Kenneth A. Beehner
|HOME OF RECORD:
La Fargeville, NY
|NEXT OF KIN:
Wife, Mrs. Shirley Beehner
|DATE OF BIRTH:
3/20/1942 – 1945
1952 – 1955 (Reserve)
|DATE OF DEATH:
|Saipan||HQ/1/24||1542||1st Lieutenant||WIA (2x)|
Purple Heart with Gold Star
|LAST KNOWN RANK:
Ken Beehner was born and raised in upstate New York. He grew up in the hamlet of La Fargeville, but graduated from Nottingham High School in Syracuse.
Beehner decided to attend Syracuse University; his speed and long arms drew the attention of the school’s football coach, Ossie Solem. The veteran coach had toyed with the idea of reversing his team’s center – a radical maneuver, but technically legal in the rule books – and picked the Beehner as his first candidate. That year, the Orangemen practiced behind closed gates, and after testing the maneuver in a scrimmage against West Point, debuted the new formation in a 1941 game against their rivals at Cornell. Although Cornell eventually triumphed, the reverse-center formation proved devastatingly successful, bringing Syracuse football to national attention and making Ken Beehner a minor legend in contemporary collegiate football.
After playing his final season with Syracuse and anticipating the receipt of his BA in Transportation, Beehner considered his future. A bad knee injury impaired his chances at a professional career, and football officials had changed the rulebook, making his signature reverse-forward lineup illegal. In March 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and after graduation reported to Quantico for Officer Candidate School. Beehner earned his commission in October, 1942, and wore his new officer’s dress uniform to his wedding; he married a hometown girl, Shirley Gillette, before being sent to active duty.
On January 2, 1943, Second Lieutenant Beehner reported to Headquarters Company, First Separate Battalion (Reinforced) at New River, North Carolina. He was bounced from Headquarters to Company A, and then to Company B on April 1, 1943. “Baker Company” would become his home for the next year. As a platoon leader, Beehner was responsible for more than 40 enlisted Marines who ranged from teenaged recruits to salty regulars who had been wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor since Beehner was in high school. Together, they traveled to Camp Pendleton, California where the battalion was renamed as First Battalion, 24th Marines; there they would train until shipping out for combat in January, 1944.
Lieutenant Beenher was a fortunate man in his first battle. During the invasion of Namur, Baker Company weathered a Japanese banzai attack that all but wiped out one of its platoons; altogether, they suffered the heaviest casualties of the battalion. Beehner wrote his impressions of the battle in a letter that was published in the Syracuse Herald-Journal on March 20, 1944:
Combat is quite an experience, decidedly rugged. Most of our fighting was concentrated into 36 hours, and into them was crowded many events I’ll never forget. The Japs are good fighters and tricky but they fought down to the last man. They are fanatical as hell and more like animals than humans.
Many of them commit suicide rather than surrender. We didn’t trust them much and those who offered to surrender were under fire and would have been killed if they batted an eyelash. Knowing how tricky they are, you just have to feel that the good Japs are the dead ones.
Our boys did a wonderful job. Most of them are 20 and 21 years old, and they really can take it. It makes you proud to lead men of their stamp. The whole operation was wonderfully well planned and executed. We had grand support from the air and from the Navy’s ships.
We really have a team working out here in the Pacific. Our equipment makes the Jap gear look second-rate and you feel that the home front is doing its job as well as we are.
Right now we are in a rest camp [Camp Maui], waiting our next operation.
Needless to say I miss old Syracuse. Believe me, you do not appreciate what a grand city it is until you leave it. I’d like to walk in there tonight. This is about all I can say and still keep the censor happy. Give my best regards to all our mutual friends.
By the time the above missive appeared in the newspaper, Lieutenant Beehner had a new job. He relinquished command of his platoon in Baker Company in order to attend Transport Quartermaster’s School, and joined the battalion’s Headquarters Company. He likely assisted the official “TQM,” 1Lt. Charles Carbeau, with his complicated logistical tasks. However, when the Marines hit Saipan, Carbeau stayed with the transports and Ken Beehner went to fight.
Saipan was a far different battle. “[We] never actually saw a Jap,” he reported, but “we knew they were there, however.
They kept taking shots at us, and we fired upon movements that we saw. But they were under heavy cover and they dragged their dead and wounded away.We kept advancing, however, and the strain was getting to be fierce, when we finally came to the top of a ridge and got a look at some 300 of them.
We did quite a job there. It was a great relief to see your enemy and know you had him on the run. Those fellows were Imperial Marines and for us it was quite an education. Most of us had looked upon the Japs as fellows small in stature, but these Imperial Marines were all 6-footers who weighed 200 pounds or more. They were bigger than most of us.
One of these Imperial Marines, or one of his Army comrades, had the measure of Lieutenant Beehner. A clever ambush executed on June 22 wreaked havoc among the men of First Battalion, and Ken Beehner was hit in the leg by a bullet. He was “patched up” at an aid station and returned to the battalion two days later. Upon his return, Beehner assumed command of the 81mm mortar platoon, which had lost two officers in quick succession.
Lt. Beehner, in t-shirt, with the mortar section. Photos taken on Saipan.
Courtesy of John C. Pope
On 6 July, Lieutenant Beehner was hit again – this time a serious stomach wound. He was evacuated to a Navy hospital where, to his delight, he spotted a doctor who in peacetime had been the team physician for the Syracuse football team. “From then on, I had a personal physician,” Beehner reported to the folks at home. “In our conversations we went up one side of Salina Street and down the other, every day, and we put in much time at the University, talking about Ossie Solem, Frank Hugo, Ribs Baysinger, Ray Simmons, and all the others.” Beehner also had time to think about Tom Kinney and Dick Weber, classmates he had seen on Saipan, and Tom Schultz and George Hooper, friends he knew had died on that island.(1)
Although he did not know it at the time, Beehner’s Saipan wound would spell the end of his combat career. He returned to his battalion on October 30, 1944, but was granted a better assignment at the Platoon Commander’s School at Quantico. There, sporting rows of ribbons on his forest green uniform, Lieutenant (eventually Captain) Beehner taught the next generation of Marine officers, many of whom were only a year or two his junior, and fresh out of college. When the war ended, Beehner served with a reserve unit until being discharged in 1945.
After his months of rest, which he spent with his wife and young daughter, Beehner found a job with a transportation company. He returned to the Corps in 1952 and served another three years with the volunteer reserve; when he retired permanently, Beehner held the rank of Colonel. (2) After hanging up his uniform, Beehner focused on a career in truck line sales while raising children – and then grandchildren.
Colonel Beehner passed away on August 16, 2016.
(1) There were several Richard Webers on Saipan; unfortunately, the identity of “Dick” Weber is unknown.
First Lieutenant Thomas J. Kinney was a shore party officer with Company D, 20th Marines, 4th Marine Division.
Beehner’s former football teammate, Captain George Edward Hooper, was a liaison and forward observer for the 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division. He died on June 27, 1944, when his aircraft crash-landed. He is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
(2) Lieutenant Commander Zack Beehner, USN, stated in a 2010 email that his grandfather Kenneth was “retired as a USMCR Colonel” and as of 2010 was living with Shirley in South Florida.