Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Henry D. MacNaughton: Teacher-Soldier

In the musical “Hamilton,” the 46th and final song starts out when the character of George Washington states, “Let me tell you what I wished I'd known, when I was young and dreamed of glory, you have no control, [ensemble] who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” This is an abbreviated story of Major Henry D. MacNaughton whose memory has long since passed from most and has not received just due for his story.

MacNaughton (sometimes spelled McNaughton) was born in Ada Township, Kent County on May 15, 1879. The son of Dougal and Charlotte (Bettis) MacNaughton, he was the oldest of six children. Throughout much of his life he would have four other birthday years, including 1880, 1882, 1883, and 1887. This was a time when formal documentation of birth was not always accurate or available so age could be “flexible” to suit an individual’s purpose. For MacNaughton, those purposes appear to have centered around his desire to serve.

Teacher - Principal

By 1903, Henry had moved into Grand Rapids and five years later took Mabel Haines as his bride. Together they resided at 496 North College Ave. He had been a school teacher according to the 1900 census, but it’s not evident where he was teaching at the time. In 1907, MacNaughton graduated from Kalamazoo Normal School (now Western Michigan University) as president of his class. That March, he hired in as principal for the Godfrey School in the northeast corner of Wyoming Township at $70 per month. He had been teaching a three-month civil service course at the Y.M.C.A. to prepare for March exams, but would resign that responsibility the following year. At the time, MacNaughton was one of only two teachers, but the school district population was growing so quickly the board had to keep adding classrooms. Two were added that summer. The following February, the board rehired him for another year with a $5 per month raise. Two months later, with the obvious growth of responsibility he was incurring, he requested an additional $5 and the board approved. 

Godfrey Avenue School c. pre-1915

The Godfrey Avenue school, like many in rural areas, had been K-8 only, but in 1909 at the request of several students, a 9th and 10th grade was added. Now the building was overcrowded once again, and so a nearby empty store had to be rented for the overflow while more rooms were being added. MacNaughton requested another raise of $10 per month but the board balked and would only agree to $2.50, giving him thirty days to decide. As a result, he resigned at the end of the 1910-11 school year.

Grade school diploma signed by H.D. MacNaughton, 1909 
(Wyoming History Room)

After leaving the Godfrey Avenue school, MacNaughton took a position as principal/superintendent of the Rockford School, where he would also serve for a time as Kent County school examiner. In 1914, he was selected to serve as president of the board of directors for the newly organized Kent County Athletic association that included the following schools: Sand Lake, Cedar Springs, Rockford, Sparta, Kent City, Lowell, Ada, Grandville, South Grand Rapids, Comstock Park, Byron Center and Godfrey Avenue. It was divided into a northern division, southern division, and tenth grade schools. An annual field day was the premier event. The association had been his idea given the lack of organized athletics outside of the city schools and the old West Michigan Fairgrounds at Comstock Park were used as the spring event site.

In 1910, MacNaughton served as secretary for the U.S. Senatorial Committee for Kent County backing the election of Republican Charles E. Townsend.

World War

America entered the World War in 1917, and Henry D. MacNaughton must have decided to head to Fort Sheridan to earn a commission as 1st Lieutenant of Infantry, one of 37 newly-commissioned officers from the Grand Rapids area. His officer training course ran from August 27 to November 26, 1917. He was already 38 years old when he accepted his commission. No official record of his appointment has been found to verify that he reported his actual age.

MacNaughton embarked for France out of Hoboken, New Jersey on January 11, 1918 as a casual and was likely assigned to his unit upon arrival there. He was promoted to Captain on November 9 after having earned the Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with the 117th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division, A.E.F., near Molain, France on October 17, 1918. Advancing for 100 yards under heaving shell and machine-gun fire, Captain MacNaughton went with a soldier to the aid of a wounded man who had a leg blown off by an antitank shell. Showing utter disregard for personal danger, Captain MacNaughton dressed the wound of the soldier, who had fallen near the tank which was still being shelled, and then carried the wounded man to safety.” War Department, General Orders 81 (1919). McNaughton also received the French Croix de Guerre with gold star.

As a side note, the 1919 census of World War I veterans in Kent County listed his birth date as May 15, 1880.

Back to the School House

Upon returning from the war, MacNaughton took a math teaching position at Grand Rapids Union High School after earning an A.B. degree from the University of Michigan. He was also working with his brother as a real estate broker for Michigan Home Realty Company in the downtown Houseman Building, and was elected for another two-year term as county school examiner by the board of supervisors. He later attended Columbia University and received a master’s degree in school administration.

In 1922 the Grand Rapids school board opted to install him as principal of Strong Junior High School. Much like his predecessor, he could teach math and had experience supervising a session room. 

He must have impressed the board and administration during his stint at Strong, because just three years later. MacNaughton was appointed the first principal of the new Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids. The doors opened to about 650 students and thirty teachers, many of whom came from Strong Junior High where they had taught with MacNaughton. At first, it included only grades 7 through 10.  Four years after opening, two large homerooms and four classrooms were added. An elementary wing was added in 1931. By 1939-40, the high school enrollment had reached 1,801. Despite interruptions during World War II, MacNaughton would remain at Ottawa Hills until his retirement.

With the 126th

MacNaughton made the decision to continue his reserve military career and excepted an appointment as 1st Lieutenant on July 28, 1922 with Howitzer Company, 126th Infantry in Grand Rapids. He was promoted to captain two years later and placed in command of Company M. Interestingly, his birthdate in the 1927 Military Register was listed as May 15, 1887 (eight years younger than his actual age). He may have been trying to avoid being classified as over age. Two years later, the National Guard register split the difference and listed his birthdate as May 15, 1883.

