Monday is Memorial Day. This is a day of remembrance for those who have died in military service for the United States. While FFA members have been involved in numerous armed conflicts, this Footnote will focus on the first major war in which FFA members were involved – World War II. It is fitting that we recognize former FFA members who died in military service during World War II.
During World War II 260,450 agriculture teachers, FFA members, and alumni were actively involved in the war (Wolf & Connors, 2009). Of this number 7,188 lost their lives (Tenney, 1977). It would be appropriate to pause and remember the ultimate sacrifice these 7,188 made.
While it would be impossible to recognize all FFA members who lost their lives during WW II we will honor six with a brief recognition.
SSGT Earl Dawson Bennett
Earl was one of 15 seniors in the 1941 graduating class at Liberty High School in Oldham County, Kentucky. He was a member of the Future Farmers of America and the Science Club. He joined the Army Air Corps in the fall of 1941. While stationed at an Air Corp base in Florence, South Carolina he wrote a letter to his mother (March 13, 1944) as the Normandy invasion was being planned (D-Day, June 6. 1994). In the letter he said:
Dearest Mom, Today I became a man according to my birth certificate but at heart I’m only a kid still (as usual). Gee – it was swell to talk to you over the phone tonight. It made a perfect day for me. I am really a happy boy on my 21st birthday. I don’t have a worry in the world tonight. If I was home now I would give you such a big hug and kiss it would take you a week to recuperate from it. Ha! Ha!
Mom- I’ve been wondering how you felt about me going overseas and tonight Lee told me you have been rather worried. I want you to feel proud that you have a son that is able to defend his country and stop worrying. I’m really happy to be able to do it and I think if I’m glad to fight for the things I love and want so much you should be the same. I want you to be happy mother and I’d do most anything in the world to make you that way so please try not to worry any more than possible about me… I have such a swell family to come back to and such a nice girl I’m sure I’ll be back allright. Now- won’t I?? Yes…Take care of Dad and Sis and write real often.
Your Loving Son
Within three months of writing this letter, on June 10, 1944, Earl’s plane was shot down over northern France. The tail was shot off of the plane and crash landed in a swamp behind the lines in No Man’s Land after dropping their bombs on the target. Earl survived the crash and eluded the Germans for three days before being captured and killed.
Jack Williams was a member of the Harrison High School FFA chapter in Arkansas and graduated in 1943. He spent much of his time in the agriculture building, a log building behind the school with a coal-burning stove. He enlisted in the Navy upon graduation and was trained to be a medic. He was involved in the assault on Iwo Jima and carried 51 pounds of medical equipment ashore. Jack was nearby when the famous photo of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima was taken. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas picks up the story:
He was serving with the Third Battalion, Twenty-Eighth Marines, Fifth Marine Division when the United States attacked the Japanese stronghold on Iwo Jima. He had already assisted fourteen wounded marines on March 3, 1945, when his former tent-mate Jim Naughton was injured in a grenade battle with Japanese troops. Williams moved forward under “intense enemy small-arms fire” to help Naughton. Dragging the wounded Marine to a depression, Williams was shielding him with his own body when he was “struck in the abdomen and groin 3 times by hostile rifle fire.” Williams finished helping Naughton before tending to his own wounds, then went to help another injured Marine… when he was struck down by a sniper’s bullet.
Williams received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroic action. A certificate signed by Pres. Harry S. Truman says, “Jack Williams stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live and grow and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives, in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.” A guided missile frigate, the USS Jack Williams was commissioned in his honor in 1980. Jack is buried at the National Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri. I will be speaking at the Missouri Ag Teachers Conference in July in Springfield and have reserved time to visit Jack’s grave.
The Borgstrom Brothers
The movie “Saving Private Ryan” is based on a true story.
The Borgstrom brothers were all killed during a six-month period during World War II. The four brothers were from Utah and all were members of the Bear River FFA Chapter.
