Wesley Lee Kroenung, Jr.
HQ & Service Battalion
V Amphibious Corps
|HOME OF RECORD
1740 Hope Street, South Pasadena, CA
|NEXT OF KIN
Father, Mr. Wesley L. Kroenung, Sr.
|DATE OF BIRTH
May 24, 1918
February 13, 1943
|DATE OF LOSS
November 20, 1943
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
Killed In Action
CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
Kroenung was officially accounted for on 16 April 2019.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
|STATUS OF REMAINS
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Wesley Lee Kroenung, Junior, was born to Ella and Wesley (Sr). Kroenung on 24 May 1918. He spent his early years in St. Louis, Missouri, growing up with his younger sister Marjorie Mae.
The elder Wesley was a billing clerk with an artistic side; during the 1920s, he put aside his clerk’s ledger and started picking up advertising gigs. Following Ella’s death from acute lobar pneumonia in 1928, Wesley Senior remarried (a woman named Ruth, last name unknown) and moved his family over to Kansas City, taking a permanent job with The General Outdoor Advertising Company. Work sent him to California, and by 1936 Wesley Senior was a permanent resident of Los Angeles. The two Kroenung children wound up living with their grandparents in East St. Louis. (1)
Wesley Junior probably exhibited some of his father’s artistic inclinations as a boy; he might have picked up a camera as a teenager. Unfortunately not much information is available about his school years. He did eventually move out to California to join his father, but instead of following in Senior’s advertising footsteps, Junior went to work for Lockheed. Specifically, he was employed by Tom Triplett and Victor Barton, pioneering metallurgists who developed an X-ray machine for detecting flaws in airframes. (2) When he registered for Selective Service in 1940, Wesley might have banked on the thought that he was working in an essential wartime industry, and his chances of being called up were few.
In early 1943, however, Kroenung received his induction notice. He reported as ordered, and entered the Marine Corps on 13 February. Kroenung completed boot camp in early April and was immediately assigned to duty with Headquarters Company, Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. He was rated as a rifle sharpshooter, but the Corps was more interested in another kind of shooting: Private Kroenung’s first mission was to Camp Pendleton to take photographs.
The popular success of John Ford’s The Battle of Midway – an exciting documentary film shot during the battle – was not lost on the Corps; nor was the public interest in photographs and stories emanating from the Solomon Islands. A dedicated combat correspondents program was launched in 1942; by 1943, the Marines were making strides into training their own photographers and motion cameramen. In the summer of 1943, a number of talented photographers were selected for training at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; “Whitey” Kroenung – so called for his shock of platinum blonde hair – was among them. He traded in the drab classrooms of Pendleton for the Taft Building on Hollywood & Vine, home of many major film studios. He learned to compose shots, handle cameras, and tell a story that would align with the Corps’ public relations needs. In August of 1943, Kroenung made the meteoric jump in rank from private to staff sergeant; that October, he joined Headquarters Company, V Amphibious Corps as a public relations cameraman.
At the beginning of November, Staff Sergeant Kroenung received a set of secret orders. He joined Captain Eugene McNerney, First Lieutenant John Popham, and PFC Harry Jackson en route to Pearl Harbor, where they boarded a PBY Catalina flying boat, and set off across the Pacific. They were headed for New Zealand, where the 2nd Marine Division was busily preparing for an amphibious invasion in the Gilbert Islands. The Division had its own photographic section headed by TSgt. Norm Hatch; Kroenung’s small unit would act as observers for VAC. Jackson remembered conversing with Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson, the famous Raider officer, during the three day voyage. (3)
The Catalina arrived at Efate in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) on 8 November 1943. As they touched down, Kroenung might have seen the invasion fleet carrying the 2nd Marine Division steaming out of Havannah Harbor. The assault Marines had one final rehearsal before going into combat; the VAC contingent probably spent their few days ashore finalizing their own mission plans. Kroenung may have shot some footage of the base while Jackson, a talented artist, probably searched for some sketch inspiration. By 12 October, they were aboard the USS Monrovia along with Brigadier General Leo Hermle’s command group and Landing Team 3/8 – the Third Battalion, 8th Marines.
The Monrovia arrived off the coast of Betio, in the Tarawa atoll, early in the morning of 20 November 1943. Her troops were intended as a floating reserve to be called in if the situation required; the Navy had promised to “obliterate” the tiny island, and the men joked that they would only need to their shovels to bury all the enemy corpses. The biggest drama of the early morning occurred when a Marine set off a demolition grenade, injuring eight men in a troop compartment. Sporadic Japanese shells sent up splashes near the transports, temporarily chasing the ships from their loading area, but by 0730 the Monrovia had all her boats in the water and the Marines were beginning to board.(4) Wesley Kroenung and Harry Jackson, loaded down with cameras, film, and sketch pads, were among them.
H-Hour was set for 0910; the first waves hit the beach a few mintes later, and the carnage began.
After an hour of circling in the choppy seas, the LCVPs holding 3/8th Marines and the small contingent of VAC men were ordered up to the line of departure off Beach Red 3. A sister battalion, 2/8th Marines, had established a toehold and needed reinforcements. The flat-bottomed boats gunned their engines – and one by one slammed to a stop, grounded on Betio’s coral reef, hundreds of yards from shore. The water was too shallow. A few tracked LVTs that had survived the first wave motored out to pick up a handful of men, but most of the boats simply dropped their ramps. Obediently, the Marines rushed out and into the water.
