Charley Havlat, the last American killed in combat in Europe

On Nov. 12, 1903, the S.S. Pennsylvania sailed into New York harbor, completing a two-week journey from Hamburg.

Charley Havlat headshot ABMC

Pfc. Charley Havlat (ABMC photo)

Among the passengers arriving in the United States that day were the Havlat family, from Ronov nad Doubravou in Bohemia. Ten Havlats in all are shown on the manifest, including 23-year-old Anton Havlat Jr., whose father and namesake was the patriarch of the group.

They told immigration officials they were headed to Nebraska, where they had family near Omaha, and so began an American saga that would see one of their own killed in his ancestral homeland in the final minutes of a cataclysm that touched all of Europe.

This is the story of Pfc. Charley Havlat, the Nebraska-born son of immigrants who became the last American combat casualty in Europe during World War II on the soil his parents had left decades earlier. Continue reading

Robert M. Losey, the first U.S. serviceman killed in World War II

As the U.S. space program blossomed in the 1960s, NASA officials settled on a certain profile as they screened astronaut candidates.

First and foremost, they needed elite pilots — those who had proven in combat or in testing new aircraft that they could handle any scenario that might arise miles above the earth. But they also preferred men whose aviation skills came with strong scientific underpinnings, ideally including advanced academic degrees.

Losey pilot headshotHad he been born a quarter-century later, Robert M. Losey might have had a resume that stacked up well against any of the men who became household names to future generations.

A West Point graduate who later earned two master’s degrees from Caltech, Losey was clearly on the fast track in the Army Air Corps as the political situation in Europe deteriorated in the late 1930s. Already under the wing of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold as a staffer in Washington, Losey seemed destined to play a critical role in the inevitable conflict over the horizon.

If given a chance, we might know his name decades later for his impact on the war, rather than the historical footnote he became: the first American service member killed in World War II.

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Elmer Gedeon, a big leaguer who sacrificed everything

Editor’s note: I originally wrote this story as a Memorial Day piece for The Washington Times in 2014.

As flames filled his B-26 Marauder over northern France, 1st Lt. James Taaffe scrambled through the bailout checklist.The bomber had taken a direct hit from German flak under the pilot’s compartment, and flames enveloped the aircraft from that point back, rendering the bomb bay doors useless as an escape route.

Capt. Elmer Gedeon fought to keep the plane aloft. It had just dropped its payload on a German V-1 rocket site from about 12,000 feet but had not cleared the target area — and its accompanying anti-aircraft defenses — by the moment of impact. It was around 7:30 p.m. on April 20, 1944.

Taaffe reached to open the escape hatches above the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats. Below, he could see his bombardier, Pvt. Charles Atkinson, clawing toward the pilot’s compartment from his station in the nose of the plane. The navigator-bombardier, 2nd Lt. Jack Marsh, was close behind. Taaffe couldn’t see the other three members of the crew, whose stations were to the rear of the plane: Staff Sgt. Joseph Kobret, the tail gunner; Sgt. John Felker, the engineer and top turret gunner; and Sgt. Ira Thomas, the radio operator and waist gunner.

Watching from a neighboring plane, 2nd Lt. Herschel Lockett estimated that Gedeon’s Marauder managed to hold course for only five seconds or so after taking the hit before peeling toward the ground. It was time for the crew to escape.

Glancing to his left, Taaffe saw Gedeon still conscious and at the controls. The hatch above his head open, Taaffe jumped clear of the plane and blacked out. He came to several seconds later, suspended by parachute, floating through the air.

“I recovered consciousness about 7,000 feet later and before I landed, saw the plane spin by me and go in,” Taaffe said in an Army Air Forces report completed after the war. “Was engaged with small arms fire and wounds until captured and saw no other chutes.”

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Lyle J. Deffenbaugh fell just short of Rome after heroism in Africa and Italy

On May 29, 1944, the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations issued a two-page press release touting the leadership of Lt. Col. Lyle J. Deffenbaugh of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the critical role he played in the fight for Mount Porchia, Italy, some months earlier.

In the narrative, which was sent to about a dozen newspapers, Maj. Robert W. Kane describes how Deffenbaugh went four days and nights without sleep as he personally led the drive to take the cold, windswept peak in early January 1944.

Lt. Col. Lyle J. Deffenbaugh

“On the night of January 4 our battalion was to make a night attack in conjunction with another Armored Infantry battalion against Mount Porchia,” Kane recounted. “Lt. Col. Deffenbaugh left me to take charge of the battalion command post so that he himself could go along with the assault companies because he said it was going to be one of the toughest battles we had ever had — and he wanted to be in it.”

Kane went on, describing how he had received reports of Deffenbaugh fighting his way to the departure line for the assault, then continuously moving from company to company providing encouragement over the coming days, all while under heavy German fire.

“I was at the battalion command post, and as the wounded were brought to the aid station, I asked many of them how it was and if they figured we would be able to get to the objective,” Kane continued. “Their answers were always about the same, ‘It is a tough battle, but we will get there because the Old Man is right up there with us.”

The press release describing Deffenbaugh’s heroics in Italy was exactly the kind of story the War Department loved to tell to everyone back home. A classic in the “local boy makes good” genre that undoubtedly led to a swelling of pride among Deffenbaugh’s family and friends in Iowa.

This particular bit of PR, though, came with a sad twist. Two weeks later, those same family and friends would learn that Lt. Col. Lyle J. Deffenbaugh had been killed in action in Italy on May 28, a day before the release was sent out.

