This is one time of year when we stop and remember veterans of the U.S Military. It’s important to honor the brave men and women who’ve served our country. But how much do you really know about the history of notable service members from Wisconsin?
We decided to take a closer look at some of the more prominent Wisconsin veterans and tell a small part of their stories. There are only 17 Wisconsinites on this list, and that’s just a tiny fraction of the people from our state who really should be honored.
Hopefully, these 17 stories will inspire you and remind you of the price these veterans paid so we can continue living in a free country. And hopefully you’ll remember to thank and truly appreciate the veterans you know.
1. John Bradley – Appleton/Antigo
The flag raising at Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic images of war in U.S. history. One of the men holding up the flag happens to be from Wisconsin.
During World War II, Navy corpsman and field medic John “Doc” Bradley took part in both flag raisings at Iwo Jima. The second is the image we all remember. Bradley jumped in to help several Marines raise the second flag, which was larger and heavier than the first flag.
The ground on top of the hill was soft and that’s why so many men were needed to secure the flagstaff. Bradley passed away in 1994 and was the last surviving member of the flag raisers.
He was born in Antigo, grew up in Appleton. Bradley returned to live in Antigo after the war where he got married, raised eight children and started a business. The Navy Cross and Purple Heart are among his military decorations.
Bradley was usually reluctant to talk about the war, and very rarely gave interviews. But he did briefly appear as himself in the John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima.
Bradley was deeply affected by the horrors of war. His wife, Betty, said he often wept in his sleep in the early years of their marriage. His son, historical author James Bradley, believes that much of his father’s difficulties with memories of war stemmed from the capture and death of his friend.
- Find out more about John Bradley
2. Ralph Ignatowski – Milwaukee
Bradley’s friend was a Marine Corps private from Milwaukee named Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski.
During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Japanese soldiers captured Ignatowski. They allegedly tortured and brutally beat him to death.
Eye witnesses say Japanese soldiers dragged Ignatowski into a cave or tunnel where he was held for three days and subjected to unspeakable things.
In the book “Flags of Our Fathers,” which was co-authored by James Bradley, John Bradley describes what happened leading up to his friend’s capture.
“I have tried so hard to block this out. To forget it. We could choose a buddy to go in with. My buddy was a guy from Milwaukee. We were pinned down in one area. Someone elsewhere fell injured and I ran to help out, and when I came back my buddy was gone. I couldn’t figure out where he was. I could see all around, but he wasn’t there. And nobody knew where he was.
A few days later someone yelled that they’d found him. They called me over because I was a corpsman. The Japanese had pulled him underground and tortured him. His fingernails… his tongue… It was terrible. I’ve tried hard to forget all this.”
Flags of Our Fathers became a critically-acclaimed film directed by Clint Eastwood. The stories of Bradley and Ignatowski play a major part. Actor Ryan Phillipe portrayed John Bradley and Jamie Bell played the role of Ralph Ignatowski.
- Find out more about Ralph Ignatowski
Watch the Trailer for Flags of Our Fathers
3. James H. Flatley – Green Bay
You may have spent some time at Admiral Flatley park in downtown Green Bay. And you’ve probably seen the bronze statue there. But do you know the story behind this World War II Navy Pilot?
James Flatley was born in Green Bay and graduated from St. Norbert College in De Pere.
As an aerial gunnery expert, Flatley was key in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Navy had ordered him back to the States to form a new flying squadron, but Flatley convinced his superiors to let him stay for the fight. He received the Navy Cross for his “extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage” during that battle.
After the Battle of the Coral Sea, Flatley did return to the U.S. and put together a group of fighter pilots who flew F4F Wildcats. They were given the name the Grim Reapers, and Flatley was known as the Reaper Leader.
Later in his military career, Flatley was recognized for helping to rescue many wounded personnel on an aircraft carrier that was attacked by Kamikazes in 1945.
Flatley continued to serve in the Navy following the war – training other pilots. He died just one month after retiring. His son and two grandsons would also serve in the Navy.
