Small World Tales
Amazing encounters across the globe
I think that most of us have had chance meetings with people at different times and in different places under the most unlikely circumstances who know someone that we know. The usual comment when these events take place is…"It’s a small world". Here are several such tales that I experienced or that happened to relatives and friends. I record them in no particular chronological order.
Small World 1-The Sergeant Major’s Funeral. In February 2013, my brother-in-law Sergeant Major Dennis Fortenberry, USMC (Retired) passed away at his home in Colchester, Vermont. Dennis had been very active in the local Marine Corps League Detachment and was the Supply Officer for the Vermont Militia Medical Detachment. The Marine Corps League and the funeral directors worked together to ensure that the Sergeant Major would received full military honors at his funeral. They were successful in obtaining a burial detail from the Marine Corps Inspector Instructor (I&I) staff at the Marine Reserve unit in Schenectady, New York.
We traveled from our home in Northern Virginia to Vermont for the funeral and to be with my sister-in-law and other family members during our time of grief. During this time I became acquainted with members of the Colonel Donald G. Cook Detachment of the Marine Corps League. The Commandant of the detachment was a gentleman named Jim Chase, and he and I hit it off very well and we spent a lot of time batting the breeze about our Marine Corps experiences. Jim had been a drill instructor before leaving the Corps and told me that he still kept in close touch with one of his best friends who was also his drill field mentor. I told Jim that I had served as a Series Commander on the drill field at Parris Island and asked him who his friend was. He said, "Fritz Werner". I replied, "Fritz Werner? He was the Chief Drill Instructor of my Recruit Training Company at PI! I was recently sent a picture of Fritz and some other Marines by my old company commander from those days. I’ll email you the picture when we get home."
And I did, and here is the picture. Jim also forwarded the picture to Werner. Fritz is the Master Sergeant on the right. I am standing just to his right. The Marine with his arms crossed is our company commander, Captain Dave Stefansson. The three drill instructors standing next to Dave are, from right to left, Staff Sergeant Ralph Palmer, the Senior DI of the team, and his two Junior DIs, Sergeant Ed Crowe and Sergeant Sid Massey.
Members of India Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, Parris Island, SC…1965
Small World 2-An Encounter in Missouri. Since I retired from the Corps and moved to Springfield, Virginia we have often made the trip to central Kansas to visit relatives living on the farm where I grew up near Claflin, a small town of less than a thousand souls. My brother Mark, a graduate of Kansas University and the KU Medical School, lives in Lawrence where he recently retired from the medical practice he ran for over thirty years. We always spent time with him and his family during our Kansas trips. Lawrence, the home of KU, is about thirty miles west of Kansas City, Kansas. Several years ago…sometime around 2007-2008, we departed there early one morning to head back to Virginia. We had travelled about thirty miles beyond Kansas City, Missouri on Interstate Highway70 when we pulled of to fill up with gas at the small town of Odessa, Missouri.
As I was filling the tank my wife Marcia noticed a pickup truck pulling into the station sporting Marine Corps license plates issued by the state of Missouri. I have Virginia Marine Corps tags on my vehicle. The pickup parked near the small diner that was part of the gas station operation and the driver walked toward my van. As Marines the world over will do whenever they see another Leatherneck in the middle of nowhere, he was coming over to bat the breeze and see if we had any mutual acquaintances or had served together somewhere. We talked for a while and he mentioned that he had just returned from a Drill Instructor’s reunion at Parris Island. I said "I served a tour at Parris Island". He asked when. I told him "1965-66". He said he had been there at the same time. "What battalion were you in?" he asked. I told him Second Battalion. "Me too" he said…"What company?" "India Company" I replied. "I was in India too", he said. I looked at him and asked, "What’s your name?" and he replied, "Massey". When he said his name I immediately recognized him and said, "By God you are Sid Massey!" He asked my name and when I said "Praeger" he immediately recognized me and exclaimed "You were my Series Commander! You are a Naval Academy Graduate!" We were both amazed at this incredible coincidence. He said he was teaching high school in Odessa and had since he retired from the Corps. He and his wife met friends at the diner every morning after weekday mass. We had a short 20-30 minute reunion and then I continued east to Virginia. If you recall Sid Massey was mentioned earlier in the Small World 1 story and is in the above picture. He is the Marine on the far left in the photo. And the world gets smaller and smaller.
Small World 3-Touring Battlefields in the Philippines. I served a tour of sea duty aboard USS Blue Ridge from 1976 to 1978. We made two West Pac deployments during this period. Since we were an amphibious command ship our deployments weren’t like most normal West Pac cruises because we only went to where the larger Navy-Marine Corps amphibious exercises were being conducted and stayed for around three months. This allowed both amphibious task force and landing force staffs to come aboard and plan, execute the operation, and return to our home port of San Diego. Thus we supported an exercise in Australia, one in the Philippines and several on the west coast of the U.S. during my time aboard. Our West Pac home port was White Beach on Okinawa, and we made the usual port visits at Sydney, Australia, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Pusan, South Korea, and Manila.
