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June 29, 1995

You may have noticed a brief story in the Oklahoman last week about the reunion of Battery C, 158th Field Artillery, 45th Division, in Weatherford. That unit, celebrated for its World War II heroism in combat, was headquartered for years in Perry and many of us still feel a kinship with it.

I was not a member of Battery C, but I remember its role in this community very well. So do many Perry and Noble county men who were in the 45th Division prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Ominous war clouds were darkening on the horizon in the late 1930s. By 1939 the British commonwealth and Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany were engaged in what came to be called World War II. Hitler soon gobbled up France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, The Netherlands, Belgium and other major chunks of European real estate. Britain itself, the lone survivor, was in a precarious position. The U.S. had become a "non-belligerent" ally of Winston Churchill's embattled bastion, but President Roosevelt stopped short of sending troops "over there." The U.S. was still technically at peace, though very involved in Britain's war effort.

The U.S. Army was an all-volunteer outfit after World War I. Although a peacetime draft eventually was introduced, the number of men called by Selective Service was not large at first. As an alternative, young men could enlist in the National Guard and be trained on weekends with their hometown friends at the armory. The pay was meager (regular Army privates received $21 per month), but the camaraderie and excitement of participating in war games and maneuvers drew many youths into the Guard. The 45th Division of the Army National Guard was composed primarily of Oklahomans plus a few others from New Mexico and portions of Texas.

Perry was proud to be the home of Battery C, 158th Field, Artillery, and serving in it was regarded as a privilege. When they could meet the age requirement, many Perry high school senior boys joined up. They liked the paltry pay, the weekend drills and weeks at summer camp, but most of all they enjoyed the association with others from this area in a very manly citizen-soldier vocation. Most of the Battery's officers were Perry business and professional men, like H. D. (Speck) Roads, Quine Brengle Sr., Myrl McCormick, and several others. Ivan Kennedy also was an officer and director of the 158th Field Artillery band, a separate unit which also was based here. I wish I had a roster with the names of all the others, enlisted men as well as officers, but those are some that I remember.

On Sept. 4, 1940, Battery C was mustered into federal service along with the entire 45th Division as the U.S. became concerned about its woefully undermanned regular Army in the face of Hitler's continued threat. Federal service meant the 45th was no longer a citizen-soldier, weekend-drill outfit, under the command of the governor of Oklahoma; it was in federal service under the President of the United States, the nation's commander in chief. Men of the 45th, nicknamed "Thunderbirds" after their distinctive Indian-symbol shoulder patch, were ordered to prepare for full-time training.

Twelve days later, on Sept. 16, the 45th was mobilized for active duty, and on Sept. 20 they left Perry at 5 a.m. to spend several months in training at the Army's Field Artillery Center, Fort Sill. Capt. Quine Brengle Sr. then was Battery commander. As a weird sidelight, on that same day, the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was destined to be sunk tragically in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, collided with a freight train. That's right, a freight train. It was a Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul & Pacific train on a barge crossing Puget Sound. The Oklahoma was undamaged but the barge was beached by the collision.

After a few months at Fort Sill, the 45th was transferred to Camp Barkley, Texas, for additional training. When the U.S. was drawn into the war later that year, the 45th was considered to be among the Army's best-trained divisions and consequently it was one of the first to be sent into action against the Hitler-Mussolini Axis forces. The Thunderbirds served with distinction in North Africa and later in the Italian campaign, and many Noble county men were in the thick of it. Pvt. Lucian J. (Jack) Hicks was the first member of Battery C killed in action.

Throughout World War II, men of the 45th acquitted themselves with valor whenever they were committed to battle. Other Perry and Noble county men and women served with all the other branches of military service during that dreadful conflict and their role in the ultimate victory is no less important. But the 45th Division, and particularly Battery C, just seems to symbolize this community's dedication to the war effort in a special way.

Following World War II, the 45th was reorganized for its new peacetime mission, and Battery C was moved to another community. In its place, Perry was given Company I, 179th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 45th Regimental Combat Team. On Sept. 1, 1950, Company I and the 45th RCT were mobilized for federal service and in time were sent to Japan for service in the Korean conflict. Capt. Dave Matthews, a Perry attorney, who had been a Navy officer in World War II, was company commander. He went on to become a two-star general as commander of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.

I don't know if anyone from here went to Weatherford for the Battery C reunion last week, but at least there must have been a cloud of sentimental thoughts hovering over those who did gather there, even if most of the attendees were from the decades that have followed World War II. Perry and Noble county still claim part ownership of Battery C, 158th Field Artillery.