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RSE Member Made The Ultimate Sacrifice in WWII - Richard M. VanGalder '45

by Eric Stoever '04

For over 100 years, The Approach has served as a symbolic link between the city of Troy and Rensselaer.  Since its renovation and rededication in 1999, The Approach has prominently featured two plaques honoring those members of the Rensselaer community who died fighting in both the First and Second World Wars.  The first plaque honors the 28 men who died in the First World War, among them, four were members of RSE. On the opposite side of the Approach is a second, larger plaque honoring those who died during the Second World War.  More than 3,900 Rensselaer students and alumni eventually served in the military in some capacity during the WWII, dwarfing the 190 Rensselaer men who had served in WWI1. About 170 RSE men served in the armed forces during the war, and while the bulk of them were split evenly between the Navy and Army, the New York State Guard, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Coast Guard each had at least one RSE member in their service while four members served in the Marine Corps.  The Approach’s WWII memorial plaque includes the names of over 100 servicemen who lost their lives, including RSE member Richard “Dick” VanGalder '45.  

Richard Merle VanGalder was born in Chicago on March 7, 1921, to Merle Lester VanGalder and his wife Ruth Marvel Cowdery.  His father, a native of La Prairie Wisconsin, was born in 1897 while his mother had been born in England. Both Richard and his sister Lola were born in Illinois.  Merle’s job as a traveling salesman and distribution manager selling washing machines required the family to move several times. In 1930, the family lived in Huntington, West Virginia. By1935, they had relocated to Somerset Pennsylvania where Richard graduated from high school.  Following his graduation, he attended Juniata College in Huntingdon PA, about an hour northeast of Somerset2.  By 1940, the family was living in Watervliet, NY where Merle was again working as a traveling salesman selling washing machines, Richard had relocated with the rest of his family and was employed as a draftsman.

In 1941, Richard entered Rensselaer as part of the Class of 19453 and was one of 15 students chosen for enrollment in the Naval ROTC.  Under the terms of his enrollment, he was to complete his ROTC course in conjunction with his studies at Rensselaer in four years, at which time he would be either commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserve or as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve4.  A tall 6’ 1”5 freshman, he played on his class’ basketball team6.  It was during his early days at Rensselaer that Richard became a member of RSE.  A  few short months later the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, and like many Americans, Richard’s life was about to change dramatically.

Following the United States’ entry into WWII Richard received draft orders in March 19427.  On May 29, 1942, he married Thelma Cecile LeRoy in West Sand Lake, NY.  Thelma was a graduate of Cohoes High School and had attended Albany’s Mildred Elley Business School. She was employed at the office of the Watervliet Arsenal which was tasked with producing large diameter guns for the armed forces.  At the time of their wedding, Richard was employed by the Delaware and Hudson Railroad in North Creek8.  Later that year on November 23, 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps9.  He had left Rensselaer and at the time of his enlistment, he was by then working at the Adirondack Steel Company in Watervliet10.  A few months after his enlistment the couple welcomed a daughter, Barbara.

Richard received his preliminary Army training in San Antonio, TX11.  He later trained at Pampa Field in Pampa, TX where he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Corps12.  His training in Texas was followed by pre-flight training at Parks Air College in Illinois13.  In October 1943, Thelma and Barbara traveled to Chicago to be reunited with Richard while he was on leave from his post in Texas14.  It was likely one of the last times they were together as a family.  A few months later in March 1944, Richard arrived in the Pacific Theater of Operations15.

In September 1944, Richard’s exploits in the Pacific were hailed in his hometown newspaper as reports emerged of a particularly successful mission in the Halmahera Islands in Indonesia.  Richard had been piloting a B-24 Liberator on a mission to bomb a Japanese aerodrome in Galena. As the bombardier prepared to drop the bombs, the release mechanism jammed preventing the dropping of any munitions.  Needing to safely release the bombs before landing, Richard flew the Liberator over a dense area of jungle where the bombardier operated the plane’s salvo handle to drop the entire load of bombs at once.  What followed next was described in a press dispatch to the Associated Press by the Allied Headquarters in New Guinea as a “tremendous explosion.” The area of jungle that Richard had chosen was a previously unknown Japanese ammunition dump16.  

At the same time, the Army was in the process of taking the nearby island of Morotai.  Morotai was part of the Dutch East Indies before being captured by Japanese forces in 1942 and later became a part of General Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping strategy.  On September 15, 1944, barely 2 months before Richard’s final mission, the island with its small garrison was the target of an amphibious invasion by US forces. Upon landing on the island Army engineers constructed two airfields, and within 2 weeks B-24 Liberators and airmen, including Richard, from the Army’s 13th Air Forces began to arrive.

