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Guest Post: Finding a Name on a Wall

By: Kevin Folkman - July 23, 2013

Recently, my wife and I traveled to the Philippines to visit my son and his family. He is working there for a few years managing an outsource operation for his company, based in Western Washington. It was our first trip to the Philippines, and we had the chance to visit a number of interesting sites with our son and his wife as tour guides.

Near the Manila LDS temple, on top the high hill, is the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, the largest such memorial on the Pacific Rim. There, surrounding a circular central park, are the gravesites of some 17,000 American and Filipino soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. Around the grassy central park there are two semicircular

open galleries of massive marble walls. These galleries include maps and descriptions of many of the major battles of the Pacific theater in World War II, and the marble walls are inscribed with the names, ranks, and hometowns of 36,000 more military personnel who were reported as killed in the war, but whose bodies were not recovered. As a memorial, it is both a pleasant place to catch a cooling breeze in the otherwise hot, humid air of Manila, and a moving testament to those who sacrificed all in the service of their country.

My wife recalled that one of her older relatives had died during the war somewhere in the Pacific, and so we checked both the database of graves, and then browsed the galleries, looking for his name. The names in the galleries are listed first by branch of service, then alphabetically, so that you can easily find a specific name. We didn’t find her cousin; and found out later that he is buried elsewhere. While browsing through the galleries, though, I found myself looking for a couple of family surnames, and found this listing:

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Leon J. Folkman Storekeeper 3C, USNR, Utah
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My immediate reaction led me to assume that if he is a Folkman from Utah, then there must be a connection. A later internet search confirmed that Leon J. Folkman, from Ogden, Utah, was indeed related, but more distant that I first assumed. His death date listed him as dying October 24, 1944, at the age of 22. He had married in 1943, and then joined the Navy. His service was listed as being aboard the CL-62 Birmingham, a light cruiser. I filed that away while I tried to ascertain just how distant a relative he was.

The Folkmans joined the LDS church in Denmark in the early 1850s, and emigrated to Utah during the latter half of that decade. I am descended from Christoffer Olsen Folkmann, through his son Jorgen Christofferson Folkman. Jorgen came to Utah in 1857, along with his son Peter, and a few other family members, eventually settling in Plain City, west of Ogden. A half brother from a later marriage, Lars Christofferson Folkman, emigrated during this time, and found his way to Plain City as well. Leon J. Folkman is descended from this half brother of my great-great-grandfather.

Leon’s father Mark, a farmer, moved the family from Plain City to Ogden in the 1930s. Leon appears to be the first in his family to graduate from high school; his father and older brother, Don, only studied through the 8th grade. Leon joined the navy in 1942, and was assigned to the Birmingham as a Seaman 2nd Class for her maiden voyage. During 1943, the Birmingham participated in the invasion of Sicily, providing air defense and bombarding land based targets with her 5” and 6” main guns. On leave in December of 1943, Leon married Eulalie Neville, a hometown Ogden girl. By January, Leon was back on the Birmingham, headed for the South Pacific, and reassigned to the US Third Fleet.

The Birmingham began to get a reputation as either an unlucky or lucky ship, depending on your perspective. During the invasion of Saipan, the ship was struck by both an aerial bomb and an aircraft launched torpedo, heavily damaging the ship’s hull, but not enough that she was unable to maintain a steady speed of 30 knots and remain in formation. Repairs were done to the hull, and the Birmingham rejoined the fleet. Throughout the spring and summer of 1944, she participated in a number of actions.

In May or June of 1944, Leon Folkman received a promotion and change of rating to Storekeeper Third Class . Storekeepers are a rating, similar to Machinists Mate or Boilerman, and third class refers to rank, being equivalent to the rank of corporal in the army. A storekeeper’s primary responsibility on a ship had to do with military stores, or basically all the supplies necessary for running a ship, including food, tools, spare parts, and the like. Today we would call them logistics specialists, rather than storekeeper. Just it sounds, it is not a fighting rating, and doesn’t appear particularly glamorous, as military ratings go.