CPT McNaughton, seated first row center

By the early 1930s, MacNaughton was commanding Service Company and one has to wonder if his actual age was catching up to him, resulting in a move from a more physically demanding assignment with Company M.  In October 1940, the 126th mobilized for a year-plus of training in Louisiana. MacNaughton, was appointed the acting regimental supply officer in November and promoted to Major shortly after. 

CPT MacNaughton c. 1937

But, in the fall of 1941, it was determined by Army regulations that MAJ MacNaughton was over-age for assignment to a combat organization. By now, his actual age was 62. Before leaving Camp Livingston to return to Grand Rapids, Service Company officers and enlisted personnel threw him a farewell dinner and the regiment paid tribute “to its last World war hero” with a review ceremony. Following the events, MacNaughton left for home and resumed his duties as principal of Ottawa Hills High School that November.

MAJ MacNaughton (L) and MAJ Merle Howe (R)
Louisiana 1941

Recalled to Active Duty

In May 1942, MAJ MacNaughton was recalled to active duty, sent to an officers’ school at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and assigned to a military police unit. Both he and LTC Sidney Z. Eleveld, a teacher at Ottawa High School, were assigned to lead the 740th Military Police Battalion at Camp Skokie Valley, Glenview, Illinois. Eleveld served as battalion commander and MacNaughton his executive officer.

Having exceeded the statutory age for grade requirements, MacNaughton was placed on inactive duty status with the Michigan National Guard headquarters in August 1943, and returned once again to Grand Rapids to assume his principal duties at Ottawa Hills. He still had one more military duty to fulfill, however. In November 1945, with the war at end, he was appointed by The Adjutant General to serve as a recruiting officer for the Grand Rapids area, with special emphasis on enlisting former Guardsmen and veterans.

MAJ MacNaughton was elected president of the Army and Navy club during a November 1945 meeting in the University clubrooms. The next summer, he was selected to a board of officers to review enlistment and commission applications for the reactivation of the 126th Infantry Regiment.


In 1949, MacNaughton was official retired from military service.  The following year, Ottawa High School alumni and staff celebrated its 25th anniversary and recognized its first principal, who had decided to retire that summer. He was now 71 years old and was wrapping up a half-century as an educator, community and military leader, and World War hero. He and his brother, John D., founded an investment securities firm. In 1963, his wife of 55 years passed away. They had been blessed with three daughters, all of whom lived into their 90s.

Aside from his military and educational careers, he led a busy life and was active in many organizations. MacNaughton was a charter and life member of the Malta Lodge No. 465 F&AM, and a life member of the Saladin Temple Shrine. He was a member of the Teacher Club and High School Principal Club, past president of the Army and Navy Club., and past commander of the Stewart-Howe American Legion Post No. 355. He was also a life member of the Retired Officers Association of the Michigan National Guard.

Henry D. MacNaughton, who had been suffering from an extended illness, died on December 1, 1975 and was buried with military honors at Woodlawn Cemetery. He was officially 96 years old. The 1942 Ottawa Hills High School yearbook had called him a "Builder of Men."

CPT McNaughton posing with the band members from Service
Company, 126th Infantry Regiment, at the Grand Rapids Armory
c. 1930s

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Closing Schools for 4 Weeks in 1917-18

This is not about the flu.

Godfrey Avenue School c. March 1952
In the fall of 1917, it was apparent that a coal shortage would affect the ability of the Godfrey Avenue school in Wyoming Township (Michigan) to remain open. The demands on the railroads for the World War mobilization of troops and equipment, flooding, and other national problems contributed to the shortage that led to closing many factories, churches and schools that winter.

The District No. 7 (Godfrey) school board decided at its regular meeting in December 1917 to extend the Christmas holiday vacation from the normal one week to two because of the shortage. Apparently, that wasn’t long enough to deal with the shortage and the board voted to close the school for another three weeks in January-February. Most other schools in the Grand Rapids area followed suit with the exception of a number of rural one-room schools that utilized wood for heat rather than coal.

To make up the four-week closure, the board met informally with the teachers on January 18, 1918, claiming afterwards that the teachers “voluntarily offered to make good the enforced vacation by teaching on Saturday, and also should the vacation last longer than four weeks the board would meet them halfway in making up time lost.” At a meeting held on March 1, 1918, the board approved a motion that school sessions be held on 18 successive Saturdays to make up the time.

The teachers, not happy with this arrangement, petitioned the board on March 16 noting their unwillingness to “make good their voluntary offer at the informal meeting of the school board and teachers held that past January.” They noted in their petition that no promise was made beyond making up two lost weeks and that if the closing was extended further, a meeting would be called to discuss it. They felt the board’s decision was unfair because they had not been consulted as to how and how much should be made up. The board disputed their claim and noted that it “took their loyal promise in good faith and took action accordingly by asking them to teach on 18 successive Saturdays.”

After more discussion, the teachers offered to make up two weeks by teaching on 10 Saturdays. They then left the meeting. The board was unhappy with that proposal and approved a motion to withdraw its previous motion to re-employ the teachers for the next school year, with exception of Mr. R.D. Fraser, the superintendent. Upon hearing this, several teachers wrote to the board claiming they were “misrepresented in the petition” to the board. The board accepted individual requests and approved them over the next several months and most were retained with a raise.

It is not clear from the board’s minutes as to how many Saturday sessions were actually held, but it’s assumed there were at least 10.

Postscript: A letter in the Public Pulse of The Grand Rapids Press (2/25/1918) thought that it would have been better if the school boards would have extended the school day for one hour instead of requiring students to attend school on Saturdays. The writer claimed this would save on coal as each Saturday reopening of the school took more coal to heat the building than simply adding an hour a day.

