In this column, I periodically write about the recent deaths of noted American military heroes whose unique wartime exploits gained them notoriety, headlines and praise.
Today, I recall three men who have recently passed on, a Navy officer and two Army officers, whose actions during combat reflected their heroism and love of country.
Their ages at death ranged from 89 to 100. One was a Nevadan. The other two lived in Southern California. All three were World War Two veterans.
Urban “Ben” Drew, who died at the age of 89 and was the youngest of the trio, was an Army Air Corps first lieutenant who became the first Allied pilot to shoot down two German jets during combat. He accomplished this feat during a mission over Germany in late 1944 while piloting a P-51 Mustang fighter nicknamed “Detroit” for his hometown in Michigan.
A member of the 361st Fighter Group that flew out of a base in England, Drew was flying over Germany during the last year of the war when he spied two German Messerschmitt ME-262 fighter jets heading towards him, their machine guns blazing. Although his Mustang’s speed was much less than the Messerschmitts and his aircraft had taken several hits, he shot down both of the enemy planes in a matter of minutes.
When he returned to base, his colleagues feted him with champagne when he told them of his exploits. But because his plane’s camera had been destroyed by the Messerschmitts’ fire, his wingman had been shot down and thus there was no proof of his kills, he received no formal recognition or medals.
Forty years later, however, when his account of the event was finally confirmed by both U.S. and German military archives, he belatedly received the Air Force Cross and other awards.
Drew also was credited with shooting down six other German aircraft including Germany’s largest seaplane. After war’s end, he operated charter airlines in Western Europe, The Middle East, Vietnam and South Africa.
The second man I am honoring today is former Navy LTJG Allan Wood, who died at 91. Wood provided the famous U.S. flag that a group of Marines planted atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, a scene that made world history when it was photographed by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.
The communications officer of a Navy LST that was beached close to the base of Mt. Suribachi, Wood learned that the Marines were desperately searching for a large flag to plant on the 500-foot mountain following their victory against the Japanese defenders of Iowa Jima.
Remembering that he had kept a massive flag he discovered weeks earlier in a Pearl Harbor depot cupboard, he grabbed the flag from his footlocker and, armed with only a revolver, rushed up the mountain where he presented it to the Marines who attached it to a piece of blasted water pipe and then hoisted it. AP photographer Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of the flagraising.
After the war, Wood became public affairs chief at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena where he directed news coverage of the Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo spacecraft missions.
The Nevadan who recently died was 100 year-old Silverio Cuaresma, a native of the Philippines, who received a commission as a U.S. Army second lieutenant in 1943 after leading several raids that killed scores of Japanese soldiers in central Luzon.
In a 2011 interview, Cuaresma described how he and his men would creep up on the Japanese strongholds at night and attack with grenades.
“I told my men to hold five grenades each and throw one grenade at a time every two seconds,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Cuaresma’s guerrillas also would set dynamite charges on bridges and hide nearby to detonate them when the enemy crossed. For his heroism, Cuaresma won several high-ranking medals.
He moved to New York in 1984, became a U.S. citizen and later relocated to Las Vegas. He had a lengthy legal battle to establish his status as a U.S. Army veteran because the paperwork that vouched for his exemplary military service, like the paperwork of Lt. Drew, had become lost or misplaced.
But unlike Drew, who ultimately received recognition and medals for his heroism while he was still alive, Cuaresma passed away without receiving such recognition and awards as well as the burial benefits and financial compensation given the 24,000 other Filipino-American combat veterans who fought for the U.S. during World War Two.
Nevada congressional representatives are now attempting to right this wrong and have the medals and recognition of his service as well as financial compensation awarded his surviving relatives who live in Las Vegas.
David. C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.