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Last updated: Wed. Nov. 14, 2012 - 02:21 pm EDT

Local veterans remember their World War II experiences

Veterans Day is Sunday, and the national holiday will be observed Monday.

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Editor's note: Kayleen Reusser is an area writer who produces stories periodically for The News-Sentinel. She currently is working on a book about World War II veterans' recollections of their military service. She provided the stories of these three veterans in celebration of Veterans Day on Sunday.

Max Shambaugh

“I didn't hate anyone, but I understood the phrase, 'Kill or be killed',” said Max Shambaugh of Fort Wayne.

Shambaugh is owner of Shambaugh & Son, a construction/ engineering firm in Fort Wayne. For several years during World War II, he piloted a B17 plane, dropping bombs on Germany which had declared war with the Allies, of which the United States was a member.

Born in Fort Wayne in 1922, Shambaugh graduated from North Side High School in 1940. His father had been a soldier in World War I, and Max wanted to be one too, specifically a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps (a precursor to the Air Force).

At that time, the Army Air Corps only accepted pilots who had completed two years of college (the requirement was dropped later in the war). Shambaugh enrolled at an extension campus of Purdue University in Fort Wayne, paying for his tuition by working various jobs, including waiter, dry cleaner and florist.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Shambaugh enlisted in the Army Air Corps. His plans to be a fighter pilot were dashed upon discovering the planes were single-engine planes with small cockpits. Shambaugh had a big frame and could not fit.

The Army needed bomber pilots, so Shambaugh trained for that, first at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio, then in simulated air battles near Pecos, Texas.

During the first part of the war, Shambaugh flew the B17 (B for 'bomber').

“It had a 100-foot wing span and a crew of 10,” he said. “It carried 2.5 tons of bombs and 12 50-caliber machine guns.”

The military called it "The Flying Fortress."

Advised to stay in the United States and learn radar bombing on the East Coast, Shambaugh refused.

“I wanted to see combat,” he said. He set fire to an officer's wastebasket to convince them to let him go overseas.

Shambaugh got his wish. In Sept. 1944, he and other American troops shipped out from New Jersey to England. He was attached to the 8th Air Force, 91st Bomb Group, heavy aircraft.

Shambaugh and his 10-member crew (co-pilot, navigator, radio operator, bombardiers and gunners) immediately began flying bombing missions over Germany.

His first dozen or so missions occurred without mishap. That changed in Dec. 1944.

During a flight over Berlin, the wings of Shambaugh's plane were pierced by shrapnel.

“I saw through the window a German plane in front and another in back of us,” he said. “We probably had 300 holes in our plane from their shelling.”

The previous day, Shambaugh had placed steel pieces under his plane's seat for protection. When a shell exploded directly under the airplane, it tore through the cockpit, penetrating the steel under his seat.

“That steel plate saved me from certain death,” he said.

When a shell pierced the wings and cut off gas supply to two of the plane's engines, the aircraft dropped like an elevator.

“The left wing caught on fire, and I had to dive the plane straight down at approximately 300 miles per hour to put out the fire,” said Shambaugh.

Believing the plane could not make it back to safe territory, Shambaugh told the gunners to bail out with their chutes.

That left Shambaugh and his co-pilot, JD. They had trained together as pilots in the United States before going to Europe.

After JD bailed at approximately 1000 feet in the air, Shambaugh ran back to the bomb bay to jump. By then, the ground was only 300 feet away.

Unable to get out before the plane struck the ground, he ran back to the cockpit and turned off the electrical switches, but couldn't fasten his seatbelt before the plane crashed into the ground.

“The planed bounced on the ground approximately 90 feet in the air,” he said. Upon landing, it dug partially into the ground.

Shambaugh, thrown against the windshield, lay stunned before he crawled out of the cockpit window to the wing. He simultaneously pulled out his .45 pistol to engage German soldiers in a fight, if necessary.

Luckily, Shambaugh had landed in German-occupied France. When French farmers rushed toward the plane, Shambaugh communicated well enough for them to know he wanted to hide.

One of the farmers agreed to hide him in his home. JD caught up with the group, and the two American pilots hid together in the basement under the living room floor.

"If the German soldiers had found us pilots, they would have shot us on sight,” said Shambaugh.

The men breathed sighs of relief when German soldiers, coming to the house several hours later looking for them, left, convinced by the French farmers they were not there.

