"DUANE LARSON - THE PRESENCE OF HIS ABSENCE"
_________________
Dolane Larson

 

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“Now you’re really in trouble!”

When my nine year old father, Duane Larson, appeared in the middle of the morning with the news that Sister had sent him home - and not because he was ill -, his little brother Keith gleefully anticipated mother and son fireworks. Even though the baby of my father’s family is now eighty years old, he retains the look of a (albeit large) cherub: his pale blonde hair is mostly gray but his blue eyes can still fill up with mischief when he remembers that long ago day. Keith had, however, seriously underestimated his mother’s maternal instincts. Anna Larson quickly wiped her hands on her apron and, with her son Duane in tow, headed straight for St. Mary’s School. When she came back an hour later after a confrontation that spread from Sister to Superior to parish priest, both mother and son had been “expelled” from St. Mary’s. Although they were later readmitted to the parish (when St. Mary’s received a new pastor), my father finished his education in public school.

 

Duane Larson was born on May 17, 1917, in Niles, a small southwestern Michigan town founded in 1829. Called the City of Four Flags because the flags of Spain, France, England and the United States had flown over Fort St. Joseph, Niles was, even during the Depression, an idyllic place to grow up.

Perhaps my father and his siblings did not know that the St. Joseph River was one of only two rivers in the world to flow north; what they did know was that it provided free food and fun year round. What boy could be bored when he could be swimming, fishing, boating, ice skating, or just messing around in the woods like Huck Finn?

“I dare you!”

“I double dare you!”

Clambering up the ladder of a boxcar stopped on a high stone bridge and then diving off from its roof into the swiftly moving currents of the St. Joe River took a certain amount of nerve. Maybe my father chose to be a paratrooper because when he was a boy he grew to like the wind in his face as he jumped from the boxcars into the dark waters of the current furrowed river.

My father worked for a time at the Niles News Agency, but like so many small town boys he was restless and rode his Harley Davidson to California to see what was on other side of the mountains. By October of 1941 he had joined the 19th Coast Artillery. His early swimming feats stood him in good stead and he was able to save a man’s life by pulling him from the riptide off the California coast. Then came Pearl Harbor and the Army. Jump school for paratroopers was a four week course at Fort Benning, GA.

 

 

 

On February 11, 1943, he married Dolores Van Skiver in Fayetteville, NC. By the time Battery A of the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion was activated on June 16, 1943, my father had been married for five months. He had trained at Camp McCall, NC, made jumps with howitzers, fired on the range at Fort Bragg, NC, and finally received his moving orders. On February 28, 1944, the battalion left Camp MacKall, NC, for the overseas staging area at Camp Stoneman, California. The paratroopers boarded the “Sea Cat” headed for Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

On March 29, 1944, the 462nd debarked at Brett’s wharf, Brisbane, and joined the 503 PIR at Camp Cable, a tent army encampment within walking distance of a small town named Beaudesert (which the Aussies pronounced Bydesert, though there was no desert nearby). Sometime after that, word reached my father that he had a baby girl, born one day after he had arrived in Australia and named Dolane, a combination of Dolores and Duane. He sent his new daughter a lovely white lace dress and matching bonnet. Pictures arrived back showing a placid infant wearing “the outfit Daddy sent from Australia.” 

Training continued with marches and jumps and although the men did not consider it overly strenuous they did feel they were gaining valuable experience. By September of 1944, the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, the 462nd parachute Artillery Battalion and the 161st Parachute Engineer Company had formed the Regimental Combat Team. On September 16, 1944, the 462nd landed at Noemfoor Island, Netherlands East Indies. Airfields constructed on Noemfoor after its capture played an important role in the Allied advance from New Guinea to the Philippines. On October 23, Major Arlis Kline assumed command of the battalion.

On November 9th the battery left on the U.S.S. Custer and arrived on Leyte Island on November 18th. Two Regimental Combat Teams, the 19th and the 503rd, were given the mission of seizing and holding the southwestern part of Mindoro Island near the town of San Jose so that three airstrips could be constructed. The Combat Team endured intense air and naval fire and at one point was shelled for 25 minutes by a Japanese Naval task force. 

