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Remembering some of South Dakota’s World War II heroes

todayJune 6, 2024 3

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On this 80th anniversary of D-day, we are looking back at some of the KELOLAND heroes of World War II. Thousands of South Dakotans went off to fight in the war in Europe and the Pacific. More than 1,400 would never come home.

Joe Foss is probably the best-known of South Dakota’s war heroes. The World War II fighter pilot shot down 26 enemy planes. The Marine Ace and Medal of Honor winner would later become the 20th Governor of South Dakota and Commissioner of the American Football League.

South Dakota lays claims to another top ace of World War II, naval aviator Cecil Harris, who shot down 24 enemy planes.

Artifacts of war

“Cecil Harris doesn’t get as much credit as Joe Foss,” said USD military historian professor Kurt Hackemer. “Even though the numbers are comparable in terms of enemy aircraft shot down because he wasn’t a Medal of Honor winner, he got the Navy Cross, which is the second highest award that one can be given.”

Senator John Thune’s dad, Harold flew with Harris in the war.

Former Senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern had one of the most dangerous jobs during the war. He flew B-24 bombers over Germany. McGovern and his squadron mates only had a 25 percent chance of making it home without being killed, wounded or captured.

Probably one of the most notable unsung heroes of World War II was Fort Pierre’s commander, John Waldron, who led Torpedo Squadron 8 in an attack at the Battle of Midway.Don Jorgenson focused on Waldron during this story in 2018 with artist John Mollison.

“John Waldron was a Native American from South Dakota, and what he did was he led a fateful torpedo mission during the Battle of Midway,” said Mollison.

Professor Hackemer says Waldron may very well have been the key to changing the tide of the war against the Japanese. Not only did he find the enemy, but he also did something just as important.

“The attack looked like a complete failure. None of the torpedoes hit. Every plane was shot down, but what Waldron and his men did by pulling the Japanese fighter cover down was open up the sky above them for American dive bombers, and it’s those dive bombers who are famously credited for sinking the four Japanese carriers at the battle of Midway.”

Only one member of the squadron survived the attack. The John Waldron Memorial Bridge now connects Pierre and Fort Pierre. A tribute to a man from a small town who made a big difference in a time of war.

Written by: Badlands Classic Rock

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