During my time on Blue Ridge my Naval Academy room mate Dick Williams was stationed at Naval Station Subic Bay and, among other duties, was in charge of the Filipino stevedores who worked the docks at the naval base. I spent most of my liberty time in Subic visiting with Dick and his family at their on-base quarters. This kept me out of Olongapo, one of the most notorious liberty towns in the entire western Pacific. Having been a denizen of Olongapo during past West Pac tours of duty, I’d had my share of the place.
The man who supervised the stevedores was a retired Filipino army officer who had fought as a rifle platoon leader in the Army of the Philippines during World War II. During one of our stops at Subic in 1977 he offered to take Dick and me on a tour of some of the battle fields in and around Manila where he had fought during the war. Since we were both serious students of military history we readily accepted his offer. This resulted in visits to Fortress Corregidor in Manila Bay, Tagatay Ridge southwest of Manila, the Bataan Peninsula and the sites of some fighting close in to Manila.
Before World War II my uncle Ralph Praeger, an Army officer, had been assigned to duty in the Philippines. As war clouds gathered in the Pacific, his wife, my Aunt Verda, was sent home with the other dependents and returned to Kansas. She was pregnant with my cousin Ralph Jr. at the time. Ralph had graduated from West Point in 1938 and at the time of Pearl Harbor was a Captain in command of Troop C, 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. This outfit consisted of two American Officers; Ralph and First Lieutenant Tom Jones, with the remainder being Filipino. Troop C was ordered into northern Luzon in early December 1941 and were cut off from American and Filipino forces concentrated in southern Luzon when the Japanese landed at Lingayan Gulf on 22 December 1941. Ralph’s unit fought as guerillas in northern Luzon until he was eventually captured in August 1943. He, along with some other American officers were court-martialed by the Japanese and eventually executed in the late summer of 1944. Tom Jones survived the war and was able to tell the story of Troop C’s accomplishments as guerrilla fighters. Ralph was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Merit and Purple Heart posthumously. Ralph saw me as baby in 1939-40 before he and Verda departed for the Philippines, but I have no recollection of ever meeting him. None the less, he was my main inspiration to pursue a military career. He was the reason that I sought appointments to West Point, the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy. In retrospect I’m glad I ended up at Navy, but at the time, given a choice I probably would have chosen West Point. But ultimately I wanted above all else to be a Marine, and Navy gave me that option better than West Point would have.
Back to 1977. Blue Ridge was at Subic and Dick and I took leave to visit the battlefields. While we were on the Bataan Peninsula at the military museum on Mount Samat we noticed a Filipino film crew shooting in the parking lot of the museum. After visiting the museum we returned to the parking lot and noticed that the film crew was finished with whatever they were shooting and were relaxing around their vehicles, which were parked close to our van. It turned out they were doing a documentary on World War II and were interviewing a retired Philippine Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ambrosio Pena. We introduced ourselves to the crew and when I mentioned my name, Dirck Praeger, LtCol Pena looked at me and asked…"Are you related to Ralph Praeger?" I stared back at him and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. "Yes" I replied. "He was my uncle…my dad’s younger brother." LtCol Pena knew Ralph during the war and had fought along side of him, and had a great deal of respect for him. He had written articles about him and Troop C, and provided me with copies of these documents when he invited me to his home in Manila when Blue Ridge made a liberty call there later during our deployment. I spent about half a day with he and his wife and he told me stories about my uncle that I never would have heard otherwise. The only regret I have, and I was scolded by LtCol Pena for it, was that I was unable to visit Ralph’s grave in northern Luzon. Thus ended a most unlikely adventure where the world grew smaller.
Small World 4-On a Flight from San Diego. Several years ago, around 2008-09, my sister-in-law Sandy Praeger was returning to Lawrence, Kansas after a business trip to San Diego. Sandy is the Kansas State Insurance Commissioner and travels frequently around the country in that capacity. She was sitting next to a lady of about her age on the plane, and although she seldom tries to strike up a conversation during flights, the two of them started talking and rather enjoyed each other’s company. The lady had been visiting her daughter and grandchildren who lived in San Diego where her son-in-law, a Marine, was stationed. Sandy mentioned that her brother-in-law was a Marine.
They continued to converse for around a half hour and the lady mentioned that her husband was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Sandy stated that her brother-in-law was also a Naval Academy graduate. Sandy asked the lady which class her husband was a member of, and was told Class of 1963. What a coincidence, said Sandy. My brother-in-law is also a ’63 grad. The lady asked for her brother-in-law’s name. "Dirck Praeger", said Sandy. The lady said something like "Oh my God. He and my husband Jim Carter were classmates in the Sixth Company and are close friends! We live only a few miles from him. We see him and his wife Marcia at every Sixth Company or Class of ’63 function." Of course by now you’ve figured out the lady is Mrs. Jim Carter…Kathy to be exact. And yes, we are close friends and shared many adventures as Midshipmen, some of which I have recorded as part of this book. But who would have guessed that some ticket agent would have placed Sandy Praeger and Kathy Carter next to one another on the same flight. The plane landed at Kansas City and Sandy departed, with Kathy continuing on to Washington, D.C.
