Memorial Day 2021
Last month I was looking through some archival documents from the US Marine Corps, and a letter with a Schenectady mailing address jumped out at me. The letter was to a mother in Schenectady, replying to her request for information about her son’s death. I looked up her son, John Edmund Thelen, and saw that he was an F4U Corsair pilot with VMF-111. He had been killed in a midair collision coming back from a combat mission in the Marshall Islands. Wanting to know more about him, I found an Albany Times Union article from October 1947 about the first war dead from the Albany area being returned home for burial. 2nd Lt. Thelen’s name was among that first group to come home. Six young men were from Schenectady and three of them were Marines. Those three Marines had a lot in common, and I even recognized one of the names.
1st Lt. William M. Dexter graduated from Mont Pleasant High School in 1937. He went on to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan for 2 years before leaving to join the US Army Air Corps in 1940 and then the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 before the US entry in the war. He later transferred to the Marine Corps and became the pilot of a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. Serving with VMSB-151 at Tutuila, American Samoa, he was killed in a collision with another plane on 26 May 1943. This tragic accident shows just how dangerous flying these planes was even for experienced pilots.
A year and 2 days later, the same fate would befall another Mont Pleasant graduate. 2nd Lt. Jack Thelen graduated in January 1941 and then began learning to fly through the Civilian Pilot Training Program and enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His education was also cut short, when he enlisted in the US Navy as an aviation cadet in June of 1942, earning his wings in July of 1943 and a commission in the US Marine Corps. He was assigned to VMF-111 as the pilot of an F4U Corsair. Like Lt. Dexter, he first went to Tutuila, American Samoa and later to Makin in the Marshall Islands. He was killed in a midair collision with another F4U at Majuro on 28 May 1944 after completing a combat mission against Mille Atoll.
The third Mont Pleasant student, PFC Daniel Splann, did not graduate, but left school shortly after his 17th birthday in November 1942 to enlist in the US Marine Corps. Unlike the first two Marines, he was not in aviation, but assigned to the 22nd Marine Regiment. However, his first stop overseas was also at Tutuila, American Samoa. In fact, he arrived on 21 May 1943, just 5 days before Lt. Dexter’s fatal accident. Could then-Private Splann have witnessed the accident? Could he have possibly known it was anther young man from his own hometown and high school?
PFC Splann would go on to participate in the assault on Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. He was wounded on 19 February 1944 at Engebi Island and died of his wounds two days later.
1st Lt. Dexter, 2nd Lt. Thelen, and PFC Splann were initially buried at Tutuila (American Samoa), Pegerian Island (Majuro Atoll), and Eniwetok, respectively. Later their bodies were moved to Hawaii. In 1947, families had the choice of whether to have their loved ones buried in a US cemetery overseas or returned home. The families of these three young men from Schenectady all chose to have them come home. Although they grew up near each other and attended the same school, it’s unlikely that these young men knew each other in life, but they were to become traveling companions in death. Their bodies arrived by train from San Francisco on 17 October 1947 and they were interred in local cemeteries the following week.
Unfortunately, these three young men had even more in common: their fathers had all died before them, leaving their mothers as widows who then had to face becoming Gold Star mothers alone. The heartbreak these women must have felt to lose their husbands and then their sons is unimaginable. As 2nd Lt. Thelen was an only child, his loss must have been especially difficult. PFC Splann had an older brother serving as the co-pilot of a B-17 in the 8th Air Force, so his mother must have endured very anxious months until her remaining son returned home safely.
While the stories of 1st Lt. Dexter and 2nd Lt. Thelen were new to me, I had learned the story of PFC Splann through a boyhood friend of his, Walter Shults, who served in the US Navy and survived the war. He never forgot his buddy and kept his memory alive. I was fortunate to know Walt through the WWII Veterans and Friends Breakfast Club organized by Mark Yingling at the Home Front Café in Altamont. Mark even arranged for PFC Splann to be honored on WNYT’s “We Salute You” and at Together We Served after he found a photo of PFC Splann in Walt’s photo album.
In my research into the lives of these three young men, I found that Lt. Thelen and PFC Splann did not have memorials at Find-a-Grave.com, so I visited their graves to remedy that, and I’ve created memorials on Fold3.com for them in conjunction with the Stories Behind the Stars project. I also found an unexpected personal connection: PFC Splann’s pilot brother, who died in 1982, lived in the house across the street from the one I owned 16 years later.
Noticing that unique place name, Schenectady, by chance in that file revealed the stories of three young men who called it home, and I’m honored to share their stories and remember them on Memorial Day and throughout the year.