Tuesday, June 16, 2015

For U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Roy Ellis, 1920-42

Photo by Dirk H.R. Spennermann

The mind-bending fact about this photograph by Dirk H.R. Spennemann is that it shows a wing of the Consolidated B-24 "Liberator" bomber that Lucas County's Roy Ellis (left) --- just 22 in 1942 --- was aboard 73 years ago this month when it was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire over Kiska Island in the western Aleutians and crashed onto this hillside overlooking Trout Lagoon, killing all 10 aboard.

The remote nature of Kiska and its climate have combined to preserve the wing fragment and other crash debris now covered by tundra growth. But memories of Roy and the others killed are growing dim.

Those aboard on June 11, 1942, when the bomber exploded in midair and fell in pieces to the ground, were Ellis, a staff sergeant and radio operator reportedly flying his first bombing mission; Captain Jack F. Todd, pilot; Captain Virgil C. Alleman, co-pilot; First Lieutenant Henry F. Hubbard, navigator; Second Lieutenant Robert R. Rieman, bombardier; Lieutenant Clark A. Hood, a U.S. Navy observer just along for the ride; Staff Sergeant John S. Ferguson, engineer; Staff Sergeant Charles Jimick, gunner; Sergeant Stanley A. Douglas Jr., AVS operator; and Corporal Harold Denson, gunner.

When he died, Roy was the first confirmed Lucas County fatality of World War II. Lyle Morris, of Derby, who died at his battle station aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Solomon Islands on Oct. 25, 1942, would become the second. As a result, Chariton's twin reservoirs were named in their honor during 1943 --- Lake Ellis to the west and Lake Morris to the east, both in the headwaters of Little White Breast Creek.

Although Andy Knapp, son of Joe and Ethel Knapp of Chariton, had been reported as missing in action in the Philippines on March 7, 1942, it would not be known until after the war was over that he had died of malaria on or about June 2, 1942, in Japanese Prisoner of War camp, having survived the Bataan Death March.


Not that many are left who remember Roy --- of Williamson and both coal miner and miner's son --- as a young man. But Jack Williamson, a native of Williamson who now lives in Winter Park, Florida, does. 

A boy at the time, when Williamson still was a vibrant small town populated by families of many nationalities who had arrived there to work in nearby mines, Jack recalled many years later the sorrow that spread through town when news of Roy's death reached his parents, Frank and Mary Ellis, during early July, 1942.

Frank and Mary both were immigrants from Italy who had married at Attica in Marion County during 1916. The family name was Ielasi, and Frank had been naturalized as Frank Ielasi in Marion County. But "Ellis" was close and its use may have had something to do with Ellis Island, which both Frank and Mary (Maria) had passed through on their way to new lives in the United States.

Frank was a coal miner by trade and his family followed him from one mining town to another in Marion County, depending upon where work could be found. Their oldest daughter, Philomena (known as Phelma) was born during 1917 in Melcher. Roy was born on Jan. 31, 1920, in Andersonville. And the youngest daughter, Leda, was born during 1927 at Pershing.

In 1931, the family moved into Lucas County and settled at Williamson --- then a booming coal town --- and Frank went to work in its mines.

Roy graduated from Williamson High School in 1937, then joined his father in the mines. A slight man, only 140 pounds spread over his 5-foot, 11-inch frame when he enlisted, he was bright, ambitious and not long before that enlistment had been elected an officer of Williamson's Local Union 390, United Mine Workers of America.


Roy enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Oct. 8, 1940, at age 20, in Ottumwa, and left immediately for Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, for assignment to other training locations. After initial training had been completed, he was assigned to 38th Bombardment Squadron, 30th Bombardment Group, stationed in New Orleans.

During June of 1941, Roy took a complex examination, which he passed with flying colors, that qualified him to attend a 22-week training school for radio operators and technicians at Scott Field, Illinois. During late November, he graduated from the course and was reassigned to his unit in New Orleans. He was home on leave in Williamson during early December when Japanese forces struck Pearl Harbor.


As the war in the Pacific developed, Japan turned its sights toward the Aleutian Islands. Three reasons generally are cited --- first to protect Japan from a U.S./Canadian assault that might be launched from the islands; secondly, to separate the United States and Canada from Russia, should Russia enter the war against Japan; and, most alarmingly, to develop air bases and other support facilities that could be used for assaults on the North American mainland.

Japanese forces invaded Kiska Island on June 6, 1942. Ten men assigned to a U.S. Navy weather station were the only Americans on the island at the time. On June 7, Japanese forces landed on Attu, the most westerly of the Aleutians.

