The War Hero

Andrew Hamilton Rohleder III

Ensign Rohleder in his dress whites.

Andy was always an enigma to me. The picture of the handsome young man in uniform on top of the bookcase at my grandparents’ house was always visible but never really spoken of. When asked about Andy, the answer was always, “He died in the war.”

Nearly 50 years after Andy’s death, my father, Andy’s brother Jack, wanted more answers. After a chance conversation while visiting the Yorktown, Daddy set off on a journey to find the answers to Andy’s death. He contacted Andy’s shipmates from the Intrepid and joined the former crewmember association; he sent for Andy’s military records, and gathered photos and letters sent back with Andy’s things. In the end, Daddy had a two-and-a-half inch-think notebook full of information, copies of which he distributed to family members.

What Daddy didn’t include in that notebook were his own personal stories about his brother. This is a brief look at Andy’s life based on photographs, letters, and a few records beyond those from the military.

Early Childhood

Andy at about one year.

Autumn in Charlotte, North Carolina, is spectacular—golden oaks, orange maples, red dogwoods and green pines sway in the breeze against the backdrop of a clear Carolina blue sky. It was the early morning of a day just like this that Andy came into the world: 9 November 1920. The eldest son of Andrew and Myrtle Primm Rohleder, he was the third Andrew Hamilton, following his father and grandfather, but was called Junior during his early years.

Andy’s interest in baseball started young.

The family lived with Myrtle’s parents at 203 Montgomery Street in the section of Charlotte called Seversville. When Andy was about two years old, his brother Milton Arnold “Bub” was born on 23 July 1922. Andy’s father, Andrew, worked at a cotton warehouse, where he supervised people who sorted cotton that came in from area farms and bundled it to be shipped out to the cotton mills.

Bub and Andy on the roof of the warehouse where their father worked in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The warehouse was in downtown Charlotte next to the rail yard. Andrew liked to take his sons down to the warehouse and climb up on the roof for a view of the city. A couple of months before Andy’s seventh birthday, his brother Jack Carlton was born.

School Days

Andy attended Oakdale School in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. His grades were good, and so was his attendance. The Great Depression started when Andy was in 4th grade. His father lost his job at the warehouse and started selling insurance to support the family. The family also moved out to the country where Myrtle’s family had a farm. Despite this upheaval, Andy maintained good grades and attendance in school.

By the 9th grade, the family had moved to Rockingham and Andy was attending Rockingham High. This was yet another upheaval in the young boy’s life, but this time his school work and attendance suffered. He didn’t do his homework and failed to make up work he had missed in his many absences. Although he started the year off fairly well, it wasn’t long before his grades went south. His grades didn’t improve much the following school year, either. His teachers noted he was not interested in school work. Just like the year before, he started out well, but by the end of the year he was barely passing.

High School graduation in 1939

Part of this lack of interest in school may have been due to an increasing interest in baseball. His father was a huge baseball fan (New York Yankees) and made sure all his sons played. Andy lettered for his high school team and also played on a couple of community teams during his high school years. Several people have reported that he was an excellent shortstop.

After a few repeat classes, Andy managed to graduate. His parents must have been really proud, especially since neither one of them had finished high school. After graduation Andy worked for several years with Railway Express, a local delivery service.

Military Years

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Andy enlisted in the U. S. Naval Reserve on 20 May 1942. He wanted to be a pilot and requested duty in the South Pacific. He was motivated to do well in the Navy Pre-Flight School, which took place in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (This was the same school future president George H. W. Bush attended; Bush was in the class after Andy.) Andy completed his classroom training, and on 4 August 1942 his rating was changed to Aviation Cadet. Next stop: Flight school in Hutchinson, Kansas, which he finished on 15 May 1943.

Andy with his plane in Hutchinson, Kansas.

After his basic flight school, Andy received his promotion to Ensign, U. S. Naval Reserve, on 22 May 1943, and designated a Naval Aviator (Heavier-than-Air). He was detached to the Naval Air Training Center, Corpus Christi, Texas, on that day. The following week he was detached to the Naval Air Station, Miami, Florida. While a Student Naval Aviator (and Student Watch Officer) in Miami, Florida, Andy requested duty on a carrier in the Pacific, or shore patrol in the East. He successfully completed the special course in Pre-Operational Training. On 14 July 1943 he was detached to the Carrier Qualification Training Unit in Glenview, Illinois, for further flying under instruction. After several days he joined Fleet Air, West Coast, Naval Air Station, San Diego, California, for assignment to duty involving flying. He was further ordered to report to Fleet Air, Alameda, Naval Air Station, Alameda, California, for active duty involving flying in Bombing Squadron 18.

