It is all but unbearable to contemplate these last words of an Aurora boy dying alone, companioned only by the rotting corpses of his fellow soldiers, on a battlefield in New Guinea during World War II. He suffered from his wounds for 10 days, and his date of death is recorded as Dec. 12, 1942.
Thanks to the small diary which was recovered with his body weeks later, we have a riveting story of war, love and heroism.
Hershel Horton was born in Aurora on Nov. 15, 1913, to George A. Horton Jr. and Odessa J. Jones Horton. He had a younger sister, Gwenivere.
After graduating East Aurora High School, he spent several years in various supervisory jobs for the South Bend, IN, firm of Roach-Appleton, a manufacturer of electrical wiring and accessories and a subsidiary of All-Steel Equipment in Aurora, where both his father and sister were employed.
He enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in 1940 as a member of the Class of 1943 but enlisted in the U. S. Army in April of 1941 and was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant.
He was assigned as the commanding officer of I Company in the 126th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Infantry Division and was sent to join Australians in opposing Japanese forces in New Guinea, where some of the most horrific battles of the war were taking place.
In November of 1941, after weeks of heavy fighting on the island, including the Battle of the Beachheads in which one-third of I Company was lost, he managed to set up a roadblock that impeded Japanese progress across the island.
Horton was caught outside the American perimeter as he was collecting the dog tags of his fallen men. He was shot in the leg and hip.
Ferocious gun and grenade fire from a Japanese position no more than 15 yards away prevented his rescue, and after several losses and injuries to would-be rescuers superior officers forbade further attempts at rescue.
He lay in the jungle, immobile and without food or water, for more than a week before finally succumbing to his wounds.
As death closed in upon him, Hershel wrote a letter to his parents and sister that came home to 906 Talma Street a year later through the efforts of the Army Effects Bureau in Kansas City, which processed innumerable possessions of the war dead.
The accompanying letter from quartermaster Lt. Col. John R. Murphy revealed that despite the tens of thousands of letters that went out from the Army to sorrowing families, indeed someone had read and internalized this heartbreaking communication.
In the letter, Murphy expresses not just condolences to Hershel’s father, George, but also a sensitivity about whether it would make suitable reading for Odessa and Gwenivere, which he explained this way:
“…with you must rest the decision of whether Mrs. Horton and your daughter shall see it and read it. Please do not let Mrs. Horton feel that I have any desire to conceal or hide this letter. .. . I simply feel that such a letter might be too shocking for many a mother to receive.”
Later, Gwenivere married the soldier who delivered that letter, Ralph W. Killian, and died in 2016 at the age of 96, after 50 years of marriage.
Horton was buried first on the island of New Guinea, and then his remains were repatriated and buried six years later at Spring Lake Cemetery in Aurora.
Hershel Horton’s final letter home has become famous throughout the nation. It has been published in newspapers, placed in the Congressional Record and become a teaching tool in schools.
That dying young man who with his last ounces of strength wrote, “Why not let me live and tell others?” could not have known that was exactly what he was doing.