DailyBreeze – UCLA’s WWII casualties tracked through research project
CORRECTION: The Lois Fratus, wife of William Fratus, was originally identified as Fratus’s mother. This version reflects the correct relationship.
By Donna Littlejohn, Staff Writer, @donnalittlejohn on Twitter | Image gallery: Torrance man chronicles UCLA war dead
Seventy years later, the paper trail still packs an unexpected emotional punch.
It exists in disconnected pieces: faded government documents, smiling yearbook photos and handwritten letters from heartbroken parents.
And across the decades the stories they tell still echo, creating in the mind vivid snapshots and tales, sometimes only perceived between the lines. What emerges are deeply personal stories of the courage, the sacrifice – the emotional triumph and pain – of war, of so many young lives cut short.
Welcome to the world of William “Bill” Beigel of Torrance, a 54-year-old contract writer by day who moonlights as an explorer of America’s war dead from the past half-century.
Inspired years ago when he began researching what happened to an extended family member, he now spends his nights, weekends and vacations traipsing through national cemeteries and combing through old documents in a mission to fill in the gaps for families who have wondered what happened to their long-lost wartime kin.
Beigel’s latest project, recently finished after four years of work (done pro bono as UCLA was his own alma mater) tells the story of what happened to some 260 UCLA students and alumni who never returned from World War II.
The war’s sweeping draft took its toll on the school. There were no college deferments.
Many of the stories the university had in its archives, however, were sparse at best.
Beigel, who volunteered to do the project, began with little more than some odds and ends – and some misspelled names.
Culled from typewritten government papers and handwritten letters, some of those details have finally been documented for history.
“Dear Lois, It is my very sad duty to confirm …”
“We are returning the pajamas, ring, bracelet and pen and pencil set (from your Christmas package) to you in another envelope …”
“I realize only his remains are there, for he is my sacred spirit’s comrade daily. … But Sir, my son is all I have. It will bring untold comfort to me to have him here with me …”
Any project dealing with World War II carries with it critical deadlines, and this was especially true for Beigel as he tried to track down next of kin. Surviving members of the war are now in their 90s. And even sons and daughters are entering their senior years.
“Some now have sons and daughters who are in their late 60s and early 70s,” Beigel said of the vets.
Beigel wasn’t able to find living family members in his UCLA project, leaving him to begin with what the school had in its files.
“They’d compiled a list of approximately 200 names of UCLA students who had died in the war, but, with the exception of two or three, they didn’t know anything about them,” Beigel said.
After some research, Beigel added about 60 names to the list. But it wasn’t easy.
One of the best resources he found was a copy of the government volume “Naval Non-Combat Dead, World War 2,” found at the main library in downtown Los Angeles.
Several UCLA students and alumni, he explained, were killed in training accidents and never made it overseas.
“The technology of the 1940s aircraft was not good,” Beigel said.
Others died at Pearl Harbor, at Normandy on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge, a POW camp in Japan – and just about everywhere else that the war was fought.
“When you look at these guys, they cover the whole (spectrum of the) war,” Beigel said.
UCLA was quite possibly the hardest hit college on the West Coast during those years, he said.
“Guys were being yanked out of their math class,” he said of the rush to fill the military’s ranks for the burgeoning war that was sweeping the world.
A large percentage of them were enrolled in the school’s ROTC program, he said, making them prime candidates.
“They’d take these guys, send them off to officer candidate school for 90 days and then two weeks later they were on the front. It was just incredibly chaotic.”
The war’s chaos – and the high global stakes in an age before email and text messages – also led to incomplete and slow communication with families who were often forced to wait months for news.
“It was believed to be safer not to give out any casualty information in case it could fall into enemy hands,” Beigel said.
“Very little was transmitted to next of kin in World War II and then stuff gets lost,” he said.
When 500 to 600 servicemen died in the sinking of a troop ship, for example, the Army didn’t release any information to the families. “They didn’t want Germany to know they’d successfully sunk the ship,” Beigel said.
The casualties ran the gamut of life in the UCLA family.
“Maybe one-third of them were ‘frat’ guys and four or five were Japanese-Americans whose parents were probably in internment camps,” Beigel said.
One veteran, a Chinese-American who played on the UCLA football team, was killed in the Philippines. President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him with the Medal of Honor, the only Chinese-American to have received the award.