Commencing on June 11, U.S. and Canadian forces launched an extensive bombing campaign against Kiska that would continue until July of 1943, when the Japanese evacuated several thousand troops from the Island after U.S. forces destroyed the Japanese garrison on nearby Attu after bloody combat.


By June of 1942, Roy had been assigned as a radioman to the 11th Air Force, 28th Bombardment Group, 21st Bombardment Squadron, headquartered at Elmendorf Airfield at Anchorage. His principal jobs previously had involved work in air traffic control towers, according to Chariton newspaper reports that may or may not be accurate.

The mission on the 11th, the first by the 11th Air Force against Kiska, consisted of six Liberators with Roy's plane, piloted by Jack Todd, in the lead. The planes took off from Cold Bay Airfield, landed at Umnak Airfield to load bombs and then headed for Kiska.

Over Kiska, Japanese anti-aircraft fire hit the lead plane with Roy and 9 others aboard. The plane exploded in midair with so much force that it jammed the bomb-bay doors on the two flanking B-24s, then crashed in pieces onto the tundra below.

By odd circumstance, a Japanese film crew was aboard one of the ships in Kiska Harbor at the time of the attack and filmed the explosion. The still shot above, which reportedly shows the explosion of Roy's plane, and the shot below, which shows Japanese soldiers on and around the wreckage, were taken from that film.

There was never any doubt that all 10 men aboard the lead B-24 had perished. Three of planes were able to drop their bombs; five of six returned to home base safely.


Frank Ellis intercepted the telegram that arrived in Williamson on Monday, July 6, telling him that his only son had been killed in action in the Aleutian Islands. Mary was seriously ill at the time, according to The Herald-Patriot of July 9, and he did not tell her the news immediately because he did not want to distress her.

Instead, he disconnected the radio, instructed those who were staying with her to shield her as best they could, then went off to work in the mines as usual so that she would not suspect that something was terribly wrong.

There's no indication in Chariton newspapers that a memorial service for Roy ever was held, although a remembrance was incorporated into a program at the Williamson School during late September when George Williamson, president of the school board, formally presented a new flag pole to the district and it was dedicated.

Mary recovered and before World War II ended, they had moved to Ottumwa, where Frank found employment as Lucas County's mining industry fell upon hard times. Although they kept their home in Williamson and returned to it on weekends for a time, they never returned to Lucas County to live. It was several years before they knew if their son's remains would be returned to Iowa for burial --- or, for that matter, if there were remains to repatriate.


At some point after 1943, when U.S. troops returned to Kiska, and 1949, remains that could be positively identified as belonging to nine of the 10 crew members aboard the B-24 when she exploded in 1942, including Roy, were recovered. Without 21st century technology, however, they could not be divided for return to individual families.

Photo by Joyce Nance-Woodcock

Instead, the remains were buried together during 1949 in one grave at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas, behind a custom-made stone. Frank and Mary did not attend the burial, but did receive photographs of the grave, covered by flowers, from cemetery personnel.

Photo by Joyce Nance-Woodcock

Frank died of cancer on Sept. 7, 1954, and was buried at Shaul Cemetery in Ottumwa. Mary lived 35 more years --- until May 1, 1989. She was buried by his side.

Phelma married a preacher named Benjamin Garris and they settled down eventually to raise a large family in Waterloo, where she died on July 27, 2008. Leda met an Idaho soldier named Ernest Erickson while working in California during 1948. They married and returned to his home in Troy, Idaho, to work and raise a family. She died Aug. 15, 2011.

Roy has many surviving nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.

No remains of U.S. Navy Lt. Clark A Hood ever were found. He is commemorated in the Courts of the Missing, Honolulu Memorial, Hawaii.

Note about sources: Much of the material regarding the crash of Roy Ellis's plane on Kiska was retrieved by Patrick T. Ranfranz and forwarded to me by Don Evans, of Yap Island, who has been working to collect information about his uncle, Lyle H. Morris, Lucas County's second confirmed World War II fatality. The lead photo was taken from "Alaska Park Science," Volume 10, Issue 1, where it illustrated an article entitled "Scars on the Tundra: Cultural Landscape of the Kiska Battlefield, Aleutians" by the photographer, Dirk H.R. Spennermann, Janet Clemens and Janis Kozlowski. The Fort Leavenworth gravesite photos were taken during 2011 by Joyce Nance-Woodcock for Find A Grave.

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