- Find out more about James H. Flatley
4. Robert Bruce McCoy – Kenosha/Sparta
General Robert Bruce McCoy was born in Kenosha before moving to Sparta where he would later serve as the city’s mayor. He was even nominated to run for Governor of Wisconsin but lost.
McCoy served in the National Guard and fought in both the Spanish American War and World War I. During WWI he was commander of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, which fought in France.
But McCoy is most well-known for founding the military base Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin. After the Spanish American War, McCoy began purchasing land tracts with the intent of using them to train artillery units.
Fort McCoy was first called the Sparta Maneuver Tract, but the post was renamed after the National Guard General following Robert McCoy’s death in 1926. Fort McCoy has been in almost constant use as a military training facility since it was formed. It now spans around 60,000 acres.
- Find out more about Robert Bruce McCoy
5. Arthur MacArthur – Milwaukee
General Arthur MacArthur Jr. is the father of five-star General Douglas MacArthur. He’s also the son of Arthur MacArthur Sr. who was the fourth governor of Wisconsin – even though he only held the office for four days.
MacArthur and his son, Douglas, are known for being the first father and son to both be awarded the Medal of Honor. To date, the only other father and son to receive the highest military honor are President Theodore Roosevelt and his son.
Arthur MacArthur moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Milwaukee, Wisconsin sometime before the American Civil War broke out. He joined the Union Army as a teenager.
His most-famous story took place during the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. During what’s described as a “critical moment” of the battle, an 18-year-old MacArthur inspired fellow Union soldiers by planting the regimental flag at the top of a hill and shouting “On Wisconsin.” He was awarded the Medal of Honor for those actions.
General MacArthur would go on to serve in the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War and the Philippine-American War.
He died of a heart attack in 1912 just before addressing members of his Civil War unit during a reunion in Milwaukee.
- Find out more about Arthur MacArthur
6. Richard Bong – Poplar/Superior
You’ve no doubt seen the signs for Bong Recreational Area driving along I-43 in Wisconsin. You probably chuckled to yourself too…didn’t you?
Well, as you may have guessed, it’s not named after that. It’s actually in honor of the highest-scoring air ace in United States History.
Richard Bong of Poplar, Wisconsin, shot down at least 40 Japanese aircraft during World War II – earning himself the title of Ace of Ace. All of his victories came while flying in a P-38 Lightning fighter plane. He’s also another Wisconsin Medal of Honor recipient.
The strange thing is, Bong did not consider himself to be a very accurate fighter pilot. So to make up for that, he got as close to enemy aircraft as he possibly could before firing on them. Many times he flew straight through exploding debris from his targets’ planes.
As a boy, Bong grew up on a farm in Poplar. He was interested in aviation and made a hobby out of building model airplanes.
After racking up his record-setting military career in the air, General Kenney sent Bong home in 1945, and Bong started promoting war bonds.
Later he became a test pilot in California. Then one day, his plane had a fuel pump malfunction that caused a fatal crash. As a national hero, Bong’s death was front page news right alongside first reports of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.
- Find out more about Richard Bong
7. William D. Leahy – Ashland
Fleet Admiral William Daniel Leahy may be the most influential Wisconsin veteran on this list. He served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II under both presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
Admiral Leahy was born in Iowa, but moved to Wisconsin with his parents as a child and went to high school there before heading off to the U.S. Naval Academy. A historical marker commemorating the veteran in the city’s Bay View Park indicates he “considered Ashland his home town.”
Leahy was in fact a close friend of President Roosevelt’s. FDR chose him as his personal military adviser and point of contact with the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. He continued in the post under Truman.
During the D-Day Invasion, Leahy went on a vacation to his birthplace of Hampton, Iowa – but it was meant to be a diversion, and the military made sure it got press coverage. The plan was to make any potential German agents in Washington, D.C. think there was nothing going on at all.
