Tazewell County’s ‘Greatest Generation’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Our nation this week marked the 77th anniversary of the Empire of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that triggered the United States’ entry into World War II on the side of the Allies. From that point until the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945, the entirety of America’s military, industrial, and spiritual might was committed to the war effort.

By the war’s end, the U.S. had lost over 400,000 soldiers in a global shedding of human blood that included anywhere from 21 million to 25.5 million military deaths, 29 million to 30.5 million civilian deaths due to war or to crimes against humanity, and another 19 million to 28 million civilian deaths due to war-related famine and disease. The horrific human cost of the genocidal aims and expansionist ambitions of Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.S.S.R. was an estimated 75 million to 85 million souls.

Most fittingly, the generation in America who bore that terrible burden of suffering, and who afterwards exerted themselves to rebuild and repair their broken world, has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation” (a title bestowed on them by retired NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw). With the blessed conclusion of that conflict receding further and further into the past – it’s now been more than 73 years since the end of World War II – each day that passes there are fewer and fewer men and women left to tell us of their experiences.

These were the fathers and mothers, the grandfathers and grandmothers, and great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers of the current generation. My own father, Joseph, is one of them – but he wasn’t old enough to be drafted until December of 1945, so he avoided all the fighting, instead spending what he says was the most boring year of his life in the U.S. Army’s peacekeeping forces near Manila in the Philippines. How stark is the contrast between his experience and that of those who had liberated the Philippines from Japanese occupation a year before – not to mention the experience of his older brothers who fought in Europe and the Pacific.

On Dec. 31, 1945, the Pekin Daily Times published a special “Victory Edition” that presented extensive lists of the men and women of Tazewell County who had served their country during World War II.

It is to help us to remember those times that the Pekin Public Library has provided opportunities this year to view oral histories such as “We Were There: World War II” (shown earlier this year on May 4) and “World War II POW Stories’ (originally scheduled for Friday, Dec. 7, at 11 a.m., but instead to be rescheduled to a time following the completion of the library’s repairs).

The library has a wide area of books and videos on World War II in its circulating collection. The above mentioned videos, however, are just two items among the resources related to the history of World War II that may be found in the library’s Local History Room Collection.

The three most notable World War II-related items in the Local History Room are three books that compile the stories of Tazewell County’s “Greatest Generation.”

Two of those volumes were the work of the late Robert B. Monge of Pekin, who in 1994 authored and edited “WW2 – Memories of Love & War: June 1937-June 1946,” a hefty 991-page book that collects personal stories, newspaper reports, and obituaries of Tazewell County World War II veterans and fallen heroes.

Three years later, in 1997, Monge collaborated with Jack Shepler and the Tazewell County Veterans Memorial Committee to produce the 261-page “Book Eternal: Tazewell County Veterans Memorial,” which tells of the planning and construction of the county’s Veterans Memorial located at the Tazewell County Courthouse lawn in downtown Pekin. “Book Eternal” also lists those whose names are inscribed on the memorial’s stones, which display the names of every Tazewell County soldier who died in the service of his country.

This photograph from the front page of the Pekin Daily Times’ “Victory Edition” on Dec. 31, 1945, reminded readers of the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers who had been killed in World War II.

A decade later, in 2007 the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society compiled its own book on the experiences of our local World War II veterans: “Tazewell County Veterans of World War II: Remembrances – Pearl Harbor to V-J Day,” which extends to 488 pages.

About 11 years ago, former Pekin Public Library Reference Librarian Laurie Hartshorn collected and compiled the wartime stories and recollections of 16 local women. Their personal memories are collected in “Women of the Greatest Generation Tell Their Stories.”

The Local History Room Collection also has archival boxes and files of newspaper clippings and World War II-era magazines, and even several donated complete issues of the Pekin Daily Times from those years.

One of those newspapers is the “Victory Edition” of the Pekin Daily Times, published Dec. 31, 1945. The Daily Times that year devoted its traditional “Year In Review” issue to a look back over the nation’s and Pekin’s experiences of the previous four years, preparing and publishing a list of 143 young men from Tazewell County who had been killed in the war, along with extensive Draft Board lists of names of men from Pekin and Morton who been called up to serve their country, including the county’s women who had volunteered as Army and Navy nurses.

