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Virgil Franklin Surber, F Co. 503rd PRCT - KIA
Todd M Mayer
Virgil Franklin Surber, after completing his parachute training and before being shipped overseas, late 1943 or early 1944 (Image- Family photo, Inthe503rd.org collection).
Like many young veterans of WWII that gave their last full measure for their country, Virgil Surber was never given the chance to grow old and experience the pleasures of a full life. Not having a family of his own, his memories and stories were left to those who knew him best; his parents, siblings and perhaps those he served with. But as the years pass, these memories are becoming lost with those who knew him well, as they themselves pass on. Below is my contribution to his memory that will help provide a glimpse into Virgil’s time in the US Army.
I as begin researching my grandfather’s own service with 503rd PIR, I came across Virgil’s name as a causality and his name on a roster, which put him in the same platoon as my grandfather Richard E Gruver, Company F, Mortar Platoon. I remember as young child hearing some of his stories and found them fascinating, but as I grew older and became pre-occupied with my own young life, I never thought to set down and talk more in-depth with him about his time in the service. My grandfather passed away in 1994, so I had start doing my own detective work to find answers. I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather’s personal photo collection contained a picture of Virgil. Like most photos, it was not labeled, but through various sources I was able to identify the individuals on this particle photo, which included Virgil. As I dug deeper into my grandfather’s service, I started interviewing various family members and collecting any stories that may have been shared over the years. Through these causal interviews, my aunt shared a story, the only one my grandfather, her dad, had ever told to her. Without mentioning names, he simply stated the fact, that during the war he was standing next to a guy who was hit by exploding shell and died. I as investigated the manner in which Virgil was killed and added up the facts and evidence, I realized the individual my grandfather was referring to was Virgil Surber, thus began my research on who Vigil was and his time with 503rd PIR.
Hailing from Enterprise, Oregon, Virgil enlisted in the Army Air Corps in January 1942 at Pendleton Army Air Base in his home state of Oregon. He was 20 years old at the time, six foot tall and weighed 150 pounds. Before enlisting, he had spent some time in the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked as a farm hand. After his induction, he was sent to Chanute Field, where he trained as an airplane mechanic and later served as a ground mechanic in the Army Air Corps before transferring to the Paratroops in late 1943. As with many of the new Paratrooper recruits, Virgil was probably enticed by recruiting posters and the extra fifty dollars in pay per month that paratroopers were paid. To a young man with no family obligations, the thought of spending the rest of the war on a runway or hanger in the United States or possibly overseas, did not compare with the adventure of jumping out of plans and fighting the enemy.
WWII Paratrooper recruitment poster (Image- US Army, InThe503rd.org collection).
Upon completing his paratrooper training, at Fort Benning, Georgia, Virgil was sent overseas in January or February of 1944 to join up with the 503rd PIR as a replacement. He probably caught up with the Regiment at Camp Cable; 30 miles outside Brisbane Australia, where he was presumably assigned to 2nd Battalion, F Company, Mortar Platoon. Following the Nadzab Jump on September 5, 1943, the 503rd PIR was sent back to their base camp at Port Moresby, New Guinea. The conditions at the camp were not ideal and men of the unit were slowly succumbing to the various tropical diseases of the jungle. After some period of inactively, besides training and day to day activities, the newly named Colonel of 503rd, Colonel Jones requested that the 503rd be given a mission or return to Australia for rest and relaxation. The later was granted and the entire regiment was sent back to Australia, finally reaching their destination on February 2, 1944.
In early April, 1944, the 503rd left Brisbane and headed back to New Guinea, near Dobadura. Virgil most likely received his first taste on combat during the Hollandia Campaign in early and late June of 1944. Although contact with the enemy was light, experience was gained. During this period the 503rd PIR secured the Tami airstrip and conducted daily patrols in area until they were called upon to reinforce the invasion force at Noemfoor Island, New Guinea. The operation to help secure the island of Noemfoor called for the whole regiment to be lifted and dropped. Not enough transport plans were available to lift and drop the entire 503rd PIR on Noemfoor, so each battalion was scheduled to be dropped separately. After the injury laden drops of the first and third battalions on Karmari Airfield, the decision was made not to drop the 2nd battalion. The 2nd battalion would instead arrive by LCI’s a few days later.
