Kenneth Leslie Vesey
|HOME OF RECORD
133 South Kimball Street
|NEXT OF KIN
Parents, William & Mary Vesey
|DATE OF BIRTH
February 13, 1923
January 4, 1942
|DATE OF LOSS
November 10, 1942
Declared Dead November 11 1943
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Missing In Action
|CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
Private Kenneth L. Vesey served with Company E, 2nd Marines during the battle of Guadalcanal.
At 0700 on 10 November 1942, the Second Battalion, 2nd Marines commenced a westward advance from their camp at Point Cruz. Japanese machine gunners in hidden positions caught the battalion in their sights and, in the words of the battalion report, “Company E and Company G were held up temporarily.” In reality, both companies suffered heavy casualties.
Private Vesey participated in the day’s attack, but when his company reorganized at their objective, he could not be found. He was declared missing in action following the engagement, and presumed dead as of 11 November 1943.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
|STATUS OF REMAINS
Manila American Cemetery
Kenneth Leslie “Ken” Vesey entered the world on 13 February 1923, the fifth of six children born to William and Mary Magdalene Vesey of Douglas, Wyoming. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to the little town of Midwest in Natrona County, where William worked as a driller for an oil company. In 1929, the family gravitated to the county seat of Casper, and set down more permanent roots.
The Vesey children – John, Mary, William, Glen, Ken, and James – attended the Natrona County High School, and most took up part time jobs. Bill, Ken, and Jim all carried the Tribune-Herald newspaper; it may have helped that their oldest brother, John, worked in the circulation department. In addition to providing steady employment, the paper gave great perks to its top employees. The Vesey brothers topped the circulation contest several times in the 1930s and were rewarded with all-expense-paid vacations to California. John even attended the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games on the paper’s dime, while Bill took in the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935.(1)
In the summer of 1940, the boys took new jobs. Ken and Jim applied for work as pin setters at a local bowling alley, and Bill – now twenty-two – set his sights on the Marine Corps. Tales of boot camp and barracks duty at Mare Island intrigued his family, but his next assignment made the local news. Bill was accepted for parachute training at Lakehurst, New Jersey; despite an old baseball injury which left him with fractured and dislocated ankles, he completed the intense training program and became a Paramarine on 17 October 1941.
Less than two months after word of Bill’s success reached his family at 133 South Kimball Street, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor hit the Casper radios, papers, and newsreels. Young James Vesey, age seventeen, was the first to follow Bill into the service; abandoning his junior year at Natrona County High, he enlisted in the Marine Corps on 15 December 1941. It took longer for Ken to make up his mind – perhaps he mulled finishing his senior year of high school – but not much longer. On 29 December, he applied for enlistment at the local Casper recruiting center.
The following Sunday, 4 January, Ken Vesey joined a dozen other young men on their way to Denver for induction. Among them was at least one former schoolmate, Daniel Patrick McCarthy, “Scores of Casper citizens, defiant of the cold, thronged last night to Burlington station to bid farewell to a squad of recruits on their way to service in the U.S. Marine Corps,” reported the Tribune-Herald. The high school cadet band played patriotic tunes as the future Marines – laden with gifts of fruit and cigarettes organized by the city’s “Aloha Committee” – boarded the train under the watchful eye of their recruiter, Sergeant C. J. Graziano. They were sworn into the service at Denver on 5 January.
Like his brothers, Ken was sent to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for boot camp. Although he was only two weeks behind Jim, Ken was placed in a different recruit battalion, and the sprawling size of the base – to say nothing of the frenetic training schedule – probably prevented the brothers from seeing much of each other.
However, Ken Vesey and Daniel McCarthy both ended up in the Seventh Recruit Battalion, and may have been in the same platoon. Whatever their relationship might have been at NCHS, they probably became close buddies in boot camp. Their training was rushed to completion, and in February the two boys from Casper were assigned to Company E, Second Battalion, Second Marines. Amphibious training occupied much of the months of March and April, 1942 as the new Marines honed their skills on the beaches of Coronado, California. The dangerous nature of their work was underscored on one tragic occasion, when a private in Company E was caught by a rogue wave and washed away from his landing craft. His body would be discovered two weeks later, washed ashore at Ocean Beach complete with rusted rifle and combat pack.
The Vesey brothers probably tried to keep in touch with each other as well as with the folks back home. Jim spent his first few months of duty in San Francisco and at Mare Island; after some agitation to join the Fleet Marine Force, he became a “cannon cocker” with the 11th Marines, part of the First Marine Division. Bill, meanwhile, advanced through the ranks and was now a corporal with Company B, First Parachute Battalion. In the summer of 1942, all three boys would leave the United States and sail west across the Pacific. Their first destination was New Zealand, but they would have little time to enjoy the unfamiliar yet welcoming sights of Wellington. Within weeks, they were on the move again – heading for the Solomon Islands.
