“Shines the Name, Rodger Young”

By: Carl Becker and Robert Thobaben

He was but five feet, two or three inches tall and weighed only 125 to 130 pounds. He had poor hearing and poor eyesight. Bespectacled, he was timid in appearance. He dropped out of high school after his junior year; his grades sprinkled with F’s, and took employment as a menial laborer. Seemingly, he hardly had the right stuff, physically or mentally, for becoming a hero in combat. Yet Rodger Young proved his mettle on a South Pacific island during World War II and, for a while, was more than an unsung hero, his name on the lips of thousands of Americans as a synonym for bravery.

Born in 1918 in the town of Tiffin in northwestern Ohio, the son of Nicholas Young, an automobile mechanic, and Esther Young, a homemaker, Rodger had the nourishing affection of his parents, three brothers—George, Richard and Nicholas—and a sister, Betty. His father moved the family to the village of Green Springs, about ten miles north of Tiffin, when Rodger was ten years old, opening a small gas station and service garage there.[1. One may read of Rodger Young as an adolescent in several sources:  CWO E. J. Kahn, Jr., “A Boy Named Rodger Young,’  Saturday Evening Post, Vol. 218, No. 13 (September 29, 1945), 11, 50-54; Edward Linn, “The Ballad of Private Rodger Young,” Saga, Vol. XI,  No. 6  (March, 1956),  12-14, + 80:  Mrs. Joseph Banta,  “Rodger Young,  1918-1943,” Typescript in Rodger Young File, Archives, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center (hereafter abbreviated as RHPC).]

At Green Springs, the boy moved through adolescence in prosaic but diverse activities. Norman Rockwell, the contemporary painter of everyday life in the United States, could have found many scenes in Rodger’s life worthy of his brush. With no professional instruction, he learned to play the guitar, banjo and harmonica. With his mother playing the piano, his father the clarinet and his brothers and sister other instruments, often he joined them to form a family orchestra for their own entertainment. He was interested in photography and attained some competence in the art. “Now and then” he attended church services. Though a little shy and no “dashing” boy, he did court several girls, none becoming his “steady,” though. He played poker and pinochle at home and with boys in the village. Boyish to the core, he was a prankster; on one occasion, he broke a fresh egg over Richard’s head, and then laughed as the yoke and white streamed through a mass of hair. Infrequently, to his mother’s distress, he lit up a cigarette.[2. Kahn, “A Boy Named Rodger Young.”]

Certainly, Rodger did not lead a sedentary life as a boy. He enjoyed hunting and
fishing with his father. On one day in the field, seeing a cottontail virtually explode when shot, he exclaimed, “Gee, look at the fuzz fly”; thereafter, he was known as “Fuzzy,” a nickname that he readily embraced.[3. Kahn, “A Boy Named Rodger Young”; Linn, “The Ballad of Private Rodger Young.”] He was an avid swimmer and ice skater. Though not physically gifted, he tried his hand in several competitive sports, with unfortunate results in one. He was a fair bowler and played baseball with a pickup nine in the village. Playing basketball with high school boys – – he was a good passer – – he fell and struck his head on the floor, suffering temporarily double vision and permanent impairment of his hearing. He had a newspaper route for the Toledo News-Bee and won several prizes for signing up new customers, including a bicycle and a trip to Chicago. At his parents’ encouragement, if not insistence, he took on various odd jobs, one picking raspberries in the summer at five to ten cents a box.

Rodger set childish things aside, as it were, when he was sixteen years old. His schoolwork falling off, apparently because of his hearing problem, he left high school at the end of his junior year. Years later, one of his teachers, Mattie Steffanni, bristling at reports that he was a poor student, insisted that prior to his injury “he was a good student.”[4. Linn, “The Ballad of Private Rodger Young.”] He went to work as a spot-welder for the Davidson Enamel Company, where his father was an engineer. Soon he bought a flimsy Model-A Ford and then a turtleback Chevrolet that he converted into a rumble-seat roadster. Stuffing six or seven girls and boys into it, occasionally he drove to Toledo for dances featuring big-name bands.