During a battle, when the order “General Quarters” is issued, the Gunners’ Mates attend to the guns, radar and communications technicians (Electricians’ Mates) attend to their electronics, Boilermen report to the engine rooms, and the like. Storekeepers and other non-fighting ratings, however, performed an important secondary function during combat. They would be organized into damage control parties to respond to emergencies aboard the ship, to help remove the wounded from their stations to the sick bay, and otherwise perform jobs that would allow the fighting ratings to remain at their posts and keep the ship in combat. Storekeepers had to know the locations of all the storage lockers on board, and their contents, so that pipe fittings, pumps, welding supplies, and other necessary items could be quickly found and put to use during emergency repairs.

So now, all I had to do was to try and figure out exactly how Leon Folkman had died, and see if I could piece together a story. Turns out to be a rather big story. The USS Birmingham, as part of the US 3rd Fleet, played a role in the largest naval battle of the entire war, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Spanning several days, involving hundreds of ship and airplanes, the battle was the final last effort by the Imperial Japanese Navy to try and score a major victory against the Allied Forces, and disrupt the landings going on in the Philippines by troops under General MacArthur. Several major battles took place at different locations in the Philippine Sea, as the Japanese tried to push their fleets of carriers and battleships through several passageways between the many Philippine islands. Ultimately the Japanese were driven back with heavy losses, and cut off from major oil supplies in southeast Asia, were never able to be a significant threat through the remainder of the war.

The Birmingham was part of a task force charged with plugging a gap in the Philippines archipelago called the Sibuyan Sea. The Japanese attempted to push through the gap with several large battleships and cruisers during the night of October 23rd, but were forced to withdraw under heavy air assault from the numerous American carriers in the area. The attempted attack was supplemented by both Japanese carrier based planes, and bombers from land bases in the Philippines. The US air defenses were smothering, and only one Japanese bomber got through to score a hit on a ship. A single bomb hit the light carrier Princeton and set a fire on the hangar deck that refused to be quenched. A number of ships, including the Birmingham, came to the aid of the Princeton. Interestingly, the Princeton began life in the shipyards as a light cruiser of the exact same design as the Birmingham, but was changed to be outfitted as a carrier shortly after the hull began to take shape. In effect, the Princeton and the Birmingham were sister ships, a fact that would have been known to the commanders on both ships.

And here is where the storekeepers, clerks and cooks came to be in the front lines that day. The Birmingham came alongside the Princeton to assist in fighting fires, and to take off any wounded. The ships would both have been at general quarters still, so the damage control parties and firefighters would have been the storekeepers and other non-fighting members of the crews of both ships. The fires on the Princeton proved to be stubborn, and some of the Birmingham’s crew were dispatched aboard the Princeton to help fight the fires. Others crowded the decks of the Birmingham to handle14 different hoses and spray the hull and superstructure of the Princeton with seawater to suppress the fires.

The ships would have been dead in the water, and close enough for hull to hull contact at times. But a little after 4 PM, the fire on the Princeton reached the after-magazines, setting off hundreds of bombs and other ammunition in a massive explosion. The Princeton was done, and the order came to abandon ship.

But the explosion had similar consequences for the Birmingham, where hundreds of sailors were exposed and in the open on the decks facing the Princeton. The explosion on the Princeton tore the stern off the carrier, and sprayed metal hull pieces, wooden decking, and other debris all across the starboard side of the Birmingham. 233 sailors were killed on the Birmingham, with another 426 wounded. Damage to the superstructure of the Birmingham was substantial, and with more than half the crew wounded or killed, the Birmingham had to retire from the battle for repairs and to get additional crew. Leon was somewhere in harm’s way, either on the Princeton or on the starboard side of the Birmingham, manning a hose or tending to some other duty as part of the effort to save their sister ship. His body was not recovered, and so he ended up as a name on the walls of the Memorial in Manila.

The Birmingham’s lucky/unlucky status continued. In May of 1945, during the battle for Okinawa, she was struck by both an aerial bomb and a Kamikaze attack. The Birmingham, despite the loss of 51 crewman and another 81 injured, stayed in the fight. It was to be her last battle. She was decommissioned in 1947, and later sold for scrap in 1959.

Leon J. Folkman, descendant of LDS pioneers and native of landlocked Utah, died aboard the Birmingham as part of the damage control parties trying to save their sister ship. His body, along with many others on the Birmingham, was never recovered. He was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously, and his name was later inscribed, along with his shipmates and some 36,000 others, at the memorial in Manila.

