Memorial Day tribute to Richard W. Dews, a paratrooper

Shoulder patch, 503rd PIR

On February 19, 1945, a paratrooper named Richard Dews died in combat on the Philippine island of Corregidor. He was a few weeks shy of his 28th birthday. He was unmarried, had no children. His mother, siblings, and nieces and nephews survived him. As we observe Memorial Day in the U.S., I offer this a brief sketch of his life as a testimony to his final sacrifice.

Richard Walter Dews was born on March 8, 1917 in Pierce County, Washington. His parents were Walter Marion Dews and Maude May Kaler. He had four older sisters—Margorie, Dorothy, Mable, and Evelyn, an older brother—Leonard Norman, and a younger brother, Walter Marion. 

Richard’s father was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was born in Warsaw, Illinois, in 1871 and, per his obituary, was a circuit rider and pastor in Kansas before he came to Washington. He served as pastor in over 10 churches in Washington before retiring in 1936 to Bellingham. Richard’s grandfather was Eli Dews, born in England, likely served in the 3rd Iowa Cavalry as a bugler during the Civil War, and died when Walter was about eight years old. 

Richard’s mother, Maude Kaler, was born in Ohio in August 1878, but grew up in Kansas. Her parents were Ezra and Alice Kaler (or Albert and Alice Kaler). She and Walter Dews married in Kansas in July 1896 and spent their first few years in the village of Oakley in far-western Logan County. After Norman was born in 1897, another boy followed—Neil—in 1899. Sadly, he died in May 1902, in a tragedy compounded by the death on the same day of the couple’s infant son Willis Francis at the age of six weeks. Scarlet fever may have been the cause, as the boys’ father had been quarantined earlier in that year.

Walter and Maude added two girls to the family—Evelyn and Alice (both born in Kansas)—and then between 1907 and 1910 moved to Pacific County, Washington, about 120 miles southwest of Seattle. In 1920, Dorothy, Margorie, and Richard were part of the family, now residing in Montesano, a bit closer to Seattle, as Walter continued to lead ministries in different  communities. 

Richard’s only younger sibling, Walter, was born in about 1921. The family in 1930 resided Snoqualmie, Washington, just to the east of Seattle. 

Richard went to college at the College of Puget Sound (now a university), in Tacoma, where he majored in English. In 1940, when he was a junior, Richard won first prize in the Burmeister oratorical contest. Per a newspaper clipping, “Dews has been prominent in dramatics and oratory.”

In October 1940, Richard lived in Seattle and worked in the supply department of the U.S. Naval Air Station. He was described in his enlistment document as white, 5’7”, 140 pounds, with hazel eyes, brown hair, and a ruddy complexion. His older brother Leonard Dews had been an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve since just after World War I, and registered for the draft in February 1942, but appears to have not been called up. Walter, Richard’s younger brother by a few years—and at over 5’10” the tallest of the Dews boys—served in the U.S. Navy during the war on the USS Rio Grande—a petroleum supply ship in the Pacific Fleet—and after the war on the destroyer Forrest Royal.

Richard himself enlisted on January 12, 1943. It is not known when he reported for basic training, but the December 16, 1943 edition of the Seattle Daily Times announced that Richard and four other local men had graduated from parachute school at Fort Benning Georgia, “and are now ready for active duty.”

He joined Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. The 503rd was formed from the 503d Parachute Battalion, which had been activated at Fort Benning in August 1941, along with the 501, 502, and 504 parachute battalions. A “condensed history” of the unit on http://corregidor.org/notes that it participated in five major combat operations in the Pacific Theater, three of which Richard would have been part of.

In May 1944, Private First Class Dews was on the U.S.S. General T.H. Bliss bound from San Francisco for New Guinea. On June 12, perhaps when PFC Dews was still at sea, his father, Walter, died in Bellingham, back home in Washington. How or when Richard received the news is unknown. 

On July 3, the 1st Battalion jumped onto Noemfoor, a tiny island off the coast of New Guinea, as part of combined unit operations to seize the airfields there and eliminate the contingent of Japanese troops guarding them. One regimental soldier, Sgt. Ray Eubanks, earned the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on July 23, but at the cost of his own life.

