When you stop by the Philomath Post Office, you may look up at the flagpole and notice the black and white POW/MIA flag flying underneath the United States Flag. This flag features the silhouette of a missing service person who was either captured and still confined as a prisoner of war somewhere or went missing in action during wartime.
It also features the words “You are not forgotten.” You may wonder how this flag possibly relates to Philomath? That will be the focus of this month’s Love of Learning.
Henry Quetschke was born Dec. 30, 1920, to John and Julia Quetschke, who lived off Woods Creek Road just west of town. Henry attended elementary school in Philomath and graduated the eighth grade in the Philomath gymnasium on May 29, 1934.
Mark Tolonen, Benton County Historical Society’s curator of exhibitions, discovered a copy of the graduation program with Henry’s name in it. Thanks to the Philomath School District registrar, we were able to also conclude that Henry attended Philomath High School in 1934-35 and completed a variety of high school courses.
Fast forward to Dec. 7, 1941 — “a day that will live in infamy” according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic speech. Aircraft from the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on U.S. forces based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Roosevelt later said in his speech, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” The world changed forever that day.
When Henry Quetschke heard about the attack, something must have stirred inside him. His nation had just been brutally attacked. His president asked Congress to declare war. He was the first from Philomath to answer his country’s call, enlisting in the U.S. Navy just days after Pearl Harbor.
Henry attended basic training and was assigned as a Fireman 1st Class aboard the USS Vireo. A Fireman 1st Class keeps the boilers going, which power the ship through the ocean, and performs routine maintenance when they are not manning battle stations in times of attack.
The Vireo was originally designed and commissioned as a minesweeper ship but was quickly converted for use as a fleet tugboat in the South Pacific. Fleet tugs would help guide bigger ships like aircraft carriers in and out of ports of call or move supplies from shore to the fleet.
Once aboard, according to historical ship records, Henry would have seen action in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. This battle was a showdown when U.S. forces saw combat against some of the exact same enemy forces that attacked Pearl Harbor.
The result was that four of the six enemy carriers that launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor were sunk. However, U.S. forces did not go unscathed at Midway. The USS Yorktown, one of the U.S. carriers, suffered significant battle damage in the same action. The USS Vireo took the Yorktown under tow but wound up cutting her loose due to the heavy load taking on water. Undoubtedly, Henry was right there helping. Sadly, despite the efforts of the Vireo crew, the Yorktown sank.
In August 1942, U.S. forces would go on the offensive on the Island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, which are about 6,000 miles southwest from Oregon and around 2,000 miles Northeast of Australia. In case you need reminding, the Pacific Ocean is a big ocean.
Guadalcanal held strategic importance due to the airfield that enemy forces constructed there to attack allied ships and prevent their “island-hopping” campaign.
By October 1942, the invading U.S. Marines had overtaken the airfield and renamed it Henderson Field. Once secure, the U.S. Navy and marine pilots used the airfield to intercept enemy aircraft and provide badly needed air cover for the marines fighting on the island, as well as ships in the U.S. fleet offshore. The problem with constant aerial combat, the aircraft were running low on fuel at the airfield. They desperately need resupplied.
A daring convoy of cargo ships, a cruiser, a destroyer and a tugboat were hastily organized to transport badly needed fuel across the water to help resupply the airfield. On their way, reports of enemy surface ships in the area concerned the skippers of most of the ships. While the bulk of the ships turned around, two ships persevered and continued with the mission — the USS Meredith, a destroyer, and the USS Vireo, a tugboat hauling a barge with drums of fuel and munitions.
What came next was recalled by retired Lt. Cmdr. Robert Robinson, who was at the time an ensign aboard the destroyer, the USS Meredith. He collaborated with Dr. Barry Friedman to write a book titled, “The Short Life of a Valiant Ship USS Meredith DD434.” Robby, as he was affectionately called, survived the attack on the Meredith and the Vireo on Oct. 15, 1942.
According to the book, the skipper of the Meredith was gravely concerned about the reports of enemy surface ships nearby and the blips of 38 enemy aircraft that he saw approaching on the radar. He knew there was no way that a tugboat like the Vireo could outrun a much faster enemy cruiser or a swarm of enemy aircraft.
With limited time to decide, the skipper of the Meredith ordered all men aboard the Vireo to abandon ship and board the Meredith. He must have figured if they were all on a faster-sailing vessel, like a destroyer, they would have a chance to outrun and evade fast-closing enemy surface ships and aircraft.
The plan was to torpedo and sink the Vireo with its barge full of resupplies so it would not fall into enemy hands. Just before the order to fire could be given, the swarm of 38 torpedo planes, dive bombers and enemy fighters descended on the Meredith.
Bombs exploded on the bow (front), stern (rear) and middle section of the boat. The men on the ship were manning their battle stations and returning fire as best as they could. Some enemy fighters were so close, the crew of the Meredith could see the pilots’ faces. Bullets, bombs, explosions and the screams of dive-bombing aircraft filled the air.
The Meredith was sinking quickly. Men were abandoning the ship into life rafts or simply jumping with life preservers into waters covered in thick, slick oil. Enemy fighters were relentless in strafing survivors as they desperately tried to swim to safety. The Meredith sank within just 15 minutes.
It was somewhere in the fog of this battle that occurred on Oct. 15, 1942, that Fireman 1st Class Quetschke from Philomath, Oregon, went missing in action. He may have gone down with the ship. He may have drowned. He may have been hit by enemy bombs or bullets.
At this point, I suspect it is unlikely we will ever know. He was deemed “lost at sea” by the U.S. War Department.
According to Robby, 68 sailors from the Vireo leapt onto the deck of the USS Meredith when they abandoned ship. Records show Henry was one of these. In the end, 189 sailors went down with the Meredith with 140 able to get off the ship. But 47 of those died from wounds incurred in the water. In all, 236 U.S. sailors perished in this combat action.
The POW/MIA flag reads “You Are Not Forgotten.” It is important that we as a community live up to this and remember Fireman 1st Class Henry Quetschke from Woods Creek Road who went missing in action 80 years ago as he worked to resupply our forces on Guadalcanal along with his shipmates. He fought serving others. He was lost serving us.
Following are a few places in the world where Henry Quetschke is remembered.
One is the Manila American Military Cemetery located in the Philippines. This is a sprawling 152-acre cemetery and happens to be the largest of all American military cemeteries located internationally. More than 17,000 service men and women are buried there.
In the center of the cemetery is a limestone hemisphere containing what are called the Tablets of the Missing. These tablets contain an astonishing 36,000 names of service people whose bodies were never recovered during WWII. Henry Quetschke is among the names listed on the tablets. A moving 2.5-minute video of this cemetery created by the American Battle Monuments Commission is available here.
Henry’s name can also be found here locally. One place is at the Benton County Veterans Memorial at the Oregon Army National Guard Armory on Kings Boulevard in Corvallis. His name is there along with 130 others who gave their lives for our country in wars around the world.
You can also find Henry’s name at our Veterans Memorial at the Philomath Scout Lodge. This Veteran Memorial was built by John Mayer and members from Scout Troop 161 for his Eagle Scout Project. It lists Henry Quetschke’s name along with many other local veterans who are either living or deceased.
It is important we acknowledge the grief of Henry’s Gold Star family. We mourn together with the Quetschke family and recognize that his loss leaves a hole in their family history. We are grateful for Henry’s sacrifice defending our nation 80 years ago.
So, the next time you stop by the post office, I encourage you to take a moment to look up at the black POW/MIA flag and remember Henry Quetschke to ensure he is never forgotten.
(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at Lifeinphilomath@gmail.com).