In January of 1938, Rodger took a step clearly separating him from his adolescent life. At the suggestion of his friend Walter Rigby, who had recently enlisted in Company B, the “Fremont Company,” of the 148th regiment of the Ohio National Guard, he followed suit. His oldest brother, George, also joined Company B, as did several other young men from Green Springs. Surely, they did not enlist out of a need for money, receiving as they did but one dollar for each weekly meeting. They underwent training in summer encampments at Camp Perry, Ohio, in 1938 and 1939, and participated in military exercises throughout the state in the fall of 1939. The next year they joined thousands of guardsmen from the Midwest for maneuvers out of Camp McCoy in Wisconsin.[5. Robert L. Daugherty, Weathering the Peace: The Ohio Nation Guard in the Interwar Years, 1919-1940 (Dayton:  Wright State University Press, 1991), 200.]

At Rodger’s enlistment in 1938, war for the nation did not seem imminent. However, by the summer of 1939, the European war had begun and in the spring of 1940, German armies swept into France and were threatening to invade Great Britain. The nation started to mobilize resources for war against an expansive enemy, even accepting a peacetime draft. That fall the Department of War federalized the Ohio guard as the Thirty-seventh Division.[6. Ibid., 197.] Rodger was then living with his parents in Clyde, a small town about four miles from Green Springs, his father having taken a position as the chief engineer of the Clyde Porcelain Steel Company, which had a government contract for the production of tank treads. Now Rodger had to say farewell to his family and his life as a civilian, his home now the Thirty-seventh. Commanding the division was Colonel Robert Beightler, an able officer who had served with the famous Rainbow division in France during the Great War; he would lead the Thirty-seventh throughout the war and eventually wear a general’s stars.

For the next nineteen months, the Thirty-seventh trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi and the Indiantown Gap Reservation in Pennsylvania. Only a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it participated in the massive war games in Louisiana and Texas that saw Colonel George Patton emerging as a champion and leading tactician of mechanized warfare. At the other end of the spectrum in rank, Rodger met the demands of training and despite his poor eyesight became an expert shooter on the rifle range. Receiving plaudits as a “conscientious and “dependable” soldier, he rose in the ranks as a corporal and then a sergeant leading a squad.[7. Elizabeth Bobbit, “Young’s courage remembered in songs, stories,” The News- Messenger (Fremont, Ohio), July 19, 1976; Kahn, “A Boy named Rodger Young.”] He remained in Company B of the 148th Regiment at the reorganization of the division early in 1942 at the conversion of the division from a four-regiment division–a “square” division to a three-regiment division–a “triangular division.” The regiments comprising the Thirty-seventh were the 145th, the 147th and the 148th.

In May of 1942, the Thirty-seventh shipped out to the South Pacific, one of the first American infantry divisions to enter a war zone. One regiment, the 145th, disembarked in New Zealand, the 147th and 148th in the Fiji Islands.[8. An account of the 148th and Company B is in Stanley Frankel, The 37th in World War II (Washington, D. C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1948), 49-59.] Lying astride the line of communication between the United States and Australia, the islands were important to American strategy in the Pacific war. The regiments took up defensive positions on Vita Levu, one of the two main islands in the Fiji group. The regiments also prepared for an offensive against the Japanese, taking advanced training in stream-crossings, map reading, scouting and other tactics of combat.

Roger found Vita Levu rather pleasant despite the rigor of training and the prospect of combat. Writing to Margaret Henry, a first cousin, he noted that the weather was warm and that he and his comrades often swam and played baseball, bingo, monopoly an cards. The natives were “mostly dark,” he said, and were “friendly” towards the soldiers.[9. Rodger Young to Margaret Henry, October 23, 1942,  in Young File, RHPC.] He struck an amusing note in a letter to his brother-in-law, Charles “Chuck” Young, as he wrote on the day that he knew was the first day of the hunting season in Ohio. “We have bigger game over here,” he explained as he referred to the Japanese, “and it don’t [sic] cost us anything for the license, [sic] the only thing about this kind of hunting this damn game can shoot back and therefore you become the game.”[10. Rodger Young to Chuck Young, November 15, 1942, in Young File, RHPC.] Almost alone in his company, he liked powdered eggs, the subject of nearly universal scorn.