After a few months of patrolling and clearing the island of Japanese, the 503rd was ordered to the Island of Leyte in preparation for seizure of Mindoro Island. But this time, they would not be alone. In mid June Company C of 161st parachute engineers, followed by the 462nd parachute field artillery battalion in late August joined up with 503rd PIR forming the 503rd PRCT. Sizing the island of Mindoro, would provide airfields that would enable air support for the Amy’s invasion of Luzon and eventually provide a staging area for the 503rd PRCT liberation of Corregidor.
It was during this time on Leyte that Virgil wrote his final letter home to his parents. The letter was received around Christmas time and stated, that he was subject to bombing attacks. These bombing attacks were more than likely the one’s the unit were subjected too during their stint on Leyte. Upon their arrival on Leyte, the men were ordered to dig trenches and foxholes next to their tents for easy access. The bay was full of US support and warships, which made irresistible targets for the Japanese fighters and bombers in the area. They would occasionally make strafes at various targets along the beach, which warranted the troopers to take cover.
On December 15, 1944 the 503rd made an amphibious landing on the island of Mindoro. The original plan called for the 503rd to assault the island by air, but inadequate airstrips on Leyte were cause to cancel the air assault and the 503rd PRCT was ordered to assault the island by shore alongside the 19th RCT. Years later this assault would be become a bone of contention with members of the 503rd PRCT. Members of the 503rd PRCT who made the assault were never recognized with a bronze arrowhead signifying an assault from land or air, whereas other units who came ashore before and after the 503rd PRCT were.
While on Mindoro, the units set up a defensive perimeter and counter landing defenses in case the Japanese tried to counter attack. During this time the airdromes were being constructed to support fighter plans and bombers for the push into Luzon. Late in January the unit was placed on alert for a possible mission that was later entrusted to the 511th PIR. On February 6th, the unit was alerted again. This time, it was for real and on February 8th Colonel Jones made the official announcement that Corregidor would be the unit’s next objective. The days to follow found the troopers and commanders planning and preparing for the upcoming mission. Weapons were cleaned and adjusted, jump bundles were laid out, maps and plans studied, squads and platoons briefed and unit organization checked.
Landing Field B, Corregidor golf course situated adjacent to the officers quarters. The jump was made about 400 feet above the ground. Besides being shot at on the way down, the paratroopers had to contend with all the debris and bombed out buildings on the ground, missing the drop zone would prove to be hazardous to many troopers (Image- National Archives, Inthe503rd.org collection).
Virgil’s biggest night on Corregidor probably occurred on the night of February 18 and early morning on the 19th. During the afternoon of 18th, F Company commander split his company in two, to protect the sector his company was assigned to. Each force numbered approximately 70 men and included attached reinforcements. Once force was sent to Battery Hearn and the other force was sent to Way Hill. The mortar platoon was split. First squad was at Way Hill and the second and third squads were at Battery Hearn. Virgil was a member of the 3rd squad, which was headed by PFC Burl Martin. My grandfather, Sgt Richard Gruver led the 2nd squad. The force defending Battery Hearn was led by 1st Lt Bill Calhoun. During the night, two battalion size forces tried to make their way to topside and one of the attacking forces ran straight into the path of the F Company force on Battery Hearn. After a night of repeated banzai attacks, the attacking columns in this sector were repelled. With little to no ammo left to repeal another onslaught, the troopers on Battery Hearn were weary as they heard more chants off in the distance. Fortunately for them, the additional attack never came. It was also during this night that Lloyd McCarter, F Company Scout earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during the attack.
Battery Hearn. Image taken by the 312th Bomb Group surveying bomb damage prior to the 503rd PRCT jumping on Corregidor. Elements of F Company occupied the top of the magazine near the three vent covers during the night of February 18 and early morning on the 19th (Image- PacificWreaks.com, InThe503rd.org Collection)
After the 503rd PRCT stint on Corregidor, they were summoned to reinforce the 40th infantry division on Negros Island. The action Negros would seal Virgil’s destiny. The 503rd PRCT was sent to Negros in what turned out to me a “mopping up” campaign, where the highly trained elite troops of 503rd PRCT were used as standard ground infantry. The prolonged action along with tropical diseases slowly ground down the 503rd PRCT. On the morning of April 26, 1945, Virgil Surber met his fate. While the mortar platoon was heating up some meal rations a few hundred yards from the CP, fragments from a Japanese incoming round burst overhead and found their way into the chest and abdomen of Virgil. After being hit, Virgil was taken to the aid station, where he later died of the wounds.