By dawn on 8 August 1942, three Pacific islands were occupied by Veseys. Corporal Bill landed on Gavutu with the Paramarines, and was seen in a Japanese dugout on Hill 148 “swearing and stabbing any enemy within bayonet distance, over and over” before he was hit in the head and back and evacuated from the field.(2) Private Jim was on Guadalcanal with his howitzer crew; he would duck more friendly fire than enemy during his first few days ashore. And Private Ken was splashing ashore on Tulagi, staring at the wreckage created by the First Raider Battalion’s assault of the day before. He experienced his first firefight the following morning, when a detachment from E Company chased down a few Japanese who had fled to tiny Makambo Island.
The excitement of the landings died down quickly as the Second Marines took over garrison duties on Tulagi. There was the occasional break in the monotony – combat patrols hunted stragglers on other small islands, careless souvenir hunters set off minor explosions, and they could watch the occasional air or sea battle. Wounded sailors and airmen were brought to the hospital on Tulagi, and one night the Japanese navy shelled the island, wounding several men in Company E. Most days, however, were simply routine – even boring. The real action was taking place over on Guadalcanal. When the First and Third Battalions of the 2nd Marines were ordered across the channel to take part in the fighting, some Marines of 2/2 began to grumble that they’d been forgotten on their island outpost.
On 29 October, the long-awaited orders arrived. The entire Second Battalion boarded a little fleet of Higgins boats – careful to wait until the daily Japanese air raid had departed – and hurried across the channel. They disembarked at Kukum and went into reserve positions within the Lunga Perimeter, preparing for an attack aimed at the village of Kokumbona, several miles to the west.
Sunday, 1 November 1942, marked the start of the November Offensive – a concerted effort to dislodge the Japanese from their strong positions along the banks of the Matanikau. The veteran 5th Marines led the attack across the river, gained the opposite bank, and began pushing west towards Point Cruz. Vesey and McCarthy helped their company set up defensive positions on the east bank of the Matanikau, guarding the valuable bridges and listening to the growing sounds of battle as the 5th Marines ran headlong into the main Japanese line. They ducked machine gun and mortar fire all day; one of their buddies was wounded. The next morning, they traipsed across the bridges and took up positions in reserve, under fire all the while. Casualties were still light, but the sight of fresh graves and wounded Marines and soldiers being carried to the rear left no doubt that they were in the big leagues.
On 3 November, the final pockets of Japanese resistance were wiped out from the Point Cruz area, and the exhausted 5th and 7th Marines were relieved. Vesey’s 2/2 took over the section of line manned by 3/7, and for the next several days held their positions. Patrols ranged out in front of the lines, encountering the odd Japanese straggler or small unit; sometimes a larger force blundered into the Marine line of fire and was wiped out. For the most part the area was quiet – “unusually quiet,” according to the battalion’s diary. Vesey and McCarthy spent nearly six days along this “O-2” line; their exact activities are not known, but they likely gained a new appreciation for the reality of jungle warfare. The offensive resumed on 9 November (another “very quiet” day, despite a morning artillery barrage) and saw 2/2 moving their positions forward to the next ridge, designated as “O-3.” This would be their jumping off point for the next day’s attack.
That evening, American aircraft mistakenly bombed and strafed 2/2. Vesey’s company escaped damage, but three other Marines were wounded by the friendly fire. It seemed like a bad omen.
The next day – 10 November 1942 – was the Marine Corps’ birthday. It was also one of the hottest days anyone in the 2nd Marines could remember. “The heat got to the point where I expected the men to go berserk,” said one man in A/1/2. “It drove everything from your mind but your loathing for this never-ending jungle.” (3) The assault forces moved out at the break of dawn, trudging down into a ravine and then up a steep, wooded slope. They were hoping to reach their next objective (naturally called “O-4”) without too much trouble – but on this ridge, the Japanese were waiting.
Daniel McCarthy was walking and sweating when “a Jap machine gun let loose about thirty yards away. One of the bullets caught me in the hand.” The projectile exploded, shattering his hand. “I consider myself pretty lucky,” McCarthy said later. “Only seven of the boys escaped being wounded and several of them were killed.” Private Edward M. O’Brien fell dead and others went down wounded as the unit scattered for cover. Marines went to extraordinary lengths to get their wounded friends out of harm’s way. Second Lieutenant Gordon R. McCulloch, who was directing mortar fire against the tormenting machine guns, risked life and limb to rescue some of his men. PFC Maurice J. Manuel did likewise, and fell with a mortal wound just as he brought a buddy to safety. Both McCulloch and Manuel would receive the Silver Star for their conspicuous gallantry.
A helping hand also brought Private McCarthy to safety – but it wasn’t McCulloch or Manuel. It was Ken Vesey, his buddy from Casper. One of the company corpsmen grabbed McCarthy, dusted the shattered remnants of his hand with sulfa powder, bandaged him up, and sent him to the rear for treatment. He would never see Vesey again.
