On a beautiful spring day in South-Central Pennsylvania there is likely not a more serene, peaceful, and awe-inspiring place to take a walk than the Gettysburg National Cemetery. As you stroll among the rows upon rows of the deceased, and if you take your time, the headstones speak to you, albeit in muted tones. The voice we hear today comes to us by way of the inscriptions upon the stones, unfortunately the nature of the headstones strips away all but the most basic details of the person’s identity. Outside of the Civil War section the stones generally read the person’s name, their date of birth, date of death and where applicable, their branch of service. Beyond that, the details of the person’s life: who their parents were, what their upbringing was like and where they served are not evident. Yet, from the little information given, some stories come to life from a simple reading of the headstone. For example, the headstone of Clairus Riggs bears the date of his death, June 6, 1944. To the novice historian of the Second World War this date means something: D-Day. Likewise, George Stembrosky, December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. This blog post is about one of those examples, a story that leaps from the headstone. This is the story of a Marine who was killed in action October 8, 1942, a date that means little to all but the most well-read of military historians. No, it is not the date of death that leaps from the stone- it is his date of birth.
The headstone reads:
U.S. Marine Corps
World War II
May 9 1927
October 8 1942
This young Marine was only fifteen years old when he was killed in action during World War Two.
Paul Heller was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on May 8, 1927 to parents Paul Sr. and Anna. A grade school classmate of his described his upbringing as a little rough and tumble. They said he had a hard time getting along with his peers and assumed that his home life may not have been the best.
In the winter of 1941-1942, when Heller would have likely been in the ninth grade the country was reeling from the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This event would hurl the United States of America into the Second World War and would send hundreds of thousands of Americans into the armed forces.
Perhaps it was the desire to escape the reality of his home life, his inability to get along with his classmates or maybe it was a true sense of patriotism, we will never truly know
what motivated Paul Heller, we do know that he apparently attempted to enlist locally in eastern Pennsylvania shortly after Pearl Harbor however, his age (at the time 14) was automatic cause for rejection by the recruiting office.
Undeterred, Heller took a more extreme step of leaving his home state altogether. He needed to get away from those that knew him and how old he was. At some point in early February 1942 he made his way to Savannah, Georgia. Having learned his lesson the first time, Heller decided to lie about his age to the Marine Corps Recruiter, stating that he was born not in 1927 but in 1923, making him eighteen years of age. But how could he convince the recruiter of his lie?
It is unclear how exactly Heller got around this particular stumbling block on his journey into the service. The signature on the parent/guardian consent form (which would serve to verify his age) reads “Betty Betrick, aunt” who is listed as living at 1205 Gervay Street Columbia, SC. No record of this individual can be found to have lived in Columbia, SC. Nevertheless, the officer who swore Heller into the United States Marine Corps on February 17, 1942 claimed that a woman named Betty Betrick verified, in person, that Heller was in fact eighteen years of age. Therefore, it is safe to assume one of the following scenarios unfolded in the recruiting office. Either the recruiter falsified the document himself claiming to have met Betty Betrick or Heller convinced someone to play the part of Betrick, walking into the recruiting office with the youth and signing him up for the Marines. Whatever the case may be, Heller was in.
He followed in the footsteps of thousands of Marines before and after his time, taking a bus to Parris Island, South Carolina where he would undergo eight weeks of training before being hastily transferred to a unit bound for the Pacific theater of war.
On April 8, 1942 he was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, which was already at sea sailing for the Pacific Theater of the war. He departed the United States on May 17, 1942.
Heller caught up with the 1st Marine Division in New Zealand just as it was girding for war. The coming campaign would be the first of many for the 1st Marine Division in America’s struggle to beat back the Japanese Empire, which consumed much of the south Pacific. Their first target would be the Solomon Islands. Evidently, the reality of war, including the possibility of his death weighed heavily upon Paul Heller’s mind. By the third week of July, Heller made what would become a momentous decision. He changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy from Miss Betrick to his father, Paul Heller Sr.