On December 15, 1944, the 503rd, now designated a regimental combat team, made an amphibious landing on Mindoro in the Philippines. “The Combat Team,” according to corregidor.org, “was subjected to intense air and naval actions during this operation, at one point being shelled for 25 minutes by a Japanese Naval task force.”

The final action in which PFC Dews would have participated, and where he would lose his life, was Fortress Corregidor, aka “the Rock,” in February 1945. Corregidor Island sits in the middle of the entrance to Manila Bay. From December 1941 to May 1942, American and Filipino troops held out against Japanese bombardment, slowing the Japanese advance on Australia. Taking this island back was an important part of Commanding General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to recapture the Philippine islands. 

On February 16, elements of the 503rd RCT jumped onto the Rock. “This was the most vicious combat action in which the Combat Team engaged during its existence,” explains corregidor.org. Pvt. Lloyd McCarter earned the 503rd’s second Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle. In his battle account, “The Return to Corregidor,” Harold Templeman—the American Red Cross Field Director for the regimental combat team—wrote:

Tumbling out of the big planes’ doors [C-47s], one by one the tiny dark specks blossomed out into billowing parachutes with hard-hitting hunks of man, armed to the teeth, dangling from the suspension lines. Down and down they crashed onto the bomb-pocked parade ground, through the roofs of wrecked concrete and steel buildings, into tall trees and scrub undergrowth, over the sides of the sheer cliffs and into the rubble and debris left by hundreds of tons of bombs and naval shells. For two hours they dropped before the planes turned back toward Mindoro to bring back more and more Paratroopers.

Astonished and taken completely by surprise, the Japanese defenders of the “Rock” could not organize in time to stave off the mighty onslaught from the skies. The Paratroopers, now out of their ‘chutes, had become foot-slogging Infantrymen with a purpose—to avenge Corregidor and General “Skinny” Wainright and his valiant men.

PFC Dews and the First Battalion, commanded by Major Robert Woods, did not parachute onto the island, but instead were inserted by ship on the second day of the battle, February 17. Col. George M. Jones, commanding officer of the regimental combat team, had made the determination after the first day that due to high casualties from the initial drop, and because the beachhead was secure, the next units would make an amphibious landing. And yet, Templeman wrote: “The Battalion on landing found itself under rifle and machine gun fire, but quickly moved up the hill and joined the balance of the Regiment on ‘Topside.’” 

About 170 men of the 503rd lost their lives on the Rock, and over 500 were wounded. PFC Richard Dews died on the day of 1st Battalion’s amphibious landing, possibly in the initial assault itself. His exact job in the unit is not known. The battalion’s commander, Idaho native Major Robert Woods, was also killed in action on Corregidor about a week later. He was six months younger than PFC Dews (his age in the obituary seems to be incorrect).

In his obituary, “top side” refers to the largest part of Corregidor Island, a broad, open area underneath which were Japanese fortifications and artillery batteries. The first wave of paratroopers landed there.

PFC Richard W. Dews is buried in the Manila American Cemetery, along with over 17,000 other U.S. troops who lost their lives during service in World War II in the Pacific Theater.  

Richard Dews’ mother, Maude died in 1964 at the age of 85 or 86 and is buried with her husband, Rev. Walter Dews.  

As we observe Memorial Day, I am mindful that the history of military service in my family is modest. Five great uncles served as U.S. Army NCOs in during World War II (in Europe) and the Korean conflict, though I was close to only one of them. Another great uncle joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps (acknowledging this wasn’t military service) in November 1918, when he was still 17. His father had to write a letter of permission. In the previous century, a few ancestors fought on the wrong side of the Civil War. A 5x great-grandfather served in the Tennessee Militia at the Battle of New Orleans, and died soon thereafter either from wounds or illness. Likely I have one or two ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War.

Given these facts, I’m honoring a veteran who died in service picked because I share his surname, although I have no familial connection to him.

Requiescat in pace, Paratrooper Dews.

(Manila American Cemetery, public domain)

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