For the first half of 1944, World War II was on every Lodian’s mind.
The war was in full swing, with months to go until D-Day. Giant headlines at the top of the front page each day blared the news of air strikes in France, Army pushes into Italy, and naval warfare in the Pacific.
But it was a little more local than usual on Jan. 3, the day after a B-17 Flying Fortress crashed while attempting to land at McClellan Field in Sacramento. It slammed into the runway during landing, scattering wreckage over a 15-mile area and killing all but one of its 14 crew members.
The lone survivor was Maj. James W. Wergen of Arizona, who parachuted from the burning war plane but told reporters he could not remember pulling the ripcord of his chute.
Two days later, the News-Sentinel reported the death of Eldon Baumbach. The Marine, a former Lodi resident who was serving alongside his cousin Oliver, was killed in action during a landing at Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. Oliver Baumbach, whose parents still lived in Lodi, was unharmed.
And on Jan. 8, Ensign Frank Everts Mills was killed in the line of duty, though details were sparse.
Another Flying Fortress crash outside Las Vegas was less deadly than the Sacramento wreck, the same edition reported. Staff Sgt. Melbourn Ellsworth Angier, whose parents were ranchers in the Live Oak district, and 10 fellow crewmembers survived, though all spent more than 24 hours fighting the elements and had to be treated for exposure.
While the big battles and devastating losses of local residents got the largest headlines, chatty updates on Lodi men and women serving overseas were a regular feature on the front page, along with news about efforts on the homefront.
A story on Feb. 4 reported that Lodi had raised more than $1.5 million in a bond campaign. The show “Bonds Away,” an Army performance that would visit Lodi, was sold out, the same story reported. Anyone who had purchased tickets to support the bond drive but who didn’t plan to attend the show was asked to return them, so that those on the waiting list to see the performance could buy them.
(An amusing story on the same page warned sweethearts of those overseas that, after Valentine’s Day, any V-Mail that bore lipstick imprints would be sent by cargo ship rather than by air.)
In some cases, local residents pushed their way into national and international stories. Even though Lodi’s citizens of Japanese descent had been evacuated to internment camps, they faced suspicion and outright hostility from local residents.
Such was the case when the Lafayette Farm Bureau voted on Feb. 20 to ask the state to seize land owned by Japanese-Americans and sell it to veterans at a discount after the war’s end.
In another incident, a young woman gave a speech to the Lions Club of Lodi advocating that Japanese-American citizens be assimilated or deported. The News-Sentinel summarized her argument on March 2: “Because the Japanese have not been assimilated completely, they are naturally easily recognized ... so after Pearl Harbor, the only solution seemed to be evacuation.”
The young woman went on to discuss the internment camps, noting that inmates had created councils, police departments, newspapers and stores within each camp.
“You must all realize the enormity of the Japanese problem,” the paper quoted her as telling the Lions. “Don’t be like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and only observe the outward appearance of the problem. It is more than skin deep.”
Despite those sentiments, James H. Jurata, “Mauch” Yamashita and other Japanese-Americans from Lodi were serving in Italy and France as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — an almost entirely Nisei Army unit that became the most decorated in U.S. military history.
“During combat situations, we were usually living outdoors, sleeping outdoors in sleeping bags ...” Kurata told Discover Nikkei for the site’s Japanese American Military Experience Database. “Fear that I may not return alive was foremost during my assignment as forward observer with a infantry company during combat.”
A number of the members of the 442nd served while their families were held in interment camps.
And in May, Sam Funamura returned to Lodi after obtaining a special permit from the War Relocation Authority and Western Defense Command. While he had been employed as a machinist in Chicago, he was returning as a former member of the California State Guard to gain permission to enlist in the Army — the fifth in his family to do so.
“Funamura’s experiences, in part, are typical of those of the nearly 2,000 who left the northern San Joaquin area,” the News-Sentinel reported on May 2. “Funamura had aided the government ... as an interpreter and assistant to the War Relocation Authority.”
