Memorial Day is often thought of as the beginning of summer, although the official start is still three weeks away. And this weekend, after the long months of pandemic-induced isolation, many Americans will gather the kids and head to the beach or the mountains with bicycles strapped to the bumper and the trunk full of beach blankets. With amusement parks and barbecue bake offs calling, there will be plenty to distract our attention. But along with Americans from every other state in the union, whether red, blue, or purple, we in Georgia will take a moment to remember the purpose of Memorial Day.
America began honoring its fallen in 1866 shortly after the end of the Civil War and several states, including Georgia, claim to be the first to have set aside a day of remembrance. It was not until 1971, however, that Congress officially declared the last Monday in May a national holiday. Then, in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance was established, calling all Americans to pause for a moment of silence at 3:00 pm on Memorial Day in honor of all those who died while serving the nation, whether during the battles of the American Revolution, the Civil War, our two World Wars, or the War in Afghanistan and every conflict in between.
For a few Georgia families, the Richards, the Simons, and the Hardigrees, this Memorial Day, on May 31, holds even greater meaning. Each lost a son on that date during World War Two.
On May 31, 1943, Technical Sergeant John Morton Richards, a thirty-year-old from Columbus was serving with the US Army Air Forces and was killed while deployed in North Africa. His unit, the 68th Squadron of the 62nd Air Service Group, was providing support for Operation Torch, the British and American campaign to route the German army from its entrenched positions. While the specific circumstances of his death are unknown, John perished and his remains were interred after the end of hostilities at the American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.
On May 31, 1944, Technician Fifth Class James Oscar Hardigree, Jr. of Watkinsville lost his life. When the war broke out in 1941, he was too young to join and, besides, he was eager to attend college. He graduated from Southern Business College and found work as a payroll clerk at the Fulton Bag Company. But, in February 1943, he was drafted into the army. Seven months later, he deployed to North Africa to serve with the 756th Tank Battalion. The unit soon transferred to Italy to support the 35th Infantry Division as it fought its way north toward Rome. James was killed in action and buried after the war in the Rome-Sicily American Cemetery. His family also erected a headstone in his memory at the Elder Family Cemetery in Oconee County, Georgia.
And finally, on May 31, 1945, PFC. James B. Simons, also of Columbus, was killed in action. James had earned only a grammar school education and was working as an unskilled laborer in the textile industry when drafted in 1942. He joined the army’s 307th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Infantry Division in the Pacific, a unit that helped liberate the Philippines in November 1944 and later took part in the three-month long battle for Okinawa. In late May 1945, during a push to penetrate the Japanese army’s innermost defenses along a series of hills—a fight in which the US suffered heavy casualties—James was declared missing and ultimately killed in action. He is memorialized at the Honolulu Memorial in Hawaii.
We know the stories of these three young men through the efforts of a group of volunteers who have come together to research and write short biographies of the 400,000 plus Americans who gave their lives in World War II.
Rona Simmons, a Georgia author, compiled the stories of the three Georgians mentioned here. Their memorials and the other 150 stories she researched and wrote are posted online. She said, “Honoring our fallen is an incredibly rewarding effort. All of the volunteers are dedicated to putting a story behind what would otherwise be a name and a date. One of the biggest thrills is finding a photo of the deceased. Unfortunately, so many of these young men and women perished without even that simple reminder. Still, we do what we can with the information available and then move on to the next name.”
The group of volunteers is now over 1,100 strong, from all 50 states and more than a dozen other countries. They are working under the auspices of the nonprofit initiative Stories Behind the Stars (www.storiesbehindthestars.org) in partnership with Ancestry.com and its affiliate Fold3.com. It is the brainchild of Don Milne, a former Utah banker and blogger who has profiled more than a thousand of America’s WWII fallen to date in 2021. Milne plans to add a smartphone app to the project through which visitors to US war memorials and cemeteries can scan a fallen serviceman’s name and read their story. If you would like to volunteer to help document stories of the WWII fallen, please contact Don Milne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roger Fazendin, The 756th Tank Battalion in the Battle of Cassino, 1944 (iUniverse Inc. 1991)
Roy E. Appleman et al, The US Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific: Okinawa: The last battle. Chapters XIII – XV.