|Delaware||Career naval officer|
|Pacific||L.S.T. Group 47|
|Legion of Merit, Purple Heart||Philippines, Okinawa|
Early Life & Family
Louis Ashton Drexler, Jr. was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1899. His younger brother, Henry Clay Drexler, was born on August 7, 1901, in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Their parents, Louis Ashton Drexler, Sr. and Elizabeth Mills Clay, were both from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The two married on February 2, 1898. Louis Sr. started a business manufacturing incandescent lamps in Pittsburgh.
In 1903, the family moved to Bethany Beach. By 1905, they had built a two story cottage with a second floor balcony surrounding the living room, near the water’s edge. According to Michael Morgan’s January 13, 2015, article, “Honoring Drexler Brothers’ Sacrifice” in the Delaware Wave, “The home faced the surf, which often washed up near the front porch, and it was dubbed ‘The Breakers.’ Among the family members who enjoyed walking down the front steps of the Drexler home and stepping into the surf were the two sons, Henry Clay and Louis.” The two boys spent their formative years playing on the beach and getting ice cream from the drugstore, which was open two days a week. By 1918, there were only about 30 homes in the quiet resort town. The home has been moved three times since it was built and is currently located at 99 Campbell Place.
After moving to Bethany, the boy’s father became interested in the idea of the horseless carriage. He helped form the Sussex County Automobile Association. Louis Sr. was involved in many civic affairs. He was the state G.O.P. leader, representing Sussex County in the state Senate in 1912 and the state House of Representatives in 1924.
In his youth, Louis Drexler, Jr. attended the Ocean View School and Dover schools during the winters. In 1916–1917, he attended the Culver Military Academy in Indiana. Louis was appointed to the United States Naval Academy as a midshipman from Delaware on September 11, 1917, during World War I. His younger brother, Henry, would follow in his footsteps, being appointed a midshipman on May, 29 1920. By 1924, both the Drexler boys were officers in the United States Navy.
In 1928, Louis Sr. and Elizabeth purchased a farm about 1½ miles south of Camden, Delaware, called “Burwood.” The family lived there but continued to enjoy their home at Bethany during the summers. The 1940 census showed the value of the property to be $30,000. Today the area is a housing development called Burwood Estates.
A Brother’s Sacrifice
The courage of Ensign Henry Clay Drexler would be tested first. Henry graduated from the Naval Academy on May 15, 1924. He was described as fine young man standing over six feet tall. The Evening Journal article entitled “Naval Hero Won Honors At Annapolis,” printed on October 21, 1924, gave the accomplishments that Henry achieved while at the Naval Academy:
Known to his classmates as “Slim” at the Naval Academy, Henry C. Drexler was a member of the crew squad in his third and fourth years, a member of the masqueraders, the dramatic club of the academy; head of the gymkhana committee in his fourth year and member of the committee for two years previous; member of the hop committee in his third year, had won the honor eagle in his second year, had won the Black N for four years in succession and was a member of the class track team in his second year. He also was one of the editors of The Log.
Due to his distinguished career at the Naval Academy, Henry was able to pick which ship he would serve on. He chose the U.S.S. Trenton because it was one of the U.S. Navy’s newest heavily armed cruisers. After a short period of temporary duty at the navy yard in New York, Ensign Drexler reported for duty aboard the Trenton on October 4, 1924. She displaced 7,500 tons and had an armament of ten 6-inch guns. The Trenton had just finished her shakedown cruise, which included a trip to Bushire, Persia. The ship was given orders to return the body of a slain American consul, Major Robert W. Imbrie, for burial.
Henry was aboard the Trenton only 16 days when tragedy occurred. On the afternoon of October 20, 1924, the Trenton was off the coast of Cape Henry, Virginia taking target practice when there was an explosion in the forward turret. The story was recounted by Joseph Leo White, turret captain first class, who was in the turret when the explosion took place. In the Wilmington Morning News‘s October 23, 1924, article, “Trenton Blast Death Toll Increased to 14,” White explained what took place inside the forward turret:
“We had not fired a shot […] when the powder went off. We had loaded the right gun, and were getting ready to load the left one when it happened. We had been maneuvering around to come up on the target, and when I saw that we would be in range for the first shot I gave orders to hoist the right gun’s shell and powder. That side came up all right. Then I gave word to the man at the ammunition hoist on the left gun to bring up powder for that side.”
The explosion aboard the Trenton was so severe that it blew four men through the rear door of the turret and into the sea. Although his right arm was broken, one of those men, Lieutenant John A. Sedgewick, was able to save two of the other men from drowning. He held the dead body of another sailor face up, until the man was swept from his grip by a strong wave.