Shambaugh and JD hid in the family's home for three months.

Decades later, the stress of being on constant alert is still cemented in Shambaugh's psyche.

“Today, when I sit in a room, I face the door,” he said. “You adopt such habits of observation when your life is at stake.”

Upon hearing the American Army's front lines were nearby, Shambaugh and JD left their farmhouse and snuck through the French countryside before finding the Americans. They then returned to England, shocking their leaders who had thought the men must be dead.

The war was not over, and Shambaugh was put back into the air in another B17. During the winter of 1944-1945, Shambaugh aided the Allies efforts by bombing bridges, factories, oil refineries and roads during the Battle of the Bulge.

In March 1945, after flying 35 combat missions, the limit allowed to pilots, Shambaugh was shipped back to the United States, where he ferried planes around the world for the military until the war ended.

In August 1945, Shambaugh received his discharge papers. For the next six years, he flew a C46 and AT6 in the Air Force Reserves, retiring in 1951.

For saving the lives of his crew (7 were wounded, but all escaped) and shooting down a dozen enemy aircraft during the war, Shambaugh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of our nation's highest military honors.

Shambaugh used his GI Bill to attend Purdue University, graduating in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He later worked with his father, establishing an international career as a builder.

Today, Shambaugh's son, Mark, runs the business. Max Shambaugh retired in 1992 and lives in Fort Wayne with his wife, Sylvia.

As with most military veterans, it took Shambaugh several years to adapt back to civilian life.

“I was flak-happy,” he said. “I couldn't sit in church longer than 15 minutes. I had to keep moving.”

The aviation bug never left Shambaugh, and, for business purposes, he hired a pilot to fly him in his Cessna single-engine, Beach Bonanza and Twin Aztec planes.

In 1965, Shambaugh traveled to France to visit and thank the French family who had saved him after his plane was shot down. It was a poignant reunion with the farmer and his family.

Shambaugh's friend, JD, remained in the Army, retiring as a colonel. He died in 2011.

Although it has been nearly 70 years, Shambaugh has never forgotten his experiences during the war.

“I saw friends killed,” he said. “Those things are impossible to put out of your mind.”

When people tell Shambaugh he is a hero, he denies it.

“I did what I was told to do,” he said. “The real heroes were those who died in the war. Every day of my life, I have felt lucky to be here. It was a million in one shot.”

Richard Vanderwall

“By the time our ship reached Pearl Harbor on Dec. 12, oil from the explosions of American ships was 3 inches thick on the water,” said Richard Vanderwall of Fort Wayne.

Vanderwall was a Seaman 2nd class assigned to the USS Indianapolis in the United States Navy. His duties included keeping the ship's log while at sea and being stationed on the bridge above two batteries of 8-inch guns.

His duty above the two gun batteries would result in permanent hearing loss in one ear.

Upon hearing of the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Indianapolis was just arriving at Johnston Island, 717 miles southwest of Honolulu, when the attack occurred. Immediately, the cruiser reversed its course and headed toward the Hawaiian Islands to help.

Despite being five days after the initial attack, danger was not over. At 1800 hours on Dec. 12, a Japanese sub fired on the USS Indianapolis. It missed, giving the Allies time to retaliate.

“One of our destroyers blew him out of the water,” said Vanderwall.

As the pier for the USS Indianapolis at Pearl Harbor was demolished by the Japanese war planes, the Indianapolis docked at another pier. No lights were allowed.

For 10 days, the USS Indianapolis, two other American cruisers and three American destroyers patrolled the area, looking for enemy subs and aircraft on radar.

Such excitement was not part of Richard Vanderwall's plan when he joined the Navy in 1940. Born in 1921 on a Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Delia, Kan., Vanderwall lived with his family, including parents and two sisters and two brothers. His father worked for a man who owned a nearby ranch.

After graduating from high school in Soldier, Kan., in 1939, Vanderwall looked for employment. The Depression made it nearly impossible to find a job.

His father had been a sailor with the U.S. Navy during World War I. He recommended Richard join the military and be guaranteed a pay check.

With his father's assistance in accompanying him to the recruiting station in Topeka, Kan., Richard Vanderwall passed all of his tests and enlisted in the Navy in February 1940.