A yearbook photo of the university’s 16-member rowing team from 1938 includes four members who were later killed in the war and were on Beigel’s research list.
Two of the students he researched were student body presidents at UCLA.
Among his other findings:
Seaman 2nd Class Robert F. Conrad was killed in the sinking of the battleship USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. His remains were never found.
Ensign William Wallace Fratus had transferred to UCLA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1941. He was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity.
“He was a very typical guy, a frat guy from UCLA,” Beigel said of his impressions. “He became a flier.”
He was listed as missing in action on Nov. 5, 1943, after his torpedo squadron encountered a “storm” of aircraft fire from all sides in the harbor at Rabaul, New Britain (Papua New Guinea).
A typed Feb. 20, 1944, letter – signed “Sincerely yours” by Navy Lt. J.R.O. Rickard – informed Fratus’s wife, Lois, that the perishable items from the family’s undelivered Christmas packages were given to hospitalized sailors.
“We felt that the gifts would please some unfortunate boy who is far from home, in a hospital,” Rickard wrote.
Fratus’ remains were never found and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal in July 1944.
His personal effects – including a deck of playing cards, a pair of sneakers, a ukulele and a copy of “The Fireside Book of Dog Stories” – eventually were returned to his wife, who lived on Cashmere Street in Los Angeles.
1st Ensign Daniel Seid was serving with a fighter squadron on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise when his plane was downed over the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
“What’s interesting about him was at this point the nation was building a lot of ships,” Beigel said. So many, in fact, that they were running out of (older) heroes to name them after.
And so a Navy destroyer-escort was named in Seid’s honor.
Beigel also noted that Seid was Jewish. “Up to that point, the Navy had named very few ships for Jewish veterans.”
Two Bruins were killed on June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, at Normandy, France. They were 2nd Lt. Aaron E. Dennstedt of the 16th Infantry Regiment and 1st Lt. John R. Simons of the 26th Infantry Regiment.
Capt. Hal F. Crain of the 262nd Infantry was killed on Christmas Eve 1944 when the HMS Leopoldville was sunk in the English Channel by a German submarine. The men had been rushed into combat because of the many casualties among American troops fighting the Battle of the Bulge.
Two noncombat deaths occurred in February 1945: 1st Lt. Paul L. George, who died as a POW at Camp Fujuoka in Japan; and Marilyn Weeks, a hospital apprentice, died of an infection at a naval hospital in Seattle.
2nd Lt. James E. Tarbell – a member of the family that became a real estate player in the South Bay – was killed on April 4, 1945, at Mourmelon-le-Grand, France. Two other UCLA students were killed on the same day in other battles.
The last Bruin to die in the war was 2nd Lt. Owen B. Clayman of the 20th Weather Squadron. On Sept. 6, 1945, his aircraft went missing on an administrative flight over the Philippines.
Some of the most poignant items turned up in Beigel’s research are the handwritten letters, many from bereaved parents. Like many other veterans he’s researched, family members often hold out hope their missing children would yet return alive.
“I’ve done thousands of these by now and you see a lot of common themes,” Beigel said. “You see a lot of denial. It’s easy to guess that some of them might have bailed out (of planes) in the minds of their next of kin.”
One of the letters Beigel included from the UCLA research came from the distraught mother of Albert Leonidas Peterson, who had been living in Santa Monica when he went into the Navy.
Her one wish was to have his remains someday returned to her in Georgia, the family’s home.
“Dear Sirs,” his mother wrote six months after Peterson’s death on March 24, 1944. “Until now, I found myself unequal to write you regarding the remains of my blessed son, Lt. Albert L. Peterson. My son met his untimely death in Baugainville (an island in the South Pacific) …
“There he is sleeping peacefully until his remains will be returned to me. Which causes me to be so grateful to our own United States.
“I realize only his remains are there, for he is my sacred spirit’s comrade daily … . But Sir, my son is all I have. It will bring untold comfort to me to have him here with me. To be beside me one glorious day.
“From the depths of my heart, this is my wish. I thank you sirs. Very truly yours, Mrs. M.A. Peterson.”
A July 15, 1948, headstone application found by Beigel revealed that Marguerita Alrena Peterson finally got her wish.
Lt. Peterson’s remains were eventually recovered and he was buried four years after his death in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Ga., the city where his mother still lived.
A flat marble headstone marks the spot.