Section Two of this special edition is headlined, “6102 Tazewell Men On World War II Honor Roll,” with other headlines including, “Nearly Half of Morton’s 3116 Out of Uniform” and “2986 Are On Pekin List; Estimate 1400 Discharged.” A separate story, “62 Tazewell County Women Serve Country,” is devoted to the honored group of women who had volunteered as WACs (Women’s Air Corps), WAVES (women in the Navy), SPARS (Coast Guard auxiliary), and the Marines women’s auxiliary force.

The special edition also struck a somber tone, however, reminding its readers of “Nine Tazewell Boys, Missing In Action, Still Unfound; Families Hold Hope.”

But the mood throughout those yellowed pages was chiefly one of gratitude and joy – gratitude for those who had fought for freedom, and joy that the war was over and peace had returned. Looking back to celebrations and the utter relief at Japan’s surrender that ended the war – “V-J Day,” “Victory-over-Japan Day” – the special edition recalled that “V-J Day Was 1945’s Gayest Day In Pekin.”

In keeping with what Bob Monge wrote, may we never forget the men and women of that generation whose names are, or soon will be, written in God’s Book Eternal.

#jack-shepler, #laurie-hartshorn, #pearl-harbor-day, #pekin-daily-times-victory-edition, #pekin-history, #robert-monge, #tazewell-county-history, #tazewell-county-veterans, #women-of-the-greatest-generation, #world-war-ii

Maybe JFK, or maybe his doppelganger

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, was the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The marking of that somber memorial this week provides an opportunity for us to consider a somewhat unusual item that recently was donated to the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

The item in question is a copy of a World War II-era group photograph that was donated to the library by Peter Moreschi of Pekin. The photo, showing eight men who presumably were all U.S. Army soldiers, was taken during the war, and seems to have been taken somewhere in the U.S. or possibly in Europe. Moreschi’s father-in-law Conrad C. Zank (1921-2001) is shown in the back row, second from the left. According to his obituary published in the Pekin Daily Times, Zank served in the Army from 5 Dec. 1942 until 26 Oct. 1945, serving in Iceland and Europe. Moreschi says Zank enlisted or was drafted on 23 Nov. 1942 in Peoria. These dates help to narrow down when the photo was taken.

What makes the photograph unusual is the man squatting in the front row and center, who bears a remarkable resemblance to a younger John F. Kennedy (or perhaps an even closer resemblance to his brother Robert Kennedy). Moreschi says he has consulted with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, whose staff couldn’t say that Kennedy, who served in the Navy in World War II, would have been at the same time and place as Zank and other Army soldiers during the war years.

This World War II-era photograph shows Conrad C. Zank (1921-2001) of Pekin, in the back row, second from the left. Squatting in the front row is perhaps -- or perhaps not -- a future U.S. president. PHOTO PROVIDED BY PETER MORESCHI

This World War II-era photograph shows Conrad C. Zank (1921-2001) of Pekin, in the back row, second from the left. Squatting in the front row is perhaps — or perhaps not — a future U.S. president. PHOTO PROVIDED BY PETER MORESCHI

It would have been most unusual, albeit not impossible, for a Navy sailor to be in a photograph with Army soldiers. It is well known that Kennedy served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II. He entered the Naval Reserve in Sept. 1941 and was commissioned as an Ensign on Oct. 26, 1941. He was first assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., but in Jan. 1942 he was sent to the ONI field office in Charleston, S.C. From July 27 to Sept. 27, 1942, Kennedy was in Chicago for training at the Naval Reserve Officer Training School at Northwestern University.

After that, he volunteered to enter the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville, R.I. During his training, Kennedy was promoted to lieutenant junior grade on Oct. 10, completing his training on Dec. 2, 1942. This was about the time that Zank entered the U.S. Army in Peoria.

Upon his completion of his torpedo boat training, Kennedy was assigned to Motor Torpedo Squadron Four and became a PT boat instructor in Melville. He had command of the training vessel PT-101 from Dec. 7, 1942, to Feb. 23, 1943. Around that time, Kennedy led PT-101, PT-98, and PT-99 from Melville, R.I., to Jacksonville, Fla. After that, he was assigned to Panama and then sent to the Pacific Theater of the war. On April 24, 1943, Kennedy became the commander of PT-109. On the night of Aug. 1-2, PT-109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which cut the boat in half, killing two crewmen instantly. Kennedy’s heroism during this incident, in which he helped to save his surviving crewmen, even towing one of them to safety by clenching the injured man’s life jacket strap in his teeth, earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.