District No. 7’s school board members included: John Doorenbos (president), D.H. Sailor, Simon Kaat, M. Jelsema, and Jacob Kroodsma.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

75 years ago: Extraordinary Bravery while Seizing the Ormoc Valley

The conquest of Leyte in the fall of 1944 was taking longer than expected since the Japanese had decided to make it the decisive battleground of the Philippines. This forced the Sixth Army to commit the 32nd Infantry Division along with several other combat elements. As part of the X Corps, the 32nd would drive south along Highway 2 with the 1st Cavalry Division on its left.

By December 14, the 32nd Division had advanced more than two miles south of Limon, reaching the main Japanese Defensive line. It had been a slow march for the 126th Infantry:

Every bend of the road was lined with . . . foxholes dug into the banks of the road and spider holes dug underneath the roots of trees and under logs on the hillsides. It was bitter, close hand to hand fighting and because of the steepness of the terrain, the denseness of the tree growth, the inaccuracy of maps and nearness of adjoining units, artillery and mortar fire could not be used to is full advantage in reducing these positions. (32nd Div Opns Rpt Leyte)

The Japanese were well entrenched on a series of ridges overlooking Highway 2. A heavy rain forest covered the ridges and the deep ravines in between. Targets could not be spotted beyond a range of about 75 feet. The troops had to “approach within spitting distance of the [enemy] guns” before they could locate the weapons. (32nd Div G-3 Periodic Report 30)

On December 15, the 32nd Division’s regiments were fighting valiantly in the effort to seize the Ormoc Valley, when two soldiers from the 126th Infantry Regiment exhibited outstanding acts of individual bravery.

Sergeant Leroy Johnson

Leroy Johnson entered the Army on November 26, 1941 from his home in Oakdale, Louisiana, where he had been employed as a carpenter. One of nine children, he was born to Leander and Isaline Marcantel Johnson on December 6, 1919 at Caney Creek, Louisiana. It’s likely that Johnson ended up with the 126th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division due to the Louisiana Maneuvers that were underway at that time.

With the 126th Infantry from its start in the New Guinea campaign, Sgt. Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in connection with military operations” against entrenched Japanese near Sanananda, New Guinea on December 22, 1942, while serving with Company K.

On December 15, 1944, Sgt. Johnson was on a lone scouting mission into Japanese-held territory in the Leyte Province. When he located an enemy machine gun, he reported the position to his company commander, who in turn gave Johnson the mission of destroying it. He selected three men for this purpose and led the patrol to within six yards of the Japanese position. They tossed several grenades and knocked the gun out. Enemy soldiers in flanking foxholes tossed grenades at Johnson. As he was starting to take cover, he spotted two of the grenades near the men of his patrol. Before they could explode, he threw himself across them and took the full force. Although fatally wounded, he managed to withdraw several yards to a point where his company commander and others had been pushing up to assist.

The full citation of his award reads as follows:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Sergeant Leroy Johnson (ASN: 34154178), United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty on 15 December 1944, while serving with Company K, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32d Infantry Division, in action at Limon, Leyte, Philippine Islands. Sergeant Johnson was squad leader of a nine-man patrol sent to reconnoiter a ridge held by a well-entrenched enemy force. Seeing an enemy machine gun position, he ordered his men to remain behind while he crawled to within six yards of the gun. One of the enemy crew jumped up and prepared to man the weapon. Quickly withdrawing, Sergeant Johnson rejoined his patrol and reported the situation to his commanding officer. Ordered to destroy the gun, which covered the approaches to several other enemy positions, he chose three other men, armed them with hand grenades, and led them to a point near the objective. After taking partial cover behind a log, the men had knocked out the gun and begun an assault when hostile troops on the tank hurled several grenades. As he started for cover, Sergeant Johnson saw two unexploded grenades which had fallen near his men. Knowing that his comrades would be wounded or killed by the explosion, he deliberately threw himself on the grenades and received their full charge in his body. Fatally wounded by the blast, he died soon afterward. Through his outstanding gallantry in sacrificing his life for his comrades, Sergeant Johnson provided a shining example of the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.

Sgt. Johnson died from multiple fragmentary wounds soon afterward. He was buried in theManila American Cemetery and Memorial, National Capitol Region, Philippines.

On October 28, 1945, Johnson’s father received the Medal of Honor on behalf of his son from Colonel John H. Curruth, then commander of Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. The New Orleans army base on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain was renamed in Sgt. Johnson’s honor on November 25, 1947, but was later closed. An Army Reserve Center was built on part of the old camp on Leroy Johnson Drive. A bronze memorial plaque from the old camp was moved to the Oberlin courthouse. In 1965, a cast aluminum plaque was erected in the center of Oakdale to honor him.

Johnson also received the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster (second award).

Pfc. Dirk Vlug

Dirkjan (Dirk) Cornelius Vlug was born on August 20, 1916 in Maple Lake, Wright County, Minnesota, to Isaac and Wilhelmina (Dekker) Vlug. He was one of six children. He joined siblings Peter (born 1909), Alida (born 1912) and Wesselina (born 1914). Farmers in Minnesota, the Vlugs had two more children after Dirk, Gertrude born in 1918 and Marian born in 1922. When Dirk was six years old the family moved to Michigan. By 1930 Isaac Vlug had settled the family on the west side of  Grand Rapids taking up carpentry as a trade to support his family.  