The actions that Ensign Henry C. Drexler took that afternoon would earn him our country’s highest honor. Although he had only been aboard the U.S.S. Trenton for a little over two weeks, he would become the hero of the tragedy that struck the ship that October afternoon. His reaction to the explosion was told to the Wilmington Morning News by some of the men who were aboard the ship that day. In the article “8 Dead In Blast; Delaware Ensign Hero Of Disaster” they describe his heroic efforts:
“He was near the turret when the explosion rocked the ship throwing men to the deck fore and aft. The interior of the turret was a seething furnace with men lying about in the flames, some of them still alive and struggling feebly to get out. Without thought for his own personal safety Ensign Drexler rushed into the blaze three different times, each time emerging with one of the sailors in his arms. He placed them on the deck in a safe place and returned again to pick up another man. His face was a mass of burns and his clothing was in flames and dropping from his body but he seemed to be unaware of his own injuries in his efforts to rescue the sailors who had been caught in the blast. He was turning back into the firey turret when he dropped dead from the burns he had sustained in his rescue work.”
Drexler was one of four sailors aboard the Trenton that died on the ship. The Trenton quickly made way to Old Point Comfort in Hampton, Virginia, following the explosion. Tugboats transported eight of the most severely injured to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia.
Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class George Robert Cholister from Camden, New Jersey, was one of the injured. Cholister died the following day, he would be the first of ten others who died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation. He was serving his third enlistment in the U.S. Navy. Three months before joining the Trenton, Cholister confided to his brother Harry that he felt the ship was jinxed and hoped he could serve on another. Upon hearing that his brother was severely burnt and in critical condition, Harry felt his brother had already died. The Cholister family had previously lost one son, Walter S. Cholister, in the Navy during World War I. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class George Cholister was interred at Colestown Cemetery in Cherry Hill, New Jersey on October 26, 1924. Before enlisting, he had worked at the cemetery for his father, Harry Cholister, Sr., who was the caretaker.
Ensign Drexler’s remains were released on October 22, 1924. His brother, Louis, and Ensign J. Lockwood Platt of Milford, both officers aboard the cruiser U.S.S. Concord at the time of the explosion, escorted the body home. The Concord was an Omaha-class light cruiser just like the Trenton. They were met by Louis Drexler, Sr. in Salisbury, Maryland. A service was held at Mariners Bethel M.E. Church, close to the family’s beach house in Bethany, on October 24, 1924. Of the hundreds who attended were classmates of Henry’s, Ensign J. E. Warren and Ensign Paul Healy. Both were aboard the Trenton at the time of the explosion. Ensign Healy was Henry’s roommate on the Trenton.
Henry’s body was put on the 6:25 a.m. train from Selbyville the next morning to Washington, D.C. Ensign Henry Clay Drexler was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on October 25, 1924, in Section 4, Grave 3051. The inscription on his stone reads
HE FELL ON THE SPOT WHERE HE WAS MAKING A SUPREME EFFORT TO SAVE HIS SHIPMATES
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”
Investigators concluded that three powder charges, weighing 80 lbs. each, exploded on the Trenton. The Courier-Post February 25, 1932 article, “Navy Blast Victim Gets High Honors” reported that, “A Naval inquiry decided the explosion was caused by friction resulting from contact between the gun and hoisting apparatus.” Other suspicions had been placed on the door to the turret, which was electrically controlled, as the possible reason.
With the United States not at war at the time of the tragedy, it would take over eight years and a special act of Congress before Ensign Henry Clay Drexler posthumously received the Medal of Honor. The ceremony took place on February 28, 1933, at noon in the White House. President Hoover presented the award along with the official citation to Henry’s parents. According to the March 1, 1933 article, “Ensign Drexler Gets Hero’s Award in Death” in The Wilmington Morning News, the inscription on the back of the medal read, “Ensign Henry Clay Drexler, U.S.N., for extraordinary heroism on the occasion of a fire on the U.S.S. Trenton, on the 20th of October, 1924.”
His Medal of Honor citation told a different story from contemporary reports:
For extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession on the occasion of a fire on board the U.S.S. Trenton. At 3:35 on the afternoon of 20 October 1924, while the Trenton was preparing to fire trial installation shots from the two 6-inch guns in the forward twin mount of that vessel, 2 charges of powder ignited. Twenty men were trapped in the twin mount. Four died almost immediately and 10 later from burns and inhalation of flame and gasses. The 6 others were severely injured. Ens. Drexler, without thought of his own safety, on seeing that the charge of powder for the left gun was ignited, jumped for the right charge and endeavored to put it in the immersion tank. The left charge burst into flames and ignited the right charge before Ens. Drexler could accomplish his purpose. He met his death while making a supreme effort to save his shipmates.
Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class George Robert Cholister also received the Medal of Honor also for his actions on the Trenton. His citation reads exactly the same except for their name and the last sentence, which tells Cholister fell unconscious and died the following day. Apparently both men died attempting to immerse the burning charge.