- Elmer (age 30) served in the Army as a medic. He was not allowed, by convention, to carry a gun. Nevertheless, while draping a wounded soldier over his shoulder on bloody Anzio beach in Italy, he was shot and killed on June 22, 1944
- Clyde (age 28) was in the Marine Corp and was killed (March 17, 1944) while clearing an airstrip on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
- Rolon and Rulon (twins) were 19 at the time of their deaths. Rolon, a gunner with the Army Air Force’s 605th Bomber Crew, was mortally injured during an Allied raid over Germany on Aug. 8, 1944. He died of his wounds in England.
- Rulon stormed into France with the infantry as part of the D-Day offensive (more about that in two weeks). He was reported missing during an attack on LaDreff, France, on Aug. 25, 1944. He was later confirmed to be dead.
After the deaths of the four brothers, the fifth brother, Boyd, a Marine was transferred to the United State and was subsequently released from service. Boyd resisted coming home but President Roosevelt ordered it.
At the 1946 FFA Convention, which was known as the Victory Convention, Alben and Gunda Borgstrom, the parents of the Borgstrom bothers were honored by the FFA for their sacrifice. National FFA president Glyndon Stuff stated (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1946, p. 24), “Few families in American history have been called upon to make such a tremendous sacrifice for the cause of freedom and liberty.”
Alben and Gunda Borgstrom the morning of the funeral for their four sons.
Photo from Life Magazine, July 19, 1948
Today, Friday, May 24, is officially known as Poppy Day. It occurs on the Friday before Memorial Day. During World War I many Americans were killed in France and Belgium on battlefields in the medieval province of Flanders. There is an American cemetery and memorial near Waregum, Belgium with the graves of 411 Americans.
Once the conflict was over, red poppies began to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields. The red poppy came to symbolize the bloodshed during battle. This inspired a poem by John McCrae titled In Flanders Fields (watch the YouTube rendition of this poem at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6BlOkpdkg8).
On September 27, 1920, the poppy became the official flower of the American Legion to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died during the war. In 1924, the distribution of poppies became a national program of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I can remember as a child, many people in my community wearing small artificial poppies, known as Buddy Poppies, on their clothing on Poppy Day. These poppies are made by disabled and needy veterans in VA hospitals.
In this Footnote, the goal was to recognize those former FFA members, alumni, and instructors who lost their lives in World War II. They deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice. As you celebrate Memorial Day on Monday remember these FFA members and others who have lost their lives in the service of our country.
The Footnotes for the next two weeks will focus on the efforts of the FFA and 4-H on the home front to support the war effort.
Wolf and Connors (2009, p. 121) do an excellent job in summarizing the involvement of FFA members in World War II:
The face of agricultural education and FFA was changed forever by WWII. Many members lost their lives, and all members sacrificed during the war years. Yet throughout the struggle, patriotism and optimism flourished.
Show the Video “The Veterans Behind the “Buddy” Poppy. It is 8 minutes long and includes the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Kattlyn Wolf and Jim Conners have written an excellent article about the FFA and World War II. A link to it is listed below. Have your students read the Wolf and Connors article and identify 2-3 key points from the article.
Have your students interview veterans in your community to learn more about their experiences in the military.
If you teach horticulture, you could have your student make artificial poppies. There are several YouTube videos on how to make a memorial or remembrance poppy.
A Family’s ultimate Sacrifice. Deseret News. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/638322/A-familys-ultimate-sacrifice.html
Buddy Poppy (n.d). Veterans of Foreign Wars. https://www.vfw.org/community/community-initiatives/buddy-poppy
Jack Williams. Encyclopedia of Arkansas. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/jack-williams-4737/
Just who was Jack Williams. http://harrisondaily.com/just-who-was-jack-williams/article_9da9b908-becf-11e4-a1e8-5bac06066e1f.html
Tenney, A. W. (1977). The FFA at 50. Future Farmers of America.
Wolf, K. J. & Connors, J. J. (2009). Winning the War: A Historical Analysis of the FFA During World War II. The Journal of Agricultural Education. Volume 50, Number 2.