When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, plunged the United States into a world war, thousands of men and women answered the call to serve their country.
The 77th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American History will be commemorated on Friday as this nation takes pause and remembers this day when more than 2,000 civilians and military personnel representing all branches of service died. The battleship USS Arizona took the hardest hit as 1,177 died.
One such man who enlisted and then attended flight school was former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday. When he earned his wings in June 1943, Bush was the youngest Navy pilot. He flew 58 combat missions from the time he pinned on his wings to the day the war ended.
Bush suffered his first crash in the water after enemy fire forced downed his plane, and a year later, the History.com described his second mishap:
“According to the Navy’s records, Bush’s squadron was conducting a bombing mission on a Japanese installation on the island of Chi Chi Jima in the Pacific when they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. The engine on Bush’s plane was set ablaze, yet Bush managed to release his bombs and head back toward the aircraft carrier San Jacinto before bailing out over the water. Three other crew members perished in the attack. After floating on a raft for four hours, a submarine crew fished a safe but exhausted Bush out of the water. His bravery in action earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross.”
Bush’s valor during World War II is only story out of a million of those who fought for their country. People from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds fought the Axis powers and thousands paid the ultimate price.
Prior to the Veterans Day holiday last month, the State of Nevada unveiled the Battle Born Memorial, which is dedicated the men and women who had strong Nevada ties and died in one of the nation’s wars ranging from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fallon’s only Medal of Honor recipient, Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Avery Van Voorhis, was born in Washington state but grew up in Fallon. His father served as the Indian Service Representative at Stillwater. Van Voorhis attended the Oats Park grade school and graduated from Churchill County High School in 1924.
Van Voorhis received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1925 and graduated in 1929. Two years later he earned his pilot’s wings. President Donald Trump delivered this year’s commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy and told the story of the Fallon hero from the Medal of Honor narrative.
“Just over a decade after his graduation, Lt. Cmdr. Van Voorhis found himself at war,” Trump said. “Seventy-five years ago this summer, he was in the South Pacific commanding Bombing Squadron 102 during the battle of the Solomon Islands. On July 6, Bruce volunteered for a mission to destroy a crucial enemy base.”
Younger brother Wayne Van Voorhis, who also graduated from Churchill County High School, also died during World War II. He survived the Bataan Death March but died of malaria in a Japanese prison camp in July 1942.
Trump said Van Voorhis knew he was going to die but also realized his actions in the South Pacific during the summer of 1943 could prevent a surprise attack on American forces.
“So, his plane took off alone on a 700-mile flight. Bruce flew through the darkness to his target, a tiny speck on the vast open sea,” Trump said. “He braved unrelenting anti-aircraft fire, like nobody had ever seen at that time, and a trail of enemy planes to single-handedly destroy this large enemy base, including multiple fortifications, and a critical communications link. And in this final act of valor, Bruce was caught in the blast of one of his own bombs and perished in a remote lagoon very far from here. His life was lost, but his legacy will live forever.”
Bush’s story of earning his wings and fighting the enemy from the air and then meeting his sweetheart and eventually marrying her is similar to the story about Cecil Quinley, who died in 2016.
Quinley served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a B-17 pilot whose crew flew 14 missions over Germany in the early 1940s. The crew of Quinley’s B-17, the “Feather Merchant,” trained at Walla Walla, Wash., before their assignment to the 532nd Squadron, 381st Bomb Group at Ridgewell, England.
On the 14th mission, however, the Germans anti-aircraft guns shot down their B-17 near Bremen on Oct. 8, 1943, destroying the No. 2 engine, which was on Quinley’s side of the plane. The crew bailed out, but the Germans captured eight crewman, including Quinley, and placed them in prisoner of war camps until the end of World War II.
Cecil’s son, Dan, who also lives in Fallon, wrote a book — “Forever, A True Story of Love and War” — about his father’s war experiences and the letters exchanged between Cecil and Margaret, whom he married before the war broke out.
Over the course of the past decade, I have learned more about the backgrounds of our World War II fighting men and women and how many of them faced death but stared it down.
Hundreds of World War II veterans die every day, and with them, go their stories of fighting the enemy in the skies or on the ground. One such man I interviewed two years ago was Army Sgt. Luther Gordon, who died earlier this year. History is one of thousands of sacrifice and duty. He fought the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and on Christmas Day, he and his fellow infantrymen established a defensive posture along the Outhe River to prevent the German troops and their equipment from crossing a bridge.
As with many heroes from The Greatest Generation, Gordon never talked about his gallant deeds during World War II, much in the same way President Bush never talked about his. They had a job to do and they did it well, and the country is forever thankful for veterans like Bush, Van Voorhis, Quinley and Lloyd and millions more who ansered their nation’s call.
Steve Ranson is editor emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News but still covers military events and reports on the men and women who fought in the nation’s wars.