According to the battalion’s diary, “Company ‘E’… [was] held up temporarily” and “several MG nests [were] cleared of enemy” before they reached the O-4 objective at 1700 hours. There is no mention of the minor disaster that befell E/2/2 in their biggest battle of the war thus far. In addition to Dan McCarthy, Privates Walter B. Smith and Alex Jenkins were wounded badly enough to merit evacuation. PFC Maurice Manuel, PFC Floyd M. Meinberg, and Private Clyde E. Kennedy were shot multiple times by the fast-firing Japanese; all three died of their wounds and were buried in the First Marine Division Cemetery. Nobody could reach poor Private O’Brien, whose remains were left where he fell.
Exactly what happened to Kenneth Vesey is not known. He disappeared into the Guadalcanal jungle on 10 November 1942, almost as though he had never existed. So did Lieutenant McCulloch, PFC George T. Darby, and PFC Ray B. Francisco. They were entered into the muster rolls as “missing in action,” and after a month were dropped from the rolls of their company.
Newsboys carrying the Casper Tribune-Herald on 14 December 1942 could hardly miss an item on the front page: “Marines List Kenneth Vesey Among Missing.” One young lad, perhaps a friend of Ken’s or Jim’s, deposited the paper at 133 South Kimball Street. The Veseys already knew, of course; a telegram bearing the words “Deeply regret to inform you…” had already been delivered by a Western Union boy. Friends must have visited with comforting words. Bill Vesey, his combat scars newly healed, came home on furlough in March of 1943. Dan McCarthy probably visited in April, displaying a brand-new artificial hand and telling how Ken helped pull him to safety. The elder Veseys probably chuckled at an article telling a comic story of Jim’s adventures on Guadalcanal, but grew serious when the same article described a close call that nearly cost them another son. A few days later, on 28 November 1943, the newspapers reported that Ken Vesey was officially dead. He had not been seen or heard from for more than a year, and Guadalcanal had long since been secured.
The other Vesey Marines survived the war. Bill recovered from his wounds and returned to duty as a Paramarine instructor in California. When the parachute battalions disbanded, Bill got involved in aviation and became an armorer and turret gunnery instructor for dive bomber crews. He would spend just over thirty years in the Corps, retiring in 1970. James stayed in the artillery and saw further combat in the South Pacific before rotating back to the States to end the war where he began – at a supply depot in San Francisco. Like Bill, he reenlisted when the war ended and spent much of his life in uniform.
In 1947, a detachment of the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company traveled to Guadalcanal in search of the hundreds of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who had not been accounted for after the campaign. On their list was Case Number 7729 – Ken Vesey. The 604th was told that Vesey was five feet, seven inches tall, weighed 121 pounds, and aside from extracted wisdom teeth had no identifying dental characteristics. They were not, unfortunately, given many clues about where to search for the missing Marines of E/2/2 – only “in the vicinity of the Matanikau and Poa [sic] Rivers at Guadalcanal.” Their report catalogued their frustration:
1. All known facts concerning Case Number 7729 were obtained from the files of Headquarters AGRS (Pacific Zone).
2. From 18 to 29 August 1947, team number 3, composed of one officer and ten EM, conducted a search for the personnel involved in case number 7729. Natives in the villages along the Matanikau were questioned for possible information that may lead to locating the remains. Numerous foxholes were found and all foxholes and possible grave sites were thoroughly investigated.
3. Due to the fact that no remains were found it is possible that a previous search party picked them up and they are now buried in the Guadalcanal Cemetery as unknown, or are unrecoverable.
4. It is recommended that this case be closed.
The 604th left the door open on Vesey’s remains, hinting that they might be buried in Guadalcanal’s cemetery. However, forensic analysis of that cemetery’s unknowns in 1948 failed to produce a convincing match. On 28 January 1949, Private Kenneth Leslie Vesey was unanimously declared non-recoverable by an AGRS Board of Review.
Vesey’s name is inscribed on the Wall of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery, along with those of McCulloch, Darby, Francisco, and O’Brien. To date, none of these Marines has been accounted for.
All articles from the Casper Herald-Tribune.
1. A 1942 edition of the Casper Herald-Tribune would name Ken Vesey as the brother who went to the Olympics, but as he was only nine at the time, this seems unlikely. John and Bill’s trips were described in great detail in articles printed in 1932 and 1935.
2. Recollection of Robert W. Moore, B/1st Paramarines, recorded in Stanley Coleman Jersey’s Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal. Bill’s wounds were serious, but not life-threatening.
3. Recollection of Jim Sorensen, A/1/2nd Marines, recorded in William W. Rogal’s Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Beyond: A Mud Marine’s Memoir of the Pacific Island War.