The Busby brothers of River Falls
Editor's note: This story is about River Falls brothers Robert and Marvin Busby, their friends from youth, details about several River Falls men mobilized in the National Guard in October 1940 and other local men who served in World War II.
Greg and Mae Busby's family was the first of three River Falls families who lost two sons in World War II. The Rockwell and Flathe families each lost two sons in the European Theater of Operations in 1944 and 1945.
Robert Edward Busby was born Dec. 24, 1920. Brother Marvin Joseph Busby was born Jan. 1, 1922. They grew up in a modest home at 127 Vine St. The Irish-American family was joined by sister Ione in 1924; all three children were baptized at St. Bridget Catholic Church.
Their father, a World War I veteran named Greg, traveled Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa to build concrete silos, doing his best to make a living in the middle of the Great Depression.
The growing boys hardly lacked for playmates: Robert was the group leader, and along with brother Marvin and various cousins and friends, rode balloon-tire bicycles around town, played workup baseball in Glen Park, fished the Kinnickinnic and went sledding in winter.
Greg's sister, Geneva Boles, lived just south of Glen Park. Her two sons Gerald (RFHS 1938) and Donald (RFHS 1940) were almost constant companions. More commonly known as "Tweet" due to his persistent whistling, Donnie was the comic relief for the Busby brothers and their pals.
While walking the Swinging Bridge, Tweet was know to entertain his cousins and friends by walking the narrow railing, ignoring pleas to take the planks like a normal person. To further frustrate the crowd, Tweet would occasionally take to the railing for a night crossing. Tweet could have died in that foolish, youthful stunt, but he survived not only the Swinging Bridge but later, German U-boat attack in the North Atlantic, living long enough to retire from the U.S. Merchant marines as a Chief Engineer in the 1980s.
Other "south side" youths joined the boys' antics. Another cousin, Jack Pratt (RFHS 1944), whose mother Liz was a sister to Mae Busby. Liz's husband George was a fully disabled World War I veteran, usually bedridden from the pain of unhealed wounds.
When younger cousin Eugen Gregor (RFHS 1946) visited town from the family farm, he was usually found at the Busby home. My grandparents lived on State Street next to the Pratts, so my father Dale M. Nelson (RFHS 1939) was frequently found with Marvin and Robert.
There were still others: Phil "Shadow" Hawkins (RFHS 1941) and Dave "Hornet" Linehan were often found in the roving, athletic energy-packed group.
War hits home
The Japanese had been at war on the Asian mainland since invading Manchuria in 1931, followed by a full-blown invasion of China in 1937. Europe went to war Sept. 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland.
River Falls seemed fairly unaffected until Oct. 15, 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the National Guard. Robert, a junior at River Falls State Teachers College (now UW-River Falls), had joined the local National Guard unit in 1939. The $18 per month he received for drills helped defer college expenses.
Heading off to Camp Livingston, La., with Headquarters Battery, 2nd Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, were many classmates and friends of the Busby brothers:
• Donald "Donnie" Johnson (RFHS 1937) received a commission in the Field Artillery, served as a forward Artillery observer and was killed in the breakout from Normandy in Summer 1944;
• Quentin Anderson (RFHS 1940) went to flight school, excelled at piloting and finished the war in the top B-29 bomber squadron in the Army Air Force;
• Lynn "Tarzan" Jackman (RFHS 1938), a sobriquet awarded due to his great strength and athletic skill, took a German sniper's bullet through the spinal cord in the Italian Campaign and spent the rest of his days wheelchair-bound and alone;
• Earl Keith (RFHS 1938) became a combat infantryman in the European Campaign. He once saved himself when his company was overrun — probably by Waffen SS troops — by pulling two dead German soldiers over himself, breathing shallowly, hoping the German troops walking past shooting wounded Americans wouldn't detect him;
• William "Bill" Junkman (RFHS 1936) received a battlefield commission in the infantry, became one of the premier combat soldiers to come out of River Falls and made a little-known, but historic, 42-day reconnaissance patrol behind enemy lines in New Guinea in early 1944. He obtained invaluable intelligence that saved the 32nd Infantry Division from a what would have been a devastating attack near Hollandia.
And there were dozens more.
Ermin Pechacek (RFHS 1938), a farmer's son from the Cherma area south of town, joined the Navy shortly after graduation. Next to his 1938 yearbook photo he wrote: "Plans to be a Navy Man."
Signalman Second Class (SM2/c) Pechacek was serving on the USS Shark (SS 174), ported in Manila, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
Putting to see Dec. 9 with repairs still unfinished, the USS Shark was depth-charged off Tilfore Island Feb. 2, 1942. While steaming surfaced on the night of Feb. 11, 1942 to charge batteries, she was engaged by the 5-inch guns of the Japanese destroyer Yamakaze and sunk with no survivors.