Leahy is also remembered for being in strong opposition to use of the atomic bomb. After seeing the bomb tested, he felt it would not help the Allied forces’ efforts. But President Truman thought it would might shorten the war. Here’s an exerpt from Leahy’s memoir…
“My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
During his political career, Leahy was also appointed Governor of Puerto Rico and Ambassador to France.
- Find out more about William D. Leahy
8. Lucius Fairchild – Madison
Lucius Fairchild served as the 10th Governor of Wisconsin. Prior to that – he served as a general in the American Civil War – leading Union soldiers from the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry in the Battle of Antietam as well as the Battle of Gettysburg.
At Gettysburg, during the first day of fighting, the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry was the first to capture a Confederate General Officer in the war. But almost immediately after the capture, the unit was ambushed and lost more than 3/4 of its ranks – including many officers.
Lucius Fairchild was shot in the arm during the Battle of Gettysburg and it had to be amputated. This is why his biography was titled The Empty Sleeve.
The town of Fairchild, Wisconsin is named in his honor. Fairchild’s father, Jairus Fairchild, was the first mayor of Madison.
- Find out more about Lucius Fairchild
9. Denis Murphy – Green Bay
Another Civil War vet with an amazing story is that of a Green Bay man named Denis Murphy.
Sergeant Murphy was part of 14th Wisconsin Infantry, and his unit was known as the “De Pere Rifles.”
During the war, Murphy gained fame and earned the Medal of Honor for displaying bravery in the Second Battle of Corinth. Murphy was the standard bearer carrying his regiment’s colors during the fight. Despite being wounded three times, he continued carrying the colors through the conflict.
According to at least one account of this story, Murphy stated before the battle that he intended to “come out a dead sergeant or a live lieutenant.” It’s said the colors were covered in Murphy’s blood by the time the battle ended.
Murphy had also been injured at Shiloh, and was discharged due to disability. His war injuries also kept him from keeping up his family’s farm. So after the war, Murphy moved into the city of Green Bay. He is buried at Allouez Catholic Cemetery.
- Find out more about Denis Murphy
10. Lance Sijan – Milwaukee
Medal of Honor recipient Lance Sijan’s story ends tragically, but his grit, determination and courage also make it inspiring.
Sijan was a graduate of Bay View High School in Milwaukee. He went on to play football for the Air Force and was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War.
One fateful night in November of 1967, Sijan’s aircraft malfunctioned during a bombing mission over North Vietnam. He was forced to eject from the burning plane.
A search-and-rescue mission was almost immediately launched – but it took an entire day just to locate the pilot – and rescue efforts were constantly hampered by enemy fire. Then an injured Sijan, not wanting to endanger other airmen, insisted on crawling into the jungle. He wanted a helicopter to lower a penetrator down rather than having paratroopers try to rescue him.
This attempt was also called off because of enemy fire and darkness. But the next day, the U.S. military could not make contact with Sijan.
He survived for weeks, evading the enemy in the wilderness despite having a broken leg, fractured skull and a mangled hand. Then North Vietnamese troops captured Sijan on Christmas Day. He still managed to overpower and escape his captors, but was caught again after several hours.
Despite being tortured at a holding compound, he never gave up information. P.O.W’s who were with Sijan said he was slipping into delirium. Yet he never complained, and when he was coherent, Sijan would talk of making future escape attempts. He died about one month after being captured.
Today there is a special memorial to Lance Sijan at his burial site in Arlington Park Cemetery cemetery in Milwaukee, and his high school also has a scholarship in his honor.
- Find out more about Lance Sijan
11. Russell Klika – Appleton
Some men give their lives in war, others are placed in positions of power and make decisions they are forced to live with forever.
But this is a story about a veteran who spent part of his military career capturing the images of war and telling its stories visually so that those of us at home have a better understanding.
Russell Klika is an award-winning combat photographer from Appleton who dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Marines at age 17. He purchased a 35mm camera on a whim and taught himself photography.