After spending ten months in the Fiji islands and New Zealand, the Thirty-seventh was nearly ready to hunt the “bigger game” that might shoot back. In the spring of 1943, it moved to Guadalcanal, where in an epic battle the Marines had finally driven the Japanese off the island before moving on to the Russell Islands. Here the division engaged in more training in preparation of combat against the Japanese in the campaign code-named Operation Cartwheel.[11. One may read the planning and execution of Cartwheel in John Miller, Jr.,Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul (Washington, D. C.:  Department of the Army, 1959); See also Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun (New York: The Free Press, New York, 1984), 220-251.]

Cartwheel sprang indirectly out of the decision of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff to divide the Pacific into two theaters of command: the Pacific Ocean Area, with subordinate areas, the North, Central and South Pacific areas, and the Southwest Pacific Area. They appointed Admiral Chester Nimitz chief of the Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur chief of the Southwest area. Early in 1943, they directed MacArthur and Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commanding the South Pacific Area, to develop a plan for driving the Japanese out of the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago. Meeting in April in Brisbane, though both were mercurial, they worked harmoniously together in drafting Cartwheel.[12. Spector, 225-226.] The plan called for Halsey, using Guadalcanal as a staging base, to lead units of the Army and Navy up the ladder of the Solomons, a double-chain of islands running northwest for about six hundred miles due east of New Guinea. In the central Solomons were the New Georgia islands, a group of fourteen islands. He expected to drive the Japanese from the main island of New Georgia and seize the Japanese airfield at Munda Point; then American forces could move to Bougainville and initiate air attacks on Rabaul, the huge Japanese air and naval base on New Britain. Meanwhile, MacArthur had the task of directing American and Australian divisions westward along the coast of New Guinea to the Huon Peninsula; once outflanking Rabaul, he also could orchestrate air attacks on the base.

After surmounting numerous problems in preparing his legions, Halsey was ready in June of 1943 for an assault on the Japanese at New Georgia–Operation Toenail. His men faced no easy task. New Georgia, in statute miles about forty-five miles long and five to ten miles in width, was like all the islands in the Solomons; wet, hot, pest-ridden jungle terrain, and the host of various tropical diseases like malaria. Reefs and barrier islands protected the shoreline at many points. Guarding it were about ten thousand Japanese, who had constructed hundreds of log pillboxes, and their leader, General Noboru Sasaki, an able and determined man.

Very late in June and early in July, Halsey’s New Georgia Occupation Force, consisting initially of the Forty-third Division–with the First and Second Battalions of the Thirty-seventh momentarily held in reserve–a Marine defense battalion, a Marine raider regiment and supporting units numbering about sixteen thousand men, effected three landings on New Georgia and one on Rendova, a small island near the southwestern end of New Georgia.[13. The landings on New Georgia are described in Miller, 67ff; See also Frankel, 79ff.] At Segi Point, Marines went ashore, soon followed by a naval construction unit that started building an airstrip. Marines and the Third Battalions of the 145th and 148th regiments of the Thirty-seventh in their first action landed at Rice Anchorage north of Munda to block Japanese reinforcements that might come from the island of Kolombangara. Elements of the 169th and 172nd regiments from the Forty-third descended on Zanana Beach. Companies of the same regiments brushed 120 Japanese soldiers aside on Rendova, which became a platform for artillery strikes on Munda; about five miles away, and a staging area for moving soldiers to New Georgia.

