(Photos courtesy of Joanne Pfannenstiel Emerick)
As a youngster, I sat at my father's feet when he watched World War II programs on television. He'd say, "I was there!" or "I remember a time when...." He planted a seed of interest in me — a seed that blossomed into a passionate desire to know what he experienced as a medical corpsman in the Pacific during World War II.
But Daddy died long before I knew what questions to ask. His name was Wendell Pfannenstiel, and when he passed away in 1974, I was only 22. I had just finished my first year of teaching. Time passed, and my teaching and research skills developed. By 1992, my students were winning national awards in the History Day research program. I realized then that I could take the same skills I was teaching my students and use them to find the men Dad had served with during the war. Not only would my questions be answered, but I could record Dad's stories for his four grandchildren — little ones he never knew.
So I began a search for the members of the Army Air Corps' 31st Bombardment Squadron (H). From Dad's comrades I learned of the vital role they played in the war effort, and I heard the stories he never shared.
Armed with a reunion notice in American Legion Magazine, and CDs containing phone directories from across the nation, I began a search for the men with whom Dad spent three years overseas. The search led me to 200 veterans who would soon become my other dads!
Wendell and Howard Gillis
The first "31ster" I met was Max Baker of Topeka, Kansas. He had survived the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by lying on the Hickam Field runway as bullets from Japanese planes tattooed the asphalt on either side of him. Bombs hitting the barracks destroyed all of Max's possessions except for a Bible inscribed with the phrase, "Give to the Lord the first few moments of each day and He will be with you all the day long."
I mailed Max a photo of the squadron medics, and I cried when I read the first line of his reply: "Oh, yes, I knew your daddy!"
I then found the two survivors of Dad's medical corps unit. Bob Estes of Crescent City, California, and Charles "Chic" Kudlac of Grants Pass, Oregon, had lived only 90 miles apart for 50 years, but hadn't been aware of each other's presence. They immediately reunited by phone.
Chic died soon after, and Bob and I were devastated. It would be five years before I met Bob. From him, I finally learned of Dad's wartime experiences.
Wendell (bottom left) and the squadron medics
"We did crash duty at the airstrip," he said. "We'd take the wounded from the planes and give them first aid and get them to the hospital. If a plane crashed, we'd take bags and pick up body parts. I'd like to tell you more about that, but we buried those things so deeply, I just can't recall them anymore."
William "Junior" Patton, Jr.
As I met more 31sters, I heard more personal stories — each one touching my heart in an indescribable way.
When Ernie Ruiz's B-17 went down, Ernie and his crew spent days adrift in the South Pacific before washing ashore on a small island where they lived with the natives for 51 days. The natives taught Ernie to pack his badly wounded leg with crushed coral, and Ernie taught them to play games and run races. When he was finally rescued, the natives promised that if he stayed with them, they would give him a "Mary." (Since missionaries' visits years before, all women were called "Mary.")
I reunited Donald MacAllister and Owen Carr, whose relationship had been forged in 1943 when Don administered in-flight first aid to 18-year-old Owen after the young man's leg was destroyed by a 20 mm shell. While aiding the wounded Carr and his fellow waist gunner, MacAllister manned both of their machine guns in an effort to keep Japanese planes at bay. "He is my hero!" said Owen, who received the Purple Heart and a visit from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on his 19th birthday.
But my heart broke for the 31sters I would never meet, like William W. Patton, Jr., a Missouri farm boy who survived the Pearl Harbor attack and was later transferred to the European theater. "Junior" disappeared while returning to England in his P-51 Mustang from a mission over Germany on January 15, 1945. In 1989, Junior's mother died at age 93, still waiting for her firstborn to come home. On February 22, 2001, a French farmer digging an irrigation ditch found Junior's P-51. Junior Patton, wearing his flight jacket and dog tags, was still at the controls where he'd been waiting to be discovered for 56 years.
I never met Leon Martin and crew, who took off from Momote Airdrome with a full bomb load but couldn't clear the trees at the end of the runway. The B-24 crashed, and its nine 500-lb. bombs exploded. Leon and his crew died instantly, as did many men eating breakfast in the Seabee camp into which the plane fell.
Tragedies interlaced with triumphs for this squadron. Presidential Unit Citations and Distinguished Unit Citations followed them as they island-hopped across the Pacific, taking out the Japanese bastions on their way to the Philippines. They were young and brave, and never questioned their country's call. "None of us wanted to be there," said Bob Estes, "but we had a job to do, and we simply did our part."
The survivors came home and resumed their lives. One became a Kansas wheat farmer, one a Texas rancher and another a surveyor and accountant; one joined Exxon Oil, one taught English at the University of Kentucky, and another became the chief Russian interpreter for U.S. presidents. All enjoyed the freedom for which they had fought the war.
In an attempt not only to teach history but to bring it alive for my students, I took the stories of the 31st Bomb Squadron (H) into my classroom — with unexpected results.
