Military history

Part Four



Vigil in Red Oak

SOUTHWEST Iowa’s second winter of war had passed, and hints of the second spring could be seen in the blooming crocuses and felt in the afternoon sun that ventured farther north each day. In Red Oak and Villisca and Clarinda, as in the rest of the country, war remained a bit abstract even as fragmentary reports of the first big American battle against the Germans began winging westward from Africa. Iowans knew the war vicariously, through newsreels and letters home, yet it remained a thing manifested more as an absence than as a presence. The junior college in Montgomery County had closed for lack of students. Weeds sprouted on the unused baseball diamond at American Legion Park. Nurses and young doctors had all gone off, and old Doc Reiley was persuaded to emerge from retirement to fill the gap. The Red Oak Taxicab Company hired female drivers for the first time. No one drove much, because even those with gasoline rationing cards were restricted to four gallons a week, except for farmers and other essential worthies, who got somewhat more.

Everyone soldiered on. In Red Oak, the Grand showed movies nearly every night and double features on Saturday. Kids swarmed to the Green Parrot downtown for sodas after school. J. C. Penney’s shelves were often barren, but customers wandered in anyway, as if shopping were an act of imagination rather than of commerce. The Red Oak Stalking Tigers—no one fully appreciated the irony of that mascot, of course—prepared to play in the district basketball tourney. A student production of Room for Tendrew a big crowd to the school gymnasium. As planting season approached, a worrisome machinery shortage was eased by the state War Board’s wise decision to increase Montgomery County’s quota of plows and cultivators.

Even if the battlefront seemed far removed, patriotism ran deep. The Victory Day book drive had already collected 500 volumes, and school-children in Red Oak, asked to buy $900 in war bonds to underwrite the purchase of one jeep for the Army, bought enough bonds to finance nine. Great War veterans planned an elaborate commemoration for March 9, 1943, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day when Company M first went over the top to face German fire in 1918.

The first inkling of bad news from Tunisia came disguised as good news. The Red Oak Express of February 22 ran a front-page story by the Associated Press beneath the headline “Moore Leads Escape from Nazi Lines.” Datelined “on the Tunisian Front,” the article recounted how the former Boy Captain—“red-eyed, haggard, and weak from lack of food and water”—had led many in his battalion to safety from a hill surrounded by German soldiers. Everyone in Montgomery County agreed that in a tight spot Bob Moore was a very good man to have around. But few other details emerged over the next two weeks other than sketchy dispatches about a fight in a remote place called Kasserine.

The initial telegrams reached Red Oak on the evening of March 6; by midnight there were more than two dozen, nearly identical: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his regret that your son has been missing in action in North Africa since February 17.” Townsmen in bib overalls or gabardine suits gathered on the broad portico of the Hotel Johnson, next to the Western Union office. Leaning against the double Ionic columns, they smoked and talked and listened as the courthouse clock on Coolbaugh Street chimed the hours.

Most next of kin were easy to find. Mae Stifle, a widow who had raised eight children, worked as a housekeeper at that very hotel. She got two telegrams within fifteen minutes telling her that two sons, Sergeant Frank and Private Dean, were missing; in the morning, a third telegram added her son-in-law, Darrell Wolfe, to the list. “Some people don’t believe in prayer,” she said, “but I pray for my boys every day.” The Vern Bierbaum family also lost two sons, Cleo and Harold, and a son-in-law, and their son-in-law’s brother. Both Gillespie boys were missing; their father, who ran the feed store, tucked the telegrams inside the family Bible. Those who had left the county were harder to track down, like Lois Bryson, who now worked the four-to-midnight shift installing hydraulic tubing at the Martin bomber plant in Omaha. Eventually, word reached her that her husband, Fred, was also missing. He had joined Company F in Villisca when he was seventeen.

On March 11, the Express printed a headline no one could dispute: “SW Iowa Is Hit Hard.” The photographs of missing boys just from Red Oak filled four rows above the fold on page one. “War consciousness mounted hourly in Red Oak, stunned by the flood of telegrams this week,” the article began. The busiest man in town was a boy, sixteen-year-old Billie Smaha, who delivered wires for Western Union. “They kind of dreaded me,” Billie later told the Saturday Evening Post. “I never wore a Western Union hat because I thought that would scare them too much when I went up to the door.”

Wild rumors flourished. Shenandoah, Iowa, supposedly had lost 500 men—even though barely one-quarter that number were serving in North Africa. The truth was grim enough. Clarinda had lost forty-one, Atlantic forty-six, Glenwood thirty-nine, Council Bluffs thirty-six, Shenandoah twenty-three, Villisca nine. Red Oak’s toll reached forty-five, nearly a third of Company M, which altogether had lost 153 men, among them the commander and six lieutenants. Total losses for the 168th Infantry Regiment included 109 officers and 1,797 enlisted men. “There is no place to my knowledge where in this war there has been such a large group from such a comparatively small area,” an Army official told the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.

Everyone soldiered on, again. The Great War anniversary commemoration was canceled. When letters began arriving from prison camps, it became clear that most of those missing had, blessedly, been taken prisoner. Many ended up in Stalag III-B with French, Russian, and Dutch soldiers, while officers typically went to an Oflag in Silesia. “Mom and Dad, I have no clothes except shirt, pants, shoes, and field jacket, and up ’til a few days ago they hadn’t been off for a month,” Lieutenant DuaneA. Johnson of Red Oak wrote from Germany in March. “Send the food parcel first. I don’t care if it’s all chocolate.” Letters also came from those who had narrowly escaped capture or death. “I lost everything but my rifle, new fountain pen, shovel, and my life,” Sergeant Willis R. Dunn wrote his parents in Villisca. “So I’m thanking God for that.”

The Ladies’ Monday Club redoubled its book drive; collection boxes soon occupied all four corners of the town square. The VFW collected safety razors for the German camps. War Dads, an organization of the sort that in a later day would be called a support group, grew large and active. A speech by an Iowa college teacher who had been interned by the Germans for seven months while working in Egypt drew 900 people to the Methodist church on a Sunday night in mid-March; latecomers had to stand in the choir loft, behind the robed singers.

The telegrams kept coming. Billie Smaha stayed busy. Life magazine arrived to document Red Oak’s misfortune; the brief article included a two-page aerial photo of the town with labels denoting the houses of those missing, captured, or dead. A New York Herald-Tribune reporter calculated that “if New York City were to suffer losses in the same proportion in a single action, its casualty list would include more than 17,000 names.” In Red Oak, population 5,600, small plaques eventually honored the fallen at the Elks Club and the Ko-z-Aire Furnace Company, and photos of those smiling boys in smart uniforms stood on mantels and pianos all over town. At the Washington School, a teacher named Frances Worley kept an honor roll in a scrapbook; before the names of those lost she set gold stars, just like the stars she pasted on especially meritorious homework papers.

The second spring of the war came. Buds stippled the oak trees and the wild geese came back and the creek bottoms sang with life. Grass greened between the headstones that spilled down the hillside cemetery east of town. People went about their business as before, but the war was inside them now, as it would be inside a thousand other communities before peace returned. “Red Oak came as close to any town in America to knowing what the war was all about,” wrote a local historian. Surely it was true.

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