He joined the Army in April 1941 and was sent south to be a part of the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division.  On December 15, 1944, Vlug had been tasked with defending the roadblock on the Ormoc Road. When it was attacked by a group of enemy tanks, he left his covered position, and with a rocket launcher and six rounds of ammunition, advanced alone under intense machine gun and 37-mm fire.  The following citation describes the action and results in detail:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private First Class Dirk John Vlug (ASN: 36155103), United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32d Infantry Division, in action on 15 December 1944, at Limon, Leyte, Philippine Islands. When an American roadblock on the Ormoc Road was attacked by a group of enemy tanks, Private First Class Vlug left his covered position, and with a rocket launcher and six rounds of ammunition, advanced alone under intense machine gun and 37-mm fire. Loading single-handedly, he destroyed the first tank, killing its occupants with a single round. As the crew of the second tank started to dismount and attack him, he killed one of the foe with his pistol, forcing the survivors to return to their vehicle, which he then destroyed with a second round. Three more hostile tanks moved up the road, so he flanked the first and eliminated it, and then, despite a hail of enemy fire, pressed forward again to destroy another. With his last round of ammunition he struck the remaining vehicle, causing it to crash down a steep embankment. Through his sustained heroism in the face of superior forces, Private First Class Vlug alone destroyed five enemy tanks and greatly facilitated successful accomplishment of his battalion's mission.

Personal photo taken by Dirk Vlug of destroyed Japanese tanks
The folks back home in Grand Rapids first received news of Vlug’s heroic actions in a Grand Rapids Press article on January 9, 1945. Following his discharge from the service on June 14, he returned home to his parents. 

For his actions, Vlug, a veteran of the Buna, Saidor, Aitape and Morotai campaigns prior to Leyte, was issued the Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman a year and a half later on June 7, 1946. Vlug had been back at work at the American Seating Company in Grand Rapids when he learned he would receive the award in Washington, DC. His family accompanied him to the White House and when he returned home, the entire city celebrated his accomplishment, setting up a fund which he and his soon-to-be wife used to purchase a home. On August 16, 1946, Vlug married Angie Sikkema in McBain, Missaukee County, Michigan. Together they raised three daughters: Carol, Margie and Meribeth. 

Dirk Vlug and his wife returning home from the White House
He subsequently left the army and joined the Michigan National Guard in May 1949 along with two other area Medal of Honor recipients: 1LT John C. Sjogren and 2LT Francis J. Pierce. Vlug was sworn in with the rank of Master Sergeant and took great pride for the next couple of years serving as color sergeant for the regiment. He retired from military service in January 1951.

In 1950, Vlug became a postal carrier in Grand Rapids retiring his position in 1976.

Years later, while being interviewed about his experience and having earned the nation’s highest military award, Vlug responded, “I was no different than any other soldier. I saw a chance and took it. I guess, though, that you have to be a keyed-up sort of guy to do what I did. You can’t just sit back and let things happen.”

Other honors afforded Vlug included designating the drill hall at the Grand Valley Armory in Wyoming, Michigan after him and an honorary street designation adjacent to the Grand Rapids Veterans Memorial Park. “Dirk Vlug Way” was unveiled on Veterans Day 1999. He also received Michigan’s top military award -- the Distinguished Service Medal -- in 1992. In 1994, he returned to the Philippines to participate in the 50th commemoration of the island’s recapture from the Japanese.

Vlug was active in local veterans organizations including the 32nd “Red Arrow” Club and 126th Infantry Association. He died suddenly on June 24, 1996 and was buried with full honors in Greenwood Cemetery. Remembered by his friends as an intensely humble man who rarely spoke of his heroics, his wife was quoted as saying “A lot of other people flaunt it, and he was very upset about other Medal of Honor Winners who flaunted it. He just wasn’t that way.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Colonel Merle Howe: "You go there and back for a commander like him."

Merle Henry Howe was born on April 11, 1896 in Mount Pleasant, Isabella County, Michigan, to parents Henry W. Howe (1864-1916) and Edith Adell Knight (1872-1944). The family had resided in southeast Fremont Township of that same county on an 80-acre farm in Section 26. 

Howe attended the Rust and Hay School (Township District No. 5) in that area along with his sister Lena, and both went on to Central State Normal College by 1917, a teacher preparation school and the forerunner of today’s Central Michigan University. 

He had planned for a career in teaching but his studies were interrupted by America’s entrance into World War I. By then residing at 208 E. Maple Street in Mount Pleasant, Howe registered for the draft on May 30, 1917 and became a cadet at the Reserve Officer Training Camp at Fort Sheridan. His father having passed away the previous year also made Howe the sole source of support for his mother and younger siblings. His draft registration described Howe as single, tall of medium build, and having gray eyes and light-colored hair.

1908 Rust and Hay School - Merle is back row 2nd from the left; sister Lena is middle row 2nd from the left.

Howe entered the service with the rank of private on August 15, 1917, having completed R.O.T.C. He was assigned to 3rd Company of the 10th Regiment. His term as a private lasted until January 6, 1918 when he was appointed 1st Lieutenant, Air Corps. Howe was assigned as a pilot to the 158th Aero Squadron and that winter embarked for France on the Tuscania, which had been converted to troop transport duty. 

The giant Cunard ship was carrying 2,179 American soldiers, many of which were 32nd Division soldiers from Wisconsin, under British convoy when it was sunk by enemy torpedo on February 7, 1918. As many as 260 may have been lost according to The New York Times. Howe and 100 other Michigan men were on board including a unit of Michigan’s 107th Engineers. Most of them survived the sinking. Re-formed in England, the 158th trained as a Pursuit Squadron but never entered combat.

Howe's World War I Draft Registration
Colonel Howe’s father passed away in 1916 and was buried in the Green Cemetery, Strickland township. He left behind Edith, Merle, and two daughters (Ida and Lena). Merle met his future wife, Virginia Mullen, at a dance for young student pilots in 1917, and following the war they were married on March 8, 1920, having been discharged from the service on February 19th of the previous year. Virginia, born the daughter of Charles Thomas Mullen (1860-1929) and Annie Reynolds (1862-1938) on April 16, 1900 in Belleville, Illinois, settled with her husband in Grand Rapids where they set up house at 22 Highland Street SE.