Grandsons of a 31ster at the Hickam Field barracks (note the bullet holes in the wall)
My students wanted to find "heroes" of their own and become storytellers in their own right. Many sought veterans. Some used the National History Day Program as their route. They chose a topic and found the people who had experienced it firsthand. They read books, magazines and newspapers; searched for documents, photographs and firsthand narratives; and, most importantly, conducted personal interviews. They had to become critical thinkers and learn historical analysis. It wasn't enough to report their findings; they had to measure their subject's impact on history. The fact that my students developed their academic skills was marvelous, but what was more wonderful were the personal relationships that developed between them and the veterans they worked with. The story of Jeff and Doc is a prime example.
Jeff, a student of mine, met former flight surgeon "Doc," who had been a World War II prisoner of war. Doc survived the Bataan Death March and endured four years of Japanese captivity. He had been so silent about his wartime experiences that his youngest children did not know their father had been a POW. Doc broke his self-imposed silence when he agreed to let Jeff conduct interviews with him. Jeff transformed these interviews into a media presentation. The unloading of Doc's painful memories caused one of his sisters to say to Jeff, "After 40 years, you've given us our brother back."
31ster Don McAllister receives a plaque for bravery
One of the biggest changes, however, occurred in Jeff. He was a perfectionist, obsessed with winning. He entered his presentation in the History Day program, and it was questionable who was more nervous at the district contest — Jeff, who wanted to win, or Doc, whose experiences were about to be made public. Jeff began his presentation, and as it played, he watched Doc sitting stoically in the front row nervously shredding a paper cup. That's when Jeff began to change, to see his project not as a way to earn honors for himself, but as a personal tribute to a man he'd come to love. Doc was deeply affected by the program. After it won first place at the district competition, he accompanied Jeff to the State History Day contest. As the award ceremony began, Jeff said to me, "Mrs. Emerick, I want to win so badly. But not for me, I want to win for Doc."
Imagine the emotions present as Jeff was named the first-place winner and he stopped to take Doc to the winner's stand with him. The scene was repeated a month later when Jeff and Doc once again stood together on the winner's platform at the National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland.
Jeff whispered to me, "This medal should be Doc's, not mine!"
Some of my students chose a different route. We hosted Kansas' first official high school graduation ceremony for World War II veterans who had begun their service before completing high school. Through Operation Recognition, my students planned the ceremony, decorated the auditorium, designed the diplomas and programs, and helped interview the veterans who would receive their diplomas.
Joanne, Doc and Jeff
On a beautiful fall afternoon, with many state and local dignitaries present (including the national founder of Operation Recognition), 13 elderly veterans came down the auditorium aisle to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, each on the arm of one of my students. Amanda volunteered to escort Karl, who was blind. Jenna gently led Lee, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She treated him with such dignity and respect. Gina escorted Raymond, whose hair she had combed shortly before the ceremony began. To the people of Hoxie, Raymond had been known only as the local junk dealer, but to Gina, he was the hero who braved Nazi gunfire on D-Day and had a Purple Heart to prove it.
With History Day, Operation Recognition and the multitude of other projects my students did with veterans came an education that went far beyond what could be achieved through normal classroom activities. The students learned that every veteran has a story to share, and that many have no one to share it with. They learned how to listen. They learned respect, patience, perseverance, and above all, patriotism from a generation who fought a war they didn't ask for, and won a war for the country they love. The lessons the students have learned will stay with them for a lifetime.
Joanne (right) with members of her father’s squadron
Today, many of the 31sters I came to know are gone, and with each passing, my heart breaks a little more. Now in the twilight of their years, those remaining have asked me to use the squadron's official records, diaries, letters, photos and personal interviews to write their history. They are concerned that the younger generation of Americans — especially their own children and grandchildren — don't understand and appreciate the patriotism and personal sacrifice necessary to preserve our freedom. I began that labor of love November 1, 2006, and plan to have their history ready for publication in November 2008.
Joanne at Punchbowl National Cemetery
On December 7, 2006, I joined Dad's comrades in Hawaii for the 65th Anniversary Commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor and neighboring Hickam Field, where the 31st Squadron had been stationed. We toured the barracks where they had been quartered, touching the bullet holes that remain in the stucco walls. We walked to the base flagpole which still stands proudly today, 65 years after it withstood 100 bombs that hit Hickam Field during the attack. We cried when Air Force personnel presented each man with a flag that had flown from that historic pole. At Punchbowl National Cemetery, I placed flowers on the graves of thirteen 31sters, twelve of whom were killed in combat, and I wondered if I was the first person who "knew" them to visit their gravesites. Finally, we traveled to Kipapa Gulch and Kualoa Point, where the squadron had been relocated following the 1941 attack. It was there that Dad joined the 31st in 1942, and I could feel his spirit still present after 64 years.
I have used my newfound knowledge to develop a multimedia program on Pearl Harbor, and will be taking it into classrooms soon, hoping to ignite a spark of interest in yet another group of students. I also continue my efforts to preserve the history of the 31st Bombardment Squadron (H) as their historian and editor of the squadron newsletter, Tail Winds. I think Daddy would be proud of my efforts and he and his comrades would be proud of the legacy they have left for future generations.
31ster Jim Karstein (left) receives an American flag at Hickam Field.
For more information, contact Joanne Emerick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: