Central Illinois World War II Stories
Robert Wahlfeldt enlisted in the U.S. Navy in July 1943 and served until May 1946. He served in the South Pacific, China Sea and Tokyo, fighting at Iwo Jima, and in the Okinawa campaign while stationed aboard the destroyer the USS Waldron.
Seventy-five people attended a community conversation October 16, 2007 at the Danville Public Library in Danville, IL featuring stories from eight Danville-area residents. Speaking were John Saint who enlisted in the Air Force in 1942 and was a POW in Germany; Bill Kannapel, who cared for wounded soldiers as a doctor; Helen Montgomery, who served in the Medical and Identification division of the American Women’s Voluntary Service; Charlie Dukes, who was a POW in Germany and Russia; Joe McCormick, who was a translator who worked with the French Underground; Milt Crippin, who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and “Sparky” Songer who was a POW in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. The event was co-sponsored by WILL AM-FM-TV and the Danville Public Library. The panel and audience discussion were moderated by Mary Coffman of the Danville Area Community College. The Danville Public Library has been videotaping oral histories of local residents. Some of those residents, John Sant, Bill Kannapel, Helen Montgomery, Gerald Sooley and Charlie Dukes, share their stories with Mary Coffman, retired humanities professor from Danville Area Community College.
Robert Whitson served in the U.S. Navy, participating in the invasion of Sicily and the Normandy invasion. His worst day was Christmas Day, 1943, in the North Atlantic when he didn’t know if his ship would stay in one piece the next time a wave came. He served on board a cruiser and then a destroyer. He left farming to join the Navy, and went back to farming after he came home.
Ninety people attended a community conversation October 11, 2007 at the Early American Museum in Mahomet, IL featuring three men who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. Speaking were Art Leenerman of Mahomet, Don McCall of Champaign and Earl Riggins of Oakland. They shared detailed accounts of how they survived four and a half days in the water waiting to be rescued while battling sharks, cold and hunger. The event was co-sponsored by WILL AM-FM-TV and the Early American Museum. The panel and audience discussion were moderated by Jack Brighton of WILL.
Freeman was a steward, serving officers in the mess hall on the USS Missouri. But when the enemy struck, he had to man his position on a gun mount and defend the ship. He was on board the USS Missouri when a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashed his plane into the ship very near to where Freeman was standing. He talked with WILL-TV producer Denise La Grassa about the challenges he faced as an African-American onboard ship and about the conflict between his life as Pentecostal pastor before Pearl Harbor and his life as a sailor pledged to defend the country.
Bob Spitze joined the Navy at age 21 after going through ROTC training in college. Soon after going through the Navy training program, he came back home and got married, only to then be shipped off to war. He was aboard an LST, which was a transport ship that often carried military vehicles like tanks and jeeps, or military personnel. Many of these ships were manufactured in Seneca, Ill., where the crews and officers would get aboard and travel down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, out to the ocean. This is exactly what Spitze did. While in the Pacific, he participated in the occupation of both Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two small Japanese islands. At Iwo Jima, Spitze says, he was witness to the great tragedy of the battle, and the final American victory when soldiers raised the American flag. For Spitze, World War II brought attention to the fact that we live in a global community. Now an economics professor at the U of I, he recognizes that the war was a result of certain global and national economic systems that allowed greed and the hunger for power to take hold of both economic markets and governments. But Spitze believes that we can ultimately recognize the importance of our global community and live at peace with one another. He and his wife have been educators ever since World War II, participating in educational efforts, not only in the U.S., but also in European countries during the reconstruction phase that followed the devastation brought about by the war.
USS Indianapolis Survivors Art Leenerman, Mahomet; Don McCall, Champaign; Earl Riggins, Oakland
When the USS Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1945, only 317 of 1,196 men on board survived. Three of those survivors live in central Illinois. They got together with WILL-TV producer Denise La Grassa to talk about how they survived four and a half days in the water waiting to be rescued while battling sharks, cold and hunger. About 600 men died in the water after the ship sank. All three central Illinois survivors were brought up on farms, and were accustomed to hard work, long days in the sun and difficult conditions. They think it was a factor in their survival. “They had grown up learning to keep plowing along, no matter how tough things got. And that’s basically what they did in the water,” said La Grassa.
Margaret Henderson was a senior at Radcliffe when the U.S. Navy became so desperate for communications officers that it recruited several senior girls to train to become cryptologists. German U-boats were disrupting shipping to a great degree so the Navy needed help. Henderson trained for 30 days at Mt. Holyoke and then went to Washington, D.C. where she worked from 1943-45 in Naval Communications Intelligence for the European theater. In her office, Allies read communications in which German U-boat officers were wiring each other their positions, unaware that the Allies had broken their code. One of Henderson’s jobs was to keep track of the U-boats using a big map and pins.
Robert E. Green signed up for the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipman School in June of 1940, the same month he turned 21, and graduated as Ensign, USNR a year later. During the war, he served in the Navy in the Pacific, except for six months during 1943 when he returned stateside to pick up a new ship in New York. In the North Pacific, he served at Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands in 1943. In the South Pacific he took part in the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942 and the Battle of Tarawa in 1943. He earned a Silver Star for his service at Tarawa, and earned four battle stars for his service on his first ship, an APA (attack transport). During the final two years of the war, he was first lieutenant of a floating drydock at Manus Island in the Bismarck Sea, where ships were quickly repaired so that they could return to action.
Sparky Songer served in the infantry in Europe and was captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. He spent six months in German camps before escaping as the war was winding down and finding his way to American lines, thanks to the help of an English-speaking German guard who was a graduate of the University of Michigan. Songer talks to WILL-TV producer Denise La Grassa about his escape and his experiences in the German camps, where he subsisted almost almost entirely on rutabaga soup. He weighed under 100 pounds when he reached safety. Songer is curator and president of the Vermilion County War Museum.
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