Before their marriage and just after his discharge, Howe had returned to Central State Normal College and concluded his studies for a Bachelor of Science degree in teaching.  The state’s professional education publication at the time, titled “Moderator-Topics,” contained a short entry in its February 27, 1919 edition under the heading “Central Normal Notes: Lieut. Merle Howe, and old C.M.N. boy, has just received his discharge and is around the campus again, with most interesting stories of more than 12 months of overseas service as one of Uncle Sam’s airmen. Lieut. Howe was on the ill-fated Tuscania when she was torpedoed off the north coast of Ireland about a year ago, and was one of the last to leave the ship.

Central State Normal School Class of 2019 - Howe is on the left
Howe went to work as a teacher and the faculty athletic event manager at the old westside Union High School on Turner Avenue. His mother was also a teacher, working at the one-room Little Brick school in Deerfield Township west of Mt. Pleasant. This is likely an occupation chosen after the death of her husband since in those days, most school boards would not hire a married woman. Over his twenty years at Union, Merle Howe taught high school electricity, arithmetic, history and general science courses and was a member of the Grand Rapids Teachers club, Grand Rapids Schoolmen’s club, Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Industrial Education Association.

1931 Union HS Yearbook - Howe 2nd row from bottom, 2nd from left
Merle and Virginia had four children: Virginia H. born March 19, 1922; Marion September 3, 1924; John Thomas July 18, 1928; and Joseph Wehner August 30, 1932.

In January 1923, Howe joined the local Grand Rapids unit of the Michigan National Guard, then located on Michigan Street and Ionia Avenue, and was appointed second lieutenant with assignment to Service Company, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division. The following August he was promoted to 1st lieutenant. Three years later he was promoted to captain and was placed in command of Howitzer Company and subsequently Company K, a position he held just prior to the 32nd Division mobilization for federal duty on October 15, 1940. While a company commander at the Grand Rapids Armory in 1929, Howe, along with Captain Charles Lawyer, sponsored the organization of a club for non-commissioned officers. When the post-war club was reorganized in 1950, they did not forget their old commander citing the club’s aims as “promotion of fellowship and aid in developing men who will be a credit to Brig Gen John H Schouten, the late Col Merle H. Howe, and Capt John Shirley.”

Howe mid-1930s
Howe had also served as captain of the State Rifle Team, was a Republican in his politics, and attended Park Congregational Church. He enjoyed fishing and hunting.

When Howe and the 126th were called into federal service for pre-war training in Louisiana, Virginia eventually moved the family there to share the experience with her husband, following his return from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1941, Howe attended the Army Staff and Command School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When the division moved to Massachusetts in 1942, she moved the family there, as well. When the order came for the 32nd to move to San Francisco for transport to Australia, she took her children and returned home to Grand Rapids.

Howe (right) and Major Henry McNaughton in Louisiana

Howe and possibly his mother (right) and wife (left) in Louisiana

Grand Rapids Press 5/21/1941 - Training in Louisiana
During the run-up to the war, Howe served at various times on the staff of the 126th Infantry Regiment and the 63rd Brigade, at least until the 32nd Division was reorganized from the old “square” model to a “triangular” division (three regiments without brigade structures).

When the 32nd Division embarked overseas to Australia, Howe was the Assistant G-3 with the rank of Major, having been promoted in April 1942. A few months later he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned as division G-3. That September, in his absence, Howe’s eldest child, Virginia, was married to Donald C. Gmeiner.

Major General Albert Waldron was commanding the 32nd Division that fall when he was wounded on December 5, 1942 and evacuated. Both he and Lieutenant Colonel Howe, Division G-3, had gone to the front in the attack on Buna Village and took charge as many small unit leaders had become casualties. They had been pushing the assault personally in the right center of the line. With complete disregard for their safety, the moved along the line of the assault platoons under heavy fire, inspiring their soldiers to great effort. Waldron received a Purple Heart medal for his wounds.

Howe earned the Distinguished Service Cross, at the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, during action in the Buna Campaign that day. Lieutenant General Eichelberger, the Commander of I Corps, paid tribute to Howe and several other officers of the 32nd Division when he wrote after the war: “There were many great combat commanders among the National Guard officers of the 32nd Division. In crises, I would like to have them again as comrades. I can mention only a few here: Colonels Merle H. Howe of Michigan and Herbert M. Smith of Wisconsin…” (Eichelberger, Robert L. Our Jungle Road to Tokyo. 1950)

The citation for Howe’s DSC reads as follows:

“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Lieutenant Colonel (General Staff Corps) Merle H. Howe, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with Headquarters, 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 5 December 1942, near Buna, new Guinea. During an attack on Buna Village, when men of a rifle company short of Company officers were checked by heavy small arms and mortar fire at close range, Lieutenant Colonel Howe personally exposed himself to the enemy fire, moving among the advanced groups and encouraging the men to resume the attack. He led them in an attack, gaining ground which, held and consolidated, assisted materially in an advance on the succeeding day. Lieutenant Colonel Howe’s outstanding leadership, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 32nd Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”

Howe also received a Purple Heart medal for wounds received in action near Buna Village similar to General Waldron. But it did not keep him out of the campaign.

On January 14, 1943, General Eichelberger put “the colorful Merle Howe” (as he called him) in command of the Urbana Force which included the 127th Infantry. He had been the 32nd Division G3 (operations officer), but in deciding that the current commander needed a break from active command, Eichelberger felt that Howe was “a stalwart fighting man” and elevated him to that role. In a report the next day to General Sutherland (MacArthur’s chief-of-staff), Eichelberger wrote: “Howe will take command of the left flank and the 127th Infantry. Howe is very competent. I will be glad to see him there for he is not a regular officer and I do not want to give the impression that I favor the regular army.”

