Schroeder explained that serving in the military was never his ambition while attending the Kansas City Art Institute.
“Back then, my future mother-in-law was the clerk for the draft board (in Jefferson City),” said Schroeder, 84, California. She said that if I was thinking of enlisting, I had better go ahead and do it.”
Schroeder and a friend decided to visit their local recruiting office to avoid being drafted. At first, they intended to enlist in the Marine Corps, but when the line for the Navy began moving faster, they decided to switch lines. Enlisting in October 1951, Schroeder completed his boot camp at the Naval Training Center in San Diego with hopes of serving aboard submarines; instead, the Navy decided that his services could be utilized as a corpsman—enlisted medical specialists able to provide emergency care in a field environment.
“They sent me to Bainbridge (Maryland) Naval Training Center for hospital corpsman school,” said Schroeder. “I had no desire to be a corpsman because all I could think about was (patients) puking and all of that stuff,” he laughed. “So I tried to flunk out of the training by failing all of my tests.”
After months of training, the former sailor humorously noted, he graduated second from the bottom of his class. Returning to Jefferson City on leave, he married his fiancée, Carole Schreen, in July 1952. He and his wife then returned to Bainbridge where Schroeder was assigned to an eye, ear, nose and throat clinic. Although he helped perform routine exams and assist with minor surgeries, one event demonstrated to him the dangers present with many forms of medical care.
“I was assisting a doctor with a bronchoscopy and the doctor sprayed the patient with Pontocaine (topical anesthetic),” Schroeder recalled. “The guy’s heart stopped and the doctor cut him open to massage his heart, but his hands were too big for the procedure. I had to stick my hands in and do it myself.” Solemnly, he added, “The patient did not make it. That was a very traumatic experience for me.”
The young corpsman soon discovered all sailors were required to perform sea duty or complete a tour in an overseas location, resulting in orders attaching him to the Fleet Marine Force—a landing force comprised of U.S. Marines and supported by elements of the Navy, including corpsman.
“I spent some time in training at Camp Pendleton (California) and attended what was basically a shortened Marine boot camp,” he said. “Then I took field medical training, learning to deal with trauma injuries such as shock, head injuries and amputations. Also,” he continued, “we were issued Marine uniforms.”
He became a member of the Third Marine Division and traveled by troopship to Japan. Following his two-week journey across the ocean, Schroeder, as part of “Easy” (E) Medical Company, was attached to a headquarters unit stationed in an outpost near Nara, Japan; which, he described, was “in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by rice paddies.” During the next year, he applied his medical training in a quite unexpected fashion.
“The job I was assigned was venereal disease (VD),” he soberly remarked. “The (Marines) would come in with an issue and I would have to take a sample to be tested to determine if a VD or something else was causing their problems.”
His duties, he noted, also required him to accompany a Japanese doctor and three Japanese police officers on weekly visits to local “establishments” to determine where the men were acquiring their ailments.
“In Japan, prostitution was legal and the government was very good at keeping everything clean,” he said. “Each prostitute was given a government card with a number on it and each month they had to have a physical exam.”
Also participating in regular military training maneuvers as a medic supporting amphibious landings and battle simulations, Schroeder completed his overseas tour in the summer of 1954, returning to the United States to reunite with his wife and meet his 9-month-old son.
Schroeder completed his enlistment at a clinic on New Orleans Naval Station, receiving his discharge in September 1954. He then moved his family to Columbia where he enrolled in the University of Missouri, using his GI Bill benefits to earn his bachelor’s degree in education.
In the years following his discharge, his family grew in size to three sons and a daughter. He was hired as an agent with the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1960 and went on to retire from the agency with 30 years of service.
Reflecting on his brief military career—one with many interesting and unexpected deviations—Schroeder said that he has since benefitted from the training he received, albeit in a specialty he initially viewed as objectionable.
“Although I first wanted to serve on submarines, because of the education that I received in first aid and healthcare, I was able to get a job while in college at the MU Medical Center—that really helped me support my family,” he said. Had I been in the submarines, I would never have earned these skills,” he added.
