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.
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.
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.
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.”
Wayne Fleck’s 1942 yearbook photo
For Wayne Fleck and the rest of the seniors in Carlisle High School’s Class of 1942, there was no carefree transition from youth to adulthood. The United States’ entry into the war in the midst of their senior year put on hold everyone’s notions of what the future might bring.
However abstract a concept the global war might have seemed to that group of Pennsylvania teenagers before, the reality that their lives could be directly affected by it began to hit home as Americans mobilized to play their part.
At some point in his senior year, young Wayne composed a poem encapsulating his hopes for the world in such turbulent times. It was reprinted in The Evening News of Harrisburg in March 1945, when it seemed increasingly likely peace would soon be at hand. Just a few months too late for the poem’s author.
The first priority of the American troops landing at Omaha and Utah beaches on D-Day was to establish a foothold on the continent, which they were able to do by sundown on June 6, 1944. The second was to secure a port, Cherbourg, to facilitate the unending influx of men and materiel needed to end the war in Europe once and for all.
John D. Kelly
The 79th Infantry Division missed D-Day, having arrived in England only two months earlier, but it had a key role to play in the drive to secure the capstone of the Cotentin Peninsula. After landing at Omaha Beach on June 14 (D+8), the 79th drove west and turned north toward Cherbourg in company with the 4th and 9th Divisions.
Among the men in the 314th Regiment of the 79th was a former logger from northwestern Pennsylvania, Cpl. John D. Kelly. The 23-year-old’s courage was to play a critical role in sealing off a port the Allies considered crucial to their invasion strategy.
The aspect of World War II that contributes the most to the endless well of stories about the conflict that is part of this site’s reason for being is its universality. Regular people, from all walks of life, from nearly every corner of the earth, were pushed to the limits of human tolerance during every one of the 2,194 days of the war. Today we spotlight the epitome of such an everyman.
Deane O. Birckelbaw
Pvt. Deane O. Birckelbaw was born and raised in the area around Normal, Illinois, and never lived anywhere else until the war pulled him away for good. He graduated from Normal Community High School and what was then called Illinois State Normal University, a music major who played the trombone.
Viewed from decades later, nothing in his background suggests an inclination toward military service. But then, there were no such prerequisites as the United States found itself embroiled in a conflict whose scope reached far beyond anything it had experienced before.
More than half of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II were recognized posthumously. Today we look at brief sketches of three men who died on November 19 — one in 1943, two in 1944 — while bringing honor to themselves and their country.
Capt. John P. Cromwell, Navy
Capt. John P. Cromwell
The 42-year-old Illinois native was in charge of a wolf pack of four submarines in the Pacific and was aboard the U.S.S. Sculpin on November 19, 1943, when she was fatally wounded in an engagement with the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo. Due to damage caused by depth charges, the Sculpin had to surface and was finished off by the destroyer’s guns.
As the rest of the crew abandoned ship, Cromwell and 11 others remained aboard and scuttled the vessel. Cromwell was afraid his knowledge of Ultra — the allied success in breaking German codes — and other key plans might be extracted from him under torture, so he chose to go down with the ship.
Cromwell’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of a Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the U.S.S. Sculpin, during the 9th War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, Capt. Cromwell, alone of the entire Task Group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled Fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold at Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing an opportunity for the crew to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission, at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
For tens of thousands of soldiers, World War II consisted of a seemingly endless series of bridges that needed to be crossed to get to a small European crossroads that needed to be taken.
Too small to appear on those maps printed back home in newspapers, so neatly adorned with miniature flags and dramatic arrows, these villages played host to engagements that didn’t seem to matter much in the grand scheme of a global conflict but nonetheless were part of the everyday duties of the grunts charged with handling the task.
Han-sur-Nied was one of those places, and on November 11, 1944, 1st Lt. Vernon L. Edwards was one of the men who would bear its burden.