A fallen soldiersâ€™ dog tags are back where they belong after traveling from Edina to Beloit, Kansas.
The dog tags were delivered June 8 to Ernest Childers, a wheat farmer carrying the same name as his uncle, Pfc. Ernest Childers, who died in the Aleutian Islands during one of the least-known battles of World War II. Childersâ€™ platoon was led by Lt. James Garberg, now a 96-year-old Edina resident.
Garberg came across the dog tags â€śquite accidentallyâ€ť while going through some of his old personal effects, he recalled.
â€śI was deeply distressed. This is something one of my soldiers had, and I felt deeply obligated that I should not have had it.â€ť
The dog tags were supposed to stay with the Childersâ€™ body, but Garberg believes he accidentally pulled them off as he checked the soldierâ€™s vital signs.
Garberg located the deceased soldier duringÂ the battle in May 1943. U.S. forces had landed on the island of Attu in an attempt to rid the foggy, treeless expanse of Japanese invaders and prevent it from being used as a potential launch pad for bombing raids over Alaska and the U.S. West Coast. It is known as the only World War II battle to take place on American territory.
In the chaos of war, Garberg held on to the dog tags as he sustained his own wounds on Attu, his wrist shattered by a bullet. He spent three years rehabilitating in Veterans Affairs hospitals and went on to get married and raise a family, making a living as a utilities contractor.
â€śWeâ€™ve raised eight children, so you can imagine the stuff that accumulated,â€ť Garberg said, sitting in his living room.
Among that stuff are an American flag he displays prominently and a clock that plays â€śThe Army Goes Rolling Alongâ€ť every hour, on the hour.
â€śThis past winter, I was looking for something else and I found this box that was vaguely familiar,â€ť he said, describing a small rectangular container.
The tags were in a leather pouch. â€śWhen I saw it,â€ť he said, â€śI immediately remembered, so I called my dear friend.â€ť
Michael DePuglio, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, recalled the conversation. Garberg was â€śvery emotional, distraught,â€ť said DePuglio, who took it upon himself to return the dog tags to Childersâ€™ family. He knew Childers was from Beloit, Kansas, but not much else.
â€śWe immediately started a process to try to locate the next of kin,â€ť he said. â€śI tried the historical society. I looked in VA cemeteries. And then it suddenly dawned on me, I should maybe call the congressmanâ€™s office for that district.â€ť
Through the office of Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas), Childers, the nephew, was located. DePuglio delivered the dog tags for Garberg, who deemed himself too old to make the trip. It had been six months since he had somberly stumbled upon the memento.
Childersâ€™ last days
The younger Childers had known little about his uncleâ€™s service.
â€śHe knew that his uncle was killed in World War II fighting the Japanese, but he wasnâ€™t sure where,â€ť DePuglio said.
Garberg lets his friend do most of the talking when recalling the events of May 1943. â€śThat brings back a lot of memories that he would like to forget,â€ť DePuglio explained as he gave a speech during a ceremony at the congressional office.
Under the direct leadership of Garberg, Childers was a rifleman in the 2nd platoon of Company K, part of the U.S. Army 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
â€śAfter two days at sea, the regiment was told they were headed to a desolate island at the tip of the Aleutian chain in Alaska,â€ť DePuglio explained. They initially thought theyâ€™d merely guard the island â€“ cold but safe, he said.
In fact, the Japanese were already there, and after hours of Naval bombardment, American boots set foot on the unwelcoming slab of rock.
While Garberg doesnâ€™t like to talk about the battle that ensued, he described it in a letter to the nephew. In it, he describes his platoon moving up the snow-covered mountains in an attempt to probe enemy defenses, as erratic fog limited visibility and the craggy landscape constrained flanking movements.
â€śSuddenly, the fog lifted and 2nd Platoon immediately came under automatic and small weapons fire from entrenched Japanese positions,â€ť DePuglio said.
Casualties resulted, and for want of cover, the U.S. troops fell back, the fog having returned.
â€śThe helmet chin strap of PFC Ernest Childersâ€™ was loose when I checked his vitals for signs of life. There were none,â€ť Garberg wrote. â€śThis was about 20 minutes after the fire fight started. Perhaps, and unknowingly, my gloved hand encircled his dog tags.â€ť
A display about Childersâ€™ life accompanied the dog tag ceremony. It notes his enlistment date of June 26, 1941, after which he was sent to Fort Ord in California for basic training. It also notes his April 30, 1916, birthday. Childers had just turned 27 when he was killed on Attu.
Until Childersâ€™ dog tags were returned, his nephew had known little of the circumstances surrounding his uncleâ€™s death.
â€śHe knew that his uncle was killed in World War II fighting the Japanese, but he wasnâ€™t sure where,â€ť DePuglio said, sitting in Garbergâ€™s living room after returning from Kansas.
â€śIt did kind of come out of the blue, but Iâ€™ve sure been excited about it,â€ť Childers told the KWCH-TV, a Wichita station.
Teenage platoon leader
The men responsible for returning the dog tags met through St. Thomas Academy, the college preparatory school in Mendota Heights where Garberg is something of an institution. He graduated from the all-boys school, then called St. Thomas Military Academy, in 1941.
â€śI teach the history of the school, and heâ€™s a significant part of the lecture on the academy,â€ť said DePuglio, who retired last month as commandant of cadets at the school.
â€śHe still comes to most of our events. We named the military wing after him,â€ť DePuglio said.
Garberg was the first recipient of St. Thomas Academyâ€™s Fleming Alumni Veterans Award, given to distinguished alumni who served in the military, and the Hames Award, which honors accomplished alumni from the general population. Heâ€™s been a regular donor to the school, and hands out two scholarships every year, according to DePuglio.
â€śAll the boys know who he is,â€ť he said.
Garbergâ€™s military education prepared him to lead a platoon as a late teen.
â€śThey needed leaders quickly,â€ť DePuglio said of the rapidly expanding Army.
Garberg had already learned how to shoot, set up a machine gun and use a bayonet. With those qualifications, he would lead men who were mostly his senior, including Childers.
â€śMr. Garberg wanted Ernest Childers to know he is deeply sorry this has taken so long,â€ť DePuglio said while returning the dog tags to Beloit, the home of â€śan American hero who was lost way too early.â€ť
â€“ Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent