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WWII alum destroys bridge, escapes death, lands in prison camp

In 1943, WSU’s entire veterinary medicine student body was drafted into the military for WWII.

 

 
 

Mickelsen, WSC 1939

PULLMAN, Wash. – The March 2, 1942, issue of Life magazine features a cover photo of Ginger Rogers; not Capt. Clayton Mickelsen of the U.S. Army’s Veterinary Corps, a Washington State University veterinary alumnus from 1939.

“Michelson” doesn’t appear until page 55 – and then with the wrong rank and his named misspelled. The story, “Rear Guard in Luzon,” is written by Capt. John Wheeler, commander of a troop in the 26th Regiment, U.S. Cavalry made up of Filipino scouts and American officers.

Wheeler and his men specifically delayed the Japanese pursuit of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s army as they made their way south into Bataan. Mickelsen kept them from being gunned down by machine guns and tanks.

Near Damortis on the Lingayen Gulf, where the Japanese landed, Mickelsen distinguished himself in combat, earning the Distinguished Service Cross.
 

Mickelsen oversaw the health of more than 1,600 horses and mules.

 

 

All WSC Vet med students drafted to form Company C
 

In June 1943, the federal government did something quite unusual by today’s standards in Pullman, Wash. The War Department sent notice to then Washington State College the Dean of Men, Otis C. McCreery, to summon veterinary Dean Earl E. Wegner to his offices.

At the time, Wegner had been serving as dean for more than 35 years and had never experienced anything like this before.

The meeting resulted in Wegner being told that the entire student body of the WSC College of Veterinary Medicine was thereby drafted into military service in the newly formed, Company “C,” Army Specialized Training Unit No. 3923. (See photo at top of page.)

The unit was immediately placed under the command of Captain Henry Butherus, an infantry training specialist.

In fact, it was not only veterinary students who were drafted but some 2,000 men were called to Company “C” but the veterinarians-to-be were perhaps the most unusual. They quickly formed a marching band led by drum major and the late legendary WSU veterinary alumnus, John Gorham.

Gorham

“Oh yeah I remember,” said Gorham in an interview and in many personal conversations before his death. “They packed us all up and sent us to Tacoma for training. After that they packed us all up again and sent us back to ‘defend’ Pullman and the college while we completed our studies. I think old Dr. Wegner was able to pull that off because the Army was ready to ship us out.”

Gorham said Staff Sergeant David Kupfer was the unit’s first sergeant and had little patience for the college hijinks common at the time.

“Oh he was always barking at us to do this or do that mostly because we’d sneak out past curfew and go drink beer. He made us do close order marching on the play field each morning before classes. That’s why we formed a ‘military marching band.’ He couldn’t say no and any other students on campus were not going to sleep if we had to get up. We’d play loudly going out and coming in to the frat house where they had us bunked together.”

Gorham actually looked fondly on the unusual experience saying that he never thought they’d actually see action.

“You see if we’d have shipped out, we would have been responsible for all the animals being used in the war effort as well as food and water supply safety. We tested carcasses for contamination and they made us go get water samples out of Paradise Creek to see if it could be made into drinking water. We had to wear uniforms the whole time and just kind of play Army for a while.”

Eventually, all the WSC veterinary students were released from the army without much more than an interesting experience to show for it.

On Dec. 22, the last American forces had withdrawn and the last American tanks had passed through the 26th’s troop under Wheeler. Orders from Wheeler were to delay the advance of the Japanese.

 

Shortly after the main force retreat, Wheeler saw two tanks come down the road toward his men. Angry at the stragglers, Wheeler mounted his horse and galloped directly to the closest tank. A hatch opened and, to Wheeler’s surprise, the tanks were Japanese.

One can only imagine what the Japanese soldiers thought of a man brave enough to ride directly into the teeth of two tanks on a horse armed only with a pistol and cavalry sabre.

No sooner had Wheeler made the turn to gallop back when, in his words, “all hell broke loose.” Barbed wire fences lined each side of the road and cornered the American mounted troop, so escape was made only in the direct line of fire. Several soldiers who had mounts shot from under them or lost their seat were trampled.

The troop came to a bridge and was ordered by Maj. T. J. H. Trapnell to defend the structure at all costs. When the order was given, Mickelsen already unknowingly was headed toward the bridge in the veterinarian’s truck, one of the few motorized vehicles left.
 
The Japanese attempted to use tank cannons to blast Mickelsen from the road but each round missed. Coming to a stop just short of the bridge, Mickelsen leaped from the cab, seized a gas can and began pouring fuel all over the truck. With assistance from Wheeler, the men pushed the now flaming truck onto the bridge, and the wooden structure caught fire right away.
 
The fire prevented the tanks from crossing and destroyed the bridge, delaying any significant Japanese advance for a while.
 
By all accounts, the Distinguished Service Cross awarded to Mickelsen is the only such medal awarded to a member of the Veterinary Corps.
 

The award itself reads: “By his heroic actions… Mickelsen saved the lives of a number of wounded, collected many stragglers, and set an inspiring example of courage for an entire regiment.”

Four months later, Mickelsen was among 11,796 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos at Bataan who surrendered. He was one of eight officers from the 26th that surrendered. The prisoners of war were forced to make the infamous 90-mile Bataan Death March to Camp O’Donnell by way of San Fernando.
 
After more than two years in captivity, Mickelsen was placed on a troop ship bound for Japan, but the ship was sunk by American forces. Mickelsen once again cheated death and eventually found his way to a prisoner of war camp in Kyushu, Japan.
 
His death came in a hospital in Moji on Feb. 10, 1945. Ironically, his passing was just two weeks before the camp was liberated by U.S. forces.
 

So that he is not forgotten, in 2007 Mickelsen’ s nephew Russell developed a scholarship endowment to recognize both Mickelsen’s sacrifice and his love for WSU.

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