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Memories in a silver box

Sep 22, 2019 Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Deb Willenbrecht, formerly of Riverton and now living in Australia, is seeking a display location for a family heirloom commemorating an event by her father, her uncle and her aunt that traces its roots back 77 years to late 1942 and the dark days of early World War II.

The outcome of the war was very much in doubt in 1942. The U.S. Navy was trying to hold on against the Japanese empire in the Pacific, and in America's first engagements against the German army in North Africa, the Germans were winning almost every battle.

Scrap metal champs

World War II was fought in a million different places, many of those so far away from the actual fighting that they didn't seem to be part of the action at all, but they were.

In tiny Hidden Dome, Wyoming, an isolated oilfield community north of U.S. Highway 16, nearly equidistant from Ten Sleep and Worland, the entire student body of the one-room Hidden Doom School did patriotic duty.

The student body was a single family: brothers John and Robert Willenbrecht and their sister, Lois Ann.

Along with their teacher Mrs. Frances Buchanan, they began to collect scrap metal, part of a nationwide project to gather material for the war effort.

The Willenbrecht children gathered 86,835 pounds of scrap metal, almost entirely steel and cast iron.

In a letter thanking War Production Board regional salvage manager L.J. Todhunter, who had congratulated them, the three children wrote, "We received your letter and like it very much and thank you for it.

"We have lived in an oil field for a long time and like it very much. That is why we got so much iron, because there is a lot if it here."

It takes a lot of metal to build a ship. The United States was hurrying to produce cargo vessels and war ships at shipbuilding docks all along the West Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard.

Naming the ship

Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith began a contest to name a new liberty ship after a celebrated Wyoming person. The three finalists among school children across the state were Buffalo Bill, Sacajawea and Chief Washakie.

Washakie, the great Shoshone chief, was the first American Indian to receive full U.S. military honors at his funeral in 1900, and his name was selected for the ship.

Deb Willenbrecht has a small, rectangular, silver case that commemorates her aunt Lois and the christening of the SS Chief Washakie in Oregon on Christmas Eve 1942.

Lois Ann was selected to travel to Oregon for the launching of the ship along with Carol Radosevich of Rock Springs Junior High School and Edgar Daugherty of Baggs High School. Radosevich and Daugherty finished second and third to the Willenbrecht children, who each averaged over 28,000 pounds of metal collected, easily more than the second- and third-place efforts in Carbon and Sweetwater Counties.

"Aunt Lois was picked to go, but I think Dad (John) did most of the work," Deb said.

The engraving on the top of the memorial box reads "Miss Lois Ann Willenbrecht, Sponsor of 'S.S. Chief Washakie' on December 24, 1942. Built by Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, United States Maritime Commission."

Inside the box are remnants of the champagne bottle Lois broke across the bow of the ship as it was launched, a length of red, white and blue ribbon, and a crumbling flower packed in plastic, a reminder of the huge corsage she wore when she swung the bottle.

The horror of combat was fresh in the minds of the Willenbrecht children. As Lois planned for her trip to Oregon news came that their uncle had been killed on the cruiser USS San Francisco as it supported U.S. Marines desperately clinging to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

He was one of 85 sailors killed as Japanese dive bombers hit the St. Louis repeatedly with bombs and torpedoes. The ship survived and was refitted for action at Pearl Harbor.

Lois Ann was 15 when she traveled to Oregon. She brought the box back home with her. She later left the box with her brother, Bob.

John and his wife Charlotte decided to move their five children to Australia in 1971.Cheryl, Deb, John J., Chuck and toddler Kelli picked up their lives and with their parents moved to the unknown world "down under" in Australia.

Cheryl was 16, entering her junior year at Riverton High School and Deb, at 14, was about to begin her freshman year.

"Dad had never been to Australia but heard about how great it was," Deb said. "We thought we were going to Perth."

Their final destination was a little ways east of Perth -- 2,000 miles east, to be exact.

The family moved to the city of Ocean Grove, John took a job in the Ford Motor Plant in Geelong, a few miles away.

"It was funny. We lived on Riverview about nine miles out of Riverton, and when we moved to Australia, dad still had about a nine mile drive each day from Ocean Grove to Geelong," Deb said. "It was so primitive down there. We thought we were behind the times here, but it was worse in Australia. No central heat, just a fireplace to warm the house. We lived in southern Australia, and it gets very cold down there."

Deb returned to Wyoming for the first time in 1997 when her uncle Robert was seriously injured in a fall and became paralyzed. He is recently deceased.

"He told me to take the box and find a place for it," Deb said.

At regular intervals Deb returns to Wyoming to see family and travel around the region.

She and other family members have contacted the Washakie County Museum in Worland but have not been able to get anyone at the museum to meet with them thus far.

The family seeks to donate the box and memorabilia within to the memory of Deb's grandfather, August Adam "Slim" Willenbrecht who died in Riverton in 1975, and to her aunt Lois Ann (Willenbrecht) Vance, her father John Francis, uncles Harold Robert and William James and aunt Glennis Marie (Willenbrecht) Jensen.

In an interesting connection, Deb's cousin Crystal Willenbrecht married Ron Schubach of Shoshoni.

Schubach's grandfather, Bud Currah, was a diesel mechanic on the LCS-15, a landing craft support ship. Currah's ship was hit and sunk by a Japanese Kamikaze off the coast of Okinawa in 1945, and Currah was fished out of the ocean by a nearby destroyer.

The SS Washakie served variety of roles during the war and finally was scraped in 1971, but another ship bearing the same name, the USS Chief Washakie, saw action at Okinawa in 1945.

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2020-05-27