Interwar Career & Marriage
Louis Ashton Drexler continued his career in the Navy following the loss of his brother. Although newspaper accounts place him on the U.S.S. Concord at the time of his brother’s death, the Navy Department Bureau of Naval Personnel files state that he had just detached from the U.S.S. Bruce eight days before his brother’s demise. Ensign Drexler was ordered to communication duty, Staff, Commander, Destroyer Squadron, Scouting Fleet on October 12, 1924.
Drexler served in that capacity aboard the U.S.S. Whipple from October 3, 1925, until August 12, 1929. The Whipple was involved in the United States occupation of Nicaragua, during its 1926 civil war. Drexler served on shore duty in Nicaragua. The ship sent landing parties on four separate occasions in 1926 and 1927 to secure American property and protect American citizens. The action would earn the crew of the ship the Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal. It was during this time that Drexler was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on June 8, 1926.
Drexler then served on board the U.S.S. Utah, a Florida-class dreadnought battleship, from August 15, 1929, until June 4, 1930. In 1931, the Utah was repurposed into a radio controlled target ship. It was later converted to an anti-aircraft gunnery ship and was sunk after being struck by two Japanese aerial torpedoes during the attack at Pearl Harbor. The Utah still rests in the harbor today.
Lieutenant Drexler was then ordered to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 9, 1930. He served at the Naval Academy for nearly two years until being assigned to the U.S.S. Upshur for duty as executive officer on June 19, 1933. The Upshur was a World War I-era Wickes-class destroyer, displacing 1,090 tons with a crew of 103. It was based San Diego, California and sailed in both the Pacific and Atlantic before it was decommissioned in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1936.
It was during his time aboard the Upshur that Drexler married Dorothy Virginia Angel of Berkeley, California. Dorothy was a graduate of the University of California in 1925. The two were wedded at the University Place Christian Church in New York City on Saturday, June 2, 1934. Lieutenant Drexler had arrived in New York City from the West Coast with the fleet for the naval review that Thursday. Louis Drexler, Sr. and Mrs. Drexler both attended the wedding. On his wedding license, Drexler listed the United States Navy as his address. The couple spent time in Delaware and a couple of days at the Martinique hotel in Washington D.C. before returning to the West Coast.
Drexler was detached from the U.S.S. Upshur on June 10, 1935, and sent to the Branch Hydrographic Office in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, as officer in charge, reporting on June 29, 1935. Just a little over two months later, their first child together was born. Louis Ashton Drexler, III arrived on September 10, 1935. He joined the Drexler family along with Joan Virginia Batterton, Dorothy’s daughter from a previous marriage.
On August 14, 1937, Drexler was ordered to the Naval Yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the fitting out of the U.S.S. Philadelphia. This was the time period in which after a ship is launched and the remaining construction is completed, preceding the sea trials. The Philadelphia was a Brooklyn-class light cruiser displacing 9,700 tons. She had 15 6-inch guns and a crew of 868 enlisted men and officers. Following the fitting out, Drexler departed with the Philadelphia for the shakedown cruise in the West Indies on January 3, 1938. A shakedown cruise is when the ship’s performance is tested preceding it entering service. On April 30, 1938, in Charleston, South Carolina, the Philadelphia had a special guest: President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president joined the crew for a cruise of the Caribbean Islands, returning to Charleston on May 8. The Philadelphia was the flagship of Rear Admiral F.A. Todd, who commanded the Cruiser Division 8 battle force. Its main ports were New York, Norfolk, Boston and the West Indies.
Drexler would once again be ordered to the fitting out of another ship, reporting to the U.S.S. Patoka on September 21, 1939, in Puget Sound, Washington. The Patoka was first commissioned in 1919 as a 16,800 ton oiler. In 1924 she was modified as an experimental base for dirigibles. When Drexler joined the Patoka was being transformed again, this time into a seaplane tender. Drexler was detached from the Patoka on March 29, 1940.
World War II
With war already waging in Europe, Drexler would spend two weeks at the Recruiting Training School in Norfolk, Virginia. He then reported as officer in charge at the Navy Recruiting Station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 29, 1940. In August 1940, Drexler’s parents visited the family to welcome the birth of their second son, Clay Mills Drexler. Drexler found himself in charge of the Pittsburgh area naval recruitment when America entered the war in 1941. He remained there until March of 1942.
Drexler then reported for duty on May 11, 1942, at the Naval Operating Base in Reykjavik, Iceland. The base had been occupied by U.S. forces since July of 1941. The American forces replaced a British force which peacefully occupied Iceland on May 10, 1940. The British established the base to deny German control. It was of strategic importance in keeping supply lines open to Great Britain throughout WWII. While stationed in Iceland, Drexler was appointed a lieutenant commander on April 17, 1942.