By May, Vanderwall had completed basic training at Great Lakes Training Center (today it is called Naval Station Great Lakes) near Chicago. He was assigned to 120 Company G. Each sailor was issued clothing, one sheet, hammock and pillow.

“Some guys never learned sleep to sleep in a hammock,” said Vanderwall who was able to do so.

From Chicago, Vanderwall was sent to Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco, where he was assigned to the USS Maryland. This location was, among other things, the major Navy departure point for sailors in the Pacific.

In May 1940, the USS Maryland and its crew set out for Honolulu. During the 2,200-mile trip, Vanderwall quickly acquired his sea legs.

“I was never sick,” he said. After receiving a New Testament Bible from his mother, he often spent time reading it.

At Pearl Harbor, Vanderwall was transferred to the USS Indianapolis. By September 1942, his rank was Quartermaster 2nd class. Vanderwall was not authorized to carry a sidearm.

The incident with Pearl Harbor had put the United States at war with Axis powers. The American Navy, though damaged heavily by Japan's destruction at Pearl Harbor, recovered and became aggressive in fighting the Japanese and Germans. As a result, Vanderwall saw plenty more action.

In February 1942, at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, approximately 350 miles south of New Guinea, Japanese bombers attacked American ships. One of them was the USS Indianapolis.

Miraculously, the ships escaped damage while every Japanese plane was shot down by antiaircraft fire by the ships and fighter planes in the area.

One American fighter pilot, Butch O'Hare, shot down five enemy planes, eliminating the primary threat. His precise actions that day made him America's first flying ace and a Medal of Honor recipient.

The Japanese continued to rule Rabaul, using it as an air base, though it essentially was cut off by Allied forces on surrounding islands. They surrendered the island in 1945.

Another naval battle for Vanderwall took place at Kiska, Alaska.

The Japanese had captured Kiska, part of the Aleutian Island chain, on June 6, 1942. The sole inhabitants of the island included a small U.S. Navy Weather Detachment consisting of 10 men. The next day, the Japanese captured the nearby island of Attu.

In October, the USS Indianapolis and other American vessels attempted to fire on Japanese troops on the island of Kiska. The Japanese returned fire, but no lives were lost. The Japanese held the island until 1943. Vanderwall and other sailors involved in the skirmish earned a battle star for the endeavor.

Another danger common to sailors came not from enemy fire but Mother Nature in the form of typhoons.

In November 1942, Vanderwall's ship encountered a typhoon with 15-foot waves and winds of 100 knots (115 mph) that endangered the lives of everyone on board. This particular typhoon lasted for two days.

“We were approaching the Unimac Pass in the Aleutian chain,” said Vanderwall. “Despite the bad weather, we cleared the pass and kept the ship steady.”

By November 1942, Vanderwall had seen enough excitement on the Indianapolis and asked to be reassigned. He left the ship in November 1942 in Alaska and returned at Treasure Island near San Francisco, where he was assigned to the USS Tuluran.

Vanderwall was still in the Navy on July 30, 1945, when the Indianapolis, still serving Allied forces, was torpedoed by a Japanese sub. The Indianapolis had just delivered critical parts for the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to the United States air base at Tinian when it was attacked.

The ship sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 crewmen aboard, approximately 317 went down with the ship. For four days, the remaining men faced death, primarily by shark attacks as they awaited assistance.

Survivors were spotted four days later by the crew of a patrol boat. Only 317 sailors survived. Indianapolis was the last major U.S. Navy ship sunk by enemy action in World War II.

Even though Vanderwall had been off of the Indianapolis for two years, he recalls the angry feelings he and other American sailors felt as they heard the news of its sinking.

“There was not a single guy in the American Navy who didn't want be out at sea at that time,” he said. The feelings of patriotism have continued throughout his life.

After leaving the Tuluran, Vanderwall was sent by the Navy to Washburn University in Topeka to enroll in courses for aeronautical engineering.

In July 1944, he was transferred to the University of Notre Dame for more schooling. There he met a pretty high school graduate named Erma.

“She was a hostess at the Service Men's Center,” said Vanderwall. Hostesses danced and provided conversation with soldiers. Erma left the center with her date, but returned to dance with Vanderwall.

The two kept in touch while Vanderwall resumed his military career. Following Japan's surrender in August 1945, Vanderwall was discharged in February 1946.

For being involved in three battles Vanderwall was awarded three battle stars. He proposed to Erma on Valentine's Day 1946, and they married in April.