He then became a civilian newspaper photographer in California during the 1980s and documented the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
In 2004, Klika rejoined the military and went to Iraq as a non-commissioned officer and head of public affairs with the 78th Regimental Combat Team Tennessee Army National Guard. During this time, he was able to take many breathtaking photos that show the different aspects of the Iraq War.
Klika’s photography has been featured in publications like TIME, Newsweek, the NY Times, the LA Times and many more. Some of his best work is found in his photography book, Iraq Through the Eyes of an American Soldier.
One of his photos of an Iraqi child led to Klika winning Military Photographer of the Year in 2007.
Today he lives in Tennessee where he supervises civilian photographers assigned to the National Guard.
12. Ralph Wise Zwicker – Stoughton
Many years before he became a highly decorated Major General, Ralph Zwicker became the Wisconsin’s very first Eagle Scout.
Zwicker would go on to attend UW-Madison before heading off to West Point.
During the D-Day Invasion, Zwicker led about 100 World War II soldiers ashore ahead of the main attack. Their job was to gather intelligence information on enemy movements. For his actions on D-Day, Zwicker was awarded the Bronze Star.
Zwicker also received a Bronze Star for his service during the Battle of Brest – which historians consider to be one of the fiercest WWII battles on the Western Front.
During the 1950s, General Zwicker became caught up in the McCarthy Investigations. Wisconsin Senator, Joe McCarthy, called him to testify because Zwicker granted an honorable discharge to a man being investigated as having connections to Communism.
Zwicker himself cited his 5th Ammendment rights to certain questions from McCarthy. This prompted the senator to say Zwicker had the intelligence of a “five year-old child,” and that he was “not fit to wear that uniform.”
Those insults were considered extremely disrespectful to a decorated military veteran, and it ruffled quite a few feathers. That included an upset President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After this incident, Eisenhower called for the Army–McCarthy hearings, which brought an end to Joe MacCarthy’s trouble-making.
13. Kenneth Stumpf – Neenah-Menasha
This Neenah native and Medal of Honor recipient showed extreme bravery and dedication to his fellow soldiers.
Kenneth Stumpf was a specialist who was serving as a squad leader of the 3d Platoon, Company C in the Vietnam War. His day of heroism came during a search and destroy mission in 1967.
Stumpf’s squad came under fire and three men were wounded in front of a North Vietnamese machine gun emplacement. Incoming fire was too heavy to attempt a rescue. But Stumpf didn’t’ see it that way…
According to his Medal of Honor citation, he abandoned his secure position in a trench and ran through a barrage of bullets to carry the wounded men back on his own.
After that, Stumpf got to work organizing troops in an effort to take out three enemy bunkers. The squad successfully eliminated two of them. However, Stumpf took out the third on his own throwing hand grenades into the bunker.
- Read more about Kenneth Stumpf’s heroic story
14. Stanley R. Christianson – Mindoro
Here’s another story of a one man fight against a fierce enemy.
Stanley Christianson was serving as a Marine during the Korean War. He received the Medal of Honor for going beyond the call of duty in battle and sacrificing his life.
The Medal of Honor citation says he was manning a listening post when the enemy began attacking. Christianson sent another Marine back to alert the rest of the platoon while he stayed at his post and took on the enemy alone.
Christianson fought back as he was faced with fire from rifles, automatic weapons and grenades. He took out seven enemy soldiers before his position was overrun and he was killed.
But this Marine’s valor allowed his platoon to have enough time to get in position and prepare for the oncoming attack. Christianson valiantly gave his life for his fellow Marines and his country.
- Find out more about Stanley Christianson
15. Charles White Whittlesey – Florence
Wisconsin-born Charles Whittlesey is known for leading the so-called Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest during World War I.
In 1918, Major Whittlesey and his battalion were ordered to advance on a heavily armed German line as part of a larger American attack.
German forces surrounded the battalion inside a ravine in the woods and pinned the American troops down with sniper fire from 200-foot high bluffs.