In January my father had written that the Japanese had “one good fight left in them” ; soon the war would be over and he would be coming home. And then came Corregidor.

Tokyo had warned the Japanese commander, Itagaki, to be prepared for an airborne landing, but Itagaki had studied the terrain and judged an airborne landing “not doable.” On February 16, 1945, he was looking out to sea at the 34th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion landing barges and never noticed the white blossoming C-47’s until some 25 to 30 paratroopers, blown off course, landed practically on top of him. The troopers formed up and fired, killing Itagaki and eight others around him. The Japanese lost their commander before the fighting had really begun.

“The men who floated down over Corregidor on that sparkling morning of February 16, 1945, represented not only a new way of warfare, but also a new breed of American soldier, the paratrooper. This was the sort of soldier who had brought a new dimension to attack.” [Belote, 225] The “tough and aggressive” paratroopers knew that the Corregidor jump was not going to be a picnic. They were to jump onto “the worst jump field ever used for an airborne operation” from the dangerously low altitude of 400 feet.  The calculations made beforehand did not lie- “it was impossible to place all of the paratroopers in the area and yet it had to be attempted. ...” [Flanagan, 165] The Brass had decided that a vertical attack was the only way to retake Corregidor and that a 10% to 50% casualty rate was acceptable. The drop could only succeed if the air and airborne units were completely coordinated so the C-47’s would fly over one after the other and deliver a stick of 8 men at each pass onto either a small golf course (nine holes) or a postage stamp sized parade ground, each torn up after heavy bombing and covered with big chunks of concrete and splintered tree trunks. Although the casualty rate was “only” 13%, troopers were fired upon as they descended and some were severely injured or killed.  

Over on Jump Zone A, Arlis Kline, the commander of  Duane's element within the Rock Force, was seriously hit by an unidentified piece of flying steel whilst still in the air , rendering him unable to control his chute as he plummeted towards the houses along officer's row.  Barely missing becoming impaled on a jagged tree trunk,  and with serious leg injuries, he hung in the tree, but with his feet touching the ground, unable to release himself from his parachute harness as he was unable to put any weight upon his feet.  For some indefinable time, he lapsed in and out of consciousness.    PFC Joe Vela,  Kline's orderly, who had followed Kline out of the aircraft, cut him down.  After the second drop,  his deputy commander Maj. Melvin Knudson,  together with Vela, helped him to the 462nd command post, where he spent the next few days "talking on the field phones, in between coughing up blood."

My father landed safely but he had only ten more days to live. James Wilcox described for me what the landing was like for his gun section in Battery A:

“Your father, whom I called Larson, and Brayton, his best friend, were the finest paratroopers and the backbone of our section. A section is one 75 MM Pack Howitzer and a crew of about ten men. The Pack Howitzer was designed to be the artillery piece of the mountain soldiers who used mules to carry the gun pieces. The advantage of this weapon was that it could be broken down into several pieces, nine in all, each weighing around 200 lbs. When the Airborne arrived on the ground at the drop zone, there were no jeeps or trucks or mules to handle the movement, so we paratroopers furnished the motive power. It was very hard physical labor, but we were young and were in competition with the other sections of our Battery to see who was best. “...We were most fortunate in our jump. Our equipment landed in the exact center of our drop zone... . The net result was that our section had its gun assembled and at our rendezvous point HOURS before the next section arrived. The other two sections had been jumped off the top of the island, some even into the sea, and didn’t get there at all. I’m telling you this so that you will know what kind of soldier your dad was.

“Larson was about six feet, fair complexion, light hair and medium weight,... a nice looking man. He was courteous, well-mannered and mature. Brayton was also like that, which was perhaps why they were buddies. He ... was always a pleasure to be around because of his decency, maturity, and reliability.”