One River Falls sailor, Gunners mate Third Class (GM3/c) Donald Chapin (RFHS 1940) was at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, serving aboard the light cruiser USS St. Louis. A gun captain on a quad 1.1-inch anti-aircraft battery, when asked years later how many enemy planes his gun crew shot down that morning, said "We fired 6,000 rounds, and didn't hit a damn thing."
Marvin worked at his uncle Bob Aide's Phillips 66 service station at Maple and Main streets during and after high school. He was not about to wait to be drafted in the pre-war mobilization. He was the second River Falls native to serve in the U.S. Navy Submarine Service.
Reporting for boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station Aug. 7, 1940, Seaman Second Class (S2/c) Busby volunteered for submarine duty, the branch of the U.S. Navy with the highest casualty rate in WWII, followed by the PT boats.
At Great Lakes, Busby underwent further special training in the rate of Quartermaster (navigation), a math-intensive rating that required a high score on the Navy General Classification Test.
At Camp Livingston that fall, the RF National Guard initiated the transition from artillery to infantry as directed by Department of the Army. Robert Busby had been an excellent student in high school and invariably scored high on the Army Air Force physical and mental aviation exams.
After being accepted into the cadet training program, he spent the next two years-plus in Basic, Primary and Advanced flight training, qualifying first on the T-28 trainer, then the P-39 Aircobra, P-40 Tomahawk and finally — with sparklers, skyrockets, whistles and bells — the premier U.S. fighter aircraft of WWII, the North American P-51 Mustang.
First Lt. Busby didn't live to see that day in February 1944 when the P-51F first appeared over German skies flying cover for our B-17 and B-24 bomber fleets. Powered by a 1650-horsepower Rolls Royce Merlin engine, fitted with long-range drop tanks, the U.S. Army Air Force finally had a fighter escort that could make a round trip from England to Germany. With its superior climbing ability, tight turning radius and super-charged engine giving it a top speed of more than 400 mph, the feared Messerschmidt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s of the German Luftwaffe finally encountered a foe that outclassed them in every respect.
Casualties among American bomber crews dropped dramatically, then dropped even more, so the number of required missions rose from 25 to 35. Bomber crews reduced from 10 to nine with the removal of one waist gunner. The Luftwaffe's losses were heavy given U.S. air superiority, thanks in large part to the P-51.
Marvin graduated from the U.S. Navy Submarine School in New London, Conn., in January 1941. He was assigned to a submarine (a "boat" as submariners called them) in the Atlantic for further training. He advanced quickly in rank, from S2/c to Quartermaster 1st Class in two years.
Celestial navigation is a skill that requires solid understanding of geometry and the ability to do mathematical calculations quickly in the head. While Marvin's civilian and military records are unknown, his math skills must've been well above average.
A month after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack Marvin was ordered to Pearl Harbor to join the USS Greenling crew. His brother continued to train in aviation school as Greenling put to sea on her first war patrol April 20, 1942.
Near the Marshall Islands, Greeling torpedoed and sank a 5,800-ton Japanese cargo ship; earlier on patrol she used her 5-inch deck gun to sink two sampans. Returning to Pearl Harbor June 16, 1942, Marvin no doubt received a stack of letters from home and from his girlfriend in Norwich, Conn., her name now lost in the haze of time.
Fully qualified on the P-51 Mustang, 1st Lt. Robert Busby had finished in the top 10 percent of his class. The washout rate for fighter pilots was high, and an added incentive to pass was not merely the prestige of flying, but to fail meant to wind up in the infantry as a private.
During WWII, superior aviators were called "hot shot" pilots; more recently they've been known as "top guns." But the fact remains that only the most competent and cool-headed were ordered to instructor duty, to test pilot status or to other special assignments.
Robert was assigned to the 54th Fighter Squadron, Bartow Field, Fla. The 54th was a unique unit, tasked to travel the U.S. to host air shows for civilians with other special aviation units, such as medium bomber squadrons. The purpose was not only to show the public what their tax dollars were buying, but to boost home front morale and encourage the purchase of war bonds.
Aboard the Greenling, Marvin made three more war patrols in 1942, the sub sinking more than 60,000 tons of Japanese shipping between Truk Island, New Ireland and the Japanese home islands.
On Feb. 16, 1943, the Greenling departed Pearl Harbor on her fifth war patrol, steaming for the hotly contested Solomon Islands, the scene of ongoing naval carnage since summer 1942.