For the entire campaign, the 145th, 148th, and Rodger Young’s Company B, Zanana Beach translated into crucial combat. Commanding the Forty-third, General John Hester had the option of moving his men to Zanana Beach, about five miles from Munda, or at Laiana Beach, only two miles from Munda. Believing that the Japanese at Laiana were there in force and that they were not defending Zanana, he decided for the latter beach. Later, Samuel Eliot Morison, the distinguished naval historian, asserted that the decision was “perhaps the worst blunder in the most unintelligently waged land campaign of the Pacific war.”[14. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II:  Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1950), 177.] Inexperienced, the 169th and 172nd regiments proved slender reeds. They moved torturously toward Munda through a hilly jungle against crack Japanese infantrymen. Hundreds of men, as many as 1,500, suffered or believed that they suffered from “war neuroses.” Not a few interpreted the sound of slithering land crabs as the approach of Japanese, and many fired their rifles indiscriminately at imaginary targets. Hester’s superior, General Oscar Griswold, soon sent word to Halsey that the division would “never take Munda . . . and was about to fold up.”[15. Quoted in Spector, 236.] Then, late in July, Halsey ordered the First and Second Battalions of the 145th and 148th regiments’ now on Rendova, to move to Zanana.and then Laiana. By that time, the regiments of the Forty-third had finally reached Laiana after nearly a month of a snail’s advance. However, hard fighting awaited all of the regiments.

Earlier in July, Rodger Young had made a fateful decision for himself and his company. Fearing that because of his deficient hearing, he might misunderstand an oral message and thus endanger his squad, he asked his platoon leader, Lieutenant Stanley Frankel, to relieve him of his position and demote him. Frankel sent him to the company commander. Young explained to him to that he did not “want to leave the outfit. I want to go – – but as a buck private, so I’m only responsible for myself. I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me.”[16. Mike Tressler, “Memories of a war hero,” Toledo Blade, July 31, 1993.] A medical examination proved that Young’s hearing was failing so the commander reluctantly acceded to his request.

Rodger soon learned that his decision did not spare his company and squad from an agonizing experience. On the second day at Laiana, after the Japanese had killed four men from Company B on a patrol, the 148th was attempting to link up with the 161st Regiment of the Twenty-fifth Division (the regiment had recently entered the battle). Rodger was in a platoon attempting unsuccessfully to clear Japanese troops blocking a supply trail.[17. Frankel, 101.] Frankel, commanding Young’s platoon, then received an order to disengage from the enemy and withdraw to a new perimeter. Sergeant Walter Rigby passed the order to the men; but a Japanese machine gun crew on high ground about seventy yards from the crouching riflemen had them pinned down. Under any condition, a withdrawal could be dangerous and now was more hazardous as the night was drawing near.

Perhaps understanding the precarious position of the company, Rodger called out to Rigby that he could see the machine gun nest and was going for it and slowly crawled toward it. Frankel, grabbing his leg, screamed at him. “Come back here, it’s suicide – – that’s an order.” Apparently using his hearing impairment as a reason to disobey the order, Rodger turned to him and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but you know I don’t hear very well” and continued to creep up a slope.[18. Tressler, “Memories of a war hero.”] Almost immediately, he suffered a shoulder wound and then wounds to his chest and right hand. Still he moved forward, with two hand grenades in his blouse. Within throwing distance, he heaved one grenade, crawled some more and finally was within ten yards of the gunners, in a defilade with the Japanese fire skimming over his bleeding body. Then he pulled the pin of his last grenade, rose, leaned back and hurled it as a burst from the Japanese gun struck him in the head, killing him instantly. However, the grenade fell into the emplacement and vanquished the enemy gunner. Now the platoon was able to withdraw safely to a new position.[19. Frankel, 101.]

The next day, after driving the Japanese from positions near the hill, men of the platoon recovered Young’s body. Wrapping him in half a canvas pup tent, they buried him where he fell and marked his grave with a crude wooden cross. The regimental chaplain spoke a prayer as the men bowed in reverence–and to duck enemy fire. A few days later, the American regiments cleared Munda of the Japanese, those surviving evacuating the island. Soon Rodger was interred in a military cemetery on the island.