“But, looking back,” he paused, “the best part of it all was the way it helped me grow up—I got away from my parents and all of those who regulated my activities as a young person and learned to make my own decisions.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
In 1946, the National Council of State Garden Clubs adopted a momentous venture designated as the “Blue Star Memorial Highway Program,” which was modeled after a project in New Jersey designed to honor the men and women of the armed forces who had only recently returned from service during World War II.
As the program began to unfold on a national scale, it expanded with support of local gardening clubs throughout the country. Under the auspices of what became the National Garden Clubs, Inc., the group “enlarged its mission in 1951 to include all men and women who had served,” as noted in the “Guidelines for Blue Star Memorial Markers.”
The key component of the program was the purchase of memorial markers that were—and continue to be—placed at parks, civic and historical grounds, and along various highways throughout the United States.
“We are up to 90 markers in Missouri,” said Cynthia Brodersen, who has for the last several years served as the Blue Star Memorials chair for the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri, Inc. (a member of the National Garden Clubs, Inc.), with 125 affiliated local garden clubs throughout the state.
A member of The Grow and Glow Garden Club in Tipton, Broderson explained that although her involvement with the Blue Star Memorial Marker program came unexpectedly, it has provided her with the opportunity to honor her three uncles who served in the military, one of whom was killed during the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was familiar with the marker that is in Otterville and my husband actually attended its original dedication in 1950,” she said. “Back in 2006, the community was preparing for a re-dedication of the marker. At that time, the previous (state) chair was experiencing some health problems and asked me if I would be willing to take over.” She added, “I have really found it to be a very worthwhile cause and one that I am proud to be involved with.”
With five markers now rising above beautifully landscaped flowerbeds in Jefferson City alone—the most recent of which was dedicated on the grounds of Lincoln University late last year—Missouri has served as host to Blue Star Memorials since the placement of the first marker in 1949.
“Three hundred members of the Missouri Federation of Garden Clubs and a few special guests attended the dinner and program given Thursday afternoon in the Highway Gardens at the fairgrounds,” noted the August 26, 1949 edition of The Sedalia Democrat.
During the program, the newspaper article explained, Mrs. J.E. Dvorak, who was at the time national chair of the Blue Star Memorial Program—touted “the work being done by the Missouri Garden Clubs in bringing the Missouri Blue Star Memorial Highway through Missouri.”
Located in Bradford Roadside Park about six miles west of Sedalia, the website of the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri states the memorial was stolen in 2011. However, a new marker has since been placed near the intersection of U.S. Highway 50 and State Fair Boulevard in Sedalia, said Broderson.
Although the expense of markers continues to rise, Broderson said that the entire cost of these tributes oftentimes develops into a project supported by the community in which they are to be located.
“Back when Otterville first got their marker (in 1950), there was a lady that went around to all of the local basketball games and collected quarters to help pay for it,” she said. “We (garden clubs) have also helped cover the costs of some of the markers through our fundraisers, along with donations from community businesses and veterans’ organizations,” she added.
Jefferson City resident Jeanne Schwaller, who has been actively involved with the placement of several markers locally, stated that in addition to being a member of both the Bittersweet Garden Club and the Capital Garden Club, enjoys sharing the history of the program and facilitating its growth to other communities throughout Mid-Missouri.
Discussing the program’s history on the local level, Schwaller stated that the first marker in the Jefferson City community was dedicated in a roadside park once located near the Capital Mall, but during the mall’s construction in the late 1970s, the marker was moved to make room for expansion of roads in the area. The memorial, sponsored by the former Hawthorn Garden Club, eventually found a home at the roadside park across from Steak ‘n Shake on Missouri Boulevard; however, according to Jefferson City Parks and Recreation, will soon be re-dedicated at a location inside Washington Park, less than two miles away.
Emphasizing a viewpoint shared by many who remain active with the Blue Star Memorial program, Schwaller explained that her family’s history of military service has been an inspiration for her continued involvement with the garden clubs’ initiatives to honor the memory of all local veterans.
“My husband served during World War II and was one of three boys—all who served during the war,” she said. “All three of them were fortunate enough to return home and programs (such as the Blue Star Memorials) help ensure their service is always remembered.”
For more information on the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri, Inc. and the Blue Star Memorial Markers, please visit www.fgcmo.org.
