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Church discovery prompts honoring of Janesville veterans

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Anna Marie Lux
November 6, 2013

JANESVILLE--Art Briggs, Dick Skyles and Alan Dunwiddie were among 118 members of  their congregation who went off to World War II in the early 1940s.

The men did not know it at the time, but Janesville's First Congregational Church carefully placed their names and the others on a 4-foot wooden plaque that probably hung in the church.

The words inscribed above the names told a powerful story:

“These left the parish of the First Congregational Church to serve their God and country.”

Through the ensuing years, many of the names of the veterans dropped off the plaque and were lost—until recently.

Earlier this year, Jim Hay was looking through church records.

“Just by accident, we discovered a photo of the wooden plaque,” he said. “The photo shows all the names. We found that three are still in the congregation.”

Those men will be honored at 10 a.m. Sunday, just in time for Veterans Day, which is Monday.

“So few of these veterans are left,” Hay said. “More than half have passed on, but some are alive in other parts of the country. I don't think they have gotten a lot of pats on the back.”

The 118 people who joined the service may have represented up to 20 percent of the congregation.

“It was at least 10 percent,” Hay said.

In addition to honoring the three veterans, the church will recognize another member of the congregation, Dr. Katsumi Neeno. He lived in an internment camp during World War II.

Neeno, who was born in the United States, was among the 110,000 Japanese Americans forced from their homes on the West Coast into hastily made camps. After the United States declared war on Japan in December 1941, Gen. John De Witt of the Western Defense Command ordered that people of Japanese decent be removed from California, Washington and Oregon on the grounds that they posed a threat to national security.

Neeno, his mother, father, brother and sister lived in Brawley, Calif., not far from the Mexican border. They and 10,000 other Japanese Americans were sent to a barren camp in the middle of the desert, south of Parker, Ariz. Each person could take only one suitcase.

Neeno was a pediatrician in Janesville for 42 years before retiring in 1999.

He called the camps prisons because no one was allowed to leave and military police with machine guns stood around the outside.

“A lot of people have never heard of the U.S. government taking its own citizens and imprisoning them,” Neeno said.

“I think it is a story worth telling again and again.”

Each of the veterans has a story, as well.

--Skyles joined the Marines and saw heavy fighting on Saipan. In June 1944 during the Pacific Campaign, the Marines stormed the beaches of the strategically important Japanese island, where they met fierce Japanese resistance.

“On Sunday, I will be thinking about how lucky I was to survive,” 93-year-old Skyles said. “I lost so many of my good friends.”

He also was part of a detachment to protect the men building a landing strip on the island of Tinian. Planes carrying the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan took off from the airfield.

--Alan Dunwiddie enlisted in the Army Air Force in February 1943 and was stationed with the weather service around the country and in Newfoundland.

“I was a weather observer,” he explained. “We checked weather conditions every six hours and sent them across the country. The information was important for people at training bases.”

Dunwiddie said he thinks about those who never returned from the war.

"A number of classmates were in the Bataan Death March," he said.

--In 1945, Briggs served with the Navy on a dive bomber aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, an aircraft carrier. The plane attacked targets by diving almost vertically toward them, releasing its bombs and flying away.

“I was a rear-seat gunner and faced the back of the plane,” Briggs said. “My job was to keep Japanese planes off our tail and to protect the pilot as he was making his dive. I had to watch the altimeter, so the pilot, who was concentrating on the target, would not forget to pull out. If you got below 1,800 feet, your chances of pulling out in time were slim to none.”

Briggs helped bomb airfields and planes in central Japan.

At the signing of the peace accord with Japan, Briggs flew in an air parade of Navy planes over the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Briggs has a special request.

“Our (veterans) hospitals are full of veterans who will be there until they die,” he said. “It is heartbreaking and sad that more people don't go to see them. I hope this touches someone enough to visit them.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

 



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