 Richard had completed 34 missions before November 16, 1944, and he had recently been awarded the Army Air Medal on October 12th17.  On the day of what would be his final mission he was the co-pilot of plane 387, a B-24J Liberator serial number 44-41387 assigned to the Thirteenth Air Force 23rd Bombardment Squadron, the 5th Bombardment group18.  The 23rd Bombardment group departed from Moratai Island on a mission to strike ships of the Imperial Japanese Fleet anchored in Brunei Bay off the island of Borneo. (Despite being only sparsely populated and largely covered in dense jungle, Borneo, the world’s fifth largest island, was rich in oil resources and by 1944 was supplying half the oil needed by the Japanese military.) The strike force included bombers from the 31st, 72nd, and 394th squadrons as well as three squadrons from the 307th bombardment group19

 Richard’s Liberator had a crew of 11.  The crew included were Major James A. Saalfield, the plane’s pilot and the 23rd Bombardment Squadron Commander, the navigator Second Lieutenant Robert W. Wickhorst, the bombardier First lieutenant John D. Scoggin, flight engineer Technical Sergeant Everett E. Moore, assistant engineer Staff Sergeant Russell E. Cross, radio operator Technical Sergeant David E. Beck, radio operator Staff Sergeant Charlie H. Deaver, gunner Staff Sergeant Elvin L. Barkhuff, gunner Staff Sergeant Ahti J. Wuori, and aircraft observer First Lieutenant William F. McClelland.  Their plane. piloted by the squadron’s commander, was in the front of the squadron’s formation as it approached their target. The payload for the mission included five 10,000 pound bombs with instantaneous nose fuses and non-delay tail fuses20.

Following a five and a quarter hour flight, the Japanese fleet was sighted in the bay at a distance of fifty miles.  As the formation passed over the eastern shore of Brunei Bay to commence its bombing run, it came under intense anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese and possibly some land batteries.  The report filed after the raid noted that there were between 2,000 and 5,000 bursts in all. As they prepared to commence bombing, a flack burst about 200 feet above Richard’s plane caused significant damage to the left side of the plane’s nose with shrapnel causing the loss of its number two engine; they were the first plane to be damaged by enemy fire.  The plane immediately left formation and the number three engine was seen smoking as it jettisoned its munitions payload. At this time it was possibly hit a second time with anti-aircraft fire. When last seen, the plane was operating under some control but was losing altitude and unable to obtain cover from P-38 Lightning heavy fighter aircraft accompanying the bombers.  The co-pilot of the number two plane in the formation reported the following day that while some on the flight deck were likely wounded, the plane appeared capable of making land21.

An hour after being hit with anti-aircraft fire, Major Saalfield was heard on the radio reporting that his plane was still aloft and that his crew was bailing out but he did not give his location.  Searches of the area over the next two days by B-24 and Catalina aircraft failed to find any trace of Richard’s plane. It was speculated that the surviving crew may have been assisted by natives who had aided downed airmen in the past; in fact, two members of the crew of another B-24 shot down on the same mission would ultimately spend seven months living under the protection of a local tribe on Borneo.  Upon taking control of the island, the Japanese had detained and executed western missionaries who had lived among the tribes, confiscated livestock, food supplies and were known to abuse native women. In response to this treatment, the Japanese had faced significant native resistance. A subsequent report on the fate of Richard’s crew in late December 1944 concluded that though they had not been heard from since the day of the mission, there was no conclusive reason to believe that they had perished; as such, they remained classified as missing in action22.

Within days of his plane being shot down, Thelma received a telegram informing her that Richard was missing in action.  At the time of his disappearance, Barbara was only 19 months old23.  There was no further news of Richard’s fate until April 1946 when the Army Air Corps finally notified Thelma that her husband had been declared dead.  At the time she was living in Cohoes, NY. The letter she received read in part24:

"Near the target, the plane was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire. The ship turned away from the formation and dropped its bombs.  Attempts to contact the aircraft by radio were unsuccessful and it was not seen again."25

In May of 1946, it was learned that a plane had crashed on the Taranaki River south of the village of Sepulot on the island of Borneo.  The story of the crash and what followed were relayed by local native Muruts, a tribe known for headhunting, to the local British District Officer who in turn relayed the account to the American Graves Registration Service, India-Burma Zone.  Shortly after the crash, the wreckage of the plane was discovered by Japanese soldiers who found three skulls which they buried. On November 22nd, six days after the crash, five American airmen, two of whom were injured, arrived in the village of Sepulot.  The natives treated them kindly but their location was eventually reported to Japanese forces by an informant in the village.  As the five Americans crossed a bridge in the village, they were ambushed by Japanese soldiers. In the ensuing fight, three of the Americans were killed on the bridge. The two remaining Americans returned fire from a nearby house resulting in the killing of two local Muruts, before fleeing into the jungle.  Upset with the killings of the two villagers, the Muruts beheaded the bodies of the three airmen killed on the bridge. The two remaining Americans who fled into the jungle were not seen again26.

