Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a series of stories about Ashland residents who lost their lives in military service during World War II. It will continue on Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of V-J Day when victory was declared over Japan and World War II ended. On Wednesday, Aug. 15, 1945, after a tense day waiting and hoping the Japanese would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, at 4 p.m. on a hot, sunny day in Ashland, the happy news came across the wires. After six years and over 407,000 American servicemen and women lost, World War II was finally over.
City sirens blasted and Ashland Mayor T.S. Wiley immediately ordered all government offices closed. Stores locked their doors and people spilled onto the streets of downtown and gathered on the Plaza, letting loose with a cacophony of cheers, whistles, and singing, accompanied by clanging buckets and dishpans, the honking of cars, and ringing of bike bells.
Confetti rained from second floor windows, and homemade signs were quickly hung from balconies and taped to doors announcing “V-J Day is Here!” Ashland’s First Methodist Church, perched overlooking Main Street, remained open all night so people could give thanks at any time, and the city-wide interfaith service that evening was packed to overflowing. The headline on the Ashland Tiding’s Extra Edition read: “Peace on Earth. Reunions Coming.” For a world that just yesterday seemed permanently tinged with the darkness and shadow of war, there was now hope and the promise of a future.
Despite their happiness that the fighting was over, for the families, friends and classmates of those from Ashland who died, relief was overshadowed by the deep regret and despair. The fabric that stitched their lives together irreparably tore the day they received the telegram with “Casualty Message” from the War Department. There would be no homecoming parade or reception for their loved ones — they were buried under simple wooden crosses overseas, under the spreading oaks and maple trees of the Mountain View and Ashland Cemeteries, or memorialized in the Courts of the Missing.
Between 1,000 and 1,200 Ashland residents served in the Armed Services during WW II. They fought in Normandy on D-Day, on Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and in the Battle of Bataan; they died in the Battle of the Bulge, in Operation Market Garden, in the South Pacific; they were Prisoners of War (POWs) in Germany, Manchuria, and Luzon; they were imprisoned on Japanese "Hell Ships"; they came home physically and mentally wounded.
Today, a simple plaque dedicated by Ashland High School’s Class of 1941 hangs in the school’s administration building inscribed with the names of 12 students who died during World War II.
That’s only a small part of the story.
There was never a complete list of casualties from Ashland and the accounting from Jackson County was incomplete — servicemen relocated, left for college, enlisted elsewhere, their families moved, or their names were misspelled. The scavenger hunt for evidence as to how many more were lost goes on — in microfiche issues of the Ashland Tidings, old Ashland High School student newspapers and a handful of yearbooks; in the 1940 census, cemetery records and official battle reports; in a yellowed scrapbook carefully pasted with local obituaries; in a water-damaged list stored in a church basement with the names of soldiers asking for prayers; and, most importantly, in the remembrances of those who lived it.
The clues point to at least 60 young men from Ashland who were killed in this war — most of whom graduated from Ashland High School and/or the Southern Oregon College of Education (SOCE), and some who grew up here or were employed here. To put those numbers in context, the population of Ashland at that time was a little more than 4,700 people. The chances that you knew someone — family member, friend, neighbor — who was killed was high; the chances that you knew a serviceman fighting overseas almost certain. The American Legion’s huge three-sided Roll of Honor, dedicated on July 4, 1943, listed all the names of those serving. It was located downtown and immediately became a rallying point and a statement of pride for the entire community.
As World War II dragged on, the number of gold stars grew next to Honor Roll names, marking those who died.
Today, each of the local men behind the star deserves to be named, remembered, and given voice. Please follow us every week until Veterans Day as the Ashland Tidings features some of their unvarnished narratives reflecting all the tragedy, heroism, and profound loss born of that time and this place.
Next week: The War Comes Home.