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Ad Astra: Kansans’ contributions to war effort came in many ways

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 8, 2014, at 2:57 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 23, 2014, at 6:27 a.m.

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Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties. For more Ad Astra stories, go to: Kansas.com/tothestars.

With the passing of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing last week, one can’t help but wonder about some of the significant contributions Kansas and Kansans made during World War II.

There are key figures who stand out, such as Abilene’s Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force who gave the go-ahead for the massive invasion operation. He would, of course, later become the nation’s 34th president.

And the stories of how Wichita planemakers helped support the war effort, making thousands of planes, including 1,644 B-29s, 8,584 PT-13 and PT-17 Boeing-Stearman Kaydet Trainers and 750 Cg-4A gliders, which were used in the Normandy invasion, according to the Wichita Century book.

But Kansas contributions came in other ways.

It was barely nine months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 when employees at Wichita’s Coleman Lamp and Stove Co. were given their first assignment by the U.S. military: create a one-man stove that was small, lightweight, strong enough to stand abuse, simple and easy to operate. Thus, the G.I. Pocket Stove was created.

And one of the companies that made V-Boxes — the type of boxes families across the nation used to ship treats to relatives serving in the U.S. military — was Love Box of Wichita. The company also made the shipping box for Coleman stoves.

Elsewhere in the state, the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near DeSoto began producing more than 200 million pounds of propellants. Many small towns in the state become the site of military bases.

Kansas children joined the war effort by collecting milkweed pods for use in making life vests. Officials said 28 ounces of milkweed fiber in a life jacket could keep a flier afloat for 140 hours.

There are countless stories of people who may not have been famous but whose efforts affected many during and after the war.

Topeka attorney Harry Colmery is best known for helping to draft the GI Bill in 1943. He wrote it longhand on hotel stationery while staying at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. The bill changed the quality of life for many Americans, providing many returning World War II servicemen loans for homes, businesses and education.

Ellis Pike, a Goddard farm boy who was trained as a meteorologist in the Army Air Forces, was on the team that predicted the weather at Normandy before, during and after D-Day. Pike later worked as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service and weekend forecaster for KAKE.

As a battalion surgeon, Herb Songer of Lincoln saw the invasion of Europe like few others. A graduate of the University of Kansas Medical School in 1938, he was sent first to Africa and then to Europe in 1942 with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

In Sicily, Songer was caring for a soldier who had been through heavy fighting and suffered from malaria and high fever. It was Pvt. Charles Kuhl, whom Gen. George Patton slapped with his gloves and called a coward after asking him why he wasn’t out fighting.

Songer told The Eagle on the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004 that “Patton had to apologize to the whole division. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.”

From Sicily, he was sent to Omaha Beach and was the battalion surgeon with the 26th Infantry Division. His aid station at Normandy was the most forward on Omaha Beach. Artillery and sniper fire surrounded him.

“It was hell,” he said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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