I selected this photo from 1943 as the featured image for the story of my father’s early years. Grover C. Gauntt Jr. -The Early Years. It’s one of my favorite photos of my dad. It was taken at Camp Roberts in Central California. The 145th Infantry Regiment was engaged in intensive training in preparation for fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. When we put the story up on WMSB back in 2011, I knew next to nothing about the young man leaning into Dad’s right shoulder: Duke Ellison.
Recently, I got a bug in my ear to try and find out more about Duke. The original of that photo hangs in a large frame in my home office that also features the Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars Major Grover C. Gauntt, Jr. earned for his two years of exemplary service for the U.S. Army in the Solomon Islands and Philippines during World War II. I see the ‘Duke’s’ face every day.
I surmised from the photo and other snippets of memory lurking in the recesses of my mind that Duke and my Dad were close. My Dad didn’t have many close adult friends, and perhaps that spiked my curiosity. Where did he grow up? Was he a pal from college like Jack Fredericks, Frank Gehrie and Hugh Bardeen? What happened to him? Was “Duke” even his real name?
With abundant thanks and gratitude to my pack-rat mother, Barbara Case Gauntt, the incredible tools now available on Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank.com, and genealogy-military history researcher extraordinaire Patricia Johnson, I was able to stitch together a glimpse into the life of the “Duke” and his friendship with my Dad.
In June of 2019 we donated to Chapman University in Orange County CA and their wonderful War Letters US project, over 25 original letters my Dad wrote to his parents and his bride-to-be, Barbara Case, during WWII.
In a letter to his parents, dated July 20, 1943, sent from Camp Roberts (near Paso Robles CA) Grover writes “The “Duke” is leaving. I hate to see him go. We are splitting up, but someday we will get together again, for we have a sound friendship. He is the first to leave. I don’t know anything else.”
Captain Gauntt, the Cannon Company he commanded, and the rest of the 145th Infantry Regiment, shipped out of San Francisco in late December 1943. After a couple of weeks in New Guinea, they moved on to the Japanese controlled island of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands.
On February 24, 1944, he wrote this in a letter to his folks:
The Duke received a letter from MJ and he came over to show it to me. He was quite proud of it, and I don’t blame him.
I found this interesting on a couple of fronts. First, it appeared that Dad and Duke Ellison had reconnected in the South Pacific and were together on Bougainville. Second, I assumed “MJ” was Mary Jane, my father’s nearest older sister. She married Earl M. Daniels II in 1943 and they had recently brought into this crazy world their first child Susan Lynne Daniels. What MJ may have written to Captain Ellison that he was “quite proud of,’ I don’t know. But I viewed this as indicative of Duke’s closeness to Dad and his family.
I suspected “Duke” was not his real name, and this seriously hampered my search for information. Dead ends everywhere. Oh well…
Then there was a recent tug…
My oldest grandson, Wyatt James Kirby, is nine and a professional baseball fanatic. Not unlike his Uncle Jimmy who taught himself to read at the age of 5 so he could decipher the box scores in the sports sections of the papers and the hundreds of baseball cards he bought and collected, Wyatt has recently started his own baseball card collection. He also has memorized the rosters of all the teams of the MLB…as I said, he’s obsessed.
Wyatt showed me his bulging book of cards and I told him about Jimmy’s mammoth collection—and that those cards are stored in our attic—and might he have any interest….He said “maybe,” especially the top “old” players. I appreciate we might have a different interpretation of who is an “old” player, but I promised to dive into the Jimmy archives.
The following Saturday I pulled down the extension ladder that beckoned my creaky knees and hips to our attic. “Attic” might be misleading. It’s more like a 3rd story, half of which was wood paneled and sound-proofed to serve as my recording studio back in the 1980s and 1990s.
I pulled out the six banker boxes full of Jimmy’s baseball cards and lined them up at the top of the stairs.
I then looked at the pile of stuff on the desk where Jimmy used to write when he was home for a visit from Los Angeles. There was a stack of letters, photos and newspaper articles. I was a bit surprised by the volume. I’d been through the pile perhaps a year ago. I thought I’d whittled it down….
One of the first things I came upon was a clipping from a Los Angeles Times article in March of 1946 announcing the wedding of my father and mother. It listed the full names of the wedding party including the groomsmen: Jack Fredericks was best man, my three uncles, Stu Hagestad, Earl Daniels and Stan Case (16), Burton Smith, Theodore Tyler and….Kermit Ellison.
