The May 20, 1938 edition of the Coe College newspaper, the Cosmos, included the latest installment of ‘We’re Asking,’ a feature in which a series of students at the Iowa school were asked a question and their responses duly catalogued by the correspondent.
The question for that edition was, “If you could be someone else, whom would you choose to be?”
Several of the 18 responses featured the expected celebrity answers, and a couple of young ladies said they were happy just being themselves. Among the whimsical musings, the answer provided by sophomore Wayne Hockett stands out: “Mussolini. He has a lotta power and can do as he pleases.”
Even if it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, the answer is chilling to look back on through the eyes of history. For less than six years later, Hockett would meet his fate in the Italian dictator’s country, likely within a few miles of a canal that bore Mussolini’s name.
Wayne Hockett Jr. was born in Montana as the Great War came to a close, the only child of Wayne and Nettie Hockett. The family would move from Havre to Wayne Sr.’s home state of Iowa before the boy reached school age, and he would grow up in the riverside town of Fort Madison, where his father owned a barbershop.
It appears likely that Wayne Jr. was a go-getter from an early age. A 1930 newspaper account lists him among the local youths honored at a scouting camp. And once he arrives at Coe later in the decade, he dives into seemingly every possible extracurricular opportunity.
Among other pursuits at the Cedar Rapids college, Hockett acted in a few plays; was a member of the intercollegiate tennis and football teams; served on the student council; was president of both his fraternity, Chi Beta Phi, and the school’s Intra-Fraternity Council; and served separate stints as the business manager of both the school newspaper and yearbook.
The commerce and finance major also was appointed a company captain in the ROTC, getting his first taste of military leadership.
Early in Hockett’s time at Coe, one of his fraternity brothers set him up with a fellow student, Margaret Victorine. A local girl from Cedar Rapids, she was a zoology major who participated in Coe’s orchestra and choir. By the time their senior year rolled around in the fall of 1939, the pair had married.
They were among 94 graduates in Coe’s Class of 1940, and immediately transitioned into the workforce. According to a later newspaper account, Hockett operated a credit bureau in the town of Sheldon, in the far northwest corner of Iowa, while also serving as the youngest justice of the peace in the state.
It wasn’t long before the landscape shifted, however. In June 1942, Hockett joined the Army, and by the following April he was headed overseas as a member of the 82nd Airborne’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
The 504th initially staged in North Africa but was limited to training exercises in that theater as a bigger prize loomed: the invasion of Sicily, followed by mainland Italy. That quest began in July 1943 with Operation Husky, which saw the paratroopers jump into Sicily and play a leading role as Allied forces secured the island within days.
That triumph set the stage for the jump to Italy in September as Salerno, where 2nd Lt. Hockett and the rest of the 2nd Battalion parachuted into the fight and eventually became the first Allied infantry regiment to enter Naples a few weeks later.
In early January, the 504th was earmarked to take part in Operation Shingle, the landing south of Rome at Anzio. The January 22 invasion went off with barely a hitch, as the Allied forces met no German resistance on the beachhead after achieving complete surprise in their attack. According to an official history, there were fewer than 200 killed, wounded and missing among the 36,000 troops who went ashore on Day 1. But getting off the beachhead proved more difficult than anyone could have imagined on that day.
As the Germans rushed troops toward the coast in an attempt to contain the invaders, the Allies tried to break out. Progress was slow, however, and came at an increasingly heavy cost.
On January 25, 2nd Battalion was ordered to take Borgo Piave, a town alongside the Mussolini Canal. Hockett’s D Company would lead the way, stepping off at 1:30 p.m., but the operation seemed doomed from the beginning.
According to an account by Frank Van Lunteren in Spearhead of the Fifth Army, a history of the 504th in Italy, an accompanying artillery barrage couldn’t get synced up with the infantry’s movements and eventually had to be called off. That left to the ground troops exposed and quickly saw them pinned down.
On the move again a few hours later, D Company eventually encountered four German tanks and called for support, as it lacked heavy weapons — even bazookas. The company’s 3rd Platoon eventually was surrounded on the outskirts of Borgo Piave, unable to mount a challenge to German tanks and half-tracks, and numerous soldiers were wounded, captured or killed as D Company paid a heavy price for an objective it failed to meet.
Among those who fell that day was 3rd Platoon’s commander, 2nd Lt. Wayne Hockett Jr., who was cut down by 20mm flak guns mounted on a German half-track.
Hockett was officially declared missing, as the War Department communicated to his family in late March. A week later, Hockett was listed as killed in action, though his body has never been recovered.
His name is carved on the tablets of the missing at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, not far from where the 504th came ashore in the Anzio operation.
Only 25 years old, the aspiring businessman from Iowa was awarded a Bronze Star and Silver Star.