Kennedy continued as a PT boat commander in the Pacific Theater until Nov. 18, 1943, when he was sent back to the U.S., arriving in early Jan. 1944. He was in Chelsea Naval Hospital, Chelsea, Mass., from May to Dec. 1944, being released from active duty in late 1944. From January to March 1945, Kennedy was in Castle Hot Springs, Ariz. He was honorably discharged from the Naval Reserve on March 1, 1945, and a month later he started a job a special correspondent for Hearst Newspapers in April that year. This was about seven months before Zank completed his World War II service in the U.S. Army.

Could there have been any stretches of time when Zank and Kennedy were in the same place? Perhaps, even though it would be unlikely for someone in the Naval Reserve to pose in a photo with a group of Army soldiers. However, next to nothing is known of where Zank was during his years of service. It’s most likely that the man in Moreschi’s photo isn’t JFK, but a JFK doppelganger.

Anyone who can help identify “JFK” and the other men in the photo may contact the Pekin Public Library at (309) 347-7111.

#conrad-c-zank, #jfk-doppelganger, #john-f-kennedy, #peter-moreschi, #pt-109, #world-war-ii

A memory of war-time

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we recall the life of one of Pekin’s World War II veterans. His name was Thomas Carson Abbey (1911-1999), and for many years he lived with his wife Catherine Louise Harms Abbey (1919-2001) at 905 St. Julian St.

Thomas Abbey was born in Peoria of a family that had previously lived in Pennsylvania. His first wife was Ellen Elizabeth Dorman (1914-1951) – he and Ellen had a daughter named JoEllen Florence (1934-2012), but they later divorced.

Abbey’s obituary in the Pekin Daily Times says he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, but the obituary provides no information about his military service. His service must have brought him to the Philippines by 1944, however. That detail can be deduced from a picture of a scene of grass huts and palm trees that he drew, evidently using a blue ink pen.

Abbey Drawing

Pekin World War II veteran Thomas C. Abbey (1911-1999) drew this scene of grass huts and palm trees while serving in the U.S. Army in the Philippines in 1944. IMAGE COURTESY OF DAVID AND CONNIE PERKINS

Abbey’s picture is now in the possession of David and Connie Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, who received it from Marie Scott (1923-1999), a friend and neighbor of the Abbeys and Perkinses who had lived at 907 Chestnut St. The Abbeys had previously given the drawing to Scott, and she, knowing of David Perkins’ interest in history, passed it along to them when she moved from her home to an apartment. Scott died in late January 1999, just a few days before Thomas Abbey’s death.

Abbey signed and dated the picture “For Louise Abbey / Philippines Nov. 21 – 1944.” The Philippines had been conquered by the Empire of Japan in March 1942, and the picture’s date would indicate that Abbey drew it after the commencement of the American liberation of the Philippines in Oct. 1944.

The date on the picture does raise some questions, however. At first glance, one would think Abbey had drawn the picture and dedicated it to his second wife Catherine Louise while he was serving overseas in 1944. However, Thomas and Louise did not become man and wife until July 19, 1947, when they were married in Pekin. The dedicatory signature and date seem to be written in the same blue ink as the picture, yet a closer look suggests that the dedication lines were penned at some unknown later time, and the ink appears to be different from that of the picture. Presumably he dedicated the picture to her no earlier than July 1947.

After the war, the Abbeys both worked at Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery. Thomas later moved on to Commonwealth Edison, working as a mechanic there for 20 years and retiring in 1971. Catherine stayed at Hiram Walker for 31 years, retiring in 1975. Thomas died Feb. 1, 1999, while his widow survived for about two more years, passing away Jan. 1, 2001. Their obituaries say they were laid to rest in Glendale Memorial Gardens in Pekin, but most curiously, their names are listed in the South Bend (Ind.) Area Genealogical Society’s Michiana Genealogical Index as having been buried in Indiana – yet, puzzingly, the index does not identify their cemetery, showing instead a note saying “N/A” (for “not applicable”). These puzzling index entries are no doubt connected to the fact that Thomas’ daughter JoEllen lived in Eau Claire, Mich., to the north of South Bend, Ind.

As for Thomas Abbey’s ink drawing from the Philippines, the Perkinses plan to donate it to a World War II art museum located in the Washington, D.C., area.

#philippines-drawing, #thomas-abbey, #world-war-ii