After hearing the story, the British District Officer traveled to Sepulot.  While there, he was able to recover the remains of the three airmen who had been beheaded by the Muruts as well as the three skulls previuosly buried near the crash site by Japanese soldiers.  The remains were then turned over to a Graves Registration Service Recovery Team. While in Sepulot, the District Officer was approached by a local native who gave him a piece of paper on which was written “T/Sgt. David Emerson Beck”, the name of one of plate 387’s radio operators.  The native claimed that the paper had been given to him by one of the men who arrived at the village after the crash and that he was one of the three men killed on the bridge by the Japanese. The still unidentified remains were transferred to an American military cemetery in Barrackpore, India and where they were buried in a common grave pending further identification. It had been determined that the remains appeared to be from 6 individuals27.

On July 3, 1947, Thelma remarried Hilton A. Tallman of Latham, NY.  Like her first husband, he had also served in the Army Air Corps during the war, spending almost three years in the Pacific Theater28.  On February 25, 1948, Lt. Col. Joseph A. Greco, the commanding officer of the William College ROTC unit, posthumously presented several awards to Richard’s daughter Barbara at Thelma’s parents’ home in Cohoes.  The awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross, The Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters, the WWII Victory Medal, the American Service Ribbon with Four Bronze Service Stars, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon, and a Distinguished Unit Emblem29.

In 1949 it was determined that the remains buried were in fact members of plane 387’s flight crew, though it was not possible to individually identify and attribute the remains to any of the missing airmen30.  News of the identification of the remains reached Richard’s family in August 1949.  Through the efforts of the American Graves Registration Service, the remains were returned to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis Missouri where they were finally laid to rest together on November 18, 194931, in section 82, site 201. The grave is marked by a flat marker bearing the names of all 11 men of plane 38732.  Thelma died on February 5, 2010, her second husband Hilton Tallman died in 2015.  Together they are buried in Section 3 of the Gerald B. H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville, NY33.  Thelma and Hilton had three children.

Works Cited

1.  The Polytechnic. (1942, April 18). The Last World War at RPI. The Polytechnic, p. 19.

2. The Times Record. (1946, April 19). R. M. VanGalder Declared Dead by Army Office. The Times Record, p. 1.

3. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (1946, January). 1st Lt. Richard M. Van Galder, '45. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni News, p. 9.

4. The Times Record. (1941, September 15). Area RPI Students Chosen to Study as Reserve Officers. The Times Record, p. 34.

5. Administration, N. A. (n.d.). The U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946. College Park, Maryland, U.S.A.: Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, 1938-1946.

6. The Polytechnic. (1941, December 2). Frosh Courtmen Report to Nelson. The Polytechnic, p. 6.

7. The Times Record. (1942, March 19). Continue Listing of Draft Orders in Hoosic Falls. The Times Record, p. 13.

8. The Times Record. (1942, July 7). Cohoes Girl Married Recently. The Times Record, p. 5.

9. The Times Record. (1948, February 26). Army Honors Man Killed in Bomber Crash During War. The Times Record, p. 1.

10. The Times Record. (1943, October 19). Personal. The Times Record, p. 1.

11. The Times Record. (1944, December 19). Lieut. Van Galder Reported Missing in South Pacific. The Times Record, p. 13.

12. The Times Record. (1943, October 18). Commissioned. The Times Record, p. 11.

13. The Times Record. (1944, December 19). Lieut. Van Galder Reported Missing in South Pacific. The Times Record, p. 13.

14. The Times Record. (1943, October 19). Personal. The Times Record, p. 1.

15. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (1946, January). 1st Lt. Richard M. Van Galder, '45. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni News, p. 9. 

16. The Times Record. (1944, September 27). Cohoes Airman's Liberator Hits Island Jack Pot. The Times Record, p. 11.

17. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (1946, January). 1st Lt. Richard M. Van Galder, '45. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni News, p. 9. 

18. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387. Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

19. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (1946, January). 1st Lt. Richard M. Van Galder, '45. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni News, p. 9.

20. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

21. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

22. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

23. The Times Record. (1944, December 19). Lieut. Van Galder Reported Missing in South Pacific. The Times Record, p. 13.

24. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (1946, May). Lt. VanGalder Declared Dead by War Department. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni News, p. 15. 

25. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (1946, May). Lt. VanGalder Declared Dead by War Department. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni News, p. 15. 

26. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

27. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

28. The Times Record. (1947, July 9). Couple Exchange Marriage Vows. The Times Record, p. 13.

29. The Times Record. (1948, February 26). Army Honors Man Killed in Bomber Crash During War. The Times Record, p. 1.

30. Department, W. (1944) Missing Air Crew Report, 44-41387Washington: War Department, Headquarters Army Air Forces.

31. The Times Record. (1949, August 31). Identify Body of War Victim Shot Down in Borneo. The Times Record, p. 1.

32. 1LT Richard M Van Galder. (2009, October 2). Retrieved March 4, 2017, from Find a Grave:

33. The Saratogian. (2010, February 7). Thelma Cecile Tallman, 92, of Saratoga Springs, passed away peacefully Friday, Feb. 5, 2010, at Ellis Hospital. The Saratogian.


Photo / Ensignia Credits

1.  B-24J Photo -

2. 5th Bombardment Group Ensignia -

3. 23rd Bombardment Squadron Ensignia -