- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Aurora Historical Society‘s Mary Clark Ormond.
“I am so young and have so many things undone that a man of 29 should do.”
It is all but unbearable to contemplate these last words of an Aurora boy dying alone, companioned only by the rotting corpses of his fellow soldiers, on a battlefield in New Guinea during World War II. He suffered from his wounds for 10 days, and his date of death is recorded as Dec. 12, 1942.
Thanks to the small diary which was recovered with his body weeks later, we have a riveting story of war, love and heroism.
Hershel Horton was born in Aurora on Nov. 15, 1913, to George A. Horton Jr. and Odessa J. Jones Horton. He had a younger sister, Gwenivere.
After graduating East Aurora High School, he spent several years in various supervisory jobs for the South Bend, IN, firm of Roach-Appleton, a manufacturer of electrical wiring and accessories and a subsidiary of All-Steel Equipment in Aurora, where both his father and sister were employed.
He enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in 1940 as a member of the Class of 1943 but enlisted in the U. S. Army in April of 1941 and was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant.
He was assigned as the commanding officer of I Company in the 126th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Infantry Division and was sent to join Australians in opposing Japanese forces in New Guinea, where some of the most horrific battles of the war were taking place.
In November of 1941, after weeks of heavy fighting on the island, including the Battle of the Beachheads in which one-third of I Company was lost, he managed to set up a roadblock that impeded Japanese progress across the island.
Horton was caught outside the American perimeter as he was collecting the dog tags of his fallen men. He was shot in the leg and hip.
Ferocious gun and grenade fire from a Japanese position no more than 15 yards away prevented his rescue, and after several losses and injuries to would-be rescuers superior officers forbade further attempts at rescue.
He lay in the jungle, immobile and without food or water, for more than a week before finally succumbing to his wounds.
As death closed in upon him, Hershel wrote a letter to his parents and sister that came home to 906 Talma Street a year later through the efforts of the Army Effects Bureau in Kansas City, which processed innumerable possessions of the war dead.
The accompanying letter from quartermaster Lt. Col. John R. Murphy revealed that despite the tens of thousands of letters that went out from the Army to sorrowing families, indeed someone had read and internalized this heartbreaking communication.
In the letter, Murphy expresses not just condolences to Hershel’s father, George, but also a sensitivity about whether it would make suitable reading for Odessa and Gwenivere, which he explained this way:
“…with you must rest the decision of whether Mrs. Horton and your daughter shall see it and read it. Please do not let Mrs. Horton feel that I have any desire to conceal or hide this letter. .. . I simply feel that such a letter might be too shocking for many a mother to receive.”
Later, Gwenivere married the soldier who delivered that letter, Ralph W. Killian, and died in 2016 at the age of 96, after 50 years of marriage.
Horton was buried first on the island of New Guinea, and then his remains were repatriated and buried six years later at Spring Lake Cemetery in Aurora.
Hershel Horton’s final letter home has become famous throughout the nation. It has been published in newspapers, placed in the Congressional Record and become a teaching tool in schools.
That dying young man who with his last ounces of strength wrote, “Why not let me live and tell others?” could not have known that was exactly what he was doing.
- Editor’s note: Some of the paragraphs have been shorted for easier reading. Otherwise, the text is as it was presented by the Aurora Historical Society.
“Dearly Beloved, My dear sweet Father, Mother and Sister:
About 9:00 A.M. I came out on a mercy patrol to pick up dog tags etc. of our dead. This was the morning of Tuesday, December 1, 1942.
I was trying to turn over the body of Captain Keast, a friend of mine, when I was shot two or three times in my right leg and hip. Lt. Ellis, Sgt Young and Pvt. Merle Christian were with me. I yelled that I was shot. I was in front of all but Merle, they ran for shelter. I dragged myself for a Jap grass shanty about twelve yards to the rear of where I was shot.
Sgt. Young said he would send help as soon as possible. Possible never came evidently because I laid there unattended in any way without food or water or medical care. Two days of semi-deliriousness and then I called Captain Shirley’s name, Ellis, Help, Etc.
Finally Lt. Gibbs and one of his men from the Anti Tank Co. came to me. Their medic also came up. The Medic gave me my first drink of water in three days, but he had no food to offer. The medic bandaged me temporarily. Lt. Gibbs promised me aid, but I never saw him again. The Medic came back and gave me water, but a man helping him got shot there and that scared him away.
Life from then on was a terrible nightmare. The hot burning sun, the delirious nights. No one came near me from then on, but I did dig a water hole in four days’ time which was wonderful to me; although it was polluted by all the rotting bodies within 12 ft and 14 ft of me.
Then two or three rescue parties from my company came out, but they never could find me. On two or three occasions they nearly got to me when the Japs or a rainstorm made it impossible. The Japs are living within 15 yds. of me. I see them every day.
I have tried to make splints and crawl or walk out, but I just can’t make it. Today, (as nearly as I can judge, Dec. 11) I managed to stand, but I could go no farther. A Jap shot me in the shoulder and neck as I weakly sat there and I thought my time had come, but no, I sit and lay here in this terrible place, wondering not why God has forsaken me; but rather why He is making me suffer this terrible end?
It is true I understand life and its reasons now, but why should He send it to this terrible grave with me? Why not let me live and tell others? I am not afraid to die although I have nearly lost my faith a couple of days here. I have a pistol here, but I could not kill myself; I still have faith in the Lord.
I think He must be giving me the supreme test. I now know how Christ felt on the cross.
I have imagined hearing several other rescue parties, but one’s imagination grows as his body shrivels.
I have had no food of any kind since that morning I was shot. My right hip is broken and my right leg, both compound fractures; else I could have been out of here in those first couple of days, wounds or no wounds.
My life has been good, but I am so young and have so many things undone that a man of 29 should do.
We may never know God’s purpose in striking me down like this, but He must have one. I can still truthfully say that I have never killed another man, although I have been ordered to order others to.
I wonder how long a man can go on like this? I shall continue to pray for a miracle of rescue. I want to commend Lt. Ellis for his wonderful efforts and heroism in attempt to rescue me under the Jap treachery.
God bless you My loved ones. Keep the faith, don’t worry. I shall see you all again some day. I prepare to meet My Maker.
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