Lloyd Everett Sommers.
Born 26 April 1922 in Metamora, Illinois.
Died 20 December 2011 in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Requiescat in pace.
Last Tuesday would have been your hundredth birthday, Dad, though you did not live to see it.
You were the fourth of five children. There was Edward first, then Mabel, then Stanley, you, and Franklin. When you were ten, your family moved to Knoxville, Illinois. With two thousand people, Knoxville was a metropolis. Dahinda, where you formerly lived, was just a bend in the road, a place where you and your brothers ran wild in the woods.
By the time you graduated from Knoxville High School in 1940, you had acquired a sweetheart, Barbara Bantz LaFollette, a classmate.
But Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo had other plans for you.
The Lowering Front
Though America’s policies were isolationist, everybody knew war was coming. In September 1940 Congress passed the first-ever peacetime draft. Top generals wrestled with the mere logistics of swiftly building a large Army. National Guard units would play a key role.
In April 1941, you enlisted in the 33rd Division, Illinois National Guard—a unit that had already been called into federal service. You took part in a huge war game called the Louisiana Maneuvers, the Army’s way of testing and validating its rapidly growing force.
On 7 December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Your regiment, the 132nd Infantry, was rushed to the East Coast, assigned to guard bridges and power plants against possible attack by saboteurs. Being at war with Japan meant the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, who were thought to have sleeper agents in America.
Things were being done in a crashing hurry, thrown together on the fly. In mid-January 1942, you got new orders. The 132nd Infantry Regiment was removed from the 33rd Division and shipped to New York as a free-standing regiment. At the Brooklyn Army Terminal you boarded USS John Ericsson, a troopship. In pre-dawn darkness on 23 January, you and 17,000 new friends slipped out of the harbor on Ericsson and seven other ships.
The eight-ship flotilla was designated Task Force 6814. Its vessels hosted a collection of miscellaneous units, including the 132nd. It was imperative to get under way quickly.
Your ship, the John Ericsson, had been the Swedish American Line’s flagship, MS Kungsholm, until 12 December. As she sailed out of New York harbor, shipfitters and carpenters were busy tearing out the Kungsholm’s luxury accommodations for 1428 passengers, replacing them with plywood bulkheads and tiers of pipe bunks to accommodate five thousand troops.
Once under way—expecting to cross the Atlantic, your duffels stuffed with heavy coats and winter gear—the task force turned right and sailed southward instead. You steamed through the Panama Canal and took a zigzag course, to confuse the enemy, across the Pacific. Resources on board were strained. The water ration was reduced to one canteen a day.
Task Force 6814 arrived in Melbourne on 26 February 1942. Disembarking the crowded, stinking ship, you encountered Aussie troops in turned-up hats, wheeling a squadron of horse-drawn buckboards into place to receive you and take you to your temporary camp.
After a week of Australian hospitality you got back on the boat and sailed to New Caledonia, arriving at Noumea 12 March. The 250-mile long, cigar-shaped island, 800 miles east of Australia, was a French possession. Its loyalty was an open question: Would New Caledonia be governed by the Nazi puppets of Vichy, France, or by General DeGaulle’s government-in-exile operating from London?
An Allied force on the island could decide the issue. Hence the rush to throw Task Force 6814 across the Pacific. It was hoped New Caledonia and nearby islands would prove a stumbling block to the Japanese march across the Southwest Pacific.
Once landed at Noumea, the units of Task Force 6814 were eformed into a division, called Americal (AMERIcans in New CALedonia), commanded by Major General Alexander M. Patch. After several months spent securing and defending the French island, the Americal was relieved by other units and started reorganizing itself to prepare for combat in the forward area.
Into the Fight
In October through December, the Americal landed on the contested island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Its mission was to reinforce the Marine units which had invaded the island back in August. The 132nd was the last of three Americal infantry regiments to arrive on the island. It was given the task of capturing Mount Austen, also known as Hill 27, a high point of land from which the Japanese could see and shell the U.S. landing strip at Henderson Field.
This moment, in December 1942, may have been your greatest exposure to combat. We’ll never know, because you didn’t talk about it, except in very general terms. I know that you were a Signal Corps sergeant, part of regimental headquarters, and thus spent a lot of your time repairing and operating radios at headquarters. You admitted, however, having gone on some combat patrols, lugging a heavy backpack-mounted radio set.
“I saw dead bodies,” you told me. “Some of them were guys I had known.”
The danger that seems to have stuck in your mind was when a Japanese “Betty” bomber, performing one of those solitary overflights collectively referred to as “Washing Machine Charlie” raids, buzzed your tent area near Henderson field and loosed a stick of bombs.
He must have been flying low. “The nose gunner was so close I could have reached out and shaken his hand,” you said. You were all tangled up in sleeping bag and mosquito netting, trying to find your helmet. One of the bombs landed quite near, but it burrowed underground before detonating, so the explosive force was dissipated.
After Guadalcanal was secured in late winter, the Americal was withdrawn and sent to Fiji for rest and refitting, arriving there in March 1943. You remembered Fiji as a wonderful place, full of great, friendly people. Possibly because they were not shooting at you.
The division went back into action December 1943 at Bougainville, an island in the Northern Solomons. The Americal spent most of 1944 pushing back stubborn Japanese defenders on this large island. In September 1944, however, your time was up. You rotated back to the States.
During your two and a half years in the Southwest Pacific, you had learned of the deaths of two brothers: Stanley, flying a B-17 in the Pacific, and Franklin, in a B-26 over France. “Other guys lost family members, too,” you said. “There was nobody to talk to about it. You just had to suck it up and keep going.”
The first thing you did on returning home was marry your high school sweetheart, Barb LaFollette. Then you went off for about nine months in military hospitals getting fixed up. You were below 140 pounds on a five-foot-ten frame and had numerous health problems.
We have all seen war movies with strong, hardy soldiers played by strapping, handsome actors. In truth, our forces in the islands of the Southwest Pacific were at the very end of a long, overtaxed supply chain. “The only thing we had plenty of was mutton,” you said. “The Aussies shipped us all we could eat. I will never eat mutton again in my life.” And you never did.
Life After War
Somewhat aimless before the war, you had acquired some sense of purpose. Upon discharge from the military hospitals, you enrolled in Knox College on the GI Bill. I was born in June 1945 and spent my first four years on campus.
You graduated with a degree in chemistry. You became a high school chemistry teacher. A couple of years later, disillusioned with teaching, you got a job in industry, working as an analytical chemist for decent money. You and Mom had another child, my sister Cynda.
We all participated fully in the roaring postwar economy. I remember the 1950s and early 1960s as an idyllic time. We had everything we needed, because you were providing it.
I was especially blessed to be a Boy Scout. The camping, hiking, merit badges, and the companionship of other boys like myself added a lot of interest, meaning, and sweetness to my life. I became a Scout largely because you invested yourself in the movement. You were an adult Scout leader for probably twenty years or more, staying with it even after I was off to college and the U.S. Air Force. It met some need in your soul. You could become emotional talking about the influence of Scouting on your life when you were a boy in Dahinda and Knoxville.
As I grew and became a smartass teenager, and then an independent young man with my own agendas, you and I sparred and sometimes wound up at loggerheads. But our relationship mellowed as we both got older.
Like others in my generation, I was blessed to live in a family headed by a man who did his duty in a long and terrible war and then came home, turned on a dime, and adapted to decades of sober-sided family life in order to make a stable home for our generation.
I’m not sure how you did this, but I will always be grateful.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.