When in Alameda training for combat, Andy received marks in the “very good” category for all items except Loyalty, for which he received the highest “Exceptional” rating. From January 1944 to July 1944 Andy was in training for combat, serving as a Naval Aviator and Assistant Engineering Officer. Andy’s first ship deployment was on the Lexington, mustering on 24 February 1944 in San Francisco. The ship deployed to Hilo, Hawaii, where Andy continued combat training. His commanding officer was pleased with his performance, giving him exceptional ratings; the highest was for Loyalty. The comments declared “Ensign Rohleder is very interested in his work. He is energetic. His personal and military character is good. He is recommended for promotion when due.” His promotion occurred on 1 August 1944 when he was appointed Lieutenant (junior grade), A-V(N), on August 1, 1944.

Andy and Bub meet in Hawaii

Bub saluting his older brother when they met in Hawaii.

In the meantime, Andy’s brother Bub had enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Hawaii, probably on Oahu. Andy was able to fly over to Oahu and visit his brother when they were both stationed there. Bub sent the following letter describing the encounter:

28 May 1944

Dear Mom and Dad, 

Today has been the most exciting of my army career, I believe, and you will agree with me when I tell you. It’s really going to surprise you. Now don’t go reading further on down this letter, just wait until you get to it. Here’s how it goes; I was sitting here in the barracks listening to the radio when the telephone rang. It was the C.O. at Ser. Co. and he said there was a Navy pilot there that wanted to see me. I asked him was it my brother, and he said no, but he said he would put him on the wire.

The pilot said, “who’s talking.” I said “Rohleder.” He said, “Have you located your big brother yet?”

I said, “No, do you know of him?”

He said, “Well, if you get a truck and come over here you might can pick him up.”

Well, the next thing the boys here knew, they saw me jump in one of the 2 1-2’s trucks. They saw a big cloud of dust and I don’t know what they thought.

It’s 7 miles up to Service Co. but it didn’t take me long to get there. When I drove up there in front of the Orderly Room, a few of the fellows were standing outside smiling, and asking me what I was doing up in that part of the country.

Playing dumb, you know.

I went inside the Orderly Room and there stood Ensign A.H. Rohleder, III. He sure looked good too. I introduced him to the C.O. and they had a talk. Then I brought him on down here where the rest of the fellows were. I introduced them all and before he knew it, he was answering questions left and right, all about the Navy and flying, anything. We also took some pictures; don’t worry you’ll get them, and are you going to be surprised when you see what we are holding in our hands.

All the boys here are crazy about him, and they all went with me when I took him back to airport. They wanted to see him take off. I’m telling you he really looked something sitting up there in the cockpit warming the motor and checking the instruments. Then he got the signal to take off an he really gave us a show; here’s what he did. Just as soon as his plane left the ground, he drawed in the wheels. It looked like he drawed them up just before he left the ground. He really got the boys too.

They keep on talking about him, and how they wish it was them. Here’s another good part of it, he’s going to try to come back over here next Sat. afternoon and stay until Sunday afternoon. We’ve already got a party planned. We are going to get steaks, ham and eggs and cook them ourselves. He’s going to sleep right here with us. There’s not but 10 of us here, so its just right for a party. He’s over in Hawaii, says its real nice there too. It takes him about one hour and a half to fly from there. You know it’s not every day that two brothers meet in the middle of the Pacific. I’d like to see the paper when Mr. London gets ahold of it. I still haven’t got a singly copy yet.

That’s the news today folks, be sure and tell all the folks in Rockingham about it. Bet they will be tickled pink too.

Its really been a beautiful day, I imagine I would have gone swimming all afternoon if the surprise hadn’t come up. I’m telling you it really was a surprise. It’s a good thing I shaved this morning too or he wouldn’t have recognized me. First time I shaved in 2 days. By the way I’ve got a mustache; oh, hey, you ought to see it.

Guess I had better stop now, so write real soon and often. Tell everybody hello for me, Andy too. Bye now.

