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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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Commemoration of VJ-Day, 15 August 1945

Ahead of the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day we trace the lives of two Americans honored at the cemetery who saw combat in the East and the West arenas of World War Two
By Suzie Harrison and Matt Brown of the Cambridge American Cemetery,
Published on August 5, 2020

John Robert ‘Bobby’ Runnells and his wife, Virmadella Jester ‘Bobby’ Runnells and his wife, Virmadella Jester

World War II was really a war of two parts: the war in the West, fought around the Atlantic and mainland Europe; the war in the East, based among the Pacific islands. One might be forgiven for wondering what connection Cambridge American Cemetery has to a war that took place half a world away. However, those links to the Pacific Theatre of Operations are greater than one might imagine.

For the Americans, war in the East started on Sunday, 7 December 1941: Pearl Harbor Day. The USS Tennessee had reported fine, clear weather with few clouds. In fact, it was a perfect day for an attack. It was a fateful day for one young airman, John Robert ‘Bobby’ Runnells.

Bobby was born (1921) and raised in Chester, Delaware, PA. In September 1939, he and a friend had tried to enlist in the Canadian Army but were not accepted. Bobby then enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on 29 January 1942, and he was assigned to the 19th Transport Squadron in Hawaii. Things were looking up for Bobby. He enjoyed his assignment to work on “tow-targets,” which were drones used for target practice by fighter aircraft, and he was promoted to Private First Class. Christmas was coming and he excitedly sent the Christmas Dinner menu home to share with his family.

Christmas Dinner Menu at Hickam Field The Christmas Dinner Menu from Hickam Field, 1941

Bobby was at Hickam Field (next to Pearl Harbor) on that apocalyptic day. His family, hearing of the attack on the radio, must have wondered about Bobby’s fate, but there was no news. Days and weeks passed without any notice, but then a letter arrived on Christmas Day to let them know that Bobby had come through "without a scratch".

As America mobilized for war, Bobby applied to and was accepted for flight training for enlisted personnel at Santa Ana, California. He completed the training and then joined the Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Phoenix, Arizona, graduating in June 1943. Newly commissioned as a Flight Officer in the US Army Air Forces, Bobby married his sweetheart, Virmadella Jester (pictured top of article), and quickly shipped out for additional flight training at Macon Field, Georgia.

Once fully qualified for combat, the USAAF assigned Bobby to the 27th Air Transport Group, and he deployed to England on 7 October 1943. He joined the 310th Ferry Squadron at Warton, near Liverpool. His mission was to move aircraft around the English airfields to get them where they were most needed. His job may not have brought him into direct combat with the enemy, but the mission was a critical part of the logistical supply system that kept USAAF units operating at full capacity.

On 6 February 1944, Flight Officer Runnells was piloting a P-47 Thunderbolt from Wretham, Norfolk back to Warton, when, disorientated by the foggy conditions that day, he crashed on Pendle Hill, Lancashire. Bobby had had an eventful life, surviving the war in the Pacific only to die in the European Theatre, aged 22.

While Bobby experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor, 5000 miles away, another young man, Damon ‘Rocky’ Lance Gause was eating breakfast in Manila when they heard the news. Rocky, serving in the 27th Bombardment Group (Light), had arrived to the Philippine Islands only the week before. When he heard the news of the attack he immediately reported to HQ and was ordered to help with the defence of the islands.

The Japanese air attack over the Philippines was late because Japanese aircraft were grounded due to fog, but American forces were not able to capitalize on the delay. Rocky assembled a team to defend the islands and he had just briefed his team when 72 enemy planes arrived overhead. Those aircraft soon destroyed the airfields and aircraft. The men struggled on until December 22, when 43,000 Japanese troops landed on the beaches of North Manila.

Rocky and his men then had to retreat and fight their way through the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese eventually captured Rocky, but he escaped and swam to join General Douglas MacArthur’s final bastion on the island of Corregidor, Manila Bay. After recovering his physical strength he joined a band of Marines to defend the island to the end. He escaped in a boat and then swam to the mainland.

Rocky would not have survived this and what was to come, if it were not for his upbringing. His was described as a “Huckleberry Finn” childhood that included living off the land in the backwoods of Georgia and learning to box. He grew up stocky, resilient, and tough.

Damon 'Rocky' Gause and the Ruth Lee 'Rocky' Gause (right) and William Osborne with the ‘Ruth Lee’, named after their respective wives.

Perhaps, this background played a part in his decision to find a boat and sail for Australia. Teaming up with another escapee, Capt. William Lloyd Osborne, the two men island-hopped over 3,200 miles to Darwin in a leaky boat with a cranky engine. Rocky’s escape from the Bataan Peninsula took 159 days, and at MacArthur’s Headquarters in Australia, the great man presented Lt Gause with the Distinguished Service Cross.

Rocky Gause was sent back to the USA where he reunited with his wife, Ruth. The USAAF promoted him to Captain, and he took up a new mission of selling war bonds – his war was over. However, Rocky became restless, and eventually he appealed to General ‘Hap’ Arnold for another adventure. The USAAF re-assigned him to the 365th Fighter Group that was just forming in the US and preparing to deploy. On 7 December 1943, the same day that his son, Lance, was born, the USAAF promoted Rocky to Major, and on 14 December the unit boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for England.

Major Gause Major Damon 'Rocky' Gause

Between January and February 1944, Major Gause flew five missions in P-47 Thunderbolts, from Gosfield, Essex, and he was awarded an Air Medal. Transferring to Beaulieu, Hampshire he was tasked with testing a P-47 modified to support the ground troops on D-Day. The aircraft’s wings and flaps were adapted to enable it to fly at low altitude as a dive bomber. Sadly, on 9 March 1944, Gause’s aircraft went into a dive from 30,000 feet and never recovered.

Both, Bobby’ and ‘Rocky’ were veterans of the war in the East, however, they were to die as participants in the European Theatre, before VE-Day. Neither saw their families again. Lance Gause grew up without ever knowing his father.

To find out more about the Americans honored at Cambridge American Cemetery, go to www.abmc.gov/Cambridge

Bibliography:

Bishop, S D and Hey, J A. Losses of the US 8th and 9th Air Forces – Volumes 1-5. Bishop Book Productions, Cambridge. 2004-16.

Dower, J W. War Without Mercy – Race & Power in the Pacific War. Pantheon Books, Random House Inc., New York. 1986.

Gause, D J. The War Journal of Major Damon ‘Rocky’ Gause – The Firsthand Account of One of the Greatest Escapes of World War II. Hyperion, New York. 1999.

Hastings, M. Nemesis – The Battle for Japan. 1944-45. William Collins, HarperCollinsPublishers, London. 2016.

Morison, S E. The Rising Sun in the Pacific – 1931-April 1942; History of United States Naval Operation in World War II, Volume 3. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis and Little, Brown and Company, New York. 2010.

Morison, S E. Victory in the Pacific - 1945; History of United States Naval Operation in World War II, Volume 14. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis and Little, Brown and Company, New York. 2012.

Spector, R H. Eagle Against the Sun – The American War with Japan. Random House Inc., New York and Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. 1985. U S Army Center of Military History. The Campaigns of World War II - The War Against Japan (pamphlets). 1998.

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