Thank you for that kind introduction, Mayor Poll. It is truly an honor to be able to share a spot on the program tonight as we pause to reflect on the cost of freedom, and remember those who bore that cost.
It is an unfortunate truism of history that as time goes on our collective memory of those who paid the ultimate price and sacrificed the most is reduced to names and dates inscribed on stones and generalizations about the number killed, wounded, or missing in action. While such facts and statistics enable us to understand the magnitude of the cost of war, they also inadvertently insulate us from the realization that each number represented a personal life and loss of a family member and friend.
At one time, record-keeping was little more than oral histories handed down from generation to generation in the form of stories about real people and their experiences. Keeping the memories of the ancients alive required that the youngest generations learn through repeated accounts of their ancestors. And while the stories often came to be embellished over time with their retelling, they served to keep the historical focus on people rather than cold facts and statistics. Heroes were remembered for who they were, what they did, and what they represented, not merely reduced to a number.
So this evening my friends, I would like to share a brief story about the boys from Galewood. For the youngsters in the audience or those who didn’t grow up in this area, Galewood is the historical name for the community that comprises most of what is known today as Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. In fact, where we stand tonight is considered the southern boundary of Galewood which during the 30’s and 40’s was the center of Wyoming’s township government.
Twenty-seven boys from Galewood, all of whom attended or graduated from Lee High School, gave their lives in defense of freedom during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Their names and pictures adorn the front lobby of the school they once attended. And while time tonight doesn’t permit a full accounting of just who those boys were, I thought I would at least share the story of some. After all, they were real people with real lives and real dreams disrupted only by the call of duty.
Three members of the Class of ’41 in particular illustrate the many personal stories, heroism, and tragedy of young men serving in World War II. That year would be the last graduating class of Lee High School prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It began with Lawrence Beukema, whose senior picture affords him a movie star appearance, and who had been known throughout high school as “Lumps” to his classmates. The description of Lawrence – or Lumps if you prefer — was a testament to “His peculiar sense of humor (which) was a constant source of amusement to his classmates and sometimes a greater source of embarrassment to himself.”
The middle of three sons born to Dutch immigrant parents who had come to the area to work in one of the many furniture factories, Lumps Beukema grew up on Burton Street where he undoubtedly availed himself of several neighborhood soda fountains. While it was unlikely he ever set foot in the old Galewood Theater due to his Dutch heritage, he did bide his time excelling as a three-sport athlete in football, basketball, and tennis. As with many other teenagers, he had a sweet tooth and it was once said that the only thing more important to him than graduation was eating pumpkin pie.
Beukema enlisted in September 1942 during the first year of the war. Serving in the Army Air Corps where he was eventually promoted to staff sergeant, Lumps was killed a year and half later as a result of a crash landing in England of his B-24 Liberator Bomber on which he was serving as tail gunner.
A classmate of Beukema’s, William Overmire was simply known as Bill to his friends and was arguably the most handsome and best all-around athlete of the Class of ’41. The youngest of a daughter and three sons born to William Senior and his wife, Mabel, Bill’s boyish appearance was such that perhaps it might have saved him from getting into any kind of trouble at school. One account noted, “After getting into mischief, he was able to look so innocent that it was hard to believe him guilty…unless you knew him as we did.” If you were to stare at his senior picture and look into his eyes you would no doubt agree.
One of twelve seniors who played on the undefeated, unscored-upon Grand Valley Conference championship football team of 1940, Bill was selected second team all-conference in the backfield for a second straight year along with all-state honorable mention. In baseball, he caught for two championship teams and captained the 1940 team. He was the younger brother to Frank “Stubby” Overmire who went on to pitch and coach for the Detroit Tigers. When Bill wasn’t at school or practice, he often could be seen working behind the soda fountain at the old Burkhead’s Drugstore on Chicago Drive. Thought of as an apparent leader by his classmates, he was elected to serve as student council president and following graduation attended Western State Teachers College (now Western Michigan University).
But war interrupted Bill’s future plans and like Beukema, he found himself enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he too was eventually promoted to the rank of staff sergeant while serving on the opposite side of the globe from his friend. In January 1945, just one month after being selected as an aviation cadet, young Bill Overmire who had been born in Moline, Michigan, grew up at 1154 Joosten Street in Wyoming, and had only turned 21 the prior August, was killed in action when his B-29 bomber was shot down during a raid over Tokyo, Japan. Originally listed as missing in action, his remains would not be returned home until 1949. Today he rests in a common grave at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery near Louisville, Kentucky.
The third member of the Class of ’41 was Harold Schievink, simply referred to as “Abe.” There are few clues to his nickname but perhaps it was the result of a humble, overbearing honesty or some other similar trait. He once had expressed hopes of becoming a carpenter like his father, Henry, and even spent time working as a carpenter’s assistant to learn the trade. Not really interested in sports, his classmates thought of him as being “rather bashful around the fairer sex, someone who would rather read then rumba, or go for a jaunt in his ancient jalopy.” It was noted by the student newspaper that he and classmate Lumps Beukema were once actually observed comparing the sharpness in the creases of their trousers.