Eichelberger ordered Howe to move up the coast on Giruwa the next day. In a phone conversation to Colonel Sladen Bradley, he described the situation:

“This damn swamp up here consists of big mangrove trees, not small ones like they have in Australia, but great big ones. Their knees stick up in the air . . . as much as six or eight feet above the ground and where a big tree grows it is right on top of a clay knoll.

“A man or possibly two men can . . . dig in a little bit, but in no place do they have an adequate dug-in position. The rest of this area is a swamp that stinks like hell. You step into it and go up to your knees. That’s the whole damn area, except for the narrow strip on the beach. I waded over the whole thing myself to make sure I saw it all. . . . There is no place along that beach that would not be under water when the tide comes in. . . .”

Under Howe’s leadership, the 127th was successful, fighting its way up the coast from Tarakena to Girua. Eichelberger again complimented him by noting that “…Howe, a National Guard officer and a former school-teacher, was the master par excellence of the indigo phrase, and a stalwart fighting man.” By January 21 the Papuan operation was over. The division, having taken considerable casualties, was evacuated to Australia for recovery and rebuilding. Howe remained in command of the 127th and was promoted to full colonel. On January 24, 1943, Howe was awarded the Silver Star medal for his actions at Buna while commanding the 127th:

“Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Buna Area, General Orders No. 17 (22 January 1943). Merle H. Howe, Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry, Commanding Officer, 127th Infantry, Army of the United States. For gallantry in action near Tarakena, New Guinea, January 16, 1943. On that date Lieutenant Colonel Howe made a personal reconnaissance of the frontline area across the Konombi River. With utter disregard for his personal safety, he continually exposed himself for heavy enemy sniper fire from enemy positions fifty yards away, and secured valuable information for future operations. Lieutenant Colonel Howe’s actions were over and above the ordinary call of duty and inspired his men to greater efforts.”

Howe received a second Silver Star (an Oak Leaf to be worn on the ribbon of the first award) on January 24, 1943: “For gallantry in action near Giruwa, New Guinea, January 19, 1943. During and attack near Giruwa, Company E, 127th Infantry was being held up by heavy enemy machine gun fire. With utter disregard for his personal safety, Lieutenant Colonel Howe went to the foremost elements of the company and while under constant heavy enemy machine gun and sniper fire, directed the destruction of the enemy resistance which resulted in the continuance of the advance on Giruwa. Lieutenant Colonel Howe’s courage, coolness, and exceptional leadership was an inspiration to all the troops. Headquarters U.S. Forces, Buna Area, General Order No. 18 (24 January 1943).”

Grand Rapids Press 11/6/1944
Howe continued with the 127th up through November 1944 when he was given a 30-day furlough and returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan. But not before earning a Bronze Star medal: “For meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy near Afua, New Guinea, from 19 July 1944 to 30 July 1944. Headquarters, 32d Infantry Division, General Order No. 96 (2 December 1944).” While back at home, Howe had the opportunity to see and hold his 2-month old grandson, Don Gneimer Jr. He was feted in town, made the guest of honor at a dinner of 126th Infantry World War II veterans, and led the Decoration Day (Veterans Day) parade. On his last evening in town, he sang the praises of the 126th Infantry to members of the Army and Navy Club.

GR Press 3/19/1945
When Howe returned to the 32nd Division at the conclusion of his furlough, the division was in the midst of the Leyte campaign and Howe was assigned to the division staff. On March 5, 1945, during operations along the Villa Verde Trail in Luzon, he was placed in command of his old 126th Infantry Regiment, although due to casualties and rotations, there weren’t many soldiers in the regiment that left Grand Rapids with him back in 1940. The Japanese were defending their mountain positions at all costs and the next few weeks marked some of the toughest fighting in the division’s history. The 127th Infantry had been the main effort but at the time was bogged down and eventually had to be pulled back since it could not be resupplied.

On March 22nd, the 128th Infantry replaced the 127th which went into reserve, and the 126th continued its mission along the river valleys to the west of the Villa Verde Trail area. Five days later, the commander of the 128th was killed in action and Howe succeeded him in command. At this juncture, Colonel Merle H. Howe now had the unique distinction of having commanded all three Infantry regiments of the 32nd Division.

The fighting was brutal for the 128th which at one time was down to a total effective strength of less than half its authorization. The 127th took over for the 128th in late April and the latter went into reserve until May 4. It then relieved the 126th Infantry and the division “went on to crush the Japanese so-called impregnable defense,” following 120 days of near hand-to-hand combat. Two of Howe’s battalions were cited by the War Department for performance of duty from March 23 to May 30.

On July 25, 1945, Howe was awarded the Legion of Merit medal: “For exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services in Luzon, Philippine Islands, from 28 March to 10 May 1945. Assuming command of an infantry regiment [128th] while it was engaged in sustained action with a stubborn enemy, Colonel Howe, through his gallant and incisive leadership, maintained his command at a high peak of morale and combat efficiency despite heavy casualties it had already suffered. While skillfully directing his forces in hotly contested action along the Villa Verde Trail, he made frequent personal visits to forward positions and through his advice and encouragement inspired his men to attack the enemy with renewed vigor and to capture or destroy strategic objectives. Colonel Howe’s brilliant and dynamic leadership and his willingness at all times to share the hardships and dangers of his men, contributed in high degree to his regiment’s success in the Luzon Campaign. Headquarters, United States Army Forces, Pacific, General Orders No. 71 (25 July 1945).”

