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Texans among the fallen at ‘Arlington of the Pacific’

War casualties rest in Manila cemetery

Ronald W Erdrich

Abilene Reporter-News USA TODAY NETWORK – TEXAS

MANILA – Seventy-five years ago, one of the greatest generals in American history kept a promise. Like Douglas MacArthur, many others also are finding themselves returning to the Philippines this weekend.

Sunday marks the date of Mac-Arthur’s celebrated stride from the shallow surf of San Pablo Bay onto the island of Leyte. On March 17, 1942, the

See CEMETERY, Page 7A

A marker for an unknown soldier stands among the markers of other fallen World War II servicemen at the Manila American Cemetery. In the background is the new Visitor Center designed by Corpus Christi’s Richter Architects. The building features the stories of some of the servicemen laid to rest here. Over 50,000 Americans and Filipinos are memorialized at the site. RONALD W. ERDRICH/REPORTER-NEWS

Navy Lt. George Freed (back row, fourth from left) was pictured with other instructors of Squadron 15 in 1942 at Naval Air Station-Corpus Christi. He lobbied for a combat assignment and shipped out on the USS Bunker Hill in September 1943. He was killed in combat near Kavieng on Papua New Guinea on Jan. 1, 1944, and his name is listed on the Wall of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery. COURTESY OF NAVAL AIR STATION-CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS

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general, in Australia, had vowed “I shall return.”

And seven months later, on Oct. 20, he did.

It was a turning point for World War II, but much fighting remained.

More than 100,000 American military personnel were killed or went missing in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Of those, 16,632 are buried at Manila American Cemetery, a 152-acre plot that some call the “Arlington of the Pacific.” More than 30,000 more whose remains never were recovered are memorialized on stone walls.

The site is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, a government agency responsible for 26 American military cemeteries and 29 federal memorials, markers and monuments located worldwide in 16 countries.

The weekend also will include the dedication Saturday of a visitor center designed by Corpus Christi-based Richter Architects. Having designed the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, the birthplace of WWII U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chester Nimitz, the South Texas-based firm was keen to work on this project, too.

Elizabeth Chu Richter, the firm’s CEO, recalled how the experience of designing the Fredericksburg museum opened her to stories from her own family who experienced World War II in China and Singapore.

“I had not heard any of their stories before,” she wrote in a email prior to arriving here. “Our respect for the Greatest Generation was deepened as we met veterans and family members who would share their stories once they knew that we were designing the museum.”

The history of the cemetery

The cemetery was completed and dedicated in 1960 and it does include a visitor building with inlaid murals and maps. Chu Richter said they designed their interactive center to complement what is already there, both thematically and educationally.

“We thought it was important for the visitor to always connect the experience at the visitor center with the fallen buried there,” she wrote. “As the visitors walk through the exhibits and read the soldiers’ letters and stories, they are always visually connected with the array of white marble crosses and the memorial.”

The low-profile glass and stone structure hugs one of the gently sloping hills near the center of the cemetery, dropping to a second floor inside. There, a part of the story of the men lain to rest here is told through exhibits and large photographs.

Light is designed to permeate the building, a counter to the natural heaviness of the sacrifices made by those interred on the grounds.

“We thought it (was) very important that building was designed with transparency, so that visitors realize the history and stories they are reading are real,” Chu Richter wrote. “That these letters and artifacts are intrinsically tied to people who are missing or buried there — soldiers who fought and died in a foreign land for the freedom and prosperity we all enjoy today.”

Texans who fought, died there

One of the the 7,484 service members from Texas buried at the cemetery is Sgt. William F. Fontaine, according to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.

“Sgt. Fontaine died aboard the ‘hell ship’ Arisan Maru while being transported to Japan from the Philippines,” said Chris McDougal, the museum’s chief archivist/librarian. “The sinking of that ship is one the greatest tragedies of the war and the National Museum of the Pacific War is honored to preserve items related to several of the service members who died on that ship.”

According to the Texas Historical Commission, World War II had a massive impact on Texas. By the end of the war, more than 750,000 Texans served in uniform, the highest number of all the states.

The war effort led to a population explosion in Texas. Before the war, there were more people living in New York City than in the entire state of Texas. There were 142 major military installations across the state and more than 1.5 million military personnel came to Texas for training.

One man featured in an exhibit at the new visitors center is U.S. Navy Lt. George Freed. He received his wings and became a flight instructor at the newly opened Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in 1942.

He lobbied for a combat assignment and shipped out on the USS Bunker Hill in September 1943. In December, the excited Freed learned in a letter from his wife, Lee, of the birth of their daughter. He was killed in combat near Kavieng on Papua New Guinea on Jan. 1, 1944. His name is listed on the Wall of the Missing.

Caller-Times staffer Allison Ehrlich in Corpus Christi and USA Today Network Austin Bureau reporter John C. Moritz contributed to this report.

David Richter, his wife Elizabeth Chu Richter, and their daughter Elissa Ling Richter Oct. 18 in Manila, Philippines. All three were instrumental in creating the new Visitor Center at the Manila American Cemetery.

RONALD W. ERDRICH/REPORTER-NEWS

Sgt. William F. Fontaine died when his transport ship was sunk en route to Japan in 1994. He is among the Texans buried at American Military Cemetery in the Philippines. COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE PACIFIC WAR, FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS

The memorial certificate signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Oct. 24, 1944, honors the service of Sgt. William F. Fontaine, who died aboard the “Hell Ship” Arisan Maru, which was sunk on the way to Japan from the Philippines. COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE PACIFIC WAR, FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS

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