When Marsha Davis was growing up, only on a rare occasion did her father, Lawrence W. Courville, discuss his Army National Guard service during World War II.
She knew his childhood buddy from the Bay City, Michigan, National Guard had died in battle next to him and that her dad had contracted malaria, but other than that, she was clueless.
“He never talked about the war,” Davis said.
Flash forward to 2016, 22 years after his death in 1994 at age 77. Davis’ own health scare, which “put me in touch with my own mortality,” and her desire to inscribe a brick in her beloved father’s name at the National WWII Museum piqued her curiosity about his military record as a TEC4 with the 107th medical battalion.
“It was very important to me to honor my father and honor his service,” Davis said. “I had reached a point in my life where I wanted to learn more about my family.”
Davis’ mom Anne, whom her dad had met during training at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, Louisiana, died of cancer when Davis was 14. Her cousin, Jane Klein, also had done a family history.
“I was doing my own queries at the time, and it all went from there,” Davis said.
After 20 months, she uncovered that her father had earned six medals and additional ribbons during his service from Sept. 8, 1939, to his honorable discharge on July 13, 1945. They include an American campaign medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service medal, Good Conduct medal (his name is engraved on the back), an honorable service lapel pin, several ribbons, a U.S. Presidential Unit Citation badge, a Republic of the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation and a Philippine Liberation Citation and medal.
“I didn’t know they were in existence,” said Davis, a nurse with a master’s in nursing, a Ph.D. in counselor education and licensed counselor, with experience in mental healthcare and a former teacher at Southeastern University Nursing School. “It touches my heart to know that my father was part of all that. The more I found out, I knew he deserved to be honored more, and we didn’t even know it.”
Couldn’t do alone
Davis, a parishioner of Mary Queen of Peace Church in Mandeville, said she hit initial roadblocks when researching Courville’s service on her own. Her only documentation was a bad copy of his final payment roll from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
A center employee read information from her father’s separation papers, and Davis learned about his medals and unit, essential to obtain a copy of the Presidential citation. She mentioned her searches to Deacon Tim Jackson at Mary Queen of Peace, who works at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and he connected her with the museum’s Tom Gibbs, who obtained a roster from the Michigan National Guard with her father’s name on it that proved to the Philippine embassy in Washington, D.C., Courville’s Philippines tour of duty. That confirmation was key to issuing the Republic of the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation and the Philippine Liberation certificate.
“It was really a big deal to save the Filipino people from the Japanese and relieve them from oppression,” Davis said. “The only thing we knew was that his best friend from Michigan, Chief Richards, died. But my dad was one of the men who returned. It gave me a feeling that he was fortunate to have survived.”
She also contacted the Washington, D.C., offices of Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy and Rep. Steve Scalise for help.
“Steve Scalise’s office was instrumental in finding out the unit he served in,” she said.
Sen. Kennedy’s office facilitated Davis getting a copy of the U.S. Presidential Citation for Courville’s southwest Pacific service from July 23, 1942, to Jan. 23, 1943. This document noted that his unit “drove the enemy back to the seacoast and in a series of actions against a highly organized defensive zone, utterly destroyed him. Ground combat forces operating over roadless, jungle-covered mountains and swamps, demonstrated their courage and resourcefulness in closing in on the enemy who took every advantage of the nearly impassable terrain. … courage, spirit devotion to duty.” The document was signed by Secretary of War G.C. Marshall, chief of staff.
“He was part of the 107th medical battalion (of the 32nd Infantry Division) … repairing anything that was broken,” Davis said. “But everybody, no matter what they did, was involved in battle. That’s why everyone in the division got a citation from President Roosevelt” for the Papua, New Guinea, service.
An article written by Army Historical Foundation historian Matthew Seelinger in the “On Point” Journal of Army History, Winter 2005-06 issue, detailed the history of the 32nd Infantry Division. About their service in Papua, New Guinea, Seelinger wrote that their uniforms “literally rotted off the soldiers’ bodies.”
“I remember my father saying something about having malaria and hating to feel dirty since there was no place to bathe in the jungle,” she said. “He also said he gave up his youth for his country.”
Davis said her father was part of a peace-keeping mission before the war and a Philippines battalion member, about which Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke his immortal words, “I shall return!” He victoriously did in 1944.
When she finally got the medals and certificates framed, she experienced the same elation as when she finished her doctoral dissertation.
“It’s been a real beautiful experience,” Davis said. “I think everybody who served over there needs to be recognized.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.