On November 11, 1942, Drexler was ordered for duty to the Third Naval District, headquartered in New York City. He then reported to the U.S.S. Mount Vernon on December 28, 1942. The Mount Vernon was a luxury cruise ship originally called the S.S. Washington. It was acquired by the navy as a troop transport ship in 1941. The ship was stripped of its luxury items and equipped with four 5-inch and four 3-inch guns. She had a crew of 765, was capable of 20 knots and could transport up to 6,031 troops per voyage. The Mount Vernon transported troops from San Francisco to ports in Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand throughout the war.
According to Drexler’s Bureau of Naval Personnel record he was then “Ordered to the Naval Hospital to continue treatment” being admitted on June 20, 1943, and discharged July 26, 1943. Although the author is uncertain of what treatment Drexler was continuing, an article in Journal-Every Evening on March 22, 1949, titled “Arlington Rites for Navy Hero” stated that “He could have had an honorable discharge because of his eyes but insisted on remaining in the service and carrying out the hazardous tasks to which he had been assigned.”
Following his discharge from the hospital, Drexler was ordered to the Sixth Naval District in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 21, 1943. He was then ordered back to the U.S.S. Patoka on August 3, 1943. Drexler was able to spend some time with his wife and children before reporting to the ship as executive officer. The family visited Dorothy’s parents in San Francisco and then traveled back east to spend several days with his parents. He reported to the Patoka on August 29, 1943, and was detached from the ship on January 19, 1944.
On February 5, 1944, Drexler was assigned to Amphibious Training Command, Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia. He spent nearly four months there until May 24, 1944, when he was ordered to the Amphibious Training Base at Camp Bradford in Norfolk Virginia for the formation of a Landing Ship, Tank (L.S.T.) group. On June 20, 1944, he assumed Command of L.S.T. Group 47.
The Drexler family was given the honor to attend the launching of the United States Navy’s newest Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer the U.S.S. Drexler. The ship was named in honor of Lieutenant Commander Drexler’s brother, Ensign Henry Clay Drexler. It was built in Bath Maine, by the Bath Iron Works Corp. Mrs. Louis A. Drexler, Henry’s mother, was given the honor of sponsoring the ship and christened it the U.S.S. Drexler at 2:30 p.m. on September 3, 1944, in Bath, Maine. She was accompanied by her husband and Lieutenant Commander Drexler, who was afforded leave to attend the ceremony. The ship slid into the water on a beautiful summer day. The Drexler was 376 feet long, displaced 2,200 tons and was capable of 34 knots. She was armed with six 5-inch guns, 12 40 mm antiaircraft guns, 11 20 mm antiaircraft guns, 10 21-inch torpedo tubes and six depth charge projectors.
On December 1, 1944, Drexler was promoted to commander. He was in command of a 12 ship squadron when he was sent to the Pacific. He would soon be in charge of greater number which would carry out full invasions.
There were 1,051 L.S.T.s built by the U.S. during World War II. They were designed for delivering amphibious assault vehicles, troops and tanks. The ships were 328 feet long and had a new ballast system which allowed the flat bottom ships to pump out their ballast tanks when delivering men and equipment to shore. It would then fill them to sit lower and achieve stability when in open waters.
Commander Drexler would use his leadership and skills on four separate occasions in the liberation of the Philippine Islands. They were taken from the United States by the Japanese. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began on December 8, 1941. On May 6, 1942, the last U.S. troops on Corregidor Island surrendered, giving Japan control of the islands. American forces would fulfill General Douglas MacArthur’s promise of returning to the Philippines on the island of Leyte.
The four U.S. divisions of the Sixth Army that were assigned to the landing at Leyte were the 96th, 24th, 7th Infantry Divisions and 1st Cavalry Division. Drexler would participate in the largest allied amphibious invasion in the Pacific to that point on October 20, 1944. The date of the invasion was accelerated by two months. This led to some disorganization in the preparation of transports, which created a chaotic scene on the beaches of Leyte. Troops were forced to search for materials needed immediately in a pile-up of supplies which were not needed at that time. Japanese resistance was so strong that the L.S.T.s assigned to the 24th Division had to be diverted to the beaches assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division.
The Imperial Japanese Navy responded to the invasion with Operation Sho-Go. The plan involved using Japanese aircraft carriers as decoys to draw the U.S. carriers away from the landings at Leyte and then converge with three forces on the landing troops and ships at Leyte Gulf. The result was the largest naval battle in history and a decisive victory for the U.S. Navy.
Due to Japanese reinforcements which were landed on Leyte, the island was not secured until December 26, 1944. There were 3,504 Americans killed in action on Leyte and 15,584 total casualties. The Japanese lost around 49,000 combat troops in defense of the island. The Battle of Leyte Gulf proved to be even more devastating for the Japanese. The Imperial Japanese Navy would lose a large carrier, three light carriers, three battleships and 21 other combat ships. It would end any major offensive action by their navy for the duration of the war. The battle also brought about the first use of kamikazes by the Japanese.
