Editor's note: This is the ninth 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.
Ashland High School students weren’t the only ones who bore the burden of service. By 1939, Southern Oregon College of Education (SOCE) offered a CAA (Civil Aeronatics Authority) program to train civilian pilots for the military with classroom training on campus and flight instruction at the Medford Airport.
The desire to be a pilot guided Eugene W. Crites, known as Gene — a lanky, broad-shouldered SOCE basketball standout who became a cadet with the 326 School Squadron at Minter Field in Bakersfield. On March 18, 1942 while at the controls of his BT-13A on a training mission over the Tehachapi Mountains, Gene was killed in what the military called “a crash ground collision.” The wreckage of his aircraft was located in Castac Lake east of Lebec, Calif.
Three years later, Gene’s brother, Lt. Ronald W. Crites, a World War II pilot, was attending the University of Oregon where he was a varsity football star. On Nov. 17, 1945, he piloted his own plane from Eugene in what would became another tragic chapter. As Ron headed toward the hills south of the field, his aircraft nose-dived into the ground. He was killed instantly.
The two Crites brothers — both talented athletes, both pilots, and both close. It seemed only fitting they also be buried next to each other.
SOCE graduate 1st Lt. Ralph Lamb was assigned to the 409th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Infantry Division. The news they would be leaving for Camp Shanks, N.Y., and imminent embarkation overseas caused excitement and trepidation. Ralph received a 24-hour pass to New York City and spent every minute of it seeing the sights. On a chilly October evening, lugging his blanket roll around his musette bag, fully loaded duffel bag and a rifle, Ralph headed up the gangplank for points unknown. His last glimpse of the United States was the lights of a parachute drop tower at Coney Island.
His division arrived at Marseilles and began a night march in the rain uphill for 20 miles. By midnight, they were so exhausted they lay down in the mud of a French field. In November 1944, Ralph’s division headed for the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. After just 10 days in combat, the fighting was so horrendous that they received a Combat Infantrymen’s Badge and hazardous pay. One soldier remembered they were always tired, cold and hungry, and would fall asleep leaning on their rifles.
On Dec. 14, Ralph moved to Cleebourg, a picturesque village of half-timbered houses with window boxes and pastures dotted with vineyards. Its snowy forest-covered hills were deceiving, hiding numerous German bunkers and snipers. It was here that Ralph and three others captured a German soldier. As they waited, incoming fire from either a mortar or an 88 mm round passed through the prisoner, killing him instantly. The round then exploded, killing Ralph and the other serviceman, and mortally wounding another.
“Our progress along the road to victory must be paced off by the man with the rifle, by his brains, his fortitude, and his fighting heart,” said a commander. “We are fighting this war to the finish. And that finish will be fought by the infantryman on foot.”
On that road, Ralph never made it to the finish.
Ashland High and SOCE graduate Lambert J. Barker, known as John, was the oldest of five brothers all in the service. As the Ashland Tidings noted, “The Barkers have the largest number of boys from Ashland wearing the uniform of the United States Armed Forces.”
John was a school principal when he enlisted on July 8, 1943, as a tech sergeant with the 255th Infantry Regiment, 63rd Infantry Division. He trained at in the sweltering heat of Mississippi only to arrive in Marseille, France, during December 1944’s bitter cold and snow. Attached to the 100th Infantry Division, his unit moved to the town of Bitche on the German border. As winter continued, John’s division found itself in Bliesbruken Wald, France. It was here on Feb. 28, 1945 while patrolling a maze of hedgerows that he was mortally wounded.
John was buried in Epinal American Cemetery in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains where his grave overlooks the Moselle Valley.
It wasn’t only Ashlanders remembered for their sacrifice. Hildred Hunt, who owned an ice cream shop on North Main Street, lost her husband in a B-17 crash in Mississippi. At the same time, her only child, Lt. Cecil C. Hunt Jr., was serving with the 44th Infantry Division, braving freezing temperatures in the Vosges Mountains. On a night reconnaissance mission, Cecil cut a path through barbed wire and climbed onto a German observation fort to determine what type of weapon was likely to be encountered during an attack. He was killed in action in a blinding snowstorm sometime in 1945.
Residents would have also known 2nd Lt. Robert T. Leslie, an Oregon State Police officer based in Ashland. He was shot down co-piloting a B-24 Liberator over Sicily on Oct. 1, 1944, leaving behind a wife and 2½ year old son. Several months later, his cousin, 1st Lt. Donald V. Leslie, a B-26 pilot with 33 completed missions, was killed in action over France.
The war continued taking its sorrowful toll. Dorothy Huntsman was living on Ivy Street with her four children while her husband, Aviation Chief Machinist's Mate Joel B. Huntsman, served on the USS Randolph (CV-15). While anchored in the Caroline Islands, a Japanese kamikaze hit his ship below its flight deck killing 27 and wounding 105. Joel suffered compound fractures to his lower extremities; his prognosis was deemed fatal. He was transferred to a hospital ship where he died on March 12, 1945.
Charles W. Yoder, manager at Ashland’s Sunfreeze Ice Cream Plant, became a Radarman 3rd Class on the USS Intrepid (CV-11). During the Leyte Campaign just after Thanksgiving 1944, a kamikaze exploded overhead, showering wreckage, starting fires and destroying aircraft waiting to take off. Twenty minutes later, two more kamikazes approached. The Intrepid’s anti-aircraft guns brought down one but the other dove into the center of the deck. Minutes later, the ship was attacked again. That terrible day cost the lives of 69 men, including Charles. He was thought to have been one of 25 radarmen meeting beneath the flight deck when a plane crashed through the room next door.
Working at Ashland’s Drive-In Market, Wilford J. Vakoc, called Willie, knew everyone. He enlisted in June 1943 in Portland and entered training in California. Transferring to the Infantry, he came home on furlough before shipping out to Europe. In France with the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, Willie was immediately sent into battle. He lost his life less than a month later attacking an enemy pillbox at near Brest. Knowing it was a dangerous assignment, he volunteered.
Next week: Remembering the families.