By David Knopf, News Editor
Editor’s note: On Feb. 6, the Richmond News published the first of what eventually will be several stories about John Willard Humbard, a 19-year-old Richmond sailor lost at sea during World War II. Humbard’s memory is preserved in engravings on a stone in Todd’s Chapel cemetery in Ray County and on a cross and memorial wall at an American military cemetery in Tunisia. But his body was never recovered and it appears the circumstances of his death were never communicated to his family. The Richmond News and Ray County’s American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts are awaiting copies of his brief military record from the National Archives, at which time we hope to learn more.
John Willard Humbard embarked on the largest naval assault of its kind just four months after joining the Navy. And like his shipmates, he had no idea of the destination.
Humbard, 19, was a seaman on the USS Procyon, an assault cargo ship that was part of an 850-ship combined U.S.-British armada carrying troops,
equipment and supplies from several ports of origin to attack North Africa.
Humbard’s ship sailed Oct. 24, 1942 with the Southern Attack Group, under the overall command of Admiral H. Kent Hewitt and the Western Task Force.
Named for a first-magnitude star in the Constellation Canis Minor, the 14,000-ton Procyon was about as new to war as Humbard and other recent recruits, having been commissioned just the previous year.
The invasion was devised to set the stage for an eventual second front in southern Europe, one that would divert Nazi Germany’s resources from its invasion of Russia.
Known as Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa landed a combined 107,000 American and British troops on enemy soil in three locations, supported by warships, bombers and fighter planes.
Included were 35,000 troops under Gen. George Patton’s command, whose ultimate target was the city of Casablanca in French Morocco. Soldiers in the 2nd Armored Division and 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions under Patton made the trip directly from the U.S. in a fleet of cargo and troop vessels, including Humbard’s Procyon.
The ships gathered off the coast of Fedala, a small port city on West Africa’s west coast, northeast of Casablanca.
The Procyon and other troop ships rendezvoused around midnight Nov. 7-8 and off-loaded the soldiers into Higgins Boats – landing craft that took troops to the beach in the dark. Humbard piloted one of them.
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Very little is known about John Willard Humbard – a few scattered facts about his life and virtually nothing about his character or personality.
Son of a coal miner with the same first name, he attended Richmond schools until around eighth grade. According to the 1940 Census, Humbard, then 16, worked in a soil-erosion project. It’s not known if the project was part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which disbanded in 1942.
A little more is known factually about the sailor’s life, thanks to genealogy research conducted by Arlene Kennedy, the niece of Richmond resident Shirley Humbard. Shirley is the wife of the late Paul Humbard, John W. Humbard’s younger brother.
Although the engraving on the back of his parents’ gravestone at Todd’s Chapel lists only the year of John W.’s birth – 1923 – Arlene pinned down his birthdate as Nov. 2 of that year. Humbard enlisted in the Navy in June 1942, went to basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and was assigned to the Procyon. He was lost at sea and presumed dead Nov. 9, 1942, just days after his 19th birthday.
Humbard was lost on the second day of Operation Torch. Although it’s not known if his loss was the result of enemy fire or an accident, the official muster of crew members aboard the ship in November listed his status as “record closed,” with the explanation “missing in action.”
Since all members of Humbard’s immediate family – his father John, Mother Erna and eight brothers and sisters – are deceased, any information has had to come from members of the next generation.
One of those, Eileen Chole, is the daughter of Bernice Humbard-Owen, John W.’s little sister.
Then an Orlando, Fla. resident, Chole did genealogical research and came up with some new information and a correction of the Navy later listing his year of death as 1943.
“John Willard (Uncle Johnny) was the pilot of a landing craft in the invasion of North Africa called Operation Torch,” she said.
The fact that he was directly involved in bringing troops to shore raises questions about whether he was washed overboard, hit by enemy fire or lost his life in one of any number of ways.
“Operation Torch occurred on Nov. 8-10 of 1942, not 1943,” Chole wrote, correcting a date that’s listed incorrectly by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which lists the sailor’s date of death as Nov. 10, 1943 – a year and a day off the actual date.
The commission correctly cites Humbard as part of the “Tablets of the Missing at (the) North Africa American Cemetery” in Carthage, Tunisia.
Choles wrote the following to another family member, raising other questions: “Mother (born Emma Bernice Humbard) was his beneficiary and was listed as his next of kin for notification. My records show his death as Nov. 9, 1942. You are correct that he was reported MIA until they changed it to KIA, and to the best of my mother’s knowledge his body was never found – a fact that never ceased to cause her grief.”
It would appear Choles referred to her own mother, Bernice. John W.’s mother was Erna, who lived a long life and would likely have been defined as next of kin and beneficiary – unless those designations were later reassigned to her daughter.
Family legend has it that Erna was so shaken by not knowing more about her son’s fate that she tossed medals he’d been awarded onto her front lawn.
Both the Richmond News and Excelsior Springs Daily Standard reported her son’s loss more than a month after it happened.
“Richmond Boy of U.S. Navy Is Missing” is how the Excelsior paper’s headline read. It, too, referred to the sailor as “Johnnie,” but garbled his last name as “Humbird.” The Richmond paper made the same mistake within a couple of days of the Standard, so it’s likely both papers reported the news (and repeated the error) from the same government news release.
“No other details were given of Humbird but Mrs. Humbird was told that additional facts would follow as soon as the information was released,” the Standard said.
The Excelsior Springs paper extensively covered news in both Ray and Clay counties, including the number of servicemen drafted and enlisting each month in both counties. The Humbards were from Ray County, although Erna moved to Temple Avenue in Excelsior Springs with her remaining minor children, Anna and Paul, around the time John went to sea.
It was Anna, now deceased, who saw to it that John W.’s “Lost at Sea” inscription was engraved on the back of their mother and father’s gravestone at Todd’s Chapel.
Paul, the youngest – listed as 11 in the 1940 Census – lived in Rayville and is buried at Crowley Cemetery there. He died in 2007.
His wife Shirley now lives in Richmond and keeps tabs on efforts to learn more about Ray County’s lost sailor.