We don’t know a lot about Leon Folkman’s church life. He and Eulalie had no children together to carry on his legacy. He was baptized and confirmed in 1932, but his priesthood status is unknown to me at this time. Eulalie remarried a few years later in the Salt Lake Temple, and had two children with her new husband. Leon’s endowment was done for him by proxy in 1951, and he was sealed to his parents, so someone has been making an attempt at getting his work completed. His name also appears on a headstone with his older brother Don in the Plain City, Utah, cemetery.

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This story came from a chance discovery. I had no reason to think that any of my relatives would be memorialized there at the Manila American Cemetery, and it came down to pure serendipity that I learned about Leon Folkman. Fortunately, the military keeps extensive records, and through those I was able in a few days to uncover both the story of the USS Birmingham, and a little about this distant relative. As with other family stories that have helped me connect with greater historical events, this one made a simple name on a wall, one of literally thousands, come to life as a real, living person, someone with whom I now feel like I have gotten to know a little better.

Welcome to my family, Leon J. Folkman.



9 Comments »

  1. What a terrific post, Kevin! My parents spent nearly four years in Manila as senior missionaries and the American Cemetery was one of my dad’s favorite spots. The cemetery is laid out beautifully, is cared for meticulously; it’s impossible to visit without being overwhelmed by the extraordinary sacrifice of the men and women who are buried there. (It is the largest American military cemetery outside the U.S.) I think my dad found it particularly moving because one of his boyhood friends, who died at an airstrip in the Philippines just a few months after Leon Folkman died, is buried there.

    Another interesting connection: I just read a one-volume history of World War II, written by a British historian not given to easy praise for the American military, who said that the Navy was by far the most effective branch in the American military, and that one of the things that the Navy did best was fire-control–the exact thing that Leon Folkman was engaged in, which saved many thousands of lives and dozens of ships. So, Leon Folkman died trying to save a ship and save lives–in an effort that sadly was futile that day–but he was doing something that the Navy did very well.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 23, 2013 @ 7:53 am

  2. Wonderful – loved this, Kevin.

    Comment by David Y. — July 23, 2013 @ 8:05 am

  3. I enjoyed this too, Kevin. It shows what can be done to bring some sense of a forgotten man’s life back to us. Even without knowing much about Leon individually, you have put his last hours in such a clear setting that we feel for such a young man in such a place. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2013 @ 8:31 am

  4. This is a great post, Kevin. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 23, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  5. Thanks, Kevin. For me, posts like yours reinforce Faulkner’s observation about the past not being dead, not even being the past.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 23, 2013 @ 9:11 am

  6. Wonderful! I got so engrossed in the post and Mark’s follow-up comment that I almost forgot to take the kids to swimming lessons.

    What an experience. I had at least one great-uncle that served in the Pacific and then ended up living in the Philippines for many years. He was one of seven or eight brothers who all served overseas during the war and all returned home alive, and I do wish we knew more about their service. One of them was in the Battle of the Bulge, and my grandfather helped relocate displaced European civilians and was among the support staff who cataloged the contents of Kehlsteinhaus (the Eagle’s Nest). Unfortunately that’s about all I know!

    Kevin — I was forwarded an email this morning from a woman needing some information about how to memorialize a particular group of WWI servicemen. I was going to forward the email to Ardis and Mark B. for any suggestions they could provide; do you mind if I forward it to you as well?

    Comment by Amy T — July 23, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  7. Amy, feel free to forward it on to me, and I will see what I can find out.

    Thank you to all for the kind comments. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes, my curiosity leads to dead ends. This story, however, seemed to come together all by itself, and I just had to put together the pieces. I have to admit to feeling a bit of an emotional tug as I typed the last line. I’m just glad I got to share this story, so thanks again to Ardis for letting me share the built in audience she’s fostered here.

    Comment by kevinf — July 23, 2013 @ 9:54 am

  8. Amazing story. Your research is not only bringing history and ancestors alive for you, but your entire family. Thanks, Dad. Inspiring. :)

    Comment by Carrie — July 23, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

  9. Kevin, Great story from the Philippines. Your research is amazing. There are stories everywhere and you have the talent to find them.

    Comment by Sharroll Buhanan — July 27, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

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