New banner salutes fallen local soldiers

Nonprofit that assists veterans spearheads effort

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

information:

Southwest Veterans’ Business Resource Center, call 360-314-6325 or visit http://www.wherecommunitiesserveveterans.org.

One of the men listed on the banner received the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Civil War.

Clark County’s last surviving veteran of World War I is there. So is another soldier who stayed in Europe after WWI to fight another enemy — Bolshevik revolutionaries.

Some names represent turning points in World War II, including the D-Day invasion.

Others were veterans of more recent conflicts, Korea and Vietnam, as well as soldiers and Marines killed in the last few years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are among thousands of Clark County veterans, as well as military personnel killed on active duty, who have died in the last 140 years.

The 25-foot-long banner lists 5,200 of those names. The biggest share of them weren’t killed in the line of duty; most of them came home after serving our country. A few of them shared their stories with Columbian readers over the years — particularly when landmark dates like Dec. 7 or June 6 would roll around.

For those recently killed in action, friends and family members spoke on their behalf.

The banner was unveiled just after Memorial Day on the wall of the Southwest Veterans’ Business Resource Center. The banner is a way to salute veterans who are no longer with us, but the nonprofit actually is there to provide assistance for veterans living in the community.

Fran Tobias, whose husband died in 1956 while serving in the Marine Corps, runs the office at 16505 S.E. First St., Suite H, in the retail center anchored by Parkrose Hardware.

“Fran is an amazing volunteer,” agency founder Albert Renteria said.

Tobias was sitting at a computer on a recent afternoon, helping Navy veteran Joe Pleckinger negotiate a Department of Defense website.

While the office focuses on business opportunities for vets, Pleckinger is retired and isn’t interested in a small-business startup. Still, he was glad to have a little help.

“I need a veteran’s card,” the Vancouver man said.

It’s been a while since Pleckinger served — in a capacity we don’t hear much about — but he’s now ready to access veterans benefits.

“I was in ‘lighter-than-air,’” Pleckinger said. “I was in a blimp squadron based in Florida from 1951 to 1955. The blimps would look for Russian subs.”

Maximizing benefits

For former service members who want to move ahead in the business world, “we have benefits and entitlements,” said Renteria, who spent 26 years in the Marine Corps.

“There are 23 million American veterans,” Renteria said at the unveiling of the banner. When they can maximize their benefits, “the beneficiary is the community,” Renteria said.

Three other resource centers are in Renteria’s home state of California.

Tobias and Renteria worked with Veterans Affairs officials to assemble the names on the banner. Not all the people on the banner are buried in Clark County; some were laid to rest elsewhere, including Willamette and Arlington national cemeteries.

Not every deceased veteran with a Clark County connection is on the list; it depended on the level of contact between the veterans (or their families) and the VA.

According to VA records, the most senior veteran on the banner is Army Maj. William Kelly, who was born in 1828. He died on Dec. 28, 1871, and is buried on the post cemetery.

A collection of local soldiers’ stories

William W. McCammon

A first lieutenant in the 24th Missouri Infantry, William McCammon was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Second Battle of Corinth in Mississippi, noted a Memorial Day weekend story about the Post Cemetery.

McCammon assumed command of his company, which suffered heavy losses to Confederate fire on Oct. 3, 1862. He remained in command until the Confederates were repulsed and retreated on the following day. A career soldier, McCammon also served in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Willis Earl

Willis Earl was the county’s last surviving veteran of World War I. He wasn’t supposed to serve. At 16, he was too young to enlist, but he lied about his age. “I told them I was 19, and I don’t recall ever having to show anything,” Earl told The Columbian.

As a member of the Army’s 467th Aero Wing, Earl helped build an air base in France. “It was the largest airport in the world at that time,” he said.

Earl died at the age of 103 on Sept. 17, 2003.

Henry Maas

According to his son, Henry Maas didn’t get sent home when WWI ended. He was part of an American Army contingent ordered to Siberia after World War I, and was wounded in the campaign against Bolshevik revolutionaries and Cossack bandits.

Maas, who was born in Luxembourg, was a native German speaker. That came in handy when Soviet aviators landed in Vancouver

in 1937, said Matt Maas, who had accompanied his dad to Pearson Field. One of the Soviet aviators also spoke German, so they were able to communicate in a common language.

Jim Thomson

On June 6, 1944, Jim Thomson stepped from a landing craft ramp into eight feet of water off Omaha Beach. Burdened with a 60-pound radio on his back, he sank like a case of ammo to the bottom. He frantically tore at the CO2 cartridge at his waist, inflating his life vest.

Fighting to the surface, he swam until his feet touched the sand. Thomson hit the sand on his stomach and threw his radio in front of him. Soaked in salt water, it was useless as radio; as protection, it wasn’t much better. But it was all he had.

Luke Plunkett

Llewellyn “Luke” Plunkett landed on D-Day in a glider. Cargo shifted when it hit the ground, smashing Plunkett in the head. He regained consciousness to find himself all alone, covered with his own blood.

While recovering in a hospital, Plunkett was visited by a buddy who had been on the glider. The buddy’s helmet had a hole in the front and a hole in the back, thanks to a German bullet that just missed the soldier’s head. That wasn’t the only notable thing about it. It was Plunkett’s helmet. In the chaos of the landing, the other soldier lost his own helmet. He had figured the bloody — and apparently lifeless — Plunkett wouldn’t be needing a helmet.

Wayne Bissell

When President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to retaliate for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wayne Bissell was one of 80 Doolittle Raiders who bombed Japan. Sixteen B-25 bombers flew off the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942.

Bissell was the bombardier on the “Whirling Dervish.” When their plane ran out of fuel, the crew bailed out over mountainous terrain in China during a stormy night.

Eino Filla

In 1945, Eino Filla was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism on Okinawa. The soldier got to keep the medal for a minute or so, and then the officer in charge of the ceremony took it back. He needed the Bronze Star for another ceremony.

“He told me I couldn’t keep it because they didn’t have enough of them,” Filla said.

Gus Norwood

Before Jean Neander and Gustav Smeja got married, they decided it was a name-changing opportunity for both of them. The Navy officer, who was based in Hawaii, mailed his fiancée a list of names and told her to choose one. She decided to become Mrs. Norwood.

Don Barton

After Don Barton spent three years as a POW during the Korean War, some of his experiences came flooding back during the 2008 Olympic Games. When Barton watched telecasts of the Beijing Olympics and heard the Chinese national anthem sung, he sometimes sang along.

The POWs had been forced to sing the national anthems of China and North Korea every day before they could eat dinner. More than 50 years later, he still remembered the words.

Robb Needham

Army Master Sgt. Robb Needham of Vancouver, 51, was in his 25th year in the Army and on his third deployment in Iraq when he was killed in 2006.

“He was a front-line kind of guy,” said the Rev. John Bishop, senior pastor at Living Hope Church. “He could have retired, but he chose to go back to Iraq.”

Jason Peto

After being wounded in his first deployment in Iraq, Marine Sgt. Jason Peto had a chance to become a trainer. But after two years of preparing young Marines for combat, “He decided it was time to join them on the front lines,” Marine Sgt. Leroy Prior said at Peto’s funeral in December.