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
There is certainly no shortage of credit that can be shared when honoring the men and women of the “Greatest Generation,” who have donated both their time and resources to help bring victory to the Allied forces in World War II. Most ironic, however, is the hesitancy of those who sacrificed the greatest in accepting any accolades for their individual efforts during the conflict.
“I really didn’t do anything special (during the war),” said J.R. Goff, 90, Jefferson City. “There were so many people—such as the women who helped build (Navy) ships—that have never received the recognition they deserve.”
Raised in several small Missouri communities, Goff was attending high school when he decided to leave his studies in 1943 and enlist in the Navy, thinking he “knew everything there was to know.” He added, “I wanted to go get on one of them ships and join the fight. I don’t really know why … I just wanted to get out there in the middle of it and boy did I ever,” he chuckled.
The 17-year-old recruit traveled to Farragut, Idaho, for several weeks of basic training—a site, which, according to the Idaho Military Museum, trained 293,381 recruits while in operation from 1942 to 1946. (The Farragut Naval Training Station is now part of Farragut State Park.) Without any specialized training other than that he received at Farragut, Goff was transferred to the naval yard at Puget Sound, Wash., in the summer of 1943 to prepare for assignment to the USS California (BB-44)—a battleship that was undergoing a major reconstruction after incurring damage during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
“There were about 160 women that were working on that ship doing welding and all kinds of work like that, but that’s not something they really ever got credit for,” the veteran explained.
In early 1944, the ship was deemed seaworthy and departed for a shakedown cruise, during which time Goff received on-the-job training in a capacity that would help defend the vessel.
“I served as the first loader on one of the quad 40 mm guns,” he said. The weapon, he explained, was a single gun mount with four 40 mm barrels attached and a loader assigned to each barrel.
With the shakedown cruise behind them, the ship set sail for the Western Pacific where they participated in shore bombardment missions near Saipan. On June 14, 1944, Goff recalled, a shell from an enemy gun battery struck the USS California, resulting in the death of one sailor and wounding of several others.
“When that happened,” said Goff, “they turned the big 16-inch guns toward the shore and blew that enemy gun to pieces!”
Whether by luck or skill, the crew avoided significant damage during this incident; however, the vessel would encounter a more deadly situation in January 1945 while providing shore bombardment at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.
“We were on General Quarters (all hands to battle stations) because there were Japanese planes attacking the ships in our group,” Goff said. “One of the planes hit us and exploded … it burned to death my fourth loader,” he solemnly remarked. “I used to hate even talking about that day because I lost so many of my friends.”
According to online naval records, the kamikaze attack resulted in the death of 44 crewmembers with an estimated 155 wounded.
“We really didn’t even have time to clean up from the attack,” Goff continued. “If I remember correctly, we were on General Quarters for three days or so.”
In mid-February 1945, the ship returned to Puget Sound to undergo repairs from the damage sustained in the kamikaze attack. The young sailor had acquired enough points to qualify for a discharge, but while awaiting his release at San Francisco, he volunteered to extend briefly his service and was assigned to an attack transport named the USS President Hayes (APA-20).
“The Hayes made a run to the South Pacific to pick up some soldiers—I think we were gone three or four weeks,” Goff said. “On the way home, I remember that some of the soldiers got so sick they begged us to shoot them,” he jokingly added.
The battle-tested sailor ultimately received his discharge in February 1946 and returned to Missouri. Goff went to work for U.S. Steel in St. Louis and retired in the early 1970s after more than 30 years with the company. He was later employed as a corrections officer at Algoa Prison in Jefferson City, where he remained for another 15 years. Married to Geraldine (Gerry) in 1957, the father of five children now enjoys sharing the quiet life with his wife at a local retirement community, asserting that although he views his military service to have been of little significance in the grand scheme of the war, it did award him with many abiding memories.
“The Navy taught me to do what I was told,” he grinned, adding, “Yes, sir! No, sir!—and all that kind of stuff that will keep you out of trouble.”Smiling, he concluded, “When I enlisted, I was just another young kid that thought he knew everything there was to know, but I soon found out differently. There were certainly some tough lessons I had to go through a war to learn.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Lying in her bed while in hospice care, Ruby “Ruth” Stephenson’s body may have become weakened by illness, but one can easily discern the bound in vigor that occurs when the veteran described the 14 months she served in the U.S. Navy during World War II—a brief moment of her past that not only allowed her to serve her country, but introduced her to a fellow sailor with whom she would share most of her life. Surrounded by her three children, Stephenson shared stories of the journey that led her to unformed service, events that were supplemented by many recollections of her family.