Howe also received a second Distinguished Service Cross, in the form of an Oak Leaf to be worn on the ribbon of the first award, “for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with the 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 11 May 1945 at Luzon, Philippine Islands. During the fighting along the Villa Verde Trail, Colonel Howe, commanding an infantry regiment, went forward to a battalion position to observe the operations of forward elements. Shortly afterward he accompanied an advance patrol which was reconnoitering a route for tanks along the slope of a hill. Half of the patrol had traversed a narrow ravine when the enemy suddenly opened fire from concealed positions and seriously wounded a man directly in front of Colonel Howe. Taking charge of the patrol, immediately Colonel Howe sent two men forward to evacuate the casualty, and then directed covering fire into caves from which the enemy had fired. After directing removal of the wounded man to safety, he organized the patrol for sealing the caves, but was soon wounded by enemy mortar fire directed on the group. Despite the intense enemy fire he refused first aid, continued to direct the demolition squad in finding a route of approach to the caves, and assisted in providing covering fire while the caves were closed with pole charges. Under his direction five caves were sealed and over thirty enemy killed. Colonel Howe, by his quick and heroic action and his effective employment of the few troops at his disposal, prevented numbers casualties, extricated his men from a grave situation, and inflicted many losses on the enemy. His outstanding leadership, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 32nd Infantry Division, and the United States Army. Headquarters, U.S. Forces-Pacific, General Orders No. 53 (1945).”

Undated articles probably from The Grand Rapids Herald, 1945

While commanding the 128th, Howe personally made aerial reconnaissance flights over enemy positions along the Villa Verde Trail, earning the Air Medal for participating in flights from 1 April 1945 to 10 August 1945: “During the period Colonel Howe made more than twenty aerial flights in unarmed liaison planes over enemy held territory. More than ten of these flights were made over the Villa Verde Trail area for reconnaissance of enemy positions. As a result of these flights Colonel Howe had a clear picture of the tactical situation and an accurate idea of what he would encounter. The balance of his flights were over enemy territory in the area for reconnaissance of patrol routes and the locating of enemy pockets. Due to Colonel Howe’s flights, patrols were routed over the most advantageous terrain and their missions accomplished expeditiously. For his courage, disregard for his personal safety, and participation in these operations, Colonel Howe established a high degree of meritorious achievement. 32nd Infantry Division Citation, 25 July 1945.”

John “Jack” Carlisle, reporter for The Detroit News, was with the 32nd Division during the Villa Verde action and wrote about Colonel Howe. He titled it, The Colonel Was a School Teacher, and included it in his 1945 published book, Red Arrow Men: Stories About the 32nd Division on the Villa Verde. About Howe, he wrote: “Col. Howe is a front-line leader. When I last saw him he was still limping around the front lines with a Jap hand-grenade slug in his right leg. He refused to go to the rear. ‘Some day,’ he said, ‘I’ll have that piece of shell cut out’” The rest of the story focused on the tough battle faced by Howe and his men.

In August 1945, following the dropping of two atomic bombs on mainland Japan, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, Japanese commander for the Philippines, notified his command to cease hostilities. He then sent a letter to the 32nd Division commander implying that he was ready to surrender, but still hadn’t heard anything from Imperial Japanese Headquarters that would authorize him to do so. Colonel Howe played a prominent role in negotiations preliminary to the surrender. He was dispatched by the 32nd Division’s commanding general to the area by plane where division intelligence had reported as to Yamashita’s whereabouts. Howe dropped the surrender instructions from the plane.

The Grand Rapids Press 8/28/1945
On August 30, the eve of the actual surrender on Luzon to members of his unit and 16 days after the war had officially ended, while making a second aerial pass to drop final surrender instructions in the mountains of northern Luzon, Howe was killed in the crash of his small plane. 

Details of the crash and Howe’s death were provided by General Yamashita.

The Grand Rapids Press 9/24/1945
Tech4 Charles P. Murdock, in his featured story for the November 10, 1945 edition of The Saturday Evening Post titled, “The Red Arrow Pierced Every Line,” had this to say about Howe: “The moment of triumph was to have its anticlimax of bitter tragedy. Col. Merle H. Howe, the forty-nine-year-old Grand Rapids schoolteacher who became the 32nd’s most decorated officer, was killed in a plane crash near Yamashita’s headquarters, while making daily flights there in connection with surrender negotiations. Colonel Howe at various times had commanded all the division’s regiments. He was a sort of living symbol of what the division had been through.”

Howe was posthumously awarded a second Purple Heartfor military merit and for wounds received in action resulting in his death August 30, 1945.” In addition, he received the Combat Infantryman Badge and Presidential Unit Citation. The photo below is of a memorial held in the field with Colonel Howe’s staff, the band, and an honor guard detail.

Howe memorial ceremony 1945
Howe was laid to rest in the Fort McKinley United States Military Cemetery in Luzon, Philippine Islands (Section A, Row 5, Grave 100). His headstone reads:            
COL   128  INF    32  DIV
MICHIGAN   AUG 30 1945

APO 32, 11 September 1945


    The death of Colonel Merle H. Howe, Commanding Officer of the 128TH Infantry Regiment, who was killed in action while participating in an aerial flight on 30 August 1945, is announced with deep regret.

    For many years Colonel Howe served his country with distinction. Enlisting as a private on 15 August 1917, he emerged from World War I as an Air Corps pilot with the rank of First Lieutenant. He completed more than a year of service in France during World War I. 

    When the 32D Infantry Division was re-activated in October 1940, Colonel Howe once again volunteered his services and was assigned to the 126TH Infantry as Regimental S-3, and later rendered invaluable services as Division G-3 during the early stages of the Division’s overseas service in World War II. Serving successively as Commanding Officer of the 127TH, 126TH and 128TH Infantry Regiments, he demonstrated exceptional ability and a devotion to duty which earned him the respect and admiration of officers and men throughout the entire Division. 

