To their fellow soldiers, they could mean salvation. To the enemy, they were the angels of death. Yet little is known about the role of Forward Observers in World War II.
Author Donald R. Walker of Stow has worked to remedy that.
He will speak on his book, Bracketing the Enemy: Forward Observers in WWII, at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Cuyahoga Falls (2121 Sixth Street) June 6.
The 7 p.m. talk is being sponsored by the A. C. Voris Camp, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and St. Luke's Lutheran Church. The event is free and open to all.
Many war movies include the infamous "artillery barrage." However, little attention is paid to those men who call in "the fire from above." For decades, the role of forward observer (or spotter) has been one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. These soldiers go to the frontline, sometimes beyond, locate the enemy and call in their position.
Walker said, "Forward observers were among the prime targets of the enemy. Of course officers and soldiers as members of crew-served weapons are also high on the list, but a set of binoculars and radio antennas drew enemy fire. The enemy had tremendous respect for the devastating effects of American artillery; hence they made a point of targeting FO crews."
For Walker, their tales are personal. His father, Donald L. Walker, served in Europe during World War II as an "F.O."
Walker's dad was born in 1920 and spent most of his life in Alliance.
Walker said, "He joined the Ohio National Guard as a private upon high school graduation in 1938 serving with Battery C, 135th Field Artillery in Alliance."
"He had a one-year break in service, but went back on active duty in the Army in December 1942 as an enlisted man. He went to Europe as a corporal or T/4 with Battery A, 334th Field Artillery Battalion, 87th (Golden Acorn) Infantry Division. He earned a direct commission during his combat service in Europe and left the Army in October 1945 as a second lieutenant."
He added, "With very few exceptions, my father would not describe his combat experiences to me. However, in the process of writing the book, I met the two closest comrades he had served with in combat. They narrated many of the details of what they had experienced in combat and many of these details are included in the book." Fourteen F.O.s told their tale to Walker.
As notoriously dangerous as their role was, it's been impossible to calculate the number of men who served or died doing it.
Walker said, "The U. S. Army did not include the forward observer position on its Table of Organization and Equipment until 1944. For the Second World War at least, there is no record of who performed forward observation duty at any specific time, so there is no way to actually compute how many people did this."
"In addition, the forward observer slot was for a commissioned field artillery officer but because so many became casualties, Field Artillery battalions were forced to use NCOs to serve as the designated forward observer, so again, the Army has no record that I could find that indicates every person during WWII who ever performed forward observation duty."
"I would have liked to have been able to construct a casualty rate for forward observers during WWII, but because their names and the circumstances under which they became casualties are unknown, I could not."
To add insult to injury, Forward Observers were never awarded the Combat Infantryman's Badge. This is despite the fact they often fought with, and sometimes, led infantry men.
Walker said, "In the mid-1990s, my father's former lieutenant, Jim McGhee began a one-man campaign to persuade the Dept. of the Army to create a badge similar to the CIB for forward observersAround 2003, the Army authorized the Combat Action Badge which many forward observers in Iraq and Afghanistan have since been awarded."
"Four field artillery forward observers have won the Congressional MOH; all posthumously, two in WWII, one in Korea, and one in Vietnam. Chapter ten in my book describes what each one did to deserve this high award."
Walker's father returned to Alliance after the war, working for Transue and Williams Steel Forging Corp. as a cost estimator. He retired in 1982 and passed away on June 15, 1990, at age 70.
Walker, himself a Vietnam War veteran, began researching his book in 1995. Walker would use it as his doctoral dissertation at Kent State in 2006. It would take several more years of editing before it was published.
Copies of his book will be available for purchase and autographs after the talk.