Just weeks after the Battle of Leyte ended, Drexler would begin his second landing, on the Philippines at Lingayen Gulf on the island of Luzon. The landing would take place at the same spot the Japanese had landed during their invasion of the Philippines back on December 8, 1941. The amphibious landing took place on January 9, 1945, with plans for 68,000 troops of the Sixth Army landing on the first day. The assault was challenging because the task force was required to sail along the western coast of the Philippines, which was dotted with Japanese airfields. This led to frequent kamikaze attacks and removed the element of surprise for the invasion. On January 6, 1945, there were twenty-eight kamikaze attacks, which damaged eleven ships forcing some to withdraw. The U.S.S. Long, a destroyer-minesweeper was sunk after being struck twice by kamikazes.
Bombardment of the Lingayen Gulf landing zone took place on January 6–9, 1945 under constant kamikaze attacks. In all 16,795 shells were directed at the landing zone by the flotilla of allied warships. The landings would prove difficult because of the frequent unfriendly sea conditions and the well-known shoal waters of the Lingayen Gulf that limited maneuverability of the attacking landing craft. The Japanese who invaded those same shores in 1941 lost more men to the surf than they did from U.S. troops. Nonetheless, Drexler led the landings which took place as scheduled on January 9, 1945, at 9:30 a.m. The landing forces were facing General Tomoyuki Yamashita, considered Japan’s top general. Although they were essentially unopposed on the beaches, kamikaze attacks continued during the landings, damaging the U.S.S. Columbia a light cruiser, the destroyer U.S.S. Jenkins, and the battleship U.S.S. Mississippi. Two L.S.M.s (Landing Ship Medium) and three L.S.T.s were hit by Japanese artillery. This resulted in the death of 6 men and the wounding of 31.
That evening the Japanese revealed a new tactic, the use of suicide boats. They were fast 18-foot plywood boats that carried 260 lb. depth charges. There were approximately 70 of these craft, which were manned by army personnel hidden throughout the Lingayen Gulf shores. In Japanese reports all 70 of these boats were utilized, although not all were accounted for. These suicide boats attacked 10 ships that night, damaging several severely and sinking LCI-974 (Landing Craft Infantry).
Within four hours of the initial landings, General MacArthur strode ashore in his khakis and sunglasses. Over 175,000 troops were put ashore at Lingayen Gulf over the next several days and 280,000 when completed. The landings were a complete success but General Yamashita had planned it that way. He chose to use the mountainous terrain to his advantage and wage a war of attrition against the Allied forces utilizing caves and extensive interconnecting tunnels.
Drexler would lead another amphibious invasion on the Island of Luzon just three weeks later. On January 31, 1945, American forces of the Eighth Army landed at Nasugbu, located in southern Luzon in the province of Batangas. The operation began with an airborne assault by the 11th Airborne Division. This would be closely followed with Drexler landing forces from the Eighth Army. It was expected that there would be nearly 7,000 Japanese soldiers defending Nasugbu but the landings were barely contested. American forces gave out cigarettes and candy as they made their way through the streets of Nasugbu. Filipino Guerrilla forces had driven a much smaller number of Japanese further inland in anticipation of the landing. Once again the Japanese did not defend the shores. The main bulk of the Japanese forces set up a defensive position on Tagaytay Ridge. Drexler’s landing at Nasugbu played a critical role in aiding the forces of the Sixth Army by occupying forces that would have been deployed against them in their route to Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
The final amphibious assault that Drexler would lead in the Philippines took place on Corregidor. “The Rock” or the “Island Fortress” as Corregidor is also known, was the location that General MacArthur left on a P.T. boat, vowing to return to the Philippines, as the Japanese overran American forces on the islands. Corregidor is located just south of the Bataan Peninsula in the southwest of Luzon. The strategically located tadpole-shaped island sits at the entrance to Manila Bay, the Philippine Islands’ largest harbor. The Sixth Army, which Drexler had landed at Lingayen Gulf and the Eighth which he landed at Nasugbu, were performing a pincer movement on the Japanese forces that held Manila. American and Filipino fighters entered the city on February 5, 1945. In order to take full advantage of taking the capital city and its harbor, planners realized they must take Corregidor.
The mission to take back Corregidor was named Operation Topside. The plan was similar to the invasion of Nasugbu, with an airborne assault to precede an amphibious landing. It was believed that there were only 850 Japanese soldiers on the island. The actual number was over 6,000. On February 16, 1945, after a naval bombardment, the operation began with the airborne assault by the 503rd Regimental Combat Team at 8:30 a.m. The attack completely surprised the Japanese forces. The 503rd performed a low level drop to prevent being swept into the bay. They were successful in taking what was labeled “Topside,” a plateau on the island’s high ground. Nearly a quarter of the paratroopers who landed on the island were lost or suffered injuries, many to the jagged rocky surface of Corregidor. As the airborne attack progressed, it coincided with an amphibious assault led by Commander Drexler. 1,000 infantrymen stormed the shores in four waves along with tanks. The first four waves were hardly contested because the Japanese forces focused their attention to the airborne invasion which had secured the higher land above them. However the fifth wave was pinned down on the beach until two of Drexler’s L.S.T.s arrived and aided their advance.