Vanderwall planned to use his GI ("government issue," a term used to refer to an American soldier) Bill benefits to attend Notre Dame. He switched his major from aeronautical engineering to economics. However, the college had a 2-year waiting period, due to other soldiers wanting to use the GI bill.

Vanderwall enrolled instead at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. By the time he graduated in 1949, the Vanderwalls had two children.

They would eventually have six children and later 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Richard Vanderwall became an insurance salesman working in LaPorte, Muncie, Fort Wayne and Minnesota. He retired in Fort Wayne. Today, Richard and Erma Vanderwall live in a retirement community in Fort Wayne.

In June 2011, Vanderwall participated in Honor Flight, a program that offers World War II veterans the opportunity to tour the nation's capital, free of charge.

“I am proud to have been involved as an American sailor in World War II,” he said. “The experiences I had at that time have been with me all of my life.”

Dave Blackledge

Dave Blackledge was 11 years old when his father was captured by the Japanese during World War II.

“We lived in the Philippines where mother and father taught school,” the 1949 Southside High School graduate said during a recent visit to Fort Wayne from his home in Pennsylvania.

William C. Blackledge and Helen Blackledge moved from Indiana to the Philippines in 1931. At that time, the state of Indiana did not allow married women to hold teaching positions.

William and Helen had both graduated from Indiana University (IU, 1929 and 1930, respectively) with degrees in education.

William became principal of Lingayen High School in the province of Pangasinan. Helen was a faculty member. Dave and his brother, Bob, who was born in Manila in 1937, don't recall the elementary school grade she taught.

Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. After a three-month battle with the Americans, the Japanese claimed victory of the Philippines in April 1942.

While a student at IU, William took ROTC and upon graduating, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry. He went on active duty in Manila in 1939, but was captured by the Japanese when Bataan was forced to surrender and forced to join what would be called the Bataan Death March.

This grueling trek got its name as the Japanese Army forced 60,000 Filipinos and 15,000 Americans to walk 80 miles to Camp O'Donnell from Bataan, where they would be held as prisoners of war. It resulted in the deaths of thousands of POWs, due to physical abuse and murder by their Japanese captors.

Helen, Dave and Bob never saw William again. They learned William had survived the Bataan Death March and endured three years of brutal treatment, malnourishment and disease in prisoner-of-war camps on Luzon.

Then he and other POWs were transported on Hell Ships, so-called because of the horrifying living conditions, to Japan to be used as slave labor. William's first ship departed from Manila in December 1944, but was sunk by American carrier planes off Subic Bay. The second was sunk in Takao Harbor, Formosa (now Taiwan).

The third Hell Ship made it to Moji, Japan, but many of the remaining survivors, including William, died within days of their arrival in February 1945.

Helen and the boys lived in occupied Manila during the battles for Bataan and Corregidor before turning themselves in to the Japanese internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in May 1942.

“The camp contained 5,000 internees, including teachers and business people from 20 countries,” said Dave. Children aged 10 years and under stayed with their parents. Older male children, including Dave, lived with men of the camp.

The camp had a series of Japanese commandants, some harsher than others, who set the rules and meted out severe punishment for slight infractions. Daily matters were conducted by an elected internee committee organized within the camp.

In 1942 and early 1943, food rations in the camp were adequate.

“Community gardens planted by internees supplemented our diets,” said Dave.

In 1943, the Japanese, using male internees, built a second internment camp near Los Banos 30 miles southeast of Manila. Helen volunteered to transfer her family to the new camp.

“Mother had several reasons for volunteering to move,” said Dave. Each family could have a garden. Helen and the boys could live together for the first time since being interned.

“Our mother also felt it would be safer for us there than in an urban setting when our military forces returned and a battle occurred,” he added.

Sadly, living conditions were not better for the internees at Los Banos than at Santo Tomas.

Even though the camp was on the grounds of a pre-war agricultural college, the gardening area was not big enough to feed the 2,000 interned there. There also was a water shortage.

During the winter of 1944-1945, the camp averaged one death per day.

“The Japanese officer who ran the camp didn't care if we starved,” said Dave.

In December 1944, Helen Blackledge tried to bring some joy to her boys' lives.

Among the contents of Red Cross food packages the prisoners had received were prunes. Doling out a few to each boy, Helen saved the pits.

