Fortress Catalina: Catalina Island’s honored dead

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Families who had lost relatives during World War II often placed Gold Star Service Banners in their windows to commemorate their lost loved ones. Catalina Island lost 11 residents during the war. Courtesy photo

The Coronavirus has plunged Catalina Island into a crisis not seen since World War II. Much like today, the island underwent dramatic changes for those who lived here, almost overnight. To recall those days, the Catalina Islander is reprinting the series “Fortress Catalina: The Island at War.” This week’s column is the last in the eight-part series.

With the war finally over in late 1945, the scattered peoples of the world began the grim tally of the destruction left in its wake: the cities destroyed, the resources decimated, the dreams ruined and, of course, the lives lost.

While Catalina was largely spared any physical destruction, the lives of no less than 11 island residents were lost during the war. In the final installment of this eight-part series—to the extent my research proved fruitful—we will learn who they were, how they died and—if known—where they are now.

Frank D. Machado

The Machado family has a long and honorable history on Catalina Island going back nearly a century. The island family has long been involved in local civic, business and educational affairs and—as evidenced by the popular Joe Machado Field—local sporting activities.

But the Machado family gave perhaps its greatest sacrifice to the Island and to the Nation in 1944 when they lost brother, son, uncle and soldier Frank D. Machado.

“I remember when he died,” said Lucille Machado in an interview in 2012. “I can remember all of that. Frank was my cousin and I remember he used to tell me stories. He used to make me think he could go to Pebbly Beach and jump off the mountains all the way into the ocean.”

Frank was one of four Machado brothers—including Ramon, Joe and Manuel—who went off to war. Due to military secrecy, the whereabouts of the four was kept from the family. For most of the war, even the four brothers themselves had only a rough idea of where the others were.

As of May 1944, Frank was in Alaska, probably the Aleutians, and a photograph of him in heavy winter clothing surrounded by snow made it home that month. From there, the record is murky. In all probability, however, he was sent to the South Pacific, most likely New Guinea.

Frank was in the infantry and by that point in the war, most of the fighting in the Pacific involving the Army was taking place in a number of areas in New Guinea, including the Bougainville, New Britain and Western New Guinea campaigns. Wherever it was that he made his final stand, he was initially listed as Missing in Action. His remains were never recovered and on February 11, 1945, the War Department officially declared him KIA.

Today, the name “Machado, Frank D.” lives on, etched forever into the marble slabs that make up the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

Donald E. Murry

Army Air Forces Tech Sergeant Donald E. Murray was a radio operator for the 449th Bombardment Group based at Grottaglie Field on the spiked heel of the boot of Italy. At 6’ 2” he was a tall man, a fact which no doubt impressed the ladies on the beaches of Avalon where he spent a good deal of his youth.

As was common practice with the Army Air Forces in those days, units had a tendency to “mix and match” crews and planes, and on the morning of April 4, 1944, Murray found himself aboard a B-24 Liberator quaintly-named “Dixie Belle” heading northeast on a mission to destroy the German marshaling yards, or railway yards, at Bucharest, Romania.

As Murray and his fellow airmen sailed high above the sparkling Adriatic and over the snow-capped peaks of the Dinaric Alps, they had no idea they were flying straight into what would be the darkest day in the nearly 70-year history of the 449th.

Trouble began early when the formation ran into bad weather, separating the group. Murray’s squadron, the 719th, continued on without fighter escort. Shortly afterwards, three of the bombers developed mechanical problems and had to head home.

Then, 30 miles from their target, they faced their first wave of enemy fighters. A deadly blend of Messerschmitt 109s, Junkers 88s and Focke Wulf 190s converged on the bombers using rockets, cannons and even dropping bombs on the Group’s left wing, downing three of the B-24s.

The remaining 25 bombers plodded on towards Bucharest where they unleashed their cargos of instant death on the Nazi railyards. The day was warm and blustery, causing many of the bombs to drift from their intended targets. But enough of the ordnance reached its mark to severely disrupt railway operations.

Their bombing run complete, the 719th turned for home and straight into the gun sights of another wave of 40 to 50 German fighters that had been waiting for them beyond the perimeter of their own anti-aircraft fire.

