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WWII dog tags make a 70-year reunion trip from Australia
Australian Tim Hill is bringing a few pieces of Northwest military history with him in mid-April when he lands in Portland.
Hill, a history buff from the city of Rockhampton in Australias northeastern state of Queensland, is coming to the Rose City at his own expense to return dog tags lost 70 years ago when hundreds of Sunset Division troops were camped near town. It is Hills first trip to the United States.
During an April 18 ceremony, at least four dog tags Hill and his friend Ian MacGregor found while searching old military camp sites will be returned to families of Sunset Division soldiers who spent about 2½ years bivouacked near Rockhampton, protecting key Australian cities before joining battles to recover Pacific islands lost to the Japanese shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Old dog tags that have been buried in the Australian soil for seven decades will be returned to the family of former Portland resident Clarence Gilfeather, to the family of Montana native Frank Liedle and to Sunset Division soldier Hilding Olson, a 96-year-old Portlander who hopes to attend the ceremony at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4248 in Southeast Portland.
The whole thing is exciting, says Lee Gilfeather Parker of Spokane, Clarence Gilfeathers daughter. For something that was so long ago, this is amazing.
For the families, its a reunification with their loved ones, says Dale Guldenzopf, VFW post commander. Its going to be absolutely heartwarming.
Birth of the Jungleers
The U.S. Army National Guards Sunset Division, also known after WWI as the 41st Infantry Division, was inducted into federal service in 1940, and became one of the first guard units to be sent overseas after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Soldiers in the National Guard units were from all over the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, North Dakota and Montana. Several division regiments were the first U.S. soldiers trained in jungle warfare, and among the first to meet the Japanese army head-on in battles to retake islands from New Guinea to the Philippines.
Division regiments fought alongside Australian troops for nearly 80 days in early 1943 to dislodge Japanese defenders at the Papua New Guinea town of Salamaua, earning the nickname The Jungleers.
Today, Highway 26 west of Portland is named the Sunset Highway to honor the Sunset Division.
From April 1942 to January 1945, regiments of the division were scattered among nearly two dozen camps near Rockhampton, a town on the Fitzroy River about 400 miles north of Brisbane. Troops were ferried back and forth across the Coral Sea and the Pacific to fight in island battles, returning to recuperate at bases near Rockhampton, some along Yeppoon Road and others at what was called Camp Caves.
At one point during the early years of WWII, nearly 150,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Australia, mostly in Queensland near Rockhampton and Townsville. In January 1945, after Gen. Douglas MacArthurs campaign to retake Pacific islands, Sunset Division regiments were moved north to the Philippines.
Dog tags left behind at the campsites were small rectangular metal discs stamped with soldiers names, their hometowns and their military identification numbers. Soldiers wore the tags on chains around their necks.
About 30 years ago, more than 70 Sunset Division veterans were treated like old friends when they returned to Australia for reunions and nearly a month of parties along that nations east coast.
Both relics and junk
Thats where this story begins.
Tim Hill and Ian MacGregor, both carpenters who work for Woollam Constructions in Rockhampton, enjoy excavating history and spending time in the outdoors, so they combine the two and spend some of their free time searching for military memorabilia near the former troop camps.
MacGregor, who Hill calls Hooky (a high school nickname referring to his nose), is Woollam Constructions regional manager. He became interested years ago in searching the military camp sites after hearing his future wifes family tell stories about soldiers who were bivouacked nearby.
Seven decades ago, Woollam Constructions built some of the structures used at the divisions camps. MacGregor says there are still stone pathways, the remains of entrance arches and foxholes in the area, which helped spur his interest as a teenager. He purchased a metal detector (today he uses an Xterra 705) and began digging up a fair collection of dog tags and other personal items.
Hill was a cook in the Royal Australian Air Force for about six years in the 1980s and 90s. A few years ago, he joined MacGregor on the outings and became interested in the history and its connection to soldiers families.
I think Hooky does it for the chase, Hill says. He loves to unearth what has been buried for over 50 years. He has a fine collection of both relics and junk.
Hill says the two have gathered up bits of wire, nails, the odd toothbrush, heaps of bullets of all sizes, harmonica reeds, rank insignia, coins, a fair bit of complete and incomplete trench art, webbing buckles, buttons, axes, the odd jerry can, first aid tins and razor blade dispensers.
Some of the items they keep, and some they give to a local military museum, Hill says.
Besides finding the items, Hill thrives on the research, and spending hours online trying to reconnect pieces of history with families and WWII veterans. So far, he has found and tried to reunite dog tags and other items excavated at the military campsites with nine families. Hes returned about a half-dozen dog tags to their owners (or their families). Hes still trying to find and reunite a dozen or so others.
Although I dont mind the chase, or being outdoors, I live for the research, he says. Researching the soldier and contacting the families is why I do it.
I have never been prouder of what Tim and I have been able to achieve as a result of this, MacGregor says. To be able to return an item to a family half way around the world from 70 years ago has been a memory that I will truly cherish.
A historical event
It was Hills research into dog tags belonging to Clarence Gilfeather that eventually led to the April 18 ceremony in Portland. Using online military databases, Facebook and Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com), Hill was able connect with Lee Gilfeather Parker of Spokane (mostly because of her fathers unique last name). The two chatted through Facebook messages and Parker was able to link Hill with VFW Post 4248, which will host the reunion ceremony.
After a few fits and starts with other venues for the ceremony (some were too small, some wanted too much money for the event) Hill called Stephanie Irwin, VFW Post 4248s lounge manager, who was thrilled to help. She waived the usual rental fees for the posts meeting hall (which can hold up to 130 people), pushed Saturday mornings bingo game back a half hour and worked with VFW post leaders to set up the ceremony.
Im super, super excited about this, Irwin says. This is kind of a historical event.
Post Commander Guldenzopf says this is his way of honoring the nations Greatest Generation.
Its mind-boggling that this dropped in on us like it did, and I couldnt pass it up, Guldenzopf says.
Parker is traveling to Portland for the ceremony, and hopes her brother, Rob Gilfeather, can also attend.
Clarence Gilfeather was 24 when he joined the National Guard in mid-September 1940 in his hometown of Billings, Mont. Hilding Olson, now 96, was 21 when he joined the National Guard, also in September 1940, in his hometown of St. Helens. Liedle was 20 when he joined the National Guard unit in Helena, Mont.
Parker, 70, a 1963 graduate of Wilson High School, says her father rarely spoke about his WWII service. The family never ate rice, or Japanese food of any kind, she says, mostly because her fathers unit was cut off from the other regiments for several days during heavy fighting in one of the island battles, and had to survive on rice they found in abandoned Japanese camps.
I know he was injured in the war, and I know he had some really bad memories from that time, Parker says. He almost didnt talk about it at all.
Guldenzopf is still amazed at the chain of events leading to the dog tag return ceremony. For somebody to take their time, to go through the effort of finding these tags, tracing records and then to bring the damn dog tags to the families, thats beyond my belief, he says.