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Hoyle Smith was on the front lines of the Navy’s response to Pearl Harbor

On January 7, 1942, one month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey was presented with a proposal for the U.S. Navy’s first significant offensive operation in the Pacific.

Halsey’s flagship, the carrier USS Enterprise, would team with Yorktown to strike the Japanese-held Marshall Islands and Gilbert Islands, while Lexington would hit Wake Island. Enterprise‘s aircraft would launch their raid about three weeks later, on February 1, and ultimately would succeed in demonstrating the damage the Navy’s carrier-based forces could do.


Hoyle Smith

Enterprise‘s aircraft would be credited with destroying a dozen Japanese planes while sinking three ships and damaging eight others in raids around the northern Marshall Islands that morning. With her own planes recovered, Enterprise set a course back toward Hawaii at high speed after spending hours within the reach of enemy airfields.

Before she could get out of range, though, the Japanese managed a strike of their own with five twin-engine bombers. None of them managed to score a direct hit on the mighty carrier, but one bomb detonated close enough to kill Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Hoyle Smith.

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Wayne Hockett Jr., an aspiring Iowa businessman cut down near Anzio

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?”


Wayne Hockett Jr.

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.

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Vernon L. Bensley, a South Dakota kid who just missed his 21st birthday

From an early age, Vernon Lyle Bensley could be counted on to excel.

Perhaps it was his status as the second-youngest of Joseph and Anna Bensley’s eight children that helped him find whatever drive it took to stand out among the crowd. Whatever the case, evidence is dotted along the path of his all-too-short life that he was someone who could be counted upon to get things done.

The first evidence we see of young Vernon’s drive begins at age 10. He is living in tiny Iroquois, South Dakota, with his parents and his siblings who have not yet moved on to homes of their own.


S/Sgt. Vernon L. Bensley

One of the area papers, the Evening Huronite, sponsors a regular contest in which children who color in the paper’s comic strips can win a ticket to the Huron Theatre. Vernon is one of the winners announced in the August 9, 1934, edition, and that’s only the beginning. For the next few years, his name appears regularly among those whose “neat” and “attractive” coloring efforts earn them a free movie.

By 1938, at age 14, Vernon is inducted into the Busy Cub 4-H Club of Iroquois, and that same year he is elected freshman class secretary and treasurer at Iroquois High School. He remains involved in a variety of activities throughout high school and as a senior in November 1941 he takes first place in the school oratory competition, giving him the opportunity to advance to the district-level competition.

A kid like that in November 1941 would have been well aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. But sitting in a classroom in Iroquois every day — a little over 100 miles from Sioux Falls, a little under 300 miles from Minneapolis — it’s hard to believe the youngest of the four Bensley boys could have imagined what awaited him once the dominoes started falling the following month.

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Max Schwitzgold, a candy store owner murdered at Malmedy

The men of Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion wore uniforms, carried rifles and had been in combat zones, but they were not what anyone would consider frontline troops.


T/5 Max Schwitzgold

Their job was what their name implies, providing support to American artillery. Lightly armed and unaccustomed to waging war on their own, they knew they had no recourse when they were surprised by an elite German unit a day into what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.

So they surrendered, and what happened next would become one of the darkest tales in the annals of the Second World War. Waffen-SS troops of the notorious Kampfgruppe Peiper opened up with vehicle-mounted automatic weapons and gunned down dozens of Americans who were standing in a muddy field at a crossroads near Malmedy, Belgium, with their hands in the air.

Dozens of American prisoners were massacred that day, among them a 34-year-old who ran a confectionery shop and luncheonette in Wilmington, Delaware, T/5 Max Schwitzgold.

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Henry T. Waskow and the tribute that made him famous

By the end of 1943, Ernie Pyle’s dispatches had become the indispensable lens through which Americans on the home front viewed their war. Though he was twice as old as many of the men whose toils he chronicled, Pyle’s humble, in-the-trenches approach endeared him to four-stars and grunts alike. All it took was a glance at a couple of his columns, though, to see that the latter mattered far more to him.


Capt. Henry T. Waskow

If World War II was everyman’s conflict, no one did a better job of telling that amorphous character’s story than Pyle. And no single piece drove home the theme of Pyle’s work than his masterfully crafted tribute to a 25-year-old who died on a nameless ridge in Italy on December 14, 1943.

“In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them,” Pyle’s story began. “But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.”

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‘Father Al’ stood aside to save shipmates as the USS Oklahoma met its fate

Unlike the hundreds of other men aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma as the clock neared 8 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Lt. (j.g.) Aloysius Schmitt might reasonably have thought the bulk of his work for the day was already done.


Lt. (j.g.) Aloysius H. Schmitt (U.S. Navy photo)

The Catholic chaplain had said Mass at 7 a.m. and was hearing confessions aboard the battleship he had called home since early 1940. The Oklahoma was moored at berth F-5 at Pearl Harbor, outboard of the U.S.S. Maryland on the south side of Ford Island — Battleship Row, they called it.

At about 7:55 a.m., Japanese dive bombers zoomed low over the harbor, first targeting American planes on the ground at Ford Island and elsewhere in the vicinity. Minutes later, the first torpedoes were in the water, and Battleship Row was under attack.

The incident was over within two hours, the Japanese planes on their way back to rendezvous with their carriers at sea. They left behind a horrorscape of destruction centered on two battleships, the Arizona and Oklahoma. Of the 2,403 people killed that morning — the first official American combat deaths of World War II — just over two-thirds were aboard those two ships.

Among them was the man known to his shipmates as “Father Al,” who spent his final minutes ensuring others had a chance to escape the Oklahoma as he put his own fate in the hands of God.

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