George Montoya and Virgil Surber. Photo taken the morning on February 19th, 1945 near Battery Hearn, Corregidor (Image- REG, InThe503rd.org Collection)
Company F Morning Report Entry for April 26, 1945 States the following;
26 April 1945 Suber, Virgil F. 19061607 Pfc 7504 SWA to DOW Negros PI Parachute and COMBAT Inf pay. Buckner, Horace 34997094 Pvt Ab sk hosp to atch unasgd det Pats hosp unknow USADDE reg 50-25 (EDCMR 26 April 95). Station and Record of Events Co Hq, 1st plat, and mortar plat move up to consolidated position. Enemy threw aerial burst and cause casualties very slight Strength : 118
Following Virgil’s death, his body would have been taken to a collection point, from there; members of a Graves Registration Unit would have handled his remains. Once properly indentified, his remains would have been buried in a temporary cemetery and his person effects and other records sent to various collection points, until they made their way back to the US. The Army would have notified the next of kin of this death and perhaps his company commander or someone close to him may have written a persona letter to his family.
After the fighting ended in South Pacific, the bodies were exhumed and re-interned into larger regional cemeteries. During the fighting in the South Pacific, there were close to 200 temporary cemeteries scattered across the Pacific set up to hold fallen soldiers. Once the fighting ended, the bodies were exhumed and re-interned into larger regional cemeteries. In 1946, the US Government began notifying the “Next Of Kin”, of those soldiers who had been identified. The goal was to make every effort to find a final resting place for those soldiers who gave their life during the war. A letter of inquiry with a questionnaire and pamphlet outlining what the government plans to do was sent to those family members who had the right to make that decision. In that letter, the family members were given four options for final interment.
The four options were:
1. Remains may be returned to the United States of any possession or territory thereof, for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery.
2. Remains may be returned to a foreign country, the homeland of the deceased or the next of kin, for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery.
3. Remains may be interred in a permanent United States Military Cemetery overseas.
4. Remains may be returned to the United States for interment in a National Cemetery.
Vigils family chose to have his remains returned home to Enterprise and re-interred at Enterprise cemetery. Following the return on Virgil’s remains, a memorial service was held for Virgil in his home town at the Enterprise Christian Church, were relatives and friends gathered to pay him tribute. Graveside services were handled by the American Legion.
In 2014, I had the honor of meeting Burl Martin at the 58th annual 503rd PRCT Association reunion in Terra Haute Indiana. It was a chance enchanter that I will never forget. Burl was 91 years old at time and has since passed away. As stated above, Burl was member of the mortar platoon and knew both Virgil and my Grandfather Richard. I spent as much time as I could with Burl at the reunion and he shared many emotional memories with me. In regards to the death of Virgil, Burl remembered the day. After Virgil was hit with shrapnel, Burl went to go see him at the aid station. He said Virgil was giving away all his stuff, his watch, trench knife and other belongings. Burl thought to himself “why you giving all your stuff away”, but he (Virgil) knew he wasn’t going to make it.
Richard Gruver, Burl Martin, William Calhoun and Lloyd McCarter (Images – InThe503rd.org collection).
Calhoun, William T., and Paul F. Whitman. Bless 'Em All: A pictorial companion to the history of the second battalion, 503d P.I.R. Blurb Self Publising, 2012.
Devlin, Gerard M. Back to Corregidor: America retakes the rock. New York: St. Martins Press, 1992.
Guthrie, Bennett M. Three winds of death: the saga of the 503d Parachute Regimental Combat Team in the South Pacific. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2000.
Steere, E., and T. M. Boardman. Final disposition of world war II dead 1945-51: issued by the Department of the Army Historical branch office of the Quartermaster General. Washington: S.n., 1957.
Ancestry. Accessed May 27, 2017. https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/103201938/person/140026364549/gallery. Virgil Franklin Surber
BLESS 'EM ALL. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://corregidor.org/BEA503/navigation/bea_title.htm.
Night of a Thousand Hours. Accessed May 30, 2017. http://corregidor.org/BEA503/Field%20Notes/18%20Feb%20(Night%20of%201000%20Hours).htm.
"The 503rd PRCT Paratrooper Database, WWII." 503rd PRCT WWII Database. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://inthe503rd.org/.
"Morning Reports, F Co. 503rd PRCT." 1 April 1945 Mindoro to 31 July 1945 Negros
Various interviews with family members and members of the503rd PRCT.
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503rd PRCT Paratrooper Database, WWII
503rd PIR * 462nd PFAB * 161st PEC