Monument honors 9 from same Ohio community killed in World War II battle
By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: August 7, 2018
KENTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — The farm boys from the heartland — all young enlisted soldiers from the same rural county in northwestern Ohio — found themselves surrounded by enemy snipers deep in the jungle of a little-known battle in the middle of a war.
The fight for a Japanese-controlled airstrip in the Solomon Islands of the Pacific Ocean 75 years ago left the Ohio Army National Guard soldiers of the 148th Infantry Regiment's Company E trapped under fire and out of ammunition, with no water and little food or medical supplies to help them stay alive. By the time World War II's Battle of Munda ended on Aug. 5, 1943, 16 of Company E's men were dead; nine were from Hardin County.
Word reached home slowly, one telegram at time. "War clouds hang heavy over this community," began the story on the front page of the local newspaper. With each arriving notice, the shock and sadness seeped deeper.
But time passed, memories faded. And outside the families, the names of the men and the stories of what they had endured were largely lost to history.
Sunday, more than 120 people joined the soldiers' descendants to dedicate a new monument at Grove Cemetery in Kenton honoring the local fallen of Company E. A bell tolled as the nine names were read: Cleed Armentrout; Leroy Bernard, William Britton, Jack Castor, Charles Clevenger, Frederick Long, Charles Mohn, Paul Prater, and William Thompson.
Retired Army Col. Mark Cappone told the crowd the dedication was a significant moment in remembering the sacrifices of the men of Munda, and sobering evidence of the cost of freedom.
"Just imagine the fear of these men, the unknown of whether they would live to see tomorrow," said Cappone, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. "Can we come up to this monument ... and ask ourselves, 'Are we living our lives in a way that honors their memory?'"
The memorial came about because of 95-year-old Al Horn, a brother-in-law of Pfc. Castor's. In the nearly 60 years that Horn was married to June Castor Horn, he had never known more more about her brother's death than that it was in the war.
"When I asked more about how he was killed, June wouldn't talk about it," Horn said. "I just didn't think she knew."
But after she died in 2014 and her husband was going through their things, he opened the beat-up military footlocker that he had believed to be empty for the decades it had collected dust in their home. Inside was a trove of newspaper clippings, letters, documents and diaries about the battle in which Castor was lost.
Horn dug in to find out more. Eventually, he made up his mind that the men would no longer be forgotten. Late last year, he had his daughter call the local newspaper, the Kenton Times. Jenny Horn got reporter Dan Robinson on the phone.
"My dad wants to know what Hardin County is going to do for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Munda," she told him.
Robinson, a lifelong Hardin County resident who has been with the paper for 46 years, replied: "What's the Battle of Munda?"
Horn said he had hoped for maybe a full-page ad — one he was willing to pay for — honoring the men. But the more that Robinson discovered about the local soldiers and the pain that had consumed his small agricultural community after their loss, his interest grew.
"Sometimes, you just get a story that impacts you personally," said Robinson, who served as master of ceremonies Sunday. "Think about how worried sick this community was about their sons and brothers and husbands as word spread so slowly. I thought the men deserved to be recognized."
Robinson wrote a series of stories about the battle, but the recognition didn't end there.
The idea of both a permanent memorial and a traveling historical exhibit grew. With Horn's backing and dedication, the community raised $7,500 from private donors. As Robinson told the crowd Sunday, "When Al Horn gets an idea, you better get behind it or get out of the way."
Among the relatives speaking at the ceremony Sunday was 70-year-old Tom Bernard, whose uncle, Cpl. Leroy "Barney" Bernard, was reported in newspapers at the time as the first documented WWII casualty from Hardin County, about 60 miles northwest of Columbus.
Bernard cried as he read from a letter that recalled how his uncle hadn't wanted to go to war. He would rather have been home, fishing in the lake, hunting in the fields, dancing in the Grange hall.
"But when the call came, Barney went," his nephew said. "We are so proud."
A niece of Cpl. Bernard's, Anne Keller, said after the ceremony that the memorial means so much to the family.
"Leroy was single, childless and, after time, had no one to remember him," Keller said. "His name was spoken today. People heard it. That matters."
©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.