Twenty-six months ago, I started researching the circumstances leading to the World War II death of Navy Fireman Ralph W. Broiles, the first Fontanan killed in WWII, and after whom Fontana Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 6563 is named.
My research resulted in the creation of a 60-page booklet about Ralph Broiles (30 pages) and another 30 pages about our 13 Fontana Vietnam casualties. I presented that booklet, along with the original medals earned by Broiles, to the VFW on Veterans Day 2018.
Broiles’ medals were given to me for safekeeping about 25 years or so earlier by Fontana Councilman Dr. Charles (“Charlie") Koehler. Charlie received them decades earlier from Broiles’ widow. Advancing in age, Mrs. Broiles wanted Charlie, a fellow WWII veteran, to safeguard the medals, just as she had done for so many years.
Fast forward 30 years or so. Charlie told me it was his turn to find a younger, fellow vet to assume this duty, now that he too was advancing in age. He asked me to do so; a request I gladly accepted. Ralph Broiles’ story and his medals are now on display in a shadow box at the Ralph Broiles VFW Post 6563 on Fontana Avenue between Merrill and Randall Avenues. The booklet is available there for reading and at the Lewis Library Fontana Historical Society room.
Soon after presenting the medals and the Vietnam casualty booklet to the VFW, I could not stop thinking about the other 21 Fontana men killed in WWII. Were they lost to the passage of time? Does anyone remember them? And what about our two dead warriors from Korea and the six from the War on Terror? I simply could not ignore those brave men and their families, so it was back to the computer to see what I could glean about their lives and the circumstances of their deaths.
And thus began my two-year labor of love -- searching historic newspapers, public records, military and veteran online sites, speaking with a few of the men’s relatives and using any other source I could find. I also completed further research on the military experiences of the now-14 men from Fontana who were killed in Vietnam. Five were my friends or acquaintances from Fontana High School. I also discovered that the Korean War claimed three Fontana men, not two, and WWII claimed 29 men, not 22 men as was historically reported.
Veterans Day has always been personal for me. Last year, I found the military history of my father’s first cousin, Army Sgt. Yale H. Freeman, who was killed in WWII. That was one of the highlights for me of researching and writing the FONTANA HONOR ROLL.
With the support of Herald News editor Russell Ingold, these men’s stories are now being published in the newspaper every week until all 50 are honored.
Another high point of writing the FONTANA HONOR ROLL was meeting 89-year-old Mrs. Mary Bermudez, the younger sister of WWII Okinawa casualty Army PFC Joe E. Bermudez. I learned from her that Joe’s family never received the medals he earned and that they were not aware of the circumstances surrounding his death. It was my pleasure to create, and on Oct. 26 of this year, present, a shadow box to Mary that included Joe’s Army photo, his replacement medals and a Purple Heart, along with a narrative reporting on the circumstances of his death on April 12, 1945 in Okinawa. (see accompanying photo).
----- AS WE APPROACH VETERANS DAY this year, I am saddened that the pandemic prevents us from gathering together to honor all veterans.
This Veterans Day, I am also thinking of my late dad, Tudor Freeman; my late brother, Bob Freeman, and my late uncle, Bill Sexton, all of whom were veterans. I remember the late Charlie Koehler, who served in the WWII Army Air Corps. I think of Richard Burns and Pat Basile, two of my friends who died in Vietnam.
And I think of three men whom I believe represent the best of the best: my friends, Army Sgt. Mike Bacor (two Vietnam tours- FOHI Class of 1968); Fontana resident and former Army Staff Sgt. Steve Featherstone (Army Green Beret; Purple Heart and Silver Star recipient) and Warrant Officer Rick Bush (FOHI Class of 1967), who, at age 19, was a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. I also think of Rick’s late dad, Wes Bush, former Fontana Chamber of Commerce executive director in the mid-1960s, who was a WWII Marine at Iwo Jima and who also earned a Bronze Star for bravery.
As Nov. 11 fast approaches, I recall that my Army experience did not include deployment to Vietnam. I felt guilty about that for years, until one day in my mid-30s (I am 70 now), I realized God had other plans for me. He led me to where I am today: happily married for 46 years to my wife, Judy Tate Freeman. I have three successful, grown children and 10 remarkable grandchildren. I enjoy membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, financial stability, and I wake up each morning viewing, instead of being viewed. Some would say I am lucky. I would say I am blessed.
God had other plans for my dad too. In 1942, while in the Army Air Corps, he was shot in the hand by a would-be hitchhiker/robber, losing his left trigger finger. Subsequently, he was medically discharged. God preserved him just as he preserved me.
When I think about Veterans Day, I recall that in my era, before the all-volunteer Armed Forces period, most guys simply expected to serve. I think about my buddies in high school. We graduated from FOHI in 1968, the height of Vietnam. We answered the call. Some willingly, some not so willingly.
I think about Army Sgt. Bryan Brewster, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2006. Bryan was the son of my good friend and former Herald News sports editor, the late Louie Brewster.
In addition to those men already mentioned, Veterans Day reminds me of many others in my family who served: my son Mark’s father-in-law, Don Overton, who served 16 months in Vietnam as an Army artilleryman; my daughter Kara’s father-in-law, John Costello, who served four years in the Navy; and my late brother Bob’s father-in-law, Bruce Carlson, who also served in the Navy.
Veterans Day also reminds me of Billy Gene Tate, a sailor and my wife’s father, who served in the Korean War. Judy’s stepbrother, Aubrey Montgomery, a good friend of mine in high school, was a Vietnam combat vet. He was never the same after he came home. He took his own life in 1973 or ‘74. I think about my cousin, Skip Hungerford, a Marine machine gunner in Vietnam. And finally, I think about Judy’s uncle, Herschel Ellis, of the Army Air Corps, who was killed in WWII when his plane crashed into a mountain.
Veterans Day also reminds me of all my relatives and ancestors who fought for our country in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War (Union side for me; Rebel side for Judy), WWII, Korea and in Vietnam.
And finally, when I think of Veterans’ Day, I am thankful that ALL veterans, especially Vietnam vets, are now treated with the honor and respect they so richly deserve. I extend my heartfelt and sincere thanks to ALL veterans and their families. I salute you my friends, for a job well done.
(Bill Freeman writes the FONTANA HONOR ROLL column for the Fontana Herald News.)