At midnight, a second wave of paratroopers landed on Corregidor putting American forces at 3,000. Although they were outnumbered two to one, they held the higher ground and had support from naval guns offshore. The Japanese began banzai charges which were put down by American forces. These charges were unorganized, thanks to the ships which destroyed the Japanese communication system in the initial naval bombardment.
On February 18, 1945, a third airborne drop was scheduled to take place but American leaders made a change in plan due to the high injury rate of previous drops and the success of the prior amphibious landing. At 8:30 a.m., Drexler conducted the landing that brought the remainder of the 503rd on shore by boat, instead of parachutes.
Japanese banzai attacks continued throughout the battle for Corregidor with little success. U.S. forces continued to mop up remaining pockets of resistance in fierce cave, tunnel and hand to hand combat until Corregidor was deemed secure on February 26, 1945.
The battle for the island of Luzon would continue until March 1945, with the destruction and liberation of the capital of the Philippines, Manila. Pockets of resistance continued for months and General Yamashita officially surrendered on August 15, 1945.
The decision to take the Philippines as opposed to taking Formosa, was heavily debated in the island hopping strategy that was utilized in the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. General MacArthur won the debate, fulfilling his promise to return to the Philippines. This did allow the allies use of the Manila Harbor, one of the best harbors in the world. In all liberating the Philippines cost 13,884 American lives and wounded another 48,541. Japan suffered over 250,000 casualties in defending it. Commander Drexler played a key role in organizing, planning and personally directing four of the amphibious landings to free the Philippines from Japanese control.
The Battle of Okinawa
Drexler would next display his leadership abilities in the final major battle of World War II, the invasion of Okinawa. The invasion of Okinawa was codenamed Iceberg. Just 400 miles from mainland Japan, it would be the final stop in the island–hopping campaign. The Allies wanted to use Okinawa as a forward base to launch air attacks and prepare the armada that would land on the shores of Japan. In order for Operation Iceberg to succeed, the Allies amassed one of the largest naval armadas in history, composed of over 1,500 warships. The landings were set for Easter: April 1, 1945.
Before the invasion of Okinawa took place, planners felt it necessary to control a tiny group of islands just 15 miles off of the western coast of Okinawa known as Kerama Retto. There were six main islands that composed Kerama Retto, all together they covered an area of about 16 miles. Allied planners felt it necessary to control this area in order to utilize it as a forward base for the invasion of Okinawa. There were also fears of Japanese suicide boats that could be launched from Kerama Retto against the landing forces on Okinawa.
The 77th Infantry Division was assigned to take the islands. They would be transported to Kerama Retto by Task Group 51.1 under command of Rear Admiral Ingolf N. Kiland. Drexler would command L.S.T. Group 47 in the operation. The plan was to assault all six of the major islands of Kerama Retto at once, six days before the planned invasion of Okinawa.
Preparation and loading for the assault began on March 18, 1945. T.G. 51.1 embarked from Leyte on March 21, 1945. On March 25, 1945, frogmen were deployed to survey the landing zones of the islands. The results were not good. Two of the islands had coral formations which made the use of Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (L.V.C.P.s) or Higgins boats as they were known, impossible. This forced a change in the planned invasion. Landings would take place on four of the islands as planned. Once the men were put ashore the Landing Vehicle Tracked (L.V.T.s) used in those initial invasions would then be utilized in launching the invasion of the remaining two islands, on the following day.
On March 26, 1945, at 6:40 a.m., the islands of Kerama Retto were bombarded with shells from cruisers and bombs from carrier planes. Although it was made more complex than usual landings, due to the number of groups of L.S.T.s that had to separate in order to attack their assigned beaches on the various islands, the invasion took place at 8:00 a.m. as planned.
Japanese resistance was minimal because they did not believe that Allied forces would be concerned with the small group of islands. General Ushijima, Okinawa’s commanding officer, had removed over 1,000 men from the islands and brought them to Okinawa. This left only 975 Japanese and a few hundred Korean laborers to defend the Kerama Retto. Many of them retreated to tunnels and caves upon seeing the invasion.
The operation went so well that they were able to get the L.V.T.s from the initial invasions and launch the invasion of the fifth island, Yakabi Shima, on the same day. The following day the final main island was invaded. In all there were 15 landings made in the island group of Kerama Retto
Within three days, all of Kerama Retto was under control of American forces. Throughout the invasion and occupation of the islands they faced air raids and kamikaze attacks. Nine kamikazes attempted attacks on the first day alone. The sailors also faced attacks by Japanese who would swim out to ships at night and climb the anchor chains to attack sailors. Others would attempt to swim towards ships with explosives strapped to their bodies.