Love to all,

Bub

The USS Intrepid

Andy’s next duty station was on board the USS Intrepid (now a museum at Pier 86 on the Hudson River in New York City). He was a dive bomber, flying missions in the South Pacific around the islands of Taiwan (then Formosa) and the Philippines. Andy received several medals during his service:

  • Andy’s medals (left to right):
    Distinguised Flying Cross, Purple Heart, European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal

    Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal

  • World War II Victory Medal
  • American Area Campaign Medal
  • European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
  • Purple Heart
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy)

“For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Bombing Plane attached to the U.S.S. INTREPID in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Philippine Islands, September 24, 1944. A consistently fearless and superb airman, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Rohleder courageously flew seven hundred miles into enemy-held territory during a strike against Japanese surface forces and, in the face of concentrated and accurate antiaircraft fire from hostile shipping, escort vessels and shore batteries, pressed home his daring, vigorous attacks at masthead level which left a large tanker and a transport sinking. Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Rohleder’s indomitable fighting spirit and tenacious devotion to duty under extremely hazardous conditions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

On 12 October 1944, while flying a SB2C plane during a dive bombing attack against Matsuyama Airfield, Formosa, the plane was lost, presumably due to enemy anti-aircraft fire. His parents received several letters from the Navy that Andy was missing and they were still looking. In the meantime, family and friends sent letters of encouragement and sympathy.

The first letter was from his commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. G. D. Ghesquiere, informing Andrew and Myrtle that Andy was missing. Though not encouraging in its outlook, he told them Andy had been “a credit to the Naval Service. He was a fine flyer and well liked by all his fellow pilots.” Shortly afterwards, Max Adams, one of Andy’s fellow pilots, sent a heart-felt letter, stating that since no one saw him go down, there was hope he had “made a successful landing and got out of it okay.” Max and Andy had been through training together, and Max said in his letter that Andy “was one of the best liked fellows in our squadron and he was really a great little flyer.” Other correspondence included:

It has been my privilege to know Andy for more than a year, and I feel I must tell you what a wonderful boy he was and how very highly the whole squadron regarded him. It’s only once in a long while that you meet a fellow that a whole group of men have one unqualified opinion of especially when that opinion is of the highest and best. In other words, more than any other one person in it, our squadron liked Andy. He was always brighteyed and cheerful, he was always ready to trade wisecracks and light talk, he’d do anything for you or give you anything he owned if he thought you needed it. —Jack Forsyth

“I can still see and hear him when you all came that Sunday in August a year ago to catch his plane. He came in laughing and said joking to Aunt Susie they kicked me out of the Navy, but I was ashamed to come to see you! Then when he left so tall & straight and fine.” —Susie Rohleder Johnston (Andy’s paternal aunt)

“You know how I feel about Andy—he is without a doubt the finest, cleanest boy that I have ever known. Everyone loved Andy and are praying for his safe return.” —Grace McKenzie, a high school friend

Navy Investigation

The Department of the Navy investigated after the war, talking with locals who had witnessed the crash. An eyewitness provided this report:

The anti-aircraft batteries around Kiirun area open fire and one of the planes was hit. It start to glide lower and lower and finally it hit into Mokusan Mountain with a loud explosion. When the plane was about to crash, one of the pilot tried to bail out but the parachute did not open completely and the pilot fell into the woods. I went to the spot immediately and saw that the plane was broken into pieces and burned. Near the plane there was part of a body that was burnt black. About 100 yards from the plane was the other pilot, the one who tried to parachute but failed to open completely; he was dead. The latter body was fully clothed. The Japanese M.P.s came here and ordered us to watch the bodies and the plane parts. I was put in charge and I watched the corpses and plane parts for six days before they ordered me to bury the bodies. I got eight other person and buried the bodies where they fell. The body that was fully clothed had a ring on his finger, but someone stole it. The bodies were buried as they were. The plane parts were gathered together and taken down the mountain. I do not know if there are any other personal effect on the bodies. One of the graves had a marking over it, but the other one did not have any.

Andy’s remains were exhumed from this grave on 10 May 1946, and held in Taipei City, awaiting shipment to Shanghai, China. In July 1947, Andy’s remains found their final resting place at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Section C, Grave 28, in Honolulu, Hawaii. After all this time, some of the emotional wounds had begun to heal and the family didn’t want to open them again by having a burial in Rockingham. There is a monument for Andy in the family plot at Eastside Cemetery in Rockingham, North Carolina.

Andy with his aunt and cousins: Lura Johnston, Ann Rohleder, Aunt Margaret Rohleder, Frances Rohleder, and Jacqueline Johnston. July 1943

I can’t help but speculate what Andy’s life would have been like had he lived. Although there are in the family album photos of girlfriends with each of his brothers, there are no photos of Andy with a girlfriend. There are two photos of the same girl from his graduating class (Eleanor Steele); they may have been dating. Would he have been satisfied with a quiet small-town life after the excitement of flying planes off a carrier during the war? Maybe. I look at the photos and read the letters and reports, and it makes me sad that my siblings, cousins, and I never got the chance to know our uncle.

This entry was posted in 52Ancestors, Rohleder. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The War Hero

  1. Thank you for remembering and sharing his story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: My Uncles | Leafy Vines

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