On Christmas morning, she took the wormy mush that was the typical breakfast for the internees (“At first we tried to pick out the worms,” said Dave. “Later, we were so hungry, we gobbled it down and licked the bowls.”), chopped the saved prune pits and sprinkled them on the mush. “That was her Christmas gift to us,” said Dave.

Thankfully, the lives of the Blackledges and other internees were about to change.

On the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, Bob was in the barracks with Helen and Dave was standing in line for water when nine large transport aircraft flew toward the camp.

“During the past couple of weeks, we had heard artillery firing in the distance and had no fear of planes as they were all friendly at that point,” said Dave.

Still, the internees fled to their barracks.

“The Japanese had said if the enemy came to the camp, they'd kill us before we could be rescued,” he said.

For several minutes bullets whizzed through the walls of the barracks. Then silence. The internees, barefoot and in rags, lay terrified on the floor of the barracks.

Dave Blackledge held his breath as he heard boots approaching. Were they friend or foe? Then a female internee called out, "They're Americans!”

The planes were C47's (military model of civilian DC 3), full of American paratroopers from the 11th Airborne Division, there to liberate the internees.

The American solders were assisted by Filipino guerrilla forces who had served as guides and took part in the battle to eliminate the Japanese guards.

After holding off the Japanese soldiers, the American soldiers took the internees to safety at New Bilibib Prison at Muntinlupa. Though the internees were warned by the military doctor to eat little for fear they would become ill, Dave and Bob snuck through the food line three times.

“I couldn't get enough canned pears!” said Dave.

As their health improved, American internees were repatriated to the United States aboard military transport ships with returning soldiers.

Some former internees, such as missionaries, chose to remain in the Philippines and other nationalities went elsewhere.

The Blackledges settled in Fort Wayne, where Helen's family lived. She taught with Fort Wayne Community Schools and served as principal at Southern Heights Elementary School.

In 1951, she earned a master's degree in education at Columbia University in New York City, and, in 1964, she became president of the Indiana Teachers Association. Helen retired from teaching in 1974.

During an interview in 2010 when she was 103 years old, she said, “It was nice establishing an understanding with parents and children.” Helen, 105, has lived at Kingston Healthcare in Fort Wayne since June 2001.

So impressed was Dave Blackledge by the American military's rescue of the internees that he chose a military career.

An ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate earning a Regular Army commission in the field artillery, he graduated from Purdue University in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in political science.

Colonel Blackledge served in Vietnam, has a master's degree in American History from Rutgers University and has taught at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Army War College.

In addition to his 30-year military career, he had a second 17-year career with Pennsylvania State University's School of Law. Today, he and his wife, Diana, live in Pennsylvania and have four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Bob, a 6-foot, 8-inch, 1956 graduate of South Side High School in Fort Wayne, attended The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., on a basketball scholarship. He majored in chemistry, later earning a master's degree in the subject.

He taught at the college level, and then, in 1971, he left teaching to work in the field of forensic science. For 35 years, he worked at crime labs in Florida, Frankfurt, Germany, and San Diego. At San Diego, he was the senior chemist at the U.S. Navy Criminal Investigative Service Forensic Laboratory.

Now retired, Bob Blackledge lives in San Diego. He and his wife, Sally, have three children and seven grandchildren.

While Dave and Bob Blackledge admit to feeling prejudiced initially against the Japanese after World War II, they say their opinions have changed.

“I have worked with Japanese officers and realize people are people,” said Dave, adding his family is close to the family of a former Japanese colleague.

Bob has a similarly altruistic view. “I hope I judge a person based on his or her properties and not categories,” he said.

In 2010 Dave, his wife and two sons visited Subic Bay in the Philippines, adding a plaque honoring Capt. William C. Blackledge to the monument memorializing the thousands of POWs who lost their lives on the infamous Hell Ships.

William Blackledge's ashes are buried in his hometown of Rushville, in east-central Indiana.

Dave and Bob Blackledge applaud their mother, whom they visited in August for her birthday, for her fortitude.

“Dave and I are impressed at how our mother fulfilled her life after the war,” said Bob. “When we go to high school reunions, we meet many people who remember her.”

“Mother would never talk about the war,” said Dave. “Her advice was to never look back at life. She always encouraged us to look ahead. I'd say we've done that.”

nsfeatures@news-sentinel.com


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