Whittlesey and his men were cut off from supply lines for five days. Then the Germans sent a blindfolded American P.O.W. across the lines with a note that read:
“The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions.”
Although he would later deny it, Whittlesey allegedly replied with “You go to hell!” And then ordered that white sheets placed as signals for Allied rescuers be removed to avoid any confusion with signs of surrender.
When it was all over, 107 of the 554 troops in the Lost Battalion were killed, dozens of others were listed as missing and many were wounded. Only 194 were able to walk out of the ravine.
Whittlessy received the Medal of Honor for his service. But the weight of the men he lost in the Argonne Forest may have been too much for him.
He disappeared in 1926 while on board a boat heading to Havana, Cuba. It’s likely that he jumped overboard and committed suicide based on arrangement he made prior to leaving for the trip, and because of notes he left for friends and family. His body was never recovered.
In 2001, an A&E television movie told the story of The Lost Battalion. Actor Rich Schroder portrayed Charles Whittlesey.
- Find out more about Charles W. Whittlesey
Watch a trailer for The Lost Battalion
16. Samuel J. Halloin – Green Bay
Green Bay’s longest-serving mayor was a World War II veteran who was there for some of the war’s most pivotal moments.
Sam Halloin was mayor of Green Bay from 1979 to 1995. During the war he participated in the end of D-Day Invasion. He was also part of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.
The Dachau Concentration Camp was the first camp opened in Germany. There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp with thousands more likely going undocumented.
Halloin’s job at Dachau was a somewhat gruesome one. He and other soldiers had to search railroad cars for surviving prisoners. Only a few living were found in each of the 40 cars they searched – most had died of starvation and mistreatment. Halloin described this as one of his most difficult experiences during the war.
About four years after the war ended, Halloin married Isabelle Mastriocola and started a family in Green Bay.
He also started a career in local politics. Sam Halloin first served on the Green Bay City Council for 8 terms before his 16-year tenure as the city’s mayor. During his time in office, he helped secure funding for a new Walnut St. Bridge and renovations for Lambeau Field. Sam Halloin passed away in January of 2013 – just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.
- Find out more about Sam Halloin
17. Ryan Jerabek – Pulaski/Green Bay
The most-recent wars in U.S. history (Iraq and Afghanistan) have claimed the lives of more than 120 Wisconsin service men and women. (See a wall of photos on Pinterest)
One story of a fallen service member that has struck a chord with many is that of Marine Private Ryan Jerabek.
Jerabek enlisted right after graduating from Pulaski High School. Like many other young people of his generation, Ryan was moved by the attacks on September 11th and wanted to do something to help his country.
Jerabek died during a firefight in hostile Ramadi, Iraq. It was a day in which U.S. troops saw the highest number of deaths during the conflict. Jerabek was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Ryan’s plan was to become a history teacher when he left the service. He hoped to teach at his former high school in Pulaski.
A documentary film about the Jerabek family was released in 2007. It shows the emotional toll of Ryan’s death as the Jerabeks deal with their grief and the possibility of sending a second son off to war. Watch a trailer for the film below.
- Find out more about Ryan Jerabek
Watch a Trailer for the 2007 Documentary Jerabek
Help to Honor and Remember Many Other Veterans
We again want to stress that this article is only a start. It shows just a small number of names in a list that could go on for a long time.
These names just happened to make their way into the history books and our collective memory. But it’s important to remember and appreciate every man and woman that has served – because each one has sacrificed something for our country.
You are encouraged to leave a comment expressing your gratitude for Wisconsin veterans. And if you have a story of a family member or someone you know who deserves recognition – please feel free to add to this post by commenting.
Don’t forget to show your gratitude to the Wisconsin veterans you know. You can also choose to take things beyond thanks and donate to causes that support the troops and all U.S. military veterans.
Here are some options:
- Wisconsin Veterans Foundation
- Wounded Warrior Project
- Soldiers Angels
- Veteran Tickets Foundation
- Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America