The ferocious air battle raged for nearly an hour, but the “Dixie Belle” would see little of it. Shortly after leaving the target, her mid-section—where Murray happened to be—was savaged by enemy fire. Witnesses saw the plane drift out of formation, her No. 3 engine in flames. Eight of the 10 crew members bailed out into the aerial abyss and opened their chutes. Murray wasn’t one of them.

The eight survivors were captured on the ground and taken to a POW camp, including tail gunner Willard Sherman. Mary Crowley, a tireless historian for the 449th Bombardment Group Association in Huntington Beach, put me in touch with Sherman. Eighty-nine years old at the time that I interviewed him in 2012, he spoke to me from his home in Massachusetts.

“Murray was a guy that deserved to have everything,” he said. “And he was the first guy knocked down in my plane.”

Murray and Sherman were the best of friends and had gone through basic training together before they found themselves at Grottaglie and flying perilous missions against Nazi strongholds in the Balkans.

“Murray always told my wife that he would take care of me,” said Sherman.

Sherman himself had received countless shrapnel wounds during the attack, including through his mouth and jaw, leaving him unable to eat. He survived those first few weeks in the POW camp only because a fellow airman, Staff Sergeant Fred Crain, would “pre-masticate” his food for him: Crain would chew the food then give it to Sherman for him to swallow.

Although the 449th destroyed or damaged a total of more than 50 enemy fighters that afternoon, the 719th lost seven planes and the infamous day became known as “4-4-44”. The mere mention of it still brings an uncomfortable silence to those, like Sherman, who survived it.

As for Catalina Island’s Donald Murray, the Allies were never able to account for his remains. But Mary Crowley believes they were possibly taken to a cemetery in the Romanian town of Giurgiu. Despite the high number of civilian casualties caused by the Allied bombing campaign, the Romanian people worshipped their would-be liberators—and their Liberators—and the remains of Allied airmen were treated with reverence.

Outside of this hypothetical grave in Romania, the only known memorial to Murray is at the Avalon Veterans Park.

Harold Philip Wegmann

Though no longer on the Island, the Wegmann family is a veritable institution in Avalon’s history. In the post-war years, John Wegmann was the Avalon Harbor Master and his brother Herbert served for decades as Avalon’s Postmaster.

A third brother, Harold Philip Wegmann, never had the chance to carve out a similar niche for himself in Catalina’s history because of the events of November 23, 1942.

Harold Wegmann was 1st Engineer aboard the T-2 tanker S.S. Caddo on a run from Baytown, Texas, to Iceland loaded with 105,000 barrels of fuel oil and 300 drums of gasoline.

On November 23, German submarine U518, commanded by Friedrich Wilhelm Wissman, fired a single torpedo at the tanker off the coast of Newfoundland. Spotters on the Caddo sighted the submarine missile and the helmsman put the wheel hard to starboard. But the torpedo hit the Caddo on her port quarter, ripping up her deck and blowing a large hole in the ship’s side. Incredibly, most of the ship remained intact and the entire crew not only survived the initial attack, but was able to get away in three lifeboats. But their ordeal was only beginning.

The U-boat surfaced at this point and took the Captain and Chief Mate prisoner. The Captain eventually died in a German POW camp, but the Mate survived and returned home after the war.

The remaining 57 men were left to fend for themselves against the storm-tossed North Atlantic. The boats repeatedly capsized and a number of men drowned in the process before the boats could be righted again. As they drifted on in a living hell, without adequate food and water, two of the boats drifted away and were never seen again. Odds are Wegmann was in one of these.

After 15 days and 8 hours, Lifeboat #1, with only six survivors aboard, was picked up by the Spanish vessel Motomar. On Christmas Eve 1942, the survivors were finally landed at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. The six survivors included three merchant seamen and three Navy Armed Guards.

The U-boat responsible for the attack was sunk by depth charges from two U.S. Navy destroyers on April 22, 1945, less than three weeks from the end of the war.

Charles Zeldin

Charles “Charley” Zeldin and his brother Sydney were well-admired gentlemen-about-town in the 1930s. Sydney was a photographer who worked with the Catalina Islander’s Alma Overholt and his “partner-in-crime” Charley worked for the Santa Catalina Island Company from 1936 until his enlistment in the U.S. Army in September of 1942.