“Mom had a brother that died in infancy and she was raised as an only child,” said Elaine Cook, Stephenson’s daughter. “She was raised in Fayette (Mo.) and graduated from high school in 1940.”
For nearly two years, Stephenson attended school at Central Methodist University until deciding it was time to “strike it on her own,” the veteran softly whispered.
“The first time she applied (for the Navy), she was told that her eyesight was too poor,” said Romie Stephenson, the youngest of her two sons. “But they later relaxed the standards and she was able to join in 1943.” With a grin, Romie added, “She decided on the Navy because she thought they had the best looking uniform.”
The young recruit was soon on her way to become a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)—an organization established on July 30, 1942 to help fill positions left vacant stateside because of the scores of men deploying overseas to fight in World War II. Her first stop was at the Bronx campus of Hunter College in New York, the location that became the training base for all WAVES by 1943, and where she remained for the next several weeks to finish her boot camp and undergo medical training that would qualify her as a member of the medical corps.
As Stephenson recalled, her first (and only) duty assignment was at a small medical facility at Camp Elliott in San Diego, Calif.—a former Marine Corps and naval site where the first Navajo Code Talkers were trained. (A portion of the site is now situated on the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.)
“She spent about a month working on one of the wards,” said Fred Stephenson, the oldest of her two sons. “Then,” he added, “she spent the rest of her time in the admissions and discharge office.”
While at Camp Elliott, her family shared, the young WAVES member met Frederick Stephenson, Sr.—the man with whom she would fall in love and then marry on April 21, 1944.
“Dad had been in the Navy since the late 1930s and was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked,” said his daughter, Elaine. “After he and mother were married, she became pregnant and had to leave the Navy because at that time women couldn’t be in the service and pregnant.”
Receiving her discharge in October 1944, Stephenson returned to Mid-Missouri, giving birth to her first child, Elaine. A few months later she moved back to California to wait for her husband to finish out his enlistment.
“In California, mom lived in an apartment across the hall from Phyllis Diller—this was back before she became a famous comedian,” said Fred. “They became good friends and Phyllis would babysit Elaine when mom had to go run errands and mom would watch Phyllis’ brood whenver she needed to go do something.”
When Stephenson’s husband was discharged from the Navy on February 10, 1947, the family returned to Fayette, where their second child, Fred Jr., was born months later.
“Dad worked for awhile at a grocery store in Fayette but wanted to become a professional photographer,” said Elaine. “We moved to Houston (Texas) in early 1949 so that he could enroll in the University of Houston’s photography program.”
The couple and their growing family spent the next few years living in housing in Memorial Park dedicated to WWII veterans attending college. While living there, the couple welcomed their third and final child, Romie, in 1953.
“Our dad graduated with his photography degree and worked a few years for Susan’s of Hollywood (in Texas),” said Fred. “He then worked for Southwest Industrial Electronics and stayed with them until his retirement in the early 1970s, after he became partially disabled from a stroke.” Fred added, “Mother was a homemaker for several years and later worked for Sears. She retired from there in 1984.”
After the passing of their father in 2001, Stephenson relocated to Moberly, where she has resided until her recent transfer to the hospice care unit at a local hospital. Reflecting on the stories they have listened to their mother share throughout the years, the WAVES veteran’s children are proud of their mother’s service and continue to find pleasure in helping to share her experiences.
“I personally feel that they aren’t accurately teaching the history of World War II any more,” said Romie, “and people need to understand the sacrifices that others—such as my mother and father—have endured for them.”
His older brother, Fred, added, “And it’s not just about those who fought in the war, but they should also learn about how the entire country was united and everyone on the home front gave something, too … through sacrifices such as rationing.” Pausing, he concluded, “These are stories that need to be preserved and shared so that these lessons are never lost.”