The “Duke’s” real name was Kermit! And he was in Dad’s wedding! This was a huge find.
I plugged his real name into the Ancestry.com Search program and struck a vein of valuable information. Ms. Johnson uncovered even more. The pieces of the story began to fall into place.
Kermit Warwick Ellison was born November 23, 1917 in Kinde, Huron County, Michigan to Warwick Henry Ellison and Anne Stoner.
He graduated from Kinde High School and in 1937 enrolled in Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences [now known as Michigan State University] in East Lansing where he was a member of Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity.
Duke registered for service in the fall of 1940 and, upon graduation from Michigan State, entered active duty in the Army in July, 1941. After basic training and officer candidate school, Duke was attached to that segment of the 145th Infantry Regiment training in Camp Roberts in Central California. That is where Duke and my father met and became friends.
As Grover wrote in the letter to his folks, Duke left Camp Roberts in July. First Lt. Ellison was attached to Company I of the 306th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division. He and his unit shipped out for the South Pacific in August.
Their first fight against the Japanese was on New Guinea. Lt. Ellison and the 306th were then attached to the 37th Infantry Division, also known as the “Buckeye Division” given its roots in Ohio, under command of Major General Robert Sprague Beightler. They landed on Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands, in December of 1943.
As mentioned, Captain Gauntt and his men arrived on Bougainville at the end of January, 1944, and reconnected with his good buddy, Duke. As described in my father’s story, there were some horrific battles on Bougainville in March and April including the Battles for Hills 206 and 700.
Duke and my dad both were both awarded Bronze Stars for heroic and meritorious service on Bougainville.
In January of 1945, Duke, Grover and their units boarded ships bound for the Philippines and the attack on Manila. They spent the next eight months in heavy fighting across Luzon culminating in the unconditional surrender of the few surviving Japanese officers and soldiers on September 2.
Duke’s and Grover’s War was over. They had both been promoted to the rank of Major and awarded and acknowledged for their leadership and bravery.
Grover and his unit arrived back in Los Angeles in late December. I assume Duke got back to his home on Whidbey Island WA about the same time. Grover and Barbara were engaged by Christmas and got married ten weeks later on March 6, 1946 in Los Angeles. Duke was there to stand up for him as one of the groomsmen.
Duke returned to the Philippines and he married Clarita Baltasar from Manila. Their son, Robert, was born there in 1947.
In April of 1949, Duke, Clarita and their one-year old son sailed from Manila to San Francisco aboard the General G C Morton. The young family then settled in Duke’s hometown of Langley on Whidbey Island in Washington.
This triggered a deeply embedded memory. I recalled that in the early 1960s my family took a trip to visit Seattle and take in the World’s Fair. That would make it 1962 and I was 12. One day we got on a ferry boat bound for one of the San Juan Islands to visit Duke. I remember his lovely wife was Asian and they had a son about the same age as my brother who was born in 1947.
I dove back into the other books of photos my mother—bless her heart—put together years ago and found these two of that visit with Duke and his family on Whidbey Island. My dad took the photos.
Duke’s and Clarita’s son, Robert “Bob” Warwick Ellison, was born in the Philippines in 1947. He attended high school in Langley and was a freshman in 1962, the year we visited his family on Whidbey Island. Their younger son, Jim, was 11.
Bob’s and Jim’s mother, Clarita, taught English and Spanish at Langley High School.
Kermit W. Ellison passed away on March 31, 1977 in the town of Langley on Whidbey Island. He was 59 years old. His wife, Clarita, passed away ten years later.
I don’t know as much as I would like, but know a good deal more than before I began this quest. Kermit “Duke” Ellison was a college graduate, a leader of his fraternity and a good friend of my father’s. Dad only mentioned a handful of guys in his letters to his folks and Barbara, and Duke Ellison was one of them. The Duke stood up for his friend at his wedding. He probably knew Grover, and what he/they endured on the Solomon Islands and Philippines, better than almost anyone else. They both distinguished themselves in battle and, as Majors, were responsible for the lives of many soldiers. They were side by side through one of the most exciting periods of our country’s history—and one of the most horrific.
They both died too soon: my dad, 51, in 1970, and Duke in 1977 at the age of 59.
Duke and Grover were good men and better friends.
Blessings to you both.