Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 17, 2013

Dog tag detectives...

W.Va. family reunited with relic reminder of supreme WWII sacrifice

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

WELCH — This is not a typical D-Day invasion story, but there was nothing typical about the spring 1944 concentration of men and war machines preparing to assault Adolph Hitler’s fortress Europe.

In the days leading up to the invasion, S/Sgt. Enoch Bales Jr. was serving as a gunner on a B-24 “Liberator” bomber that was headed to the European Theater of World War II, but he didn’t make it.

The B-24 No. 42-50412 plane that he was in was last sighted when it left Natal, Brazil on May 24, 1944, when it was on the way to Dakar, Africa. The plane was officially reported missing on June 1, 1944. Sgt. Junior Bales was just 21 years old. He and the nine other crewmen he served with were reported as missing and presumed dead.

In late January of this year, Russell Broxterman was searching an open field of the old Topeka Army Air Field near Topeka, Kan., when his metal detector alerted him to an object in the soil. Broxterman, 65, had actually spent part of his career as an employee for the state of Kansas working at the airfield that closed in 1973. He has 25 years of metal detecting under his belt, and is a member of a club called the Topeka Treasure Hunters, although he’s a little shy about that name.

“We’re not really treasure hunters as the name would imply,” he said Friday evening during a telephone interview from his Auburn, Kan., home. “When we find something we can reconnect to the family it belongs to, that’s what we like.” A few years ago, he and several others assisted state archeologists in discovering more about the Civil War Battle of Mine Creek. “That was helpful to aid their understanding.” Three weeks ago at the airfield, he was just looking for World War II era relics.

“I only had to dig down 6 or 7 inches before I found the dog tag,” he said. “I had found two military dog tags before, but they were covered with rust. This one was all shiny, so I thought it was probably lost recently. It was made of stainless steel.”

One of his friends, Lee Ralph, is practiced in the art of genealogical searches online, so Broxterman asked Ralph if he would try to find out something about the airman so he could try and make contact with his family to return the dog tag. “When Lee Ralph told me that Sgt. Bales was killed during the war, and that his aircraft was lost at sea, I thought the search was over,” he said. “Then when I saw that he was an only son, I was sure that I would never find any family members.”

Broxterman did learn one bit of useful information — Sgt. Bales was from McDowell County. He called the McDowell County Public Library in Welch to see if anyone at the library knew any Bales family members who still lived in the county. Eleanor Beckner, a 22-year veteran employee at the library was happy to get involved in that kind of a microfilm search.

“I get so many requests, and not all of them are as serious as this one,” Beckner, 85 said. Beckner grew up in Bramwell, graduated from Bramwell High School in 1946, so as a teenage girl growing up during World War II, she knew about the tragedy. Her parents had already moved to Bluefield before she finished high school. After graduation, she took a job in the circulation department of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

Patrick Corcoran, who also works at the library in Welch, explained that there is an unexplained break in the microfilm records of the Welch Daily News during the war years, but when Beckner was searching the first available microfilm, she soon came upon a front page story from May 25, 1948, about the dedication of a monument at Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Bluewell to Sgt. Bales and his fellow crewmen.

“I felt like I had hit heaven,” Beckner said. “I remember when President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt came on the radio and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and I remember the sadness of those years. I knew there were Bales family members living in Iaeger, and since Sgt. Bales’ mother, Magdelina “Maggie” Marshall, was from Roderfield, I started there.”

When she was unsuccessful in that effort, she recalled that some Bales’ family members who lived in the Gary area. When she called James “Coney” Bales, she hit pay dirt, although it took some time for Coney to comprehend what was happening.

“My dad and his cousin, Junior Bales were as close as two people could be, but I never heard him called anything other than Junior,” Coney Bales, a retired public school teacher said. “I was born in 1946, so I didn’t know anything about Junior Bales except that he was lost at sea in a B-24 in 1944. I was thinking, ‘How could they find a dog tag from someone who was killed at sea?’ My dad was in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he was a sergeant too. None of it made sense at first.”

Eventually, Bales called back to Beckner and contacted Broxterman who had searched online and found Sgt. Enoch Bales will, and the will gave his possessions to his mother or to Bales’ father, James Edward Bales. “My dad always said he and Junior were real close, but I knew of someone who was closer to Junior’s mother than I was — Shelby Jean Clark. Mr. Broxterman wanted to send Junior’s dog tag to me, but I thought Shelby Jean should have it.”

“After I talked with Mrs. Beckner, everyone else I talked with was so excited,” Broxterman said. “Shelby Jean had practically lived with Sgt. Bales’ mother during the last 10 years of her life. I just couldn’t believe that I was talking to all of these people who had personal memories of Sgt. Bales. He was lost at sea, and had no brothers or sisters, but all of these people knew him.”

Clark now lives in Hardy, Va., south of Roanoke, Va., but after leaving Roderfield, her Aunt Maggie Marshall relocated to the Staunton, Va., area. Although Bales remains were not recovered, Marshall had a stone erected in honor of her son at Woodlawn Cemetery. One side of the stone has her son’s name and an aircraft and the other side lists the names of the crewmen who died as well.

Their names are: 2nd Lt. Gilbert J. Van Iderstine, pilot; 2nd Lt. Ralph Wayne Rankin, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. John R. Emmett, navigator; 2nd Lt. Louis B. Seitz, bombardier; Staff Sgt. Jefferson D. Melton, engineer; Staff Sgt. Jewell R. Bailey, radio operator; Sgt.  Charles H. Shaffer, armorer gunner; Sgt. Martin J. Gibbons, gunner; Sgt. Enoch Bales, gunner; and Sgt. William C. Austin, gunner.

“I remember when they dedicated the stone that several of the mothers of the other boys in Junior’s crew attended the ceremony,” Clark said. “When I asked Mr. Broxterman how Junior might have lost his dog tag, he said it wasn’t unusual for a soldier to lose them. He said they just got another set made. He said the place where he was searching was where the old World War II era barracks were located, and Junior probably lost them then.

“We have been shocked by all of this,” Clark said. “This has been a big shock. My aunt never had any other children and she had a hard time losing Junior.” Clark said she watched out for her Aunt Maggie, but she said she lived with her for the last six months of her life. She said that she died in the late 1980s. “She was like another mother to me,” Clark said.

“She had an airplane put on her headstone like the one that’s on Junior’s,” Clark said. “She’s buried in Augusta Memorial Cemetery in Staunton, Va.”

Tech Sgt. Bales entered the military on June 16, 1943. Clark has a undated newspaper clipping of Bales after he received his diploma and gunners’ wings at Harlingen Army Air Field in Texas. The clipping indicated he was to return to Salt Lake City, Utah for additional training after a 10-day furlough.

“I remember being at a party and seeing another one of my uncles talking with Junior and then walking away with tears in his eyes,” Clark said. “He said that Junior had told him he probably wouldn’t see him again.”

Nothing in the record indicates when Sgt. Bales was in Kansas. Broxterman said that he has a “T-43” and “T-44” stamped on his dog tag, indicating that he received tetanus shots in both of those years. He also said that each story concerning the return of the previous two dog tags he found have heart-warming stories, but this one has been special to him.

Clark received the dog tag in the mail on Feb. 13 or 14, she said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com