Soldiers often complained that legitimate heroes did not receive their due and that men not deserving medals somehow received them. No one had any such doubts about Rodger Young. Certainly, Walter Rigby had no reservations about it. “If it had not been for his heroism,” he said, “our platoon could not have successfully withdrawn. The machine gun was in such a position that it could well have covered the whole front of our position. We were under rifle fire, and all of a sudden this machine gun opened up. Rodger Young started firing back at it. Then the machine gun picked him up. He fired a couple more rounds, and then he was hit. He kept on going forward, throwing grenades and firing his rifle.”[20. Banta, “Rodger Young.”] Writing to Roger’s father about the action, a private recalled, “It happened in a very critical moment, and if that bit of strategy had failed, we would all have been sunk.”[21. Kahn, “A Boy Named Rodger Young.”]

Rodger was one of 235 men in the Thirty-seventh who died as the Americans captured Munda and drove the Japanese from New Georgia. The division, bloodied but better prepared for combat, continued its movement up the Solomons. They joined other  divisions to defeat Japanese forces on Bougainville in 1944. MacArthur accomplished his complementary mission on New Guinea and Rabaul was isolated and neutralized. The Thirty-seventh later proved a sterling force in the fighting on Luzon in 1945, distinguishing itself particularly in the battle for Manila.

Meanwhile, the Army mill ground out a posthumous award for Rodger Young, the
Medal of Honor. Praising him for his heroism, the commander of Company B
recommended him for the medal. Walter Rigby wrote the principal affidavit
supporting the recommendation, which moved from higher to higher authority before finally winning the approval of the Department of War. On January 17, 1945, at Fort Knox in Kentucky, a general, following a traditional ritual, hung the medal around the neck of Esther Young; and an officer read the official citation issued by the “direction” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and signed by Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War. The text, though conventional boilerplate, must have given some solace to the mother. Rodger received the medal “for distinguishing himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. Private Young’s bold action in closing with this Japanese pillbox and thus diverting its fire permitted his platoon to disengage itself, without loss, and was responsible for several enemy casualties.”[22. Copies of the citation are in the Young File, RHPC.]

A few months later, Esther Young shared the memorialization of her son with the
communities where he had lived and worked. A committee of representatives from the towns of Green Springs, Clyde, and Fremont organized a Rodger Young Day to honor him. As many as twenty-five thousand people gathered at various sites in Fremont “to pay homage to him, both as a hero and as a symbol of the thousands of other men, both living and dead, who [were] fighting to preserve a civilized world.”[23. Various accounts of the Rodger Young Day appear in several newspaper clippings in the RHPC. See sxpecially “Park Dedication To Honor Hero Young,”Toledo Blade, March 23, 1945; “Complete Plan For Young Day Outlined,” (undated clipping), The News-Messenger; “Impressive Service Heard ‘round World,” The News-Messenger, March 26, 1945.] The First Combat Infantry Band played the national anthem at the high school auditorium. Esther Young gave brief remarks for the Army Hour broadcast, and General Beightler spoke on the broadcast from Manila. Frank Lausche, governor of Ohio, was present and issued a proclamation reciting the heroic action that had brought fame to Rodger Young. At a ceremony in the Water Works Park, the park was renamed the Rodger Young Memorial Park, with a large bronze plaque prominently displaying the new name.

Giving the program an unusual dimension was the song Rodger Young, which became known as The Ballad of Rodger Young. The First Combat Band played it, a chorus of two hundred men harmonized it, and several thousand schoolchildren sang it as a parade passed them. The composer was Frank Loesser, who had already made his mark in the world of popular music as a lyricist.[24. A biographical sketch of Loesser appears in Albin Krebs, “Frank Loesser, Composer, Dead,” New York Times, July 29, 1969.] Private First Class Loesser, serving in the Special Services of the Army as a song-sheet editor, had earlier turned out a batch of “moraleboosting” songs for military shows. In his first attempt at composing music and lyrics, he won acclaim for Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, which became quite popular  among civilians. Late in the war, he had accepted the assignment for creating a song celebrating the infantry—the Army Air Corps and Navy already had their songs of glory. He decided that he had to have a hero as his subject, preferably a dead hero, and that the “swing” of Rodger’s name was simple and would set well to music. In 1945, he created the music and lyrics honoring Rodger and the infantry. At Fremont, his song had special meaning.