He gained permission in 1943, along with other Japanese-Americans, to leave the Rohwer camp in Arkansas and find a job. About 10,000 former Californians of Japanese descent were employed in Chicago, he told the Lodi paper.
The Californians and Chicagoans were mistrustful of each other at first, Funamura said, but by May were getting along very well and had accepted one another.
As Lodians read headline after headline from Italy, Belgium, New Guinea and Palau, some of those distant locales carried news of local men and women.
On March 25, the News-Sentinel shared sad news — along with a hint that an end to the war might someday soon be in sight.
Sgt. Glenn Happe, a Lodi High football star-turned-Marine, had gone missing in action on Nov. 30, 1943. His mother received word that he had been killed in action.
The news of Happe’s death was overshadowed only by a blaring headline: “Invasion ‘Zero Hour’ Nearing.” Though Lodians reading that Saturday newspaper couldn’t have known, in just a little more than two months the Allies would be storming French beaches in a massive push to drive the Nazis back.
Happe’s family weren’t the only ones left in limbo for months, hoping against hope that their loved one would be found alive.
On April 11, the mother of Lt. Jack Hargis told the News-Sentinel that she was holding out hope he was in a prison camp. Hargis’ Flying Fortress failed over northern France.
Hargis stayed at the controls during the Aug. 17, 1943 disaster, while the rest of his crew leapt to safety. The last to jump was his co-pilot, who said Hargis had pushed him out of the plane.
The co-pilot, named only as Smith, landed in a beet field in Belgium and was smuggled out of the country by the underground. Hargis’ family hoped they would receive word he too had been rescued.
Eight months after his disappearance, his family was still wondering and hoping.
On May 25, his family’s hopes were dashed. Hargis had died when his parachute failed to open, the War Department told his family.
Word that a child had been taken prisoner was no guarantee of their safety. On April 26, the News-Sentinel reported that Lodi native Pfc. Melvin E. Binder of the U.S. Marine Corps had died of pneumonia in a Japanese prison camp. His four brothers and two of his brothers-in-law were still serving.
Other losses in the first part of 1944:
- Cpl. Ervin R. Glantz of Lodi was reported missing on March 31, 1943 in action in Tunisia. In May 1944, his parents received notice that he would be considered officially dead.
- 2nd Lt. Ernest G. Nolte Jr. of Fresno, husband of Lodi native Kathryn Macdonald Nolte, was killed in Italy on April 5, 1944. He was the pilot of a B-34 Liberator bomber.
- Cpl. George C. Wheelock Jr., who lived in New Mexico but was born in Lodi, was killed April 19 in the India-Burma theater of war. He was a member of the First Air Commando Forces.
- Lt. William Bigelow, a Stockton native with close family in Lodi, was killed in a plane crash in Iceland on May 7.
- Lt. Joseph R. Patton of Lodi was reported missing in the Pacific Theater on April 30. As of May 20, his family had received no further word on the pilot.
On May 13, wire news services reported that the Fifth and Eighth Armies were beginning a massive artillery push into Italy. After weeks of speculation at home and overseas about a major Allied invasion into Europe, the Germans seemed convinced D-Day was upon them.
“German broadcasts, bordering on hysteria, said ‘this is D-Day.’ A Nazi-inspired Radio Paris commentator said ‘the invasion might take place tomorrow,’” the front page read.
Some Germans were speculating that the western Italy attack was a distraction prior to a beach landing near Anzio, the News-Sentinel reported.
They weren’t far off. In just weeks, the Allies would land on beaches in Normandy in the north of France — the real D-Day invasion.
And the Italian push was no mere feint, either.
By May 20, American and French forces had broken through the “Hitler Line” from the Liri River to the sea.
On May 26, wire services were reporting that Allied forces from the Anzio beachhead had met with armies from Terracina and were headed to Rome with the Axis forces on the run before them.
On June 5 — just a day before all hell would break loose for the Nazis — Rome fell to the Allies.
To be continued.