Blair High School honors World War II fallen heroes

The stories behind the graduates who did not come home.

On the left wall of the media center at Montgomery Blair High School, a plaque memoralizes 23 students who gave their lives on the battlefields of World War II. Over the summer, Alanna Natanson, a Blair sophomore, researched the lives and deaths of 14 who graduated between 1934 and 1940.

She began with Blair yearbooks and census records, before searching the internet for military records. The task was complicated by a 1973 fire in St. Louis which destroyed thousands of official World War II records. But the internet turned up a surprising number of squadron, battalion and regiment websites, with a wealth of detail. Several Blair alumni shared their memories. The stories she pieced together are recounted here for the first time.

— Diana Kohn.

Class of 1934

Claude A. Bodine was declared “shy, yet very likable” in the 1934 edition of Blair’s yearbook.

After graduation, he married and worked as a sales agent before enlisting in the Army on January 13, 1941.Wounded in France early on, he recuperated in the U.S.

Returning to the battlefield in January 1945 for the Battle of the Bulge, he worked his way up to the position of Sergeant in Company G. On April 6,  his unit captured the town of Grablesben.

However, this mission most likely cost Bodine his life: his official death date is April 10, 1945.

Buried: Unknown

Alexander Bruce Robertson lived in Takoma Park with his parents and younger brother. He was captain of the Blair soccer team, and lettered in both basketball and track. The yearbook staff described Robertson as a person who did not “care to remain in the background,” but liked to “exploit [his] ability.”

He enlisted in the Naval Reserve in Washington, D.C. on November 30, 1942, according to Navy records, but was not called for duty until January 31, 1944.  As a Storekeeper 2nd class, onboard the U.S.S. Franklin, he participating in major naval missions in the Pacific, including Guam, Palau, Iwo Jima, and the Philippines.

On March 19, 1945, the U.S.S. Franklin was participating in the Okinawa Gunto operation. Fifty miles from the Japanese mainland, two enemy planes crashed into the ship, plunging through multiple decks and starting fires that set off deadly explosions.

Robertson was one of 724 members of the crew who died that day,

Honored on a monument in Honolulu.

Class of 1936

William “Bruce” Davis made many appearances in the Blair yearbooks: track, basketball, soccer, Radio Club, Minstrel Club, and Cotillion Club as well as serving on the Student Council and the yearbook staff.

After graduation, Davis moved with his family to Alameda, California where he joined the Army on January 18, 1942.

He spent two years in Iceland as captain of Company C of the Fifth Infantry Division’s Tenth Infantry Regiment. While in Reykjavik he met and married Gudna-Asta Ottesen. He sent her to live with his parents in California at about the same time that they must have learned she was pregnant with their daughter.

Davis arrived in Normandy after D-Day, as part of Patton’s Third Army, famous for “driving the Germans out of France.” On September 10, 1944, Company C led a raid at Metz, suffering great casualties in the process. They charged against the Germans, neutralizing the enemy using bayonets and “marching fire.” Davis’s Company did not run, but rather remained and “picked off” the advancing Germans. Davis stuck with the radio commander, effectively “disorganizing” the German attack, but “not stopping” it.

Army reports indicate that when Davis’s radio operator was killed and Davis was hit in both legs, he simply took up the radio and continued to command his troops as they staved off the attack. When the German troops had withdrawn, Davis had to be forced onto a stretcher before he accepted evacuation.

Such heroism cost Davis: he would die of injuries he sustained on the battlefield.

He did not have a chance to see his daughter.

Awarded the Bronze Star
Buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, CA.

Class of 1937

Jack P. Beasley of Silver Spring hardly looked like he could be a senior in the 1937 Blair yearbook, much less a soldier. Among other activities at Blair, Beasley was a member of the Hill Billies, who performed a huge repertoire of songs and were “much in demand” for gatherings.

After two years at college, Beasley signed up for the Air Corps on April 21, 1942 and was sent to Europe. He next appears on a list of Prisoners of War held in Germany. A trusted source reported that he died as a Prisoner of War, although the date is unknown.

An Army casualty list reports that he died of wounds received during combat.

Buried: Unknown.

William E. Patton of Takoma Park was a member of the baseball team his three years at Blair (“great pitching performances”), and served on Student Council.

In 1943, six years after graduation, Patton, now married, living in DC and a draftsman by trade, enlisted and became a Technician for the 164th Engineers Combat Battalion.