On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. Marine Corporal Burr Wiger (RFHS 1936) landed on Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division and engaged determined soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who didn't surrender in the dense, disease-ridden and enemy-filled terrain. Triple canopy jungle prevented sunlight from reaching the jungle floor, where the stench of ever-wet, rotting foliage filled every nostril, the canopy broken only by rare beams of sunlight. The chest-high, razor-sharp elephant grass tore uniforms and cut skin; putrid tropical heat drained energy. Jungle rot, malaria and dysentery were endemic among the Marines, ammunition and food in short supply while enemy soldiers were not. After six months of serving their time in hell, most of the island secure, the Marines were relieved by the 24th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
On Nov. 30, 1942, as the naval battle for control of the Solomon Islands rage nightly in ship-to-ship combat, U.S. Navy First Class Russell Bluhm of River Falls was killed aboard the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans while trying to stop the Tokyo Express in the Battle of Tassafaronga, also known as the Fourth Battle of Savo Island.
Now on her fifth war patrol. Greenling was tasked to patrol the area between New Britain and the Solomon Islands to intercept and sink Japanese cargo and naval vessels. Completing her first task — landing a U.S. Army reconnaissance team on New Britain on March 2, 1943 — she sailed to the Solomon Islands near the dreaded Slot. Sighting a Japanese destroyer, before Greeling could line up a torpedo shot the destroyer bore down on her at flank speed. There followed a three-hour depth-charge attack that threw crewmen to the deck and bounced them off bulkheads, shattered light bulbs, broke gauges, and burst water pipe valves as the bulkheads buckled in and out, shivered but held.
The sub was so damaged that the captain set course for Brisbane, where Greenling underwent refit and repairs. In Australia, Marvin received orders to report to the Groton, Conn., submarine base where he joined the crew of the recently commissioned USS Corvina (SS 226).
A welcome respite
In May 1943, Robert was ordered to travel to the North American plant near Los Angeles to inspect, test and sign for a P-51 fresh off the assembly line. However, there was a catch — this brand new aircraft didn't have a finished cockpit, only a raw aluminum seat with no backrest, arm rests, head rest or cushions. The now well-seasoned pilot knew where to get the aircraft's interior finished, at Holmen Field in St. Paul, which had been taken over by the Army Air Force.
Saturday May 22, 1943, was a quiet day in River Fall. School was out for the year. Kids were at play. There was little traffic due to rationing. But the day before Mrs. Mae Busby had received a phone call from her aviator son's girlfriend in Ellsworth, a Miss Parrish, informing her that Robert would be flying over River Falls. Mae passed the word to a few relatives and friends in town, and the word quickly spread.
Joe Gregor was peacefully cultivating corn with his two-horse team on his farm just south of town. He yelled "Whoa!" as the roar of a highly tuned aircraft engine panicked the team, taking all of his strength to keep the horses from bolting as a camouflage P-51 Mustang roared past, very low and fast, a smiling nephew giving a quick "wing wiggle." Gregor later said that he never could have held a four-horse team.
The P-51 appeared over the canopy of trees at Main and Cascade, dropped low, then lower than the old green 40-foot high street light poles. Store windows shook and rattled, pictures and photos on walls jerked sideways, unattended beer bottles in taverns wobbled. Dick Freeman (RFHS 1946) reported the shelved bottles his father's drugstore clattered and crashed to the floor.
Gaining altitude near Division Street, the P-51 rolled twice, pulled a 180-degree turn, then headed north up Main Street. Nearing the flagpole, Busby banked hard right, circling the flagpole the aircraft nearly vertical to the ground, before gaining altitude and heading west to have its interior finished at Holmen Field.
River Falls Journal Editor Clarence E. Chubb, who didn't let many things around town go unnoticed, failed to report this flyover, but it was invariably a topic of conversation at Dan O'Brien's cafe.
In my youth, oldtimers who had witnessed the event talked about it whenever the Busby name came up; Joel Olson, Everett Dodge, Francis Kelly, Christ Mathys and scores of others to had been in town that day, relished discussing the buzzing of River Falls until their dying day.
And the flyover provoked some humor, entertainment and relief from war news. The nation-wide heartbreak from mounting casualty lists from The Battle of the Solomons, The Battle of the Atlantic, the North African Campaign and New Guinea were forgotten for a few minutes that afternoon in May 1943.
Robert comes home
On May 27, 1943, the Journal correspondent for the Randal area news reported: "Mr. and Mrs. Joe Gregor and family were dinner guests Sunday at Mrs. Mae Busby's in honor of her two sons, QM 1st Class Marvin Busby, and Lt. Robert Busby, of the Army Air Corps."
Short days later the brothers shipped out: Marvin to his new submarine and Robert to his Florida squadron, neither suspecting it was the last time the family would be together.
Less than four months later, on Sept. 19, 1943, while performing aerial maneuvers over Camp Gruber near Muskogee, Okla., a B-26 Martin medium bomber collided with Robert's P-51, killing him. It was his mother's 50th birthday.