Ruth Stephenson passed away on December 22, 2015 and was laid to rest with her husband in the Houston (Texas) National Cemetery.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
The Allied nations prevailed during World War II by working in concert to defeat the tyranny entangling several European and Pacific locations. However, what few people realize, one local veteran affirmed, is that not only did the men and women of the military help the Allies succeed, but there were also contributions made by “man’s best friend.”
Born and raised in the Brazito, Mo., community, Ralph Popp was in his senior year of high school at Eugene when he received his draft notice in January 1945.
“I was 18 years old at the time and didn’t even get to finish high school before they sent me to Camp Hood, Texas, for basic training,” said Popp, 89.
When his boot camp was finished, Popp explained, most of the recruits were immediately sent to fight in overseas locations, but he was instead assigned to a rather unique section of the U.S. Army.
"They put me in the K-9 Corps to train dogs for scouting purposes,” he said. “The only reason I can think that I was even selected for such a thing was when I had been asked about my hobbies, I told them that I was interested in coon hunting and hunting dogs,” he added.
Popp then traveled to Ft. Robinson in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, becoming part of the Army’s War Dog program. The program was born out of an initiative first “intended to train dogs to perform sentry duty for the army along the coast of the United States,” as noted in an article by Dr. Arthur Bergeron, Jr., accessed through the U.S. Army Military History Institute website. As part of the Quartermaster Corps, the program later became the “K-9 Corps” and was expanded to train scouting and patrol dogs, messenger dogs and canines that could detect trip wires, booby traps and mines.
During the months he spent at Ft. Robinson, Popp explained, he was placed in a platoon with more than two dozen soldiers and assigned two dogs that he would train for scouting purposes.
“The primary dogs we trained on the post were Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds,” Popp said. “The dogs I trained were German Shepherds and they were so smart that you could teach them to count the number of fingers you held up by barking,” he grinned.
The former soldier also remarked that the dogs, in anticipation of the invasion of the mainland of Japan, were trained to become “fierce fighting dogs,” and the only ones that could handle them were the individual soldiers to which they were assigned.
“We taught the dogs how to detect people hiding in caves or up in trees,” Popp added. “The time we spent in Nebraska was kind of like a basic training for the dogs.”
In April 1945, his platoon placed their dogs in cages and boarded rail cars bound for Camp Butner, N.C., where they joined the Fourth Division, which had recently returned from combat service in Europe.
“We had to take care of our own dogs the entire time because no one else could handle them,” Popp said, “or else they’d attack.”
While stationed in North Carolina, they continued training in preparation for the invasion until Japan surrendered weeks later, which meant the end of the war and thus heralded the conclusion of the K-9 Corps.
“Everything was dissolved in the K-9 Corps and the dogs were taken somewhere to be ‘deactivated,’ they called it,” said Popp. “I’m not sure what happened to my two dogs but they tried to get all of them back to the original owners because they had only been loaned to the Army by their owners.”
Many of the dogs, the veteran said, were unable be separated from the ferocity that had been ingrained during their training, resulting in them having to be euthanized to avoid any potential dangers they might pose to civilians.
“I had to take part in bringing some of the dogs to a veterinarian—the ones they couldn’t deactivate,” Popp solemnly noted. “That was a very difficult thing for me to have to do.”
With nearly a year remaining in his term of service, the soldier was transferred to Ft. Sill, Okla., where he became a supply sergeant with an artillery battery until receiving his discharge in 1946. He returned to Mid-Missouri, finished earning his high school diploma and, in 1947, married Irma Sommerer, the woman who had patiently awaited his return from the service. Raising one daughter, Lora, the couple was married for 61 years when Irma passed away in 2007. In 1959, the veteran founded Popp’s Lawn and Garden Center in Jefferson City, operating the company for four decades. Though he is now retired, he enjoys spending his free time gardening, working around his farm and supporting Immanuel Lutheran Church at Honey Creek.
His military service, he adds, might not possess the flare and excitement of many of the combat veterans of the Second World War but, he affirms, his is a story that truly represents a unique type of sacrifice made by our canine friends.
