Welcome Home, Soldier

Veterans Day remarks at the assembly for Lee Middle & High School:

Good morning!

Veterans Day is a day normally set aside each year to honor all Veterans — those who have served in time of peace and war, as well as those who are still serving in our United States Armed Forces.

So it’s a bit unusual, that this morning we’re taking a moment to honor one of our own who gave his life in battle so we might be free. Memorial Day is usually when we pause and reflect on those who gave their today, so we would have our tomorrow.

Howard Van Solkema was born in 1923 as the fifth child of parents Ralph and Wilhelmina. He eventually would have a total of eight brothers and sisters, a large family not uncommon at the time. His mother was from the Netherlands and spoke mainly Dutch. By the time young Howard was seven, we know they were living in the little village of Byron Center where his dad found work in some small area industry to support his family.

By 1935, Howard’s family had moved near Grand Rapids most likely so his father could find any kind of work, for the Great Depression was well underway. Howard, just starting the eighth grade, as well as his older sister Janet attended Lee High School. She would graduate from Lee in 1938.

Howard Van SolkemaHoward remained a nondescript student at Lee through the end of his sophomore year. His younger siblings may have attended the old Godfrey School but we don’t have any records to confirm that. Two older brothers and a sister most likely engaged in whatever work they could find to help the family through this difficult time. There were no handouts at that time, no government-provided welfare or other forms of assistance. There was only hard work when it could be found. It’s entirely possible that Howard’s father was one of 600 men who came to work everyday with nothing more than a shovel and perhaps a wheelbarrow, in order to dig out by hand the entire area where our football and soccer field sits today, just so they could make enough money to feed their families.

Following his 10th grade year, Howard and his family moved once again, this time south of Byron Center near the village of Dorr, where they rented some land and farmed. One of Howard’s older brothers, though, would remain in this area and work at the old Grand Rapids Refrigerator Company that once sat behind Lee Field.

We don’t know for sure what happened to Howard at this point but most likely he stopped attending school to help out on the farm. On January 28, 1943, just 12 days before his 20th birthday, Howard Van Solkema enlisted in the United States Army at Kalamazoo. He had been drafted to serve for the duration of World War II.

Howard went on to serve in the Army’s Air Corps, the forerunner of today’s United States Air Force. He was sent along with hundreds of thousands of men to England to participate in the Invasion of Europe we know simply as D-Day. He rose in rank to Staff Sergeant and was part of the 7th Bomber Squadron when on July 9, 1944 he was serving as the nose gunner of a B-24H bomber, known as the Captain John Silver, under the command of pilot and 1st Lieutenant Jerome Boshears. The plane was part of a formation of 39 aircraft dispatched on a bombing run over France, when enemy flak struck Howard’s plane and it was forced down in the English Channel near Selsey Bill, just off the southeast corner of England. The crew had attempted valiantly to get its wounded aircraft back to safety, but failed. Of the 39 planes on this mission, Howard’s was the only one that did not return home that day.

At just 21 years of age, young Howard’s life ended in what we can only think must have been a very horrible way to die. Listed first as missing in action, his body was eventually recovered, and following the end of the war, returned to his hometown of Byron Center, where he rests today in sleepy little Winchester Cemetery.

It has been 70 years since Howard left Lee High School and eventually gave his life in the fight against Nazi extremism, so that we might one day live in a Nation of freedom. Most likely overlooked by his classmates because he had moved away from this area, today we are able to bring the memory of Howard Van Solkema home, to the school where he was once a student and where he belonged. His name has been added to the memorial in the front hallway where he joins twenty-seven other Lee Rebels who sacrificed their young lives for us in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Those honored heroes include three young men who were Howard’s classmates back in 1939 – Lawrence Beukema, William Overmire, and Harold Schievink.

These four young men, these Rebels once walked the very same halls and sat in some of the very same classrooms as you. We can now take solace from the tragedy of this loss in knowing that Howard’s memory is once again with that of his friends.

So as we honor all Veterans this morning, we especially take time today to remember Staff Sergeant Howard Van Solkema, Lee High School Class of 1941, United States Army Air Corps, World War II, killed in action, July 9, 1944.

Welcome home, soldier.


About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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