The baptism by fire for the 5th Marine Regiment in the Second World War would come on August 7, 1942 when they wade ashore on the island of Guadalcanal in what would be considered one of the first American amphibious assaults of the war. Initial Japanese resistance was light and the Marines of the 5th Regiment, Paul Heller included quickly took control of a Japanese Airfield which they named Henderson Field in memory of an American pilot who was killed in the Battle of Midway.
The resulting combat would pitch American and Japanese forces against one another as control for the Solomon Islands and its valuable airfield hung in the balance. By the end of September the American beachhead which had been established in August was gradually expanding. On October 7, 1942 elements of the 5th Marine Regiment were ordered to cross the Matanaiku River, expanding American holdings to the Japanese held side of the river. Heller and the rest of his company were tapped for the assignment of crossing the river. On October 8th American and Japanese forces grappled for control of the ground surrounding the river. At some point in the melee, Paul Heller was killed in action along with a handful of other Marines that day. Heller’s body was interred in grave five, row twenty-five of the 1st Marine Division Cemetery established on Guadalcanal.
Immediately following his death the Marine Corps began the process of notifying Heller’s family of his untimely passing. This process was made more complex by his falsified documents. The Marine Corps first attempted to contact Betty Betrick, the “aunt” that Heller used to sign his consent form and enlist. On November 17, 1942 a telegram was sent to Miss Betty Betrick of 1205 Gervay Street, Columbia SC. Again, it is unclear today if Betty Betrick was wholly created by Heller and the Marine Corps recruiter or if she was an actual person, unrelated or related to Paul Heller. Nevertheless, due to the fact that Heller made his father the beneficiary on his life insurance policy, the Marine Corps was destined to get in touch with Paul Heller Sr. to inform him of his son’s death. In fact, on the same day that Betty Betrick was informed, the standard telegram was sent to Paul Heller Sr. and Anna Heller (the two were separated at this point and so, were informed individually).
Of these three individuals the only person whose reaction exists in the historical record is that of his mother, Anna Heller. By December 5th Mrs. Heller was in touch with the Allentown Chapter of the American Red Cross seeking assistance in securing the details of her son’s death and the interment of her son’s remains. Evidently, she was not satisfied with the response the Marine Corps gave to the Red Cross concerning her inquiry because by December 16th she contacted her congressman, Charles Gerlach in search of more information. In the letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gerlach states that Mrs. Heller “has contacted me and demands to know under what conditions he lost his life and more intimate details. I realize this is impossible but she is very much exercised over what she terms the cold-blooded announcement she received and insists that I do something about it and get her more information.”
This brief window into the mindset of Anna Heller paints the picture of an understandably distraught mother in the wake of her son’s death. Given the fact that Paul listed his “aunt” as next of kin and his father as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, is it possible that Anna Heller was unaware that her fifteen year old son had enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Pacific? Was the notification sent to her house of his death the first indication she had of his service at all? The paper trail left behind by Paul Heller does not give us a complete window into the ins and outs of the family in the fall and winter of 1942.
When the family was notified of his death, the Marine Corps indicated that the burial on Guadalcanal was intended to only be temporary and that final disposition of his remains would take place at the cessation of hostilities. On May 7, 1948 the body of Paul Heller arrived back in the United States of America whereupon he was laid to rest in Section Two of The Gettysburg National Cemetery.
When you pass through the gates of a National Cemetery established amidst the American Civil War, it would be easy to assume that the youngest service person buried within the grounds would be a young drummer boy struck down in July 1863. However, the youngest known casualty of war buried at Gettysburg is in fact Paul Heller, the young marine killed in action at the age of fifteen. His legacy today, one of duty and sacrifice stands as a testament to what people, young and old are willing to do for their country. On this Memorial Day we hope you will take a moment throughout your busy holiday weekend to reflect on the people, and their stories that fill our National Cemeteries.
Gettysburg National Military Park