By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
Of the millions of World War II deaths, 3,626 were Nebraska natives. Of those, 114 had ties to Buffalo County. Historian Mark R. Ellis of the University of Nebraska at Kearney researched their stories and the impact of their deaths on the community. Buffalo County’s casualty ratio was typical of the state as a whole “and thus can be used as a case study to understand how Nebraska communities sacrificed and suffered” during the war, Ellis writes. His article is featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Nebraska History Magazine, published by History Nebraska.
The county’s first casualty was Warren Jones. He was supposed to be discharged from the navy in 1941, but with heightened concern over the uncertainty with Japan, all discharges were suspended. Sadly, he never saw his wife and seven-month-old child again as Jones was one of the 1,177 killed in the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Jones’s death was the beginning of a long line of losses. The rate of casualties grew toward the end of the war. Between July 1944 and May 1945, rarely a week passed without reports of men missing in action (MIA) or killed in action (KIA). They were all between the age of 17 (like Richard Osborne, a high school junior drop-out) and 52 years old (like Lt. Joe Fitzgerald, a WWI veteran). They were students, family men, community members, laborers, and professionals: American men who had lives beyond a war that, for some, they would never escape. Their deaths shook communities.
Many of the Buffalo County casualties were Kearney High School alumni, so the school often held services to commemorate those who passed. In the first services, students would gather in the auditorium and sing “God Bless America.” They also played “Taps” and planted trees adorned with plaques engraved with the men’s names. As the local deaths grew, more services were held consisting of speeches, performances by the local airfield’s color guard, sermons, and the reading of the honor roll.
For some families, the loss was greater than a single individual. The county had three sets of brothers killed within a short period. Clinton and Leo Krotz, for example, were both infantrymen and were killed in 1944 only three months apart. To commemorate them, a legion post in Pleasanton was renamed the Leo and Clinton Krotz Post. While not every tragedy resulted in the renaming of a building, many earned posthumous awards for “heroic acts that contributed to their death.”
Breaking down the 114 deaths, 78 were in the army, with 44 killed in the air war (the Air Force was not yet a separate branch of service); 18 died due to causes unrelated to combat, 11 were sailors; and six were marines.
The 44 air war deaths consisted of pilots, copilots, gunners, navigators, and engineers. One of those many was James Houtchens, a 1943 graduate of Kearney High who immediately joined the Army Air Force. He flew a total of 29 missions before his bomber, the Wee Willie, was shot down. A photo taken by another B-17 crew showed the Wee Willie’s left wing ripped from the fuselage; it has since become one of the most iconic photos from air war. Originally, Houtchens was pronounced MIA, but after witnesses said they didn’t see any parachutes, he was then believed to have been KIA.
During the war, 48 Buffalo County airmen and sailors were listed as “missing in action.” Ten of these were lucky to return home while 37 others were pronounced “killed in action.” George Cowdrey was one who returned home. The War Department had initially contacted his parents in 1944, explaining to them that he was MIA but would be declared KIA. Devastated, his parents put together a funeral in Elm Creek; Ellis writes that it was “highly attended.” However, days later, his parents received a telegram stating that their son was actually alive and well. Cowdrey was given furlough and was sent home before being redeployed to USS Boise. Unfortunately, he died in service ten months later.
Initially, families were unable to prepare a proper burial for their loved one(s) and held memorials in cemeteries without the presence of a body. In some cases, the individuals could not be recovered. In others, the remains could be saved, but were buried either in one of the 25 U.S. military cemeteries, or in a cemetery overseas. Not until 1946, when the “Return of the Dead” program was established, were families able to bury their loved ones in the United States. Between 1947 and 1949, 15 men were delivered back to Buffalo County.
In other scenarios, recovery was not viable at all. Brave men like Warren Jones and Neal Redford were “presumably entombed on USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.” Tragically, Clarence Strand was another local man who died on board a prisoner of war ship. Since its sinking, Strand has remained buried in the sea among his Japanese captors.
While casualties are often reported simply as numbers, Ellis shows the impact and importance of the individuals. They were people who had family and friends back home and their deaths heavily affected the lives of many. Ellis goes on to explain the emotional ties he felt toward his research, and that although the essay only covers a “tiny fraction” of all the U.S. casualties, it can be used to further “explore the meaning and significance of World War II casualties” throughout the nation.
Top: Lt. Willard Sharkey, a pilot in the Army Air Corps and 1939 NSTC (Nebraska State Teacher’s College), as missing in action in January of 1944 and later was declared dead in April of that same year.
Middle: The “Wee Willie,” piloted by Corporal James Houtchens, was photographed after a “direct hit during a raid over Germany,” which sent the plane “spiraling to the ground.”
Left: (As shown left to right.) Merle and William Aunspaugh, both Army Air Corps pilots, were one of the three sets of brothers (not mentioned in post) with ties to Buffalo County. “Williams battled-damaged B-17, ‘My Day,’ crashed into the English Channel while trying to make it back to base. On March 6th, 1945, Merle crash-landed his P-51 Mustang on an English airfield.”
The entire article can be found in the Fall 2020 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.