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Legion to Honor World War II Hero
November 7, 2007 - (This story was originally published on Nov. 10, 1999. In honor of Veterans Day this Sunday, November 11, we are reprinting this piece. The subject of this story, George Ham Cannon, will be honored by Knightstown American Legion Post 152 will recognize this Sunday.-- Editor)
The damage was done, or so America’s armed forces in the Pacific thought. Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor killed 3,500 servicemen and crippled the Navy’s pacific fleet, but the Japanese aggression did not end there.
That same night, two Japanese destroyers waylaid Sand Island, a part of the southern Pacific’s Midway Island, with an artillery attack designed to cripple the islands airfield, thereby protecting the retreat of Japan’s aircraft carriers, which only hours earlier had launched wave after wave of attack aircraft bound for Pearl Harbor.
The Marines on Sand Island didn’t expect trouble that day. Things were peaceful. But, that was about to change. Not long after sunset, lookouts spotted flashes of light off of the island’s southern coast. The origin of the flashes was soon discovered by Marine spotlights. The Japanese carriers Akebono and Ushio were prowling at high speed about 3,000 yards off the coast. The spotlights provided excellent targets for the ships’ big guns and an artillery exchange soon erupted.
Marine First Lt. George Ham Cannon, in charge of Battery H, 6th Defense Battalion, on Sand Island, was one of the first soldiers wounded during the 23 minute barrage.
Cannon was mortally wounded when a Japanese shell somehow found its way into an air vent in a wall of the heavily reinforced power