Waterloo family epitomizes sacrifice of war
In 1940, war raged in Europe. Across the Pacific, Japan was trying to establish an empire.
America teetered on the brink of both wars, which would come together to create the second World War in 23 years.
America was gearing up for the fight, with industries converting to produce weapons and other military equipment. American families were watching the approaching storm, not knowing what impacts might lie ahead for them.
One such family was Alfred F. and Helen Cody May, residing in Burksville on a 120-acre farm with seven children – five boys and two girls. They also leased an additional 300 acres. All five of their boys would be drafted to serve, four in World War II and a fifth during the early days of the Cold War and Korean Conflict.
Roy J. May, a longtime State Farm insurance agent and community leader in Waterloo, sat down with the Republic-Times to share the story of his family’s sacrifices to our nation’s defense.
May spoke of a time when a nation of 131 million would put 12.5 million of those citizens in uniform. Some volunteered, but the nation needed many more, and those were days of the draft. Young men were not recruited, or “invited” to join. Rather, they received an order in the mail, telling them when and where to report for training and duty in which every service branch needed the next new recruit.
The boys were all in splendid condition, as farm boys were in those days.
“We farmed with horses, not tractors,” May said. “We walked barefoot to and from school, and in the fields working with our dad.”
They attended the old Portland School, which still stands as a residence on Route 3 south of Waterloo.
“We wore shoes only in the winter,” he recalled.
James Patrick May, born Aug. 19, 2016, was the first in the family to go. He entered the Army Air Corps in 1942. James attended officer candidate school and subsequently piloted B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, first shuttling them from the U.S. to England. In England, he began what was supposed to be 30 combat missions over occupied Europe and Germany. At the end of 30 such flights, crews were allowed to come home. But James was on his third mission when he was shot down over Munich, Germany.
James evaded capture for 13 days, but was found and incarcerated as a prisoner of war in a German military prison known as Stalag Luft III. Low points in the long days in prison included a forced march of some 70-plus miles in the snow, barefooted.
“He weighed 70 pounds when he was freed,” Roy told of his brother.
James was known as a prolific letter writer. He wrote to tell his parents he was well, and wrote to fellow prisoners’ families to tell them how their family members were faring. During a 40th reunion of his fellow POWs, some of the men still had something James had made for them. Handy with even simple tools, James had made cups for them from metal cans in which they were given meager rations.
And some still had them.
James continued his service, finally retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel with the U.S. Air Force. He married Marjorie Sondag in 1946. He passed away in 2006.
Another brother, Alfred F. May Jr., born April 19, 1918, went next. A heavy equipment operator with the 314th Infantry, 79th Division, U.S. Army, he was part of the invasion of Normandy, France, as Allied forces stormed ashore to begin the end of the Third Reich.
Sadly, Alfred died in action on June 26, 1944, and is interred in the Normandy Cemetery in France.
Ambrose L. May, born Dec. 30, 1919, was drafted into the Army on Feb. 13, 1943. He was trained as a heavy equipment operator at Fort Belvoir, Va. Promoted to Corporal, he was sent to the Pacific Theater with the 1886th Engineer Construction Battalion (Aviation) on the island of Guam. There, Ambrose was injured and subsequently awarded the Bronze Star for bravery.
Ambrose returned to Waterloo on discharge in 1946, where he married Corinne Frisch in 1953. They had five children. He was a life member of the Waterloo VFW Post 6504 and the Disabled American Veterans. He died on July 14, 1995, and is interred in Waterloo.
Roy J. May was born May 7, 1925, and was drafted while attending Waterloo High School.
“They had to wait until the end of the first semester,” he said.
He entered the Army Air Corps on Jan. 29, 1944 as an Aviation Cadet. He subsequently was sent to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center in Texas, where he trained as a pilot before being mustered out in 1945 as the military started to wind down in anticipation of the end of World War II.
Roy is easily recognizable in Waterloo. His slender, erect frame still looks good in his American Legion uniform which he has worn with pride, most notably as commander of the local chapter for the past 10 years.
He has also been a past commander of the American Legion post, President of the Waterloo Optimist Club and Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus.
Roy has been married to his wife Norma for 69 years now. They still reside in one of Waterloo’s iconic homes at the northwest corner of Market Street and HH Road near Walmart. May also operates his insurance business there, claiming to be the longest serving State Farm agent in the firm.
He started there in April 1945 at the age of 20.
Another brother, Robert J. May, born Feb. 28, 1927, was too young to be drafted during World War II, but he too was drafted into the Army in 1952. He served slightly more than 25 months before being discharged in August 1954. He married Elizabeth Wierschem May in June 1952, prior to entering the service. He was stationed in Europe during his service.
So, the family of Alfred and Helen Cody May,was heavily impacted by war and the draft.
One son would die in combat. Another endured a lengthy period as a prisoner of war but chose to continue to serve even after that experience. A third was injured in the Pacific Theater and a fourth was drafted as World War II wound down. And finally, a fifth would be drafted to serve in the early years of the Cold War.
During those years, nearly 10 percent of the population served in uniform. Today, a nation of 319 million is defended by 1.3 million active duty and 800,000 reserve and National Guard personnel – about two-thirds of one percent.
How did the May family deal with the loss and separation driven by years of war and tension?
“You know,” May said, “we never even talked about it, even at dinner together. It just was.”
But for sure, in each heart, there was pain at the loss of Alfred, uncertainty at the fate of James, and concern for the others.
This is why on Veterans Day this Friday, Nov. 11, it’s imperative for the community to do more than simply enjoy a holiday off. Please reflect on the sacrifices that have carried our nation this far, and resolve that none of them shall have been in vain.
Thank a service member or veteran, that day and every day.