Small World 5-At a Motel in Wyoming. During my last seven years of active duty we lived in the town of Poway, California. It is about ten miles north of San Diego and then about three miles east of Interstate Highway 15. Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is between Poway and San Diego. We moved from Quantico to San Diego in 1976, and back then Poway was pretty much a cow town. The three miles between the interstate and the town were pasture land. There was a young girl who walked a sheep on a leash around our neighborhood. It was a very pleasant place to live. I haven’t been back to Poway but once since I retired from the Corps, and that was in 1983 or ’84, but I understand that it has grown so much that I wouldn’t recognize it.
After my retirement from the Marines I loaded up the family and prepared to move to the Washington, D.C. area where I had been hired by a defense contractor, considering that the only other option a retired Marine infantry officer may have is working for the mob. Prior to our cross country drive we headed north to the San Francisco Bay area to visit my old India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines First Sergeant, Ernest Bradford. You have read about him in several of my other stories. After this visit we headed west on Interstate 80 stopping for the night at Reno, Nevada and then east to Cheyenne, Wyoming. After Cheyenne we intended to drop down to Denver, Colorado, and then head east on Interstate 70 into Kansas for a stop at the farm where I grew up. From there we worked our way east to Buffalo, New York, my wife Marcia’s home town, and finally to Woodbridge, Virginia from where I would commute to work in McLean, Virginia. So now you have a good general idea of our trek east from California.
But let’s go back to Wyoming. We spent the night in a motel in Cheyenne and the next morning when we were loading the car to head for Denver, I noticed that the car parked next to mine had California license tags. The owners of that vehicle came out of their room and started to load up themselves. I asked "Where in California are you from?" The gentleman replied "Poway." I said "Amazing…that’s where we’re from!" We talked for a few minutes and I told him we had left town permanently and discovered that he and his wife lived only about a half mile from our Poway home. I can’t recall what they were doing in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but what are the odds that you’d find someone by happenstance who was almost your next door neighbor in a motel parking lot almost 1200 miles from home. Probably about the same as the travel agent seating Sandy Praeger and Kathy Carter side by side on an airplane.
Small World 6-At the National Museum of the Marine Corps. My good friend Lieutenant Colonel George Kerr, USMC (Retired) volunteers as a docent at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. In this capacity he conducts tours, answers questions and teaches Marine history to museum visitors.
Several years back George completed a book about the exploits of Brigadier General Austin C. Shofner, USMC (Retired) who was assigned to the 4th Marines stationed in Shanghai in 1941. The 4th left China and moved to the Philippines in late November 1941 when war clouds were on the horizon, and were near the naval base at Subic Bay when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Japanese landed on Luzon in late December 1941 and ultimately trapped American and Filipino force in the Bataan peninsula and on the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay at the southern tip of Bataan.
Shofner’s rifle company was part of the beach defense force on Corregidor when that island surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942. Forces from Bataan and Corregidor were imprisoned on Luzon. Shofner and other Americans were transferred at a Prisoner of War camp on the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, from which he and a selected group of 10 American POWs and two Filipinos planned and executed a successful escape. They sought out and located a force of guerrillas operating on Mindanao and joined and fought alongside these American and Filipino soldiers. Evacuated to Australia from the Philippines on a submarine, Shofner later commanded a battalion during the assault on Pelilieu, and subsequently during the Battle of Okinawa. He continued to serve in the Marine Corps after World War II retiring in 1959.
One member of the group of escaping POWs was a Marine officer named Jack Hawkins. A 1939 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Hawkins was assigned to the 4th Marines with Shofner. After their escape, stint as guerrilla fighters and evacuation, he was involved in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Hawkins commanded a battalion during the Korean War and later worked with the Central Intelligence Agency helping to plan the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. He retired from the Corps in 1965.
During George’s research for the Shofner book, he interviewed Hawkins on a number of occasions at his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia and got to know the old Marine.
Fast forward to the spring of 2013. George was standing docent watch at the museum when a gentleman and his children approached him. They began a conversation about some aspect of Marine Corps history and George discovered that the group had come to the museum immediately after the funeral of his father, a retired Marine. The gentleman wanted to show his children something of the Corps that their grandfather had been a part of. George inquired of the name of the grandfather, and was told…"Colonel Jack Hawkins".
George then regaled the father and his adult children with stories of Jack Hawkins, stories that they had never heard before. There were no other docents volunteering in the Museum who would have known Jack Hawkins and the terrific heroism he displayed in WWII, Korea and the Cold War. Jack Hawkins died in May 2013 at age 96. His memory is now in the hearts of his brother Marines.
Dirck Praeger sends