The Sierra Vista area is rife with military history, with many of its residents having witnessed some of the world’s most significant conflicts and events.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day — the day the allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, France — the Herald/Review sat down with several local veterans, members of “the Greatest Generation,” to hear their stories of their time serving in WWII.
S. Martha Montevallo
Decades before it was commonplace for women to enlist in the Armed Forces, S Martha Montevallo signed up to serve.
The Huachuca City resident, now 97, came from a strong military background, both her father and her mother having served abroad in World War I as a soldier and an Army nurse, respectively. When Montevallo heard on the news in 1942 that Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers had introduced a bill to form the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) to assist the war efforts, she didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“I said, ‘I want to do that,’” Montevallo said recently from her Huachuca City home. “We had already been attacked, we were already at war, and I just had to do it.”
After her 21st birthday, the Alabama native traveled to the now-closed Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, for four weeks of basic training and six weeks of motor transport training. She was then deployed to Fort Riley, Kansas, where she and around 100 other WAC’s (they had dropped the Auxiliary by then) worked as mechanics, switchboard operators, drivers, and in other essential supportive roles as many of their male friends and family members — including Montevallo’s own father — were deployed abroad.
Montevallo primarily served as truck driver and chauffeur, maneuvering multi-ton vehicles to transport prisoners, equipment, rations and garbage, as well as driving officers to work sites, train stations, and other locations.
Despite the WAC’s expertise, many male soldiers didn’t see them as equals and supporters of the mission, Montevallo said; she had to deal with unwanted flirtation and advances, disdain, and noncooperation on a regular basis.
“Women were new, and sometimes interesting, or infuriating, or whatever to these men, because we were just new and they didn’t quite know what do about us,” she said.
Montevallo recalled an incident in which she was driving a trash truck which was contracted to pick up garbage for a hog farm located near the installation.
“We came to this one stop, and trash and garbage was all mixed, and I went in and I met this guy, a 1st Sergeant who was a real misogynist, and told him that we were not going to pick up his trash and garbage because it was not separated,” she said. “And he was pretty furious. So we kept going . . . the next day, again, it was also not separated, so we passed it by.
“Finally, on the third trash day, it was very carefully separated, and we picked it up,” Montevallo concluded with a grin. “And he was furious that they let women into the Army. He just thought the Army had been degraded.”
Not all men acted with disrespect toward the WACs; some were curious about the new members of the military. Montevallo recalled an occasion when she was walking around outside the barracks, wearing a new, “off-duty” dress the women had just been issued.
“There was an armed guard that walked around our compound every night from 6 a.m. — 6 p.m., and he was coming along and he didn’t know what I was because I was wearing that new uniform,” she chuckled. “And he didn’t recognize it, so he gave me a rifle salute, just in case!”
Montevallo served from 1943 — 1946, and then for another year in 1950, achieving the rank of 2nd lieutenant. She was honorably discharged after getting married and becoming pregnant.
Montevallo would go on to revisit her service in 2011, when she participated in an Honor Flight trip to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C., as the only woman veteran in the group. She has lived in the Sierra Vista area since 1962, and has enjoyed watching the progress women have made in the military over the years, including the high-ranking female officers that command on Fort Huachuca, she said.
“I think it’s about time,” said Montevallo. “And it took a long time.”
Seaman 2nd Class Jesse Whitworth was only 16 years old when he enlisted in the Navy.
“Two of my friends, they got drafted, and they were 18. I was only 16, so I went and got a certificate at the post office, my dad signed it and I was gone,” Whitworth laughed.
“My mother didn’t care for it much, but my dad, he was alright with it.”
Whitworth, now 93, was soon separated from his boyhood friends, who he would not see again until after the war had ended. While they stayed in the United States, he headed to the South Pacific “just after” the Guadalcanal campaign aboard the USS Washington.
Although some people who had grown up in landlocked Kentucky might hesitate to spend months at a time aboard a ship with upwards of 2,000 other sailors, Whitworth had always “loved the water,” and had spent many summers swimming in local creeks.
The Pacific theatre was quite different than the streams and rivers of the Southeastern United States: Whitworth, who worked as a seaman and gunner’s mate, operating the ship’s 40mm guns, recalled watching sea life, including dolphins and flying fish, leaping alongside the Washington.