Following D-Day, his unit built bridges in France, including a 270-foot bridge across the Meuse River. On March 8, 1945, the Battalion was ordered to provide security around the Ramagen bridgehead.

Patton was killed the following day when a shell hit his jeep.

Honored on a monument in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.
Buried: Unknown

Class of 1938

John Preston Cox of of Silver Spring, enjoyed basketball, Glee Club and the Izaak Walton League at Blair.

At the time of his enlistment in the Air Corps on January 22, 1942, Cox was a sales clerk. He went on to  become a distinguished First Lieutenant in the Pacific theater, flying with the 44th Wings, 18th Division from Guadalcanal and scoring two “kills.” On Christmas Day, 1943, Cox was shot down while flying over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.

According to military records, he survived only to be executed by the Japanese military in March 1944.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven air medals.
Buried: Unknown

Clifford H. Davis is missing from the 1938 yearbook, although he graduated that year. Little is known beyond his gravesite records, which list his birthdate as September 28, 1920.

The only record of his military career available is the same gravesite record, which states he was a Captain in the Army Air Force and was killed in action on January 29, 1945, just a few days after the end of the Battle of the Bulge.

Interred on March 23, 1950 at Arlington National Cemetery.

Robert Lowell Dunham lived in Takoma Park while attending Blair, where he was on the track and basketball teams.

His skills learned in Shop Club may have come in handy because Army enlistment records report that he was engaged in sheet metal production at the time he joined the Army on July 18, 1941. He served as Private First Class in the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion.

After storming Omaha Beach at Normandy, his unit helped build bridges across the Seine and Meuse Rivers so that the division could march into Belgium.

According to official records, Dunham was killed on August 17, 1944, amid the daring bridge building.

Buried at the American Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.

Edward A. Silven had roots in Illinois, but grew up on Maple Ave in Takoma Park. Returning to Illinois, he turned Shop Club experience into a carpentry career before enlisting in the Air Corps on July 31, 1941,

He probably joined the 827th Bombardment Squadron, engaging in long-range strategic bombing missions against enemy aircraft factories, oil refineries, and assembly plants in Europe.

Second Lieutenant Silven was reported killed on June 11, 1944, after participating in a bombing raid on railroad marshalling yards in Munich two days earlier. Squadron 827 won a Distinguished Unit Citation for that raid despite heavy smoke and intense enemy fire.

Buried: Unknown

Class of 1939

Lloyd John Page Jr. is not pictured in the 1939 Silverlogue, and little is known about his Blair years.

Page was a First Lieutenant for the 313th Fighter Squadron, 50th Tactical Fighter Wing, which provided air coverage on the D-Day beachheads and later for Patton’s Third Army.

A Montgomery County Veterans Affairs record reports that Page was shot down and declared missing in action on August 26, 1944 (later listed as dead in 1946 War Department list).

Awarded the Air Medal with 11 oak leaf clusters.
Buried in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Class of 1940

Edward “Eddie” Kihlbom was a Takoma Park native who lived with his mother on Elm Ave. During high school, he was part of the Izaak Walton League, the Dramatic Club and the Glee Club, and was a soda jerk in his spare time.

Kihlbom followed his friend Jack Hewitt into the Maryland Coast Guard, not really thinking much about war. According to Hewitt, “we… didn’t realize what war was all about.” Kihlbom and Hewitt were assigned to the 115th Infantry of the 29th Division. They were shipped out to England on October 5, 1942 and immediately prepared for D-Day. As a Technician 5th Class Kihlbom participated in day-to-day operations as a corporal and a “truckmaster.” He and Hewitt “load[ed] food, and supplies, and ammunition for the troops in England.”

On May 26, 1943, Kihlbom was delivering hand grenades on his truck. One of the pins on a grenade came loose, the truck exploded, and Kihlbom was caught in the blast. As Hewitt notes, if Kihlbom “hadn’t been standing there at that minute, he wouldn’t have died.” Hewitt calls Kihlbom a man who “had more courage, guts than anyone.” Even occasionally getting into fights, Kihlbom never hesitated to stand up “for what was right.”

More than 60 years later, Hewitt still says a prayer for his friend.

Buried at the Cambridge Permanent Cemetery, England.

[George] Mark McDonald was an active Blair student. taking part in the Bowling Club, Athletic Club, Silverlogue Literary Club, and the Izaak Walton League. Known to his classmates as Mark, he must have been an avid swimmer, for the yearbook staff predicted he would be “searching for a life to save” as a lifeguard on Long Beach after he graduated.

He attended college for a year and then became a clerk in a sales office, before enlisting in the Army on January 21, 1942.  His unit, the  116th Infantry Regiment, part of the 29th Division was deployed in October 1942, and was assigned to participate in the Normandy Invasion.

On June 6, 1942, the 116th was supposed to support the western flank of another unit on Omaha Beach, however, rocky seas and chaos from the fighting threw the 116th off-course. The troops struggled to get ashore under heavy German fire. They finally managed to get ashore by nightfall, after 341 members of the unit had been wounded or killed. Those who survived went on to capture St. Lo, France in house-to-house fighting.They liberated the town on July 18, 1944.

On August 7, the unit joined the battle for Vire; and casualty lists state that McDonald died in that effort.

Buried at the Brittany American Cemetery in St. James, France.

Kenneth Wright flew all over Europe during his time in the service. A 1930 Federal Census record states that a Kenneth E. Wright lived on the Prince George’s side of Takoma Park with his parents, three siblings and a young uncle. The 1940 yearbook staff predicted Kenneth would be a traffic cop, “decked” with brass buttons and carrying a “six-shooter.”

Instead, Wright joined the National Guard on January 6, 1941 as a member of the Coast Artillery Corp, later moving to the 351st Bombardment Squadron, whose  members flew over enemy territory unaccompanied and attacked enemy airfields, industries, naval facilities, and transportation France, especially communication targets during the Battle of the Bulge.

On April 3, 1945, Sgt. Wright and his crew were returning from a mission in Kiel, Germany, when they realized the gas in their plane was low. They planned to make a stop in Belgium to refuel when the plane was hit by enemy fire. According to a letter in the file, although Wright “bail[ed] out,” the plane exploded upon hitting the ground.

Later, Germans would show Wright’s crewmembers “pairs of twisted and burned dog tags.”

Buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France.

Jennis “Jack” Strickland left his Blair sweetheart Kitty behind when he went off to fight the war.  Their time together and apart is detailed in her memoir, Red Roses and Silver Wings.

Originally from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Strickland was active at Blair, on Silver Chips and in the Student Government Association. The yearbook predicted that he would be prescribing “cures” for “a disease or fractured bone.”

Blair was also where Strickland met his future wife, Kitty Murray. After only one date, the two fell in love and were secretly married the fall after he graduated.  As described in the book, Jack enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corp soon after Pearl Harbor. Kitty joined him in Alabama and Arkansas as he trained to fly planes for the war effort.

Red Roses and Silver Wings

Kitty’s memoir of her years with Jack, was published by A.A.M. Press (Chevy Chase) in 1998. The “red roses” of the title refers to Jack’s habit of placing a red rose on her desk at Blair every morning. Their daughter Lynne was born one month after the crash.

Kitty stayed stateside with their newborn son, Jennis III, when Jack was stationed in England, and then Scotland with the 700th Bomber Squadron of the 445th Bombardment Group.

His letters to Kitty during his time in Great Britain reveal much about his thoughts including everyday descriptions of living in England and Scotland: “The Scots appear to be the quiet type- with a hidden charge of humor…The English are—the quiet type. He offered his take on the Germans: “I’m…hoping the Allies unleash every weapon of war ever invented,” but also asked “Why is the world at each other’s throats simply because their leaders have influenced their minds to such an extent that they are willing to give their life for that belief?”

His letters also dealt on his dreams for the future. Strickland hoped to work with the land, sometimes expressing a wish to own a farm or a “small select resort” in a “choosy” location, other times planning to become a Veterinarian,”

Many of the letters were also filled with different combinations of girl’s names as he and Kitty planned for the birth of their second child. Although he promised he would be home in “a couple of months or so” his luck ran out on March 24, 1945 in Kassel, Germany, when he participated in “Operation Varsity,” perhaps the biggest airstrike during the war. First Lieutenant Strickland was flying co-pilot for Colonel Carl Flemming only 50-100 ft. above the ground when ground fire shot the plane down. The plane crashed in a huge ball of “fire and smoke.”

According to the book, Jack’s brother Harold, an infantryman in the same battle, witnessed the crash but did not know his brother was on the plane.

Buried in Maargraten, Holland.

Alanna NatansonAlanna Natanson is a sophomore in Montgomery Blair’s Communication Arts Program. She loved conducting this research and seeing Blair’s history come alive. Historic Takoma applauds her work uncovering the lives and deaths of these brave men.

The nine additional fallen heroes from the classes of 1941-44, will be profiled in a future column, along with a description of life at Blair during the war years.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.