By February 26, the men had reached the tail of the tadpole at Monkey Point and were “mopping up.” Already General MacArthur was making plans for his return to Corregidor. Just northeast was a little ridge and under it was an underground network of tunnels which had housed the Navy’s Radio Intercept Station. Unknown to the men on Monkey Point, the Japanese had packed the caves under the ridge with explosives. Battery A of the 462nd had moved along the shore road just past the tunnel entrances; two tanks were helping the soldiers close these entrances off. At ll:05 one of the tanks fired into the sloping entrance of the Monkey Point tunnel. Simultaneously, a violent explosion lifted the top off the ridge over the Radio Intercept Station. Both 35 ton tanks flew into the air and tumbled end over end down the ridge. Bodies were lifted high and rained down again in pieces. A chunk of debris landed on a destroyer over a mile away. The little ridge was now only a hole in the ground. Sergeant Eugene Bert found himself down in the valley and couldn’t remember how he got there. When he scrambled back up to the top of Monkey Point, the first sight that met his eyes was my father crushed under a huge boulder. Sergeant Bert feels that my father must have died instantly and did not suffer as many did before they died. 

My father, his best friend Lawrence Brayton and the rest of the dead were wrapped in ponchos; the line of bodies along the road extended over 100 feet.

On Jan. 14, 1945, my father had written to relatives, "I hope to see Don in the near future. He should be coming to the Philippines soon and maybe we can get together." By the time Don arrived, my father was dead, and all that Don could do was take a picture of the cemetery and of his brother's grave. My father’s body remained in the Philippines until after the war. 

 

On February 21, 1949, when a military escort accompanied him back to Niles, his life had come full circle. In St. Mary’s he had been baptized and from St. Mary’s he was taken to Calvary Cemetery to be buried . My Grandfather walked to Duane's grave every day for the rest of his life. 

 

Although “the presence of his absence” has been with me all my life, it is thanks to American War Orphan's Network  that I was able to get in touch with those who knew him. Recently Arlis Kline returned to Corregidor. He attempted to take a picture of Monkey Point for me, but “the jungle is so thick that it is impossible to even be sure where the hole, ‘a huge oblong crater 130 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep,’ [Belote, 253] that resulted from the explosion is located.” The jungle has healed itself with time and so have the wounds in our hearts. They can be made to bleed again, though, when we see that our fathers’ sacrifices are taken for granted, when we see our flag treated with disrespect, when we see our national anthem mocked. Even though our fathers never saw us nor were even on the same continent as we were, “for one brief shining moment” in time, our fathers and mothers and we children were a family. Now it is up to us, the AWON children, to see that the legacy of the greatest generation is not forgotten.

Dolane Larson

 

 

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Last Updated: 29-03-11

 

Author's Notes: 

AWON is American War Orphans Network and their website is http://awon.org . They helped me to begin the journey to find out about my father by telling me where to write for records. Also, Jack Forgy gave me the 503rd website address which led me to this website, Arlis , James Wilcox and so many others. There are over 180,000 WWII American war orphans and many have spent their lives wondering about their fathers and never really allowed to grieve. This happened to me and it is very painful. A book, called Lost in the Victory, tells the story of the war orphans and their search for their fathers. Maybe someone else will be inspired to Contact AWON after reading this and thus begin to heal. 

 

Bibliography

Belote, James H. & William M. Belote (1984). Corregidor. New York: Harper & Row.

Devlin, Gerald M. (1979). Paratrooper! New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Flanagan, Lt. Gen. E. M. Corregidor: The Rock Force Assault (1989). New York: Harper & Row.
(General Flanagan's description of Maj. Kline's landing is in error. The correct version appears by assistance of Maj. Kline via this website) 

Guthrie, Bennett M. Three Winds of Death (1985). Stillwater, Oklahoma: New Forums Press.

Templeman, Harold. The Return to Corregidor (1945). New York: Strand Press.

Abbott, Don. Email to the author. 13 Dec. 2000.

Elmont, Tut. Letter to the author.

Kline, Arlis. Email to the author. 18 Feb. 2001.

Lindgren, John. Email to the author. 9 Dec. 2000.

Whitman, Paul. Email to the author. 9 Dec. 2000.

Wilcox, James. Letter to the author. 27 Jan. 2001.

Wilcox, James. Letter to the author. 9 Feb. 2001.