There’s something special about the small town of Preston in Franklin County in the southeast corner of Idaho with its population of 5,200: In World War II, three of its townsfolk gave their lives for their country and received the Medal of Honor — America’s highest military decoration.
One of them was Nathan K. Van Noy Jr., serving with the Army’s Headquarters Company of Shore Battalion, 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment.
It must have been terrifying for the 19-year old soldier from Preston that early morning of Oct. 19, 1943, on a beach in New Guinea.
American and Australian forces were fighting the Japanese for control of the town of Finschafen on the strategic Huon Peninsula at the eastern end of New Guinea.
With night barely fading into dawn, he could see three landing barges of Japanese soldiers churning toward the beach he was defending. The young soldier with his ammo loader by his side was just 5 yards from where the enemy was planning to land.
Perched on high ground above the beach, Aussie shore guns from the 2/4th Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment wiped out one of the barges but couldn’t get the other two because the guns couldn’t point downward in negative elevation enough to get them in their sights.
Manning his machine gun, Van Noy blazed away at the Japanese storming ashore, shooting and throwing hand grenades at his position. His mates yelled at him to get out of there — but he refused and kept firing.
His loader was killed and he was seriously wounded but kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition, as the enemy closed in.
When his comrades found his body after the battle, it was riddled with wounds.
Four months later, the Preston, Idaho, soldier was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
“In this action Pvt. Van Noy killed at least half of the 39 enemy taking part in the landing,” his citation read. “His heroic tenacity at the price of his life not only saved the lives of many of his comrades, but enabled them to annihilate the attacking detachment.”
Finschafen was part of the important the Huon Peninsula Campaign, and was mostly an Australian operation — supported by the Americans. After 159 days of fighting, the Allies finally captured the peninsula, but it cost the Aussies 73 lives, with 285 wounded and another 391 evacuated because of illness.
The 532nd American unit suffered eight killed and 42 wounded. Japanese casualties were reported as “heavy.”
Capturing Finschhafen was vital for the construction of Allied air base and naval facilities to fight against Japanese bases in New Guinea and their central base of operations at Rabaul just to the east on New Britain Island.
“Junior” Van Noy was buried in Grace Cemetery in Grace, Idaho, where he was born.
On Oct. 20, 1943 — a year after Finschafen — U.S. Army Private First Class Leonard C. Brostrom of Preston hit the beach at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines — but he wasn’t in the famous photo of General MacArthur leading his entourage of officers and war correspondents wading ashore and later announcing, “People of the Philippines, I have returned!”
Brostrom was a rifleman in Company F of the 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
Eight days after the landing at Leyte Gulf, Brostrom and his platoon were slogging through the Barauen swamplands to the north, chasing Japanese forces in conditions of intense tropical humidity and heat.
Tanks couldn’t handle the wetlands, so the American troops didn’t have them for protection.
Near Dagami Municipality, the patrol ran into trouble.
From camouflaged pillboxes, trenches, and spider holes, fierce Japanese machinegun and rifle fire was shredding Brostrom’s exposed platoon. The only way to survive and advance was to take out a pillbox in the center of the action.
Without orders from anyone, Brostrom ran directly into crisscrossing gunfire. With total disregard for his own safety, he raced toward a large pillbox-bunker.
Six Japanese soldiers charged at him with fixed bayonets. He shot and killed one of them and the rest ran away.
While continuing to attack the pillbox with grenades, he was shot three times.
Then another shot hit him in the abdomen and he fell to the ground. Losing blood rapidly, he still managed to get back up and throw more grenades. Then he collapsed — while the rest of his platoon wiped out the remaining Japanese.
As his platoon buddies carried him off the field, the brave soldier from Preston, Idaho, died.
His posthumous Medal of Honor said in part, “his intrepidity and unhesitating willingness to sacrifice himself in a one-man attack against overwhelming odds enabled his company to reorganize against attack, and annihilate the entire enemy position.”
On the most remembered Sunday in American history — Dec. 7, 1941 — Captain Mervyn S. Bennion was on board the USS West Virginia, a 1921-vintage battleship he commanded, moored on “Battleship Row” in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.
Born in Vernon, Utah, in 1887, Bennion attended Oneida Stake Academy, a Mormon school in Preston — now a Mormon Historic Site — and graduated from Latter-day Saints High School in Salt Lake City. Appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, he excelled and graduated third in the Class of 1910.
By 1939, he was “Captain Bennion.”
On that fateful Dec. 7, the West Virginia was moored next to another battleship, the USS Tennessee, with the USS Arizona nearby.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Japanese planes in a surprise attack from a six-carrier task force swooped in and launched aerial torpedoes that smashed into the port side of the West Virginia, followed by bombs raining down from other planes.
Two Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes aboard the battleship were destroyed — their fuel tanks ripped open and spilling fuel that quickly caught fire. The Arizona was also ablaze and the two ships burned for some 30 hours.
Two bombs hit the neighboring Tennessee, badly damaging gun turrets while the ship was being showered with debris from explosions aboard the Arizona.
From the West Virginia’s bridge, Captain Bennion gave orders, doing his best to save the ship. Then he was hit in the stomach by shrapnel from an exploding bomb hitting the Tennessee next door.
In great pain, he continued to direct the effort while trying to hold the stomach wound closed with one arm.
Then he ordered his men to leave him and save themselves. Crew members led by Mess Attendant Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller obeyed the order but also carried their captain off the bridge.
While still giving orders, he bled to death.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded him a posthumous Medal of Honor, noting in the citation:
“As Commanding Officer of the USS West Virginia, after being mortally wounded, Capt. Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge.
“Despite his grave injuries, he continued at his post trying to manage the situation…His conduct is regularly cited in training as the epitome of proper command deportment under fire.”
The West Virginia was refloated after draining the water from the hull and repaired in Pearl Harbor, followed by more at Puget Sound Navy Yard before sailing to join the Leyte Gulf invasion.
On Sept. 2, 1945, the West Virginia was in Tokyo Bay when MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the Missouri.
Those “Greatest Generation” heroes — Van Noy, Brostrom and Bennion — all had ships named in their honor:
A Great Lakes steamer named “Josephine Lawrence” was acquired by the U.S. Army in late 1943 and converted into a port repair ship and renamed “Junior N. Van Noy.”
In 1948, the Army acquired the cargo ship “SS Marine Eagle” and renamed it the “USAT Private Leonard C. Brostrom.”
On July 4, 1943, the destroyer USS Bennion was christened by Captain Mervyn Bennion’s widow Louise at the Boston Navy Yard.
During World War II, 464 members of the U.S. military received the Medal of Honor — 266 of them posthumously — and deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.
Winston Churchill’s famous 1940 comment praising the Royal Air Force can also apply to America’s military heroes:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.