Editor's note: This is the eighth installment of a series of stories about Ashland residents who lost their lives in military service during World War II. It continues on Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa — all seminal World War II battles, all with young men from Ashland in the fight.
Pfc. Dale W. Ross didn’t think when he was assigned to the 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, he would be embroiled in the carnage known as Guadalcanal. An Ashland High School graduate, Dale was a good-looking young man with brown hair and blue eyes and a steady girlfriend. He excelled at cross country, running for miles through the quiet countryside. He knew his way up and down every street in town.
When Dale landed, Guadalcanal was already covered with denuded and blackened palm trees and torched vegetation. The terrain was ominous even for a well-trained athlete — rugged mountains, dormant volcanos, vine-laden ravines and deep streams. Though torrential rains, knee-deep sticky mud, and mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever, Dale ran on, delivering battle messages to commanders.
It was here on Mount Austen, the highest point on Guadalcanal where the timberline ended and the grassland began, that four days into the fierce fighting, Dale ran his last race. On Jan. 14, 1943, he was killed in an area pocketed by foxholes and obscured by grass growing 10 feet high. His remains were never recovered.
Today, Guadalcanal’s lowlands are once again covered with leafy palm trees, its rolling, green terrain home to parrots and kingfishers, and its course grasses scattered through with wildflowers that dance and weave in the wind. In a different time and place, it would be easy to imagine Dale running up Guadalcanal’s winding trails and narrow paths. At the top of Mount Austen, he could look out over the verdant hills all the way to the ocean.
Seventy years have passed since the Battle of Iwo Jima, and it was on this hardscrabble, desolate island, every inch of it a battlefield, where Ashland’s Pfc. Ivan O. Chambers landed with the 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945.
Narrowly avoiding drowning in the powerful undertow, Ivan staggered onto the island’s soft volcanic ash, surrounded by the stench of burning sulfur rising in an eerie yellow mist. Once the beach was crowded with men and equipment, the Japanese opened fire. Ivan headed for the first steep slope about 15 yards up the beach. Whether he ever made is not known — he was killed that first day. A simple notice in the Ashland Tidings “Casualties of War” column brought home the tragic news in the starkest terms: “Navy Dead: Chambers, Ivan O., PFC, USMCR, Father: Mr. Otis Chambers, Ashland. Sister, Miss Ethel M. Chambers, Grants Pass.”
As the troops quickly realized, the Japanese weren’t just on Iwo Jima, they were in it. Frederick H. Kannasto, Ashland High Class of 1944, also experienced the ruthless fight waged by the Japanese from underground defense installations and tunnels. Fred was with the 3rd Marine Division, joining the fight on the fifth day after the invasion to help take the center of the island, aptly named the "Meat Grinder.” By the time Iwo Jima was declared secure, a terrible price had been paid: 6,821 Marines had been killed and another 19,717 wounded.
Fighting on Iwo Jima for those 31 days left Fred with profound memories and deep scars. He saw fellow soldiers killed or grievously wounded, and watched Japanese “buzz bombs” head his way, screaming and hissing as they lighted up the night and exploded with deadly force.
He was one of the lucky ones — he returned to Ashland, graduating from Southern Oregon College (SOC) where he was a member of the 1946 undefeated football team. A man of deep faith and humility, Fred served as chaplain of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). In 1998, he was selected to lead Ashland’s Fourth of July Parade. At the age of 72, his hair still buzzed short and neat, Fred held the flag high as he walked slowly down Siskiyou Boulevard, paying homage to the country he loved in the town that had been his home all his life. He died in 2012 and was laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery, the site of so many Memorial and Veterans Day services where he had led the prayers of remembrance.
The “Typhoon of Steel,” the Battle of Okinawa, will be forever remembered for the ferocity of the fighting on both sides. Landing there on April 1, 1945, was Pvt. Roy L. Dunham, known to his neighbors on Elizabeth Street as Lee. Eager to enlist, he left Ashland High early and was assigned to the 4th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division.
By April 14, they had swept 55 miles inland, fighting fierce opposition every step of the way. Heavy rains and constant shelling turned Okinawa into a quagmire as they fought for Sugar Loaf Hill, routing out Japanese defenses in wooded, twisty channels of rocky ridges and ravines. Two hundred Marines were killed for every 100 yards gained.
In a place littered with burnt out trees, battle refuse, and shallow foxholes covered with tarps, Lee was fatally wounded on May 27, 1945. Whether he was able to get medical attention is not known — his family thinks he may have been evacuated by an Amtrac (amphibious tractor) and, while taking him to a medical field station, it was hit by enemy fire.
As fellow Marine Eugene Sledge said, “Courage meant overcoming fear and doing one’s duty in the presence of danger, not being unafraid.” For those 27 days in a Typhoon of Steel, Lee fought with courage and conviction. He died on May 31 at the age of 19, receiving a Presidential Citation ribbon bar with star for his division’s heroic service and a posthumous Purple Heart.
Next week: Remembering those from the Southern Oregon College of Education (SOCE) and the community.