Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Soldier's Story is Being Told

On October 1, the society received a request for information about a World War II soldier - Private Ray Collin Underwood of Company A, of the 192nd Tank Battalion, from Jim Opolony, a teacher at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois. Mr. Opolony and two other teachers started the Provisio East High School Bataan Commemorative Research Project website during the 1999 -2000 school year. This most excellent award winning school project has been an ongoing endeavor for several years now.

I researched the 1910, 1920 and 1930 census records of Itawamba County as well as the county’s cemetery records. In addition, I made some telephone calls to local residents of the community where Private Underwood lived and found bits and pieces of information about him and his family. Society volunteers Charles and Virble Booth visited the Mt. Pleasant Methodist Church Cemetery east of Tremont and photographed his monument, that included his portrait in uniform. This information was gladly supplied to Mr. Opolony in Illinois.

This small effort made by local members of the historical society was rewarding and the information we learned from the excellent Bataan Commerative Research Project about a local son was priceless. Thanks to this special school project, many soldiers are being honored and memorialized, including Private Ray Collin Underwood of Itawamba County.

An Itawamba Soldier’s Story

Private Ray Collin Underwood was a son of Itawamba County. Born on April 31, 1917 on his family’s farm east of Fulton, he was the son of Garvin and Mattie Lorene Underwood. Living most of his early life on an Itawamba hill country farm, the family had moved to Fulton by 1930 where Ray’s father was the Itawamba County Circuit Court Clerk.

Ray was inducted into the U. S. Army on December 12, 1940 and did his basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He eventually ended up in the Philippine Islands with Company A. of the 192 Tank Battalion.

On the morning of December 8, 1941, Company A heard the news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ray and the other members of the company had been ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field. This was to prevent the Japanese from using paratroopers.

Around noon, Japanese planes approached the airfield and began bombing. At first the soldiers thought the planes were American but it was only when the bombs began exploding on the airfield that they knew the planes were Japanese. The bombers were followed by fighters which strafed the area. After the attack, the tanks were ordered to guard a dam against sabotage.

For the next two months, Ray's tank and the other tanks of the 192nd served as the rear guard as the Filipino and American forces fell back into the Bataan Peninsula. The tank company was east of Concepcion, when it came under enemy fire. A shell hit Ray's tank and disabled it. Lt. William Reed having escaped from the tank was working to evacuate the other members of the tank crew when a second shell hit the tank below where he was standing. He was mortally wounded.

In an attempt to get help for Lt. Reed, the soldiers went to find help as Ray Collin Underwood sat with Lt. Reed and cradled him in his arms as he lay dying. As he sat holding Lt. Reed, the Japanese overran the area. It was on that day that Ray became a Prisoner of War and continued to be such, until his death by pneumonia on February 15, 1945 at the camp hospital at Hanawa Camp #6 in Japan where he endured many hardships being forced to work in a copper mine that had been determined by the Japanese to be too dangerous to mine.

After his death, the Japanese held a Shinto funeral service for Ray. His remains were taken to a crematorium. After the cremation, Ray's ashes were given to the camp commandant who held them to the end of the war. Upon Ray's family's request, his remains were returned to Itawamba County. Pvt. Ray Collin Underwood’s remains were buried at Mount Pleasant Methodist Church Cemetery just east of Tremont.

For 62 years, Private Ray Collin Underwood’s granite monument has stood among the hundreds of other monuments in the old Mt. Pleasant Methodist Church Cemetery east of Tremont on a hill overlooking the beautiful and peaceful hills and valleys of the Mississippi countryside. And because of the volunteer work by the faculty and students at Provisio East High School in Maywood, Illinois, there is now an important story being told about a young Itawamba County, Mississippi son and valiant member of The Greatest Generation. And for that, we are thankful.

To read a detailed account of Private Ray Collin Underwood's service, visit his information page at the Bataan Commemorative Research Project site.

Photographs: The Bataan Commemorative Research Project Poster (top); Portrait of Private Ray Collin Underwood photographed on his monument in Mt. Pleasant Methodist Cemetery by Charles and Virble Booth.

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