155 American sailors and soldiers were killed in the three days that it took to conquer Kerama Retto. The Japanese had lost 530. In the end, the operation was seen as a success, as hundreds of Japanese suicide boats were discovered and destroyed on the islands in the first days of the invasion. In all, General Ushijima had 350 suicide boats hidden throughout the islands with the intent to have them strike American landing ships in the anticipated invasion of Okinawa, which would take place just east of Kerama Retto. The islands also played a key role in allowing planes to form antisubmarine patrols around Okinawa, securing the coming invasion force. Throughout the lengthy Battle of Okinawa, Kerama Retto was used as an anchorage for damaged ships and a base to refuel and reload.
Just days later Drexler commanded L.S.T. Group 47 as part of the largest amphibious assault force in the Pacific Theater. The bombardment of the landing zone on Okinawa took place at 5:30 a.m. American forces landed on the Hagushi shores shortly after sunrise as scheduled on April 1, 1945. The invasion force landed in the southwestern end of the island just east of Kerama Retto. Within one hour around 50,000 troops had landed. Once again the landings would be barely contested.
The battle for Okinawa was one of the most intense, bloody and hard fought battles of World War II. Americans would not secure the island until early June of 1945. The islands and waters that surround Okinawa would extract a complete loss for the Drexler family.
After the landings on Okinawa, Drexler began preparing for his next amphibious landing on the island of Ie Shima (Iejima). Given the codename Operation Indispensable, the landings were part of phase two in the Okinawa campaign. Ie Shima surmises about 11 square miles and lies just a little more than three miles off the northwest coast of Okinawa. Its terrain was much flatter than other islands around Okinawa, which made it an ideal spot for airfields. The Japanese had 3,000 troops and three airstrips on the island. On April 16, 1945, Drexler once again provided the landing of the troops from the 77th Infantry Division. The landings were difficult for Drexler’s L.S.T.s, as they had to traverse narrow and crooked channels through the coral reefs which surrounded the island. Landings were further hampered by sudden squalls and frequent kamikazes. During the battle, 60 medium tanks were put ashore. In six days they had secured the island, but not before the death of the famed war reporter Ernie Pyle, who was killed on Ie Shima by sniper fire on April 18, 1945. American forces sustained 1,120 casualties, with 172 killed in action on the island. Japanese losses were over 4,000 with about 1,500 civilians who were armed by the Japanese being killed also.
As the battle for Okinawa continued Drexler was ordered back to Kerama Retto. The islands that Drexler had directed landings on were now a vital deep sea anchorage that could harbor over 70 large ships, including battleships. Drexler’s L.S.T. Group 47 was now being used to reload ammunition for ships giving support fire and those providing picket duties for protection against kamikaze attacks. The idea of using L.S.T.s in this manner began at Iwo Jima and was found to be very productive and time saving. L.S.T.s were fitted with cranes and equipment to complete these transfers of ammunition and supplies. They were able to complete them quickly because several of them could pull alongside the larger ships to fill them at once as opposed to one ammunition ship.
On page 343 of his book, Beans, Bullets and Black Oil, U.S. Rear Admiral Worrall Reed Carter described the process:
To expedite resupply, all possible arrangements were worked out the night before. Generally, battleships, cruisers, and escort carriers submitted their needs by dispatch the night before arriving, and all ammunition carriers submitted their available inventories by 6 p.m. daily. That enabled definite assignments of the ammunition craft, thus saving a great deal of time. Destroyers and other escort types did not submit their requirements in advance. Destroyers were sent to Kerama on schedule with the larger ships, regardless of ammunition expenditure, so that they might fuel and also screen these vessels en route.
On board his flagship LST-918 on May 10, 1945, Drexler spotted a ship that caught his eye. It was DD-741, the U.S.S. Drexler. A letter he wrote that day is described in the March 22, 1949, edition of Journal-Every Evening. The article entitled “Arlington Rites For Navy Hero” reads:
A letter of May 10, 1945 told of sighting the destroyer on May 10 in waters where his own ship was operating. He described it as a handsome vessel and said it was his wish to go aboard. His next letter however, said the destroyer had disappeared the next day.
The Drexler had been part of Operation Iceberg since March, providing transport screen as part of Task Group 51.5. Unfortunately Commander Drexler was unable to visit the ship named in honor of his brother.
On May 12, 1945, two days after sighting the U.S.S. Drexler, Commander Drexler was given orders to land on the island Aka Shima. It was the center island of Kerama Retto. The island was the first to be landed on during the invasion of Kerama Retto on March 26, 1945. Although American forces claimed to hold the island several hundred Japanese fled to caves and tunnels during the invasion. Drexler was leading a detail who was surveying the island as a possible storage location for supplies that would be needed during the expected invasion of mainland Japan. The group was fired on from behind by snipers, mortally wounding Drexler and injuring several others. A letter written to Commander Drexler’s wife, dated June 13, 1945, describes what took place.