“Really, it was a sacrifice for so many citizens to give up their dogs for military service during World War II,” he said. “I know I was very close to my dogs and I miss them as much as anything.” He added, “For many people, I’m sure saying goodbye to their dogs was like saying goodbye to a son heading off to war … not knowing if they would ever return home.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
In October of 1967, only months after receiving his draft notice from the U.S. Army, Lohman, Mo., resident Roger Buchta completed his boot camp and training as a combat medic, and then boarded a plane to apply his newly acquired medical skills in Vietnam. Upon arrival, he was assigned to a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH unit) and given an abrupt introduction to the harsh realities of war, treating various ailments and combat injuries.
When the Christmas season arrived two months later, Buchta witnessed an event that would help breathe some humanity into otherwise deadly conditions.
“It was sometime around Christmas 1967,” recalled Buchta, “and the winds swept in off of the South China Sea and lashed at our rickety tents. I was with the 18th Army Surgical Hospital and we were located in the Quang Tri Province, a small military outpost that was only three miles south of the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam,” he added.
As Buchta explained, it was a slow time for those working in the hospital while the medics and nurses endured the monsoon by tending to the few patients recovering from surgery. When not occupied with other duties, he said, the staff passed the time by “playing cards, drinking coffee and generally enjoying a break from the stress of receiving and preparing causalities for emergency operations.”
The howling of the wind and seemingly incessant splattering of the rain against the sides of the tents was soon interrupted when an older Vietnamese man slowly opened the door to the emergency room, accompanied by a young Vietnamese woman who appeared to be in a great deal of pain.
“We (medical staff) attempted to use our limited Vietnamese vocabulary to figure out the source of her discomfort,” said Buchta, “but it was to no avail. Finally,” he continued, “the man pointed to the lady’s stomach and pretended as if he were rocking a baby— and that’s when we realized she was ready to give birth. (A medical situation, he said, for which the medics were not trained to address.)
A nurse on duty quickly located one of the Army doctors who fortunately happened to be an obstetrician. After examining the patient, the doctor announced that the woman would not only give birth once, but twice.
“The doctor proclaimed, ‘She is going to have twins!’” recalled Buchta.
The doctor’s assessment also revealed that the infants would be premature, which then resulted in the search for an incubator. The MASH unit staff was able to locate one aboard a hospital ship anchored off the coast only a few miles away, but due to the storms ravaging the area, the helicopters needed to deliver the medical equipment were grounded.
The approach of dawn brought with it a small glimmer of hope when the sun began to pierce the clouds. As the harsh weather began to subside, a pilot was located, agreeing to retrieve the incubator from the hospital ship.
“After a brief time, a nurse from the operating room opened the emergency room door and announced the lady was the mother of twin girls,” Buchta smiled. “It was truly a novel experience for us all; after seeing and dealing with death and wounds day after day, this was new life … and, after all, it was Christmastime as well.”
The new mother and her twin daughters were taken to the post-operation area; the twins were healthy enough that the incubator was never required. Through the assistance of an interpreter, the mother asked to see all of the emergency room personnel who cared for her throughout the delivery, informing the staff she would like for them to name her children. Perplexed, the medics wondered what would be appropriate names for the girls when Buchta noticed the mother wearing a necklace with a cross.
“She was Catholic,” Buchta explained, “and I suddenly thought, ‘What about good strong Catholic names: Mary and Martha?’”
When the mother learned of the new names for her children, she was elated, Buchta noted—a joyous experience that served as the capstone event of the young medic’s Christmas celebration of 1967 and the year he spent in Vietnam.
Nearly five decades have passed since the birth of Mary and Martha during the Vietnam War, yet Buchta admits that throughout the intervening years, he has often wondered what became of the two young girls he helped to name.
“The girls were so small I remember holding each one in my hand,” he said. “(The family) disappeared soon after the girls were born; the South Vietnamese military came and took them away. They were probably taken to the civilian hospital a few miles away in Quang Tri,” he added.
In late January 1968, North Vietnamese forces briefly overran Quang Tri and several other cities in what is known as the Tet Offensive—a coordinated effort to collapse the government of the Republic of South Vietnam. Though the enemy forces were quickly repelled, it was a memorable event for Buchta, who remains uncertain as to how the twins were affected.
“Sadly, I have no idea what became of the girls or their family, but being able to experience their birth is one of the better memories I have from my service and was a rather unique situation considering the combat environment to which we were accustomed.”
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.