The oldest of three children, Harold moved to the Galewood area from Grand Rapids after having attended school at Ottawa Hills during the first half of his freshman year. Following graduation he didn’t enter military service until January of 1943. Eventually, Abe earned a commission as second lieutenant but on Christmas Day 1944, while his B-24 bomber was on a mission to Austria, it went down in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Italy. No trace of the aircraft or its crew was ever found and today he’s listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy.
Together, these three young men are but a few examples of typical Galewood boys who were raised during the Great Depression, and came of age at a time of world war. By their individual records, none were exceptional students in the classroom earning their share of C’s and D’s, and on occasion no doubt testing the patience of their teachers as well as Principal Reuben Young.
Like these three, twenty-four other young Rebels “gave their today so we could live our tomorrow.”
Donald Ingersol, one of the oldest and a member of the Class of ‘34, went with Grand Rapids’ own 126th Infantry Regiment along with Egbert Klaver, Class of ‘37, and Robert Sousley, Class of ‘40. The 126th fought one of the toughest battles in the Southwest Pacific while at Buna, New Guinea, serving a U.S. Army record of 654 days in combat prior to the end of the war. Ingersol and Sousley were both lost at Buna, while Klaver would fight on to Luzon, Philippines, eventually killed in action just five months before the Japanese surrender.
Theodore Nitz from the Class of ’36 was Galewood’s first casualty when he was killed in action in November 1942 during the naval Battle of Guadacanal. Classmate Melvin VanEyk, another veteran of the New Guinea campaign, died in service in August 1943.
That same year William Francis “Bill” Elderkin, Class of ’43, serving as a private in the Marine Corps, was killed in action at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. In lasting tribute to their senior class president his classmates noted that, “He possessed all the qualities of a fine fellow, the same qualities that led to the Marines. The class hated to see him go – he was truly a lad which the finest of things could be said. He was well liked by everyone…,” apparent from the large memorial service given in honor of Elderkin’s sacrifice, at which his mother received his bronze star medal posthumously. The citation noted, “Although receiving severe wounds which proved fatal, he fired upon the enemy continuously until he died.” Lee High Rebel to the very end.
In contrast, Elderkin’s classmate, Richard “Jack” Boes, “was so quiet we hardly knew he was around” according to his friends. Following graduation, Boes enlisted, was eventually commissioned a second lieutenant, and went on to become a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot until he tragically went missing in action over Germany in October 1944.
James Vawter, with the 41st Infantry Division, died in the summer of ‘43 as a result of contracting malaria while fighting in New Guinea. Robert Hage was killed in action with the 28th Infantry Division, December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. The very next day, classmate Carl Fisher was killed in action in that very same battle. All three had left high school early to join the war effort, not uncommon in those days. Hage was the second of two brothers lost in the war. Older brother Glenn, Lee High School Class of ’40, was killed in action at Anzio, Italy just two months earlier. He had left behind his wife and former classmate, Florence Graham, and their young daughter, Nancy Kay.
Emerson Mockerman, a one time a member of the Class of ’43, was killed in action on June 27, 1944 during the Battle of Saipan. Louis Rienks, Class of ’38, died three days later from wounds received while fighting in Italy. Two weeks after, Leo Gerard, Class of ’39, was killed in action in France five weeks following the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Leo McLavic, a sergeant with the United States Infantry, was killed in action the following month, also in France, and Robert Moomey, Class of ’37, was killed in action in September ’44 while fighting with the 45th Infantry Division in Southern France. His classmate, Robert Hazelwinkle, drowned in December 1944 while assigned to a U.S. Navy tank landing ship.
In the final months of the war, the Class of ‘42’s Harvey Van Ham, known for his swing harmonica playing in high school, went missing in action in February 1945 near Callina, Italy. Bernard Tangenberg, another member of the Class of ’37, was killed in action the next month on Luzon, Philippines.
The last Galewood boy to give his life during World War II was Peter Kreple, Class of ’43 and known for sleeping in study hall. He was lost at sea in July 1945 somewhere within the Bermuda Triangle.
Six years later, during the forgotten war on the Korean peninsula, Rollin Jack Kaat, Class of ’47, was killed in action while fighting with the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Later that year, Ronald Wiersma, Class of ’49, died of injuries in an aircraft crash at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado.
The last of the 27 was Larry Bodell, Class of ’66, killed in action when his Cobra Gun Ship came under fire near An Xugen, South Vietnam, in February 1969. Bruce Palmer, Class of ’67 and also a helicopter pilot, had been killed in action by artillery fire the previous August near Vinh Long, South Vietnam.
These are the Boys of Galewood and just a part of their story of everyday lives cut short by the call to defend freedom. If we could speak to them today, or the thousands of young men and women who have given their lives in battle throughout our nation’s history, they would most likely tell us to remember them not as heroes but simply as young men growing up just like you and I did, and just like the students at Lee High School of today. They laughed, they cried, they pursued adventures, occasionally got into their share of trouble, hung out at soda bars, played down by Happy Hollow, enjoyed being with their friends, and no doubt experienced romance. All were typical teenagers caught in very atypical times. The call to duty was strong and each responded, but if they could, they most certainly would have chosen a different outcome. Alas it was not to be, and they eventually “gave the last full measure of devotion” to their country…to us.
These are the Boys of Galewood.
Speech at Wyoming Veterans Memorial Garden, May 27, 2013; Service background research by Pete Foote, Class of ’67, Vietnam veteran, teacher, principal