For all of the bravery of its subject, Rodger Young was ponderous to the extreme, in both lyrics and the melody. Paul Fussell, an incisive commentator on popular culture during the war, lamented that it “proved too embarrassing for either the troops or the more intelligent home folks to take to their heart.”[25. Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War(New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 185.] Even Loesser had reservations, indeed was cynical, about it and the other popular songs that he composed during the war. Of them he said, “You give her [the housewife] hope without facts, glory without blood. You give her a legend with the rough edges neatly trimmed. . . . you don’t tell her: “Madam, it is highly probable that your son is coming home a basket case, or at least totally blind.”[26. Quoted in Richard R. Lingeman, Don’t You Know There’s a War On? (New York: G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1970), 212.] Despite that cynicism, the “housewife” and folks back at Green Springs and the vicinity long counted Rodger Young as a song of their own, celebrating one of their own. A woman who sang it as a Fremont schoolgirl long remembered it as a “marvelous” tribute to all American soldiers.[27. Interview with Charlotte Mort by Carl Becker, December 1, 2006.  Mort was one of the children in a chorus singing Rodger Young” on Rodger Young Day.] Nonetheless, it had but brief popularity in the nation and soon fell into the dustbin of musical history.

If Loesser had created a wooden song, he gave the lyrics honesty in one important respect: the motivation for men in combat. In the view of many historians, the American soldier in World War II (and other wars) fought in an ideological vacuum. He did not see himself as a bearer of the flag, liberty and democracy. In contrast, the Japanese soldiers would give blood for his family and the Emperor, the German soldier for the Reich and the Fuhrer. On the eve of battle, the American soldier did not speak of patriotism, but of the “job” that he had to do to return home. Once in combat, he fought out of a commitment to other members of his squad or platoon—out of “primary group cohesion.” With the survival of each man of the group, the squad, dependent upon others doing their duty, each man faced contempt, ostracism and loss of selfrespect if he failed. In every verse of Loesser’s ballad, Rodger Young “Fought and died for the men he marched among,” not for God and country.

The ballad had no place in the somber ceremonies attending the return of Rodger Young’s body to Ohio for permanent interment in 1949. After a brief military funeral service in Green Springs, Rodger was buried in McPherson Cemetery in Clyde. There he lay near another soldier, General James Birdseye McPherson, the Civil War general who had fallen at Atlanta in 1864.

Rodger Young (The Ballad of Rodger Young)

1. Oh, they’ve got no time for glory in the Infantry,
Oh, they’ve got no use for praises loudly sung,
But in ev’ry soldier’s heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of RODGER Young..
Shines the name- – RODGER YOUNG,
Fought and died for the men he marched among, To the everlasting glory of the
Infantry –
Lives the story of Private RODGER YOUNG

2. Caught in ambush lay a company of riflemen,
Just grenades against machine guns in the gloom,
Caught in ambush till this one of twenty riflelmen –
Voluntered, volunteered to meet his doom.
Volunteered – – RODGER YOUNG,
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
In the everlasting annals of the Infantry – Glows the last deed of Private RODGER

3. It was he who drew the fire of the enemy,
That a company of men might live to fight,
And before the deadly fire of the enemy –
Stood the man, stood the man we hail tonight. –
Stood the man – RODGER YOUNG,
Fought and died for the man he marched among.
Like the everlasting courage of the Infantry –
Was the courage of Private RODGER YOUNG.

4. On the island of New Georgia in the Solomons –
Stands a simple wooden cross alone to tell
That beneath the silent coral of the Solomons
Sleeps a man, sleeps a man remembered well,
Sleeps a man – RODGER YOUNG
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
In the everlasting spirit of the Infantry –
Breaths the spirit of Private RODGER YOUNG.

5. No, they’ve got no time for glory in the Infantry,
No, they’ve got no time for praise for loudly sung,
But in ev’ry soldier’s heart in all the Infantry –
Shines the name, shines the name of RODGER YOUNG,
Shines the name – RODGER YOUNG,
Fought and died for the men he marched among,
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry –
Lives the story of Private RODGER YOUNG.