“The whales would run right along the side of the ship, they’d porpoise every once in a while,” he said.
Whitworth experienced numerous close calls during his five years in the Navy. He can distinctly remember one hair-raising event on June 15, 1944, a mere nine days after the D-Day landings in France.
“We shot down 352 Japanese planes — ships fire and then they carry base planes,” he explained. “That’s the day I started smoking. I smoked for 20 years and quit Jan. 2, 1968. I was going to quit New Year’s Day, but I was a little hungover!”
Another time, when U.S. multiple ships were traveling in formation one night, the USS Alabama missed her turn, causing the Washington to run into her, Whitworth said.
“We plowed up on her starboard side, took 86 foot of our bow off, and we had to go to Hawaii and get a temporary bow put on,” he said.
Many men fell overboard, with several sailors losing their lives in the accident, he said, recalling, “They picked up one guy who was floating on his mattress.”
Whitworth was discharged from the Navy in 1946. Although he had considered reenlisting, he was still very young at the time, and “ready for a little something else,” he explained.
“Of course, I had my fun afterwards,” chuckled Whitworth, who said that his hobbies included dancing (he won several contests) and “chasing girls.”
He went on to live throughout the country working as a mechanic and for recreational vehicle company Holiday Rambler before his retirement in 1990. He moved to the Sierra Vista area in the early 1990s in order to be closer to his son, who was working on Fort Huachuca at the time, and also went on an Honor Flight trip in 2016.
“I’ve been around this old world a whole lot,” he said.
Retired Air Force Col. Frank Klein’s life reads like something out of a novel or film, full of serendipitous events and encounters with some of history’s greatest characters.
In his nearly 98 years, the decorated World War II veteran and Sierra Vista resident has attended the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, chatted with Henry Ford as a reporter for a school newspaper, and used his navigational skills to find the location of a crashed plane, saving the lives of the downed airmen. His most notable accomplishment, however, rewrote history and textbooks: Klein discovered the actual location of the mobile, magnetic north pole, a point crucial for navigation.
The issue with the pole, explained Klein, was that no one knew exactly where it was, although others had attempted to calculate its location. While assigned to survey the North American arctic for Project Polaris at the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, Klein noticed that his compass worked better than he had been told to expect, causing him to question the pole’s location.
“So I set my wheels to work, and I came up with a solution,” said Klein, pointing to a map of bone-chilling region he had surveyed decades before. “I called the system ‘grid navigation’ . . . basically, I can tell you, I had a book called an almanac, and some books that plotted the location of the stars. In this combination, I was able to look at the stars with an instrument called an astrograph.”
Through his grid method, which involved thousands of complex plots and calculations, Klein discovered that the pole was located off Prince Wales’ Island — around 200 miles away from where other researchers had previously thought.
“I had nobody to tell it to, but inside I felt good, because I knew what it was, it was inside this ellipse,” said Klein of the moment of his discovery as he traced his finger over the map. “ . . . Figuring it out was drawing this north-south line and east-west line, and where those two lines met, I said, ‘That’s got to be the pole.’ ”
Klein was awarded the Legion of Merit for his discovery decades later in 1999, after the arctic missions were declassified.
It was one of many decorations the expert navigator and pilot received during his decades of military and government service.
Klein, a Wisconsin native, enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941, leaving an earlier career as a radio actor. During the war, he served as a navigator, bombardier, and aerial gunner in the Pacific Theatre, using his expertise to map uncharted areas both abroad and in the U.S.
Although Klein’s stories of WWII are numerous, one instance in particular sticks in his long memory: near the end of the war, he was asked to return to complete one final mission.
“They asked me to do one more mission — that last mission that I didn’t take, and he was going to make a captain if I took it,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going home (to my wife) in 1945,’ but all the men perished in the crash . . . That plane was shot down off of New Guinea.”
Klein recalled one more story from his time as a navigator: a Canadian researcher, using a machine that wasn’t available during Klein’s own mission, confirmed the location of the magnetic North Pole shortly after Klein had released his own findings.
“So, of course, I was very happy,” he said.