“Unfortunately, the water was deep, well over a man’s head in places, and some of the Marines, loaded with equipment, drowned,” relates the Marine Corps’ monograph of the battle. “The men scattered upon leaving the boats and deployed in a wide formation. Then the enemy opened up with 40-mm. machine-gun and mortar fire, causing heavy casualties and scattering the formation. Out of the first wave about 100 got ashore and paused to reorganize.”(5)
On the right of the line (the western edge of Red 3), a long pier extended out to the coral reef. The Marines who landed here were somewhat more fortunate: they could cling to the side of the pier and make their way ashore with some protection, holding their weapons above their heads and out of the water. Jackson and Kroenung, however, did not have this option. They had to keep their cameras and papers dry – ruining them with salt water would erase their purpose for being on Betio at all. So Jackson climbed up the ramp onto the pier itself, with Kroenung close behind.
As they made their way towards the island, the Marines witnessed the aftermath of the first close combat of the battle. The pier had been assaulted and taken by a scout/sniper unit in the minutes before H-Hour, and casualties from both sides lay dead or groaning along its length. “Everyone who wasn’t dead was wounded, once, twice, three times,” Jackson remembered. “There was 85 percent mortality on that pier. Guys were calling for their mates. Cries of the wounded everywhere: ‘Corpsman, Corpsman.'” The shock must have been extreme, especially to inexperienced Marines like Jackson and Kroenung. Just two weeks ago, they’d been in Honolulu; now they were at the end of the world.
At the end of the pier, a low barricade of single palm logs provided the only cover. Jackson dove for its limited safety as a Japanese mortar barrage landed.
I was lying down flat and there were mortars hitting all over on top of us and one hit right behind my feet. The man on my right, Eddy Jackson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, says “You’re hit,” and I says “Shit, so are you.” I didn’t realize I was hit, he didn’t realize he was hit. It came up and hit me in the back of my head, at the base of my skull, in the right cheek and on both sides of my backbone just above my ass, just what was exposed to that spray of mortar fragments.
Whitey Kroenung was behind me flat on the pier; it hit him full in the face and couple of other Gyrenes there too. Whitey, he was platinum blonde, and his hair stuck straight up like a porcupine’s. He had no face, no face at all. The whole skull opened up, and I could see right into the goddamn – like half a melon – and of course his helmet was blown off and just that white hair sticking up off the top of this goddamn opened-up melon. That was Whitey.
– Harry Jackson
Wesley Kroenung probably never shot a single frame on Betio. The mortar blast, mercifully, caused instantaneous death. Harry Jackson lay still, blearily witnessing the destruction of the Third Battalion, 8th Marines. “I watched the landing boats get hit dead center and blown up and watched the men jump into the water. I watched them wade into point-blank fire…. A lot of men fell into potholes in that red water and drowned…. That water was red. It was absolutely red. All around the pier and clean to the beach the water was red from all that blood.”(6)
Harry Jackson survived his wounds and even returned to record scenes of combat in the Marshall Islands and on Saipan. However, his experiences on Betio left him prone to intense bouts of depression, bad temper, splitting headaches and epileptic seizures. Jackson would become the youngest combat artist in Marine Corps history, and after the war went on to have a long and colorful career as an accomplished artist. He never forgot the sight of “Whitey” Kroenung on the Betio pier. In 1985, Jackson depicted his friend in an untitled notebook sketch; in 2002, he created Salvatur Mundi Crucified in Betio Amnion.(7)
Marine burial parties began working on the pier as soon as the beaches were reasonably safe. The fierce equatorial heat sped up the decomposition process; thousands of American and Japanese bodies sent up an ungodly smell, and the very air seemed unhealthy. For reasons of convenience and speed, multiple small cemeteries sprang up across Betio, concentrated in the areas where the fighting had been heaviest. As they worked, casualty reports of tragic length were generated, including as much burial information as was possible.
A Marine Corps casualty card indicates that Staff Sergeant Wesley Lee Kroenung, Jr., lost his life to “gunshot wounds” at Betio and was buried in “Grave #2, Row A, 2nd Marine Division Cemetery #4, Tarawa, Gilbert Islands.” However, a photograph of Cemetery 4 shows four grave markers – none of which bore Kroenung’s name.
Although the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company was provided with Kroenung’s vital information – including a dental chart showing very distinctive teeth – they could not identify any of the remains they found as “Whitey.” Nor could the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu. He was declared permanently non-recoverable in 1949.
On 7 November 2016, the DPAA ordered the disinterment of Grave #836, Plot E in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The man buried there, known as X-103, was an unidentified victim of the battle of Tarawa. Specialists attempting to identify him in the 1940s had been stymied by the poor condition of the remains – particularly the skull, which was “fragmentary” and missing most of its teeth. They did note, however, finding some remnants of hair – light brown, fine, and wavy.
Using modern anthropological methods and mtDNA analysis, the DPAA was able to match X-103 with the name of Wesley Kroenung. He was officially accounted for on 16 April 2019.
Staff Sergeant Wesley Lee Kroenung, Jr., will be buried in Miramar National Cemetery in August, 2019.
(1) It is not known how long Ruth M. Kroenung was in the family. She appears on the 1930 census as Wesley’s wife, and was a resident of Kansas City under that name until at least 1933. In 1941, Wesley Senior married a woman named Evelyn in California.
(2) Triplett and Barton received some press notice for examining Amelia Earhardt’s plane with their patented machine in 1937.
(3) Larry Pointer and Donald Goddard, Harry Jackson (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1981), 34.
(4) USS Monrovia, “Action Report: Operation ‘GALVANIC,’ 3 December 1943.
(5) Capt. James R. Stockman, USMC, The Battle for Tarawa (Washigton: HQ, US Marine Corps, 1947), 18.
(6) Pointer and Goddard, Harry Jackson, 35-36.
(7) Margaret Matray, “Artist started out sketching war,” The Casper Star-Tribune 8 November 2010, online edition.