I wrote this story about a soldier who grew up in my community.
Nearly every day, newspapers carried sad notifications about soldiers and sailors who had perished during the war.
Part of the research was with this soldier’s brother who is still living in his 90s.
Gerald Eugene Lesh
On December 26, 1943, Electrician’s Mate Second Class Gerald Eugene Lesh was one of 273 crew members engaged in battle aboard the USS Brownson DD-518 against Japanese forces in the South Pacific.
The Brownson, a 2,100-ton destroyer built by Bethlehem Steel at Staten Island, NY, was fighting near Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain of the territory of Papua New Guinea.
It was the first day of the Allied offensive maneuver to gain control of the island. Doing so would sever the Japanese supply route in the area. It would also enable the Allies to isolate the major Japanese base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain.
The battle would last four months. Death is always a possibility at war. Still, no one could know that day would be the last for many aboard the Brownson to serve their country or live to tell about it.
One of those would be Gerald Lesh.
During WWII, newspapers were full of news about local service people. Often the news was sad.
Lesh was one of six children born to Dwight and Lela Lesh of Rockcreek Township in Wells County. He graduated from Rockcreek High School in the northwest part of the county in 1930 and later worked there as a custodian. A younger brother, Ray, who graduated a few years later, joined him in cleaning the multi-story building.
Upon enlisting in the Navy Reserve in June 1942, Gerald completed basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, the main location for recruits of that branch. He was sent to Ames State College in Iowa and New York for training as an electrician.
Lesh’s training was interrupted when he was assigned a ship escorting thousands of troops across the Atlantic Ocean to assignments in Europe.
It was a risky assignment. German submarines were notorious for patrolling those waters, targeting ships with 5,000+ sailors aboard. One evasive strategy Allied ships observed to avoid attack was to zig-zag through the waters.
At first the news published by his hometown newspaper was positive as Lesh was re-assigned to various duties. Then it grew more dangerous.
Later, Lesh was assigned to patrol the Aleutian Islands, due to a fear of a Japanese invasion of the American mainland. This same area would become America’s 49th state of Alaska in 1959.
When Lesh was assigned the Brownson, the destroyer was fairly new. It had been launched on September 24, 1942, and commissioned for military service on February 3, 1943. After leaving the west coast, the Brownson sailed with its crew to the South Pacific.
On December 26, 1943, the Brownson began firing its 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter guns at Japanese forces. Other Allied forces in the area added additional support.
As an electrician, Lesh, 33, was stationed during general quarters (battle stations) deep inside the Brownson. His job would have been to maintain the ship’s electrical controls during battle.
At 1442 hours (2:45pm) two Japanese dive bombers targeted the Brownson. Their gunners hit with horrible precision, sending incendiary devices to starboard (right) of the ship’s center near one of the ship’s smoke stacks.
When the bombs exploded, the destruction caused parts of the ship to disappear. The Brownson began listing 10 to 15 degrees to starboard. At 1450, the ship started to sink.
Crew members in charge gave orders to abandon ship. By 1459 the entire ship was underwater.
In just 17 minutes 108 Navy crew members were declared either missing or killed in action. Many more suffered injuries and rescued as the battle continued around them.
Ironically, by the time the Battle of Cape Gloucester ended in April 1944, it was with an Allied triumph.
It was a hollow victory for the family of Dwight and Lela Lesh and their family – Gerald’s body was one of those never found following the explosion.
Within days of the explosion, they received two notices from the U.S. government – first, stating that Gerald had been engaged in the battle on the Brownson and was declared missing in action.
Later, as time passed, that status changed. No sign of Gerald was ever found. As of December 27, 1943, the Secretary of the Navy listed Gerald as deceased, notifying the Leshes via a second notification, this time through a letter.
On February 16, 1945, the Bluffton News-Banner newspaper posted Lesh’s photo in his sailor uniform on its front page above the headline: ‘Gerald Lesh Listed Dead by Navy Department.’
The newspaper report stated that it was thought by the American government that Lesh and others whose bodies were never found died instantly in the fiery explosion.
Gerald Lesh was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, a United States military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military.
Despite having no body to bury, his family erected a gravestone for him with name, date of birth and death at Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Uniondale.
As Lesh’s status remains missing or buried at sea, his name is honored on the Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, one of 17,202 American graves there.
Today, Ray Lesh, 96, still lives near the spot where Rockcreek High School once stood and where he and Gerald worked together. It was torn down in 1980.
Ray Lesh served in the Army Air Corps as a mechanic during World War II. He thinks he may have been in Australia when he learned of his brother’s death. “Gerald helped raise me,” said Ray Lesh. “He was a good guy.”
Note: A brief movie clip of the sinking of the USS Brownson is available on Youtube.
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for his family to adjust to the news of his death. Pray for the families of deceased or missing in action soldiers.