     In recognition of his great qualities of leadership and the manner in which he performed his duties during World War II, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Oak Leaf Cluster to the Distinguished Service Cross, The Legion of Merit, The Silver Star, the Oak Leaf Cluster to the Silver Star, the Bronze Star Medal, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, the Oak Leaf Cluster to the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

    The memory of Colonel Howe’s valiant deeds, his unselfish faithful service and fine soldierly qualities will long live in the minds and hearts of the officers and men of the 32D Infantry Division. His was an honorable and distinguished career and in his death the nation lost one of its finest citizens, the “Red Arrow” Division one of its most distinguished soldiers.

Brigadier General, U.S. Army,

The Grand Rapids Press Editorial

Grand Rapids Herald Editorial

Following the war, there were several memorials and recognitions created to honor the life and legacy of Colonel Howe. These are probably just some of them:

  • ·       In May 1946, the program for the annual banquet sponsored by the Union High School Community Council dedicated a full page as a special memorial to Colonel Merle Howe, a member of the faculty for twenty years.
  • ·       The Colonel Merle H. Howe Medal for Military Proficiency was originally awarded the best soldier in the 126th Infantry. Later this became the top award for the 1st Battle Group 126th Infantry, then the 2nd Brigade 46th Division, and eventually the 46th Brigade 38th Division, each of these units headquartered in Grand Rapids and then Wyoming, Michigan. The medal was first awarded during the annual encampment at Camp Grayling in 1949 to Sgt. Eugene J. Harmsen, Company L.
  • ·       The Colonel Merle H. Howe Trophy was awarded annually to the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp company in the Grand Rapids Public School system that received the highest rating in a federal inspection typically held at the armory. This was created as a family memorial and for a number of years, Mrs. Virginia Howe presented the trophy.
  • ·       Also, in 1948 the Earl R. Stewart American Legion Post voted to change the name of their club to the Stewart-Howe Red Arrow Post. Stewart was a former commander of the 126th and Michigan’s 63rd Brigade.
  • ·       In August 1949, the Michigan National Guardsman reported the organization of a board of officers to name roads, camp areas, or landmarks at Camp Grayling as memorials to officers and men of the Michigan National Guard who have given their lives in the service of their state or country. While no follow-up articles have been located to determine the process and results, the August 1951 edition of the Guardsman carried a map sketch of the main camp that indicated the Upper Lake Road was now named Howe Road. This was the first year the road carried that designation.
Main road at Camp Grayling renamed "Howe Road" (red arrow)

  • ·       The old Union High School football field was named in honor of Colonel Howe.
In 1949, the Michigan State Senate passed Concurrent Resolution 10 commending Colonel Howe for his distinguished heroic services.

1943 Union HS Yearbook


Virginia Mullen Howe never remarried after the death of her husband, Merle, and according to her obituary, she finished the job of raising her children, sending them to college, seeing them married, and welcoming grandchildren. During her many years of widowhood, she devoted herself to her family, to travel, and to good works in the Grand Rapids community. She served for more than a quarter century as a Red Cross volunteer in family service work. She…was an honorary member of the American Legion (Stewart-Howe Post) and the Red Arrow Club. At her death on May 2, 1997, Virginia and her late husband were survived by a daughter, Virginia Howe Gmeiner of Key Largo, Florida; son, John Tomas Howe of Los Altos, California; and son, Joseph Wehner Howe of Annandale, Virginia.

Their youngest daughter, Marion Howe Alquist of Grand Rapids, passed away in 1994, a victim of polio she had contracted in 1953. After graduating from South High School, she had earned a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University. Despite her disease, she served as a tutor in mathematics for a number of years and an at-home employee of the Red Cross for 22 years. She and her husband, Robert, had two daughters and four grandsons at the time of Marion’s death. In September 1954, she had been in Marquette, Michigan when doctors at that location prescribed treatments available back in Grand Rapids. However, the doctors had ruled out any long auto or train trip, so arrangements were made with the Michigan National Guard to use the Adjutant General’s plane to fly her home.

Eldest daughter Virginia Howe Gmeiner passed away on April 14, 2000 in Key Largo, Florida.

Son, John Thomas Howe enjoyed a career in engineering and the sciences in the Palo Alto region of California. Although he would be 91 at this writing, it is not known whether he still survives.

Their youngest son, Joseph W. Howe, was the top graduating student in Central High School’s class of 1950, and as a result he earned a one-year scholarship to Princeton University. He was a National Honor Society student and a member of the JROTC program all four years of high school. At Princeton, he received the Paul C. Martin 1898 Memorial Scholarship over his final three years which enabled Joseph to graduate in 1954. It is not known at this writing if he still survives.

Merle’s older sister, Ida, married Charles Hall of Mt. Pleasant in 1908 at the age of 15. They had one son and eventually divorced in 1944. Merle’s younger sister, Lena, married Victor Staley from Ohio in 1918 and they had two children. Victor died in 1953 and Lena in 1978, while residing in San Diego. Ida, Merle and Lena had one additional sibling, Florence Myrtle, who was born in 1901 but died ten months later of pneumonia. She was buried in the Lincoln township cemetery, Isabella County.

The Grand  Rapids Press 2/2/1973


126th Infantry Association Archive, Grand Valley Armory, Wyoming, Michigan


Britten, David G, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired). Courage Without Fear: The Story of the Grand Rapids Guard. Xlibris, 2004

Eichelberger, Robert L., Lieutenant General. Our Jungle Road to Tokyo. 1950

Blakeley, H. W., Major General. The 32nd Infantry Division In World War II. 1957

Carlisle, John M. Red Arrow Men: Stories About the 32nd Division on the Villa Verde Trail. Detroit, 1945

Various editions of The Grand Rapids Press and The Grand Rapids Herald

Various editions of the Michigan National Guardsman

Dunbar, Willis F. Michigan Through the Centuries. Volume IV, Family and Personal History. 1955

Official National Guard Register, 1943 (Active)

Howe, Merle H. – TracesOfWar.com

Others as noted within the text