Like a surprising number of Catalina Island veterans during the war, Charley was sent to New Guinea and on July 4, 1944, he found himself going ashore at Aitape in Australian New Guinea to take part in what would become known as the Battle of the Driniumor River.

Zeldin and his fellow soldiers in the 124th Infantry Regiment were sent there under orders to attack units of the Japanese 18th Army near the mouth of the river. But on July 10, the enemy beat them to the punch and launched their own assault, complete with waves of suicide attackers.

Early on in the battle, the Japanese succeeded in breaking through the American lines, effectively leaving Zeldin’s position exposed at the rear and flanks. According to the official combat report, at 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 15, two Japanese patrols attacked Zeldin’s position from the rear. The following entry in the report, made at 07:00 hours the following morning, notes that “C. Zeldin (Company L)” was killed in action, along with two other men, including a medic.

News of Zeldin’s death was received at Catalina two weeks later and was announced by brother Sydney in the August 10, 1944, edition of the Catalina Islander.

Charles Zeldin is buried at the Manila American Cemetery not far from Frank Machado’s memorial.

Arden O. Cummings

Arden O. Cummings was a Machinists Mate First Class in the United States Coast Guard, serving aboard the 14,250-ton ammunition ship, U.S.S. Serpens. Although his exact connection with Catalina Island is not clear, his name appears early on in the “Honor Roll” published weekly in the Catalina Islander. Whether or not his family had a permanent residence here is not known, but at a minimum he was—like many young people back then—at least a summer employee and quite possibly a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Training Station at the Isthmus.

On the night of January 29, 1945, Cummings was aboard the Serpens as it was anchored of Lunga Beach at Guadalcanal loading depth charges.

For reasons unknown, there was a chain explosion that caused the entire ship and all nearby ordnance to go up in one massive explosion. Everyone on board (except for two incredibly lucky crewmen) were killed instantly. A number of dockside workers were killed as well. In all, 193 Coast Guardsmen, 56 Army stevedores and a U.S. Public Health Office surgeon were killed.

The explosion of the U.S.S. Serpens represented the largest single disaster suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II. In fact, for several years after the war the Coast Guard still believed the explosion was the result of enemy action. But by June of 1949, an inquest had determined the disaster to be accidental.

Today, the name Arden O. Cummings can be found on the U.S.S. Serpens memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

There were six other Catalina souls lost during the war, about whom I could find very little, if any, information. They include:

• William Rexford Smith: Only nine months old when his family moved to Avalon in 1919, Smith was the first Catalina Island casualty of the war. He had spent most of his life on the island and had even worked as a deckhand on the glass bottom boats. He was killed on March 2, 1942, while practicing night dive bombing in Texas. He is buried at the Los Angeles National Cemetery in West L.A.

• John Botello: Sandy Putnam remembers “Johnny” Botello as a family friend who used to work on cars with her uncle at the family-owned resident at 117 Whittley Ave. She believes he died in the Bataan Death March in 1942.

• John “Jack” Voelkel: Marine Corps Private Voelkel died March 13, 1945, location unknown. He is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery near San Francisco.

• Alvin Silva: U.S. Navy Machinists Mate Class Alvin Silva died on February 4, 1944. According to the Catalina Islander’s weekly Honor Roll published during the war, he was in the Navy’s Construction Battalion, or “Seabees.” Like John Voelkel, he is buried at Golden Gate Cemetery near San Francisco.

I could find virtually no information on the last two names on the list, Thomas B. Jones and William Donner. There is a “Thomas Booker Jones” who was in the U.S. Navy and is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

As for William Donner, even though his name was listed each week in the Catalina Islander’s “Honor Roll,” I could find no information on him other than he was in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Like the name of William Donner, the names of all of Catalina Island’s wartime casualties—from World War I through the Vietnam War—can be found at the Avalon Veterans Park near the Cabrillo Mole. Next time you’re headed overtown for a Costco run or dentist appointment, take a moment to stop and say thanks.

Fortress Catalina: Catalina Island’s honored dead