Dear Mrs. Drexler,
The staff of Group 47 and Ship’s Company of LST 918 send our sympathy and sorrow to you at the loss of your husband, Louis A. Drexler, Jr., Comdr., U.S.N.
I knew him well, and am the Commanding Officer of his flagship. I was with him at the time of his death, and I have never seen a braver, more unselfish man than Commander Drexler. He was mortally wounded; but, still gave orders, and expressed concern, over the welfare and safety of the men in his charge. I believe and have so expressed myself in all official reports concerning the action, that many more of us would have been lost or wounded but for the cool courage and leadership of Commander Drexler.
You have lost much more than we, but we lost a true friend and courageous leader.
David C. Matthews
The sniper fire that mortally wounded Drexler was subdued by shells from ships off shore. Several other men were wounded in the attack. The following day, Commander Drexler’s body was interred in the U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery, Zamami Shima, Kerama Retto. Zamami Shima, another of the islands Drexler directed landings on during the assault on Kerama Retto, is located just north of Aka Shima. Commander Drexler had led four landings in the Philippine Islands and three landings during the capture of Okinawa.
On May 28, 1945, just 16 days after Commander Drexler was killed by a sniper, the U.S.S. Drexler was patrolling the western shore of Okinawa, only miles away from where her namesake’s brother’s body rested. The Drexler came under attack by several kamikazes and sank with the loss of 158 men.
The U.S.S. Trenton was decommissioned on December 20, 1945 following the end of World War II. A plaque which had been placed on the ship in memory of the heroic deed accomplished by their son, Ensign Henry Clay Drexler, was given to Mr. and Mrs. Drexler.
On October 10, 1946, a ceremony was held in San Francisco. 11-year-old Louis A. Drexler, III, Commander Drexler’s eldest son, accepted his Legion of Merit medal, which was awarded posthumously. The award was presented by Captain John J. Mahoney United States Navy, chief of staff, Twelfth Naval District. His wife Dorothy was present at the ceremony. The Citation reads:
“For exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as Commander of a Group of United States Tank Landing Ships and also of Landing Craft Task Units during amphibious assaults on enemy Japanese-held Leyte, Lingayen, Nsugbu, Kerama Retto and Ie Shima. A forceful and professionally skilled leader, operating for extended periods in dangerous and incompletely charted waters, Commander Drexler effectively organized, planned and personally directed the landing of assigned troops on hostile beaches in the face of intermittent air attack and against Japanese mortar and major caliber artillery fire. His initiative, perseverance and courage in combat contributed to the success of these hazardous and vital operations and reflect the highest credit upon Commander Drexler and the United States Naval Service.”
For the President,
Secretary of the Navy
In 1949, Commander Drexler’s body was disinterred from the U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery, Zamami Shima and brought back to the U.S. On March 23, 1949, at 1:00 p.m., he was laid to rest next to his heroic brother at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 4, Grave 3052. He was decorated with the Victory Medal (with Atlantic Fleet Clasp), Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, American Defense Service Medal (with Fleet Clasp), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Purple Heart, and the Legion of Merit.
The tragic story of the Drexler brothers does not end after Louis’s death and the sinking of the Drexler. Dorothy Drexler and both boys had moved back to Dover, Delaware, most likely to be close to Commander Drexler’s parents. The family had previously lived in Dover during Drexler’s military career from March 1942 to July 1943. They were living at an apartment on the intersection of Lockerman and King Streets in downtown Dover. Louis A. Drexler, III was a junior at Dover High School and was a manager of the football team. On the evening of December 11, 1951, Louis told his mother he was headed to the library, located just behind their apartment building. Around 8 p.m., his body was discovered by a person leaving the apartment building. He had died by suicide. Louis Drexler, III was interred at Christ Episcopal Church Cemetery in Dover.
On July 8, 1971, at the Little Creek Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia an officers quarters costing $3 million was dedicated in the memory of Ensign Henry Clay Drexler. Dorothy Drexler and her son, Lieutenant Clay Mills Drexler of the United States Coast Guard, were present at the dedication. In the News Journal article titled, “Navy Hero Drexler Honored” on July 7, 1971, readers were informed that the three men whom Ensign Henry Clay Drexler heroically pulled out of the gun turret of the Trenton in 1924 all survived.
Dorothy Drexler remained a widow until her death at the age of 81 on January 20, 1986. She was interred at Arlington National Cemetery next to Commander Drexler. The couple’s younger son, Clay Mills Drexler, went on to become a commander in the Coast Guard. He served in Vietnam and never married or had any children. Clay Mills Drexler died on September 14, 2014, at the age of 74. His ashes were scattered at sea.
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Last updated on September 17, 2021
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