David Knopf: Tragedy stalked Navy sailor throughout his short life

04/29/2014 12:00 AM

04/30/2014 7:56 AM

This is an easy story to tell, but one much harder to fathom.

In June 1942, John Willard Humbard, a 19-year-old Richmond boy, went to Kansas City to do what most healthy boys did.

Perhaps eager to help his country fight back after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy. We’ll never know for sure what motivated him, nor will we be able to gauge his patriotic fervor. Perhaps he preferred the Navy to being drafted into the Army. Maybe blue appealed to him more than green.

It will all remain a mystery, because though history spares no effort documenting the lives of the rich and famous, it often ignores people like Johnnie Humbard, as friends and family knew him.

He was the son of a coal miner and a widowed mother of eight, a young man who barely scratched the surface of life’s official record. Three words would eventually sum up his life and death, however inadequately:

Lost at Sea


Thanks to his sister Anna, those words were engraved on the back of his mother and father’s gravestone in a pastoral Ray County graveyard. It’s a memorial that Anna, now deceased, wanted for her brother, even though his body wasn’t there.

The stone is at Todd’s Chapel, a simple white church on top of a thickly treed hill. There’s a single house tucked away behind a fence down the gravel road, and most days, a rural carrier in a maroon Jeep drops the mail and heads back down the hill to civilization.

Johnnie’s parents, John and Erna, are buried on the west side of a church graveyard that spans both sides of the road. A second gravestone, to the right of his parents, marks the final resting place of Charles Humbard, Johnnie’s 3-year-old brother.

Charlie died in 1935, the same week as his father, both meningitis victims.

Little is known about how Erna endured the loss of a child and the family breadwinner in the span of a week, but she pushed forward, continuing to live on Henry Street in Richmond, a half block of small homes for mining families.

When Johnnie joined the Navy seven years after the deaths, Erna moved to Temple Avenue in Excelsior Springs to live with her daughter.

It’s there the telegrams were delivered and the medal thrown.

John Humbard finished either eighth or ninth grade in Richmond before going his own way. No one knows for sure when he left school. He’s listed in one Echo yearbook as a seventh-grader who’s “not pictured” in the class photo, and neither his name nor his picture is included the next year or the one after that.

Despite much searching, no photo of him has yet been discovered. His naval record produces a rough sketch of a teen who was tall (6-foot-1) and skinny (135 pounds), and had blue eyes.

The assumption is that school wasn’t Johnnie’s priority, that maybe he went to work to support the family. The 1940 Census lists him employed in a soil conservation project, possibly with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era program to aid the poor and displaced.

Two years later he trained at the Navy’s Great Lakes base and was assigned to the USS Procyon, an armed cargo ship. Three months after enlisting, he joined the ship’s crew and was on board when the Procyon sailed to join in the invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

More than a month after the ship helped land troops and supplies in Morocco, newspapers in Richmond and Excelsior Springs printed brief announcements within a week of each other with the same general headline:

“Richmond Boy of U.S. Navy Is Missing,” the Excelsior Daily Standard said. That was the week of Dec. 15, five weeks after Erna Humbard’s son was reported lost at sea.

According to naval records, his disappearance occurred when the landing craft he piloted capsized in rough seas off Fedala, Morocco. The Procyon’s commander noted in his official report that the landing craft and its crew of three had been transporting a truck and two Army privates to shore.

“Two members of the boat crew and one private were uninjured and attempted to locate Humbard,” the report said. “No trace of his body could be found.”

That terse summary is dated Nov. 9, 1942. Although the sailor’s mother received War Department telegrams saying her son was missing and later — a year and a day to be exact — had officially been declared dead, it appears she was never told how he died and lived with that dark cloud piled on top of her loss.

In addition to the engraved stone at Todd’s Chapel, Johnnie Humbard is memorialized among rows of crosses and on a wall in the military cemetery in Tunisia, hundreds of miles east of where he died. Presumably washed away by the tide, his final resting place likely was at the bottom of the sea.

In stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance with which military casualties are honored today, Humbard’s death barely made a ripple.

The newspapers that announced his loss even got his name wrong, both referring to him as “Humbird” rather than Humbard. Following suit, a list of those who served in World War II at the Ray County Courthouse uses the same misspelled last name.

With his parents and all seven siblings now deceased, little remains in the way of family photos or documents. Poor families tend to pay more attention to daily survival than recording details of their lives, and the Humbards never had much money. It’s in that vacuum John Willard lived and died.

A nephew who survives did recall hearing that Erna, the sailor’s mother, received a medal after the war that her son had earned during his brief service. In frustration, she’s said to have tossed it on the lawn of the Excelsior Springs home where she lived.

Like her two sons and husband, that house is gone now, too.

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