Chubb penned a heartfelt tribute to the fallen serviceman:
"A River Falls boy is coming home tomorrow. He left here in October 1940, gladly and willingly, to serve his country.
"In the course of events he became a flier — and a good one. He loved his work and willingly would have given up his life in combat. However, Fate decreed that he serve his fellowmen in a different manner, and he did not argue the point.
But the fact remains that he was doing work equally as important, if not more so, than if he had been on the actual battlefronts. I liked that boy. I like his guts and determination, his wit and humor, his gentlemanly manners around the house, and his stick-to-it-iveness in getting what he wanted.
"He was a frequent visitor in our home, and always a welcome one. But now he is coming home to stay — in a flag-draped casket, and with a military escort. The city and its people will honor that boy by closing their places of business, by displaying flags at half-mast, which is all very proper and good.
"Lt. Robert Busby is typical of River Falls boys in the service. He is one of hundreds who have gone from this community to serve their country, in one way or another — and more will come home to stay as he is coming home tomorrow."
Marvin goes missing
Marvin was a member of the USS Corvina commissioning crew. After completing extensive crew drills in the Atlantic, she got underway from the New London, Conn. submarine base on Sept. 18, 1943. The young quartermaster learned of his brother's death while at sea, and discussed it only with one shipmate. The sub's captain eventually learned of Robert's death and gave his brother a day off at sea, "in the hope that it might assage (sic) his grief somewhat," the shipmate later wrote to Mae.
Corvina arrived at Pearl Harbor on Oct. 14, 1943. She sailed from Pearl Harbor on her first war patrol Nov. 4, took on fuel at Johnson Island, and set course for the Japanese island of Truk. Her mission was to intercept and sink any Japanese shipping in the area; the U.S. Marines were preparing to invade neighboring Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.
Prior to departing New London, Marvin told his mother that he was concerned about the captain's competence: the Corvina was his first submarine command. The captain was an academy man, and Corvina was crewed mostly with combat veterans. Enlisted men rarely, if ever, exert influence on the bridge of a naval man-of-war.
On Nov. 16, 1943, while running surfaced near Truk to locate enemy shipping, Corvina was first sighted by the I-176, a submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Before Corvina could dive, I-176 fired a three-torpedo spread. Two launched torpedoes, each packing 500-pound TNT warheads, hit almost simultaneously. Corvina exploded and went down with all hands, the only U.S. submarine sunk by an enemy submarine in WWII.
On Jan. 13, 1944, the following story ran on the front page of the Journal:
Marvin Busby Missing
"Mrs. Mae Busby received word this (Thursday) afternoon that her son, Marvin J. Busby, QM1-c, had been on duty with the U.S. Navy, and his boat is long overdue, and he is 'presumed to be lost.' There is a possible chance that he may have landed on some remote island, or out of the way port, and may be heard from yet, but the news is very disheartening.
"Another son, Lt. Robert Busby, of the U.S. Army Air Force, was killed in a plane incident in September. A daughter, Ione, is employed in the Cities."
1958 River Falls. At the age of 9, a dark-haired neighbor boy who lived across the alley from Mae was well on his way to becoming a first-class trout fisherman. The oldest son of Earl and Estelle Keith spent a lot of time on the nearby Kinnickinnic, so the family never suffered for lack of fresh fish.
Young Greg took freshly caught trout to Mae, who would fry them up for him and visit for a bit, no doubt reminding her of the days when her own sons brought home fish to cook, the house alive with the voices of youth with energy to spare.
I recently asked Greg if Mae ever discussed her boys with him.
"No, never," he said. He never saw any photos of them in the house either.
Sometimes the past is just too painful to be constantly reminded of it.
The Mae Busby home at 127 Vine St. has been sold a couple of times since Cecil Bjork bought it in 1973. As Mae departed her memory-filled home of over 50 years for the last time, she turned to Bjork and said, "This house will always belong to the boys."
Greg Ambrose died Aug. 15, 1959.
Mary Agnes "Mae" Busby died May 19, 1983.
The former Busby family home is now a rental for college students.
Retired farmer John Hanson, Battle of the Bulge veteran and a tank commander in the 9th Armored Division, is the last living classmate of Robert E. Busby. A mostly spry 96 years old, Hanson lives quietly with wife Alice on the family farm east of River Falls.
WWII ended 72 years ago. Many have asked since 1945 if the cost was worth it. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose said it better than anyone: "Look, the militarists in Japan were crushed, the fascists in Germany were crushed and to that end justice has never been better served."
Author's note: This story was made possible by the kind assistance of Robert and Marvin Busby's first cousin Eugene Gregor, a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran of the Korean War.
Editor's note: Russell Nelson is a retired U.S. Army infantry officer. Both men are members of the Fletcher-Pechacek American Legion Post 121.