This week it was reported by Cincinnati news outlets that the body of William Brandenburg, who was killed in action during WW2, was coming home an improbable 70+ years later. I am a firm believer in the idea that, despite it’s impossibility, everyone deserves to be remembered. It sounds like William was. His family submitted DNA samples in hopes of assisting in identifying his remains. The effort was successful, but not until after everyone that knew William had passed away.
It’s a common saying that a person has no concept how someone two rungs above or below them on the economic ladder truly lives. Anyone that much poorer or richer than you lives a life that is foreign. I think the same goes for generations. It made me wonder, does anyone around now really know what life was like for William growing up in the Great Depression and then enlisting as a teenager? I certainly don’t, so I set about researching what his life could have been like. Admittedly, this post is less flashy than some others have been but to me the real story will always be “ordinary” people whose lives were extraordinary.
Life in Rural Kentucky
William’s father, Robert Brandenburg was born in about 1872 in Kentucky. At the age of 24, he married 19 year old Mary Strong. The next year the couple had their first child, Herman, and two years after that, a daughter named Clara. The family was living in a town called Sturgeon, which was nearly equal distance between Cincinnati, OH and Knoxville, TN. The only fact given about Sturgeon on it’s wikipedia page is that the post office closed in 1966. It’s not what the kids call “hopping.” The surrounding county, Owsley had a population of just under 5,000 in 2010, an increase of about a thousand since the first census in the county in 1850. The area was known for coal mining and at one point, gas and oil wells operated in the county.
Mary died in February of 1902 at the age of 27, and is buried in the family cemetery in Sturgeon. Robert remarried in 1906 to Mattie Rice and by the 1910 census the couple had two kids. Robert’s kids from his first marriage were not living with them.
And Rural Ohio
By 1920, the family had moved to St. Clair Township in Butler County, Ohio. They were renting a home and Robert was working as a laborer. St. Clair is located along the Great Miami River. At the time the area had about 2,200 residents. A number that grew to over 8,000 in 1980 and then fell to 6,900 by 2010.
The stock market crashed on Black Tuesday in October of 1929 throwing the U.S. into the Great Depression. By that time Robert owned a farm in New Miami, Ohio. The 1930 census valued it at $800. He was living with his wife Mattie and his children Park, Elizabeth, Clyde, Finley, May, Charles, William, and Ida. Park and Clyde were both working as laborers in the building industry.
By 1940, the older children had left home. Robert was nearing 70. Mattie was quite a bit younger than him and in her early fifties. William was 14 and still in school.
In 1942, Robert was killed after being crushed beneath the wheels of a farm wagon that was loaded with hay. He was 71 years old at the time.
Headed to War
William and two of his brothers served in WW2. Finley in November of 1942. Charles in July 1943 at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. He served in Company K, 390th Infantry of the U.S. Army. William enlisted in the United States Marine Corp in 1942. He was the youngest at enlistment at just 16 years old. His photo shows a boy just over five feet six inches tall. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he served in Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.
Researching this I’ve tried to think of what it must have been like to look at a world that seemed so broken. Poverty was high, the US was struggling and it must have seemed like the rest of the world was trying to destroy itself. I imagine there was some amount of desperation to make the world better mingled in with the love of country that drove people to enlist. Of course, it could have also just been an opportunity. A place where meals and a paycheck were guaranteed.
William’s company was sent to the Battle of Tarawa in 1943. There were 6,400 casualties across all forces in the 3 day battle.
“On November 20, 1943, PFC William Brandenburg participated in the invasion of Betio Island, the largest island in the Japanese-held Tarawa Atoll. Company A landed on the northern coast of the island and fought through the island over the course of two days, meeting heavy Japanese resistance.” (DPAA Website)
On the third day of fighting, Private First Class William Brandenburg was killed in action. He was just 17 years old. His death was confirmed local in The Marion Star in January of 1944
After the battle U.S. service members who had been killed were buried in battlefield cemeteries. William was buried in the Central Division Cemetery on Betio Island.
After the battle, high profile members of the Navy questioned the military strategy that allowed for the large numbers of casualties. In the months after the battle, irate families wrote letters demanding to know why their sons had been killed for such a small island.
Finding His Way Home
After the war, remains buried at the site were disinterred and returned to the United station to be buried. At the time, they didn’t have a way to identify the service members or reunite them with family. They were buried as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 2016, William’s body was disinterred a second time. Scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis, anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence to identify him.
William was buried in Hamilton, Ohio on July 27, 2019. The public was encouraged to attend and line the route on the day of the burial service to honor his sacrifice.