Sunday, May 25, 2008

Inscribed Names in Monument Reflect Stories of Valor

The Itawamba County Veterans’ Monument stands proud at the northwest corner of the Itawamba County Courthouse square in Fulton. The large monument with an eternal flame has four massive granite tablets set in native Mississippi stone. On these tablets are the names of 127 Itawamba County soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice for their country during four wars (World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War).

Each of the names inscribed on the monument represents a hero and a hero’s story. There are 127 heroes’ stories represented on the monument. Following is but one such story this monument represents:

Private Ray Collin Underwood was a native son of Itawamba County. Born on April 31, 1917 on his family’s modest farm east of Fulton, he was the son of Garvin and Mattie Lorene Underwood. They were like most Itawambians – they didn’t have much in material wealth, but were a proud and honest people. 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 192nd 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 and comforting 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 too dangerous to mine.

After his death, a Shinto funeral service for Ray was held. 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 after the war, his remains were returned to the hills of Itawamba County.

On a hill overlooking the beautiful valley below, in the presence of grieving family, friends and neighbors, Private Ray Collin Underwood’s remains were finally laid to rest in the Mount Pleasant Methodist Church Cemetery just east of Tremont in the rural Itawamba countryside. Today his monument marks the final resting place of a young native son of Itawamba who perished on foreign soil while serving his country nobly.

There are an additional 126 such stories represented on the inscribed monument on the courthouse square in Fulton. This Memorial Day weekend, citizens of Itawamba County will gather at that precious monument to honor those 127 soldiers and the heroic stories their inscribed names represent..

Private Ray Colin Underwood’s story is told on the excellent site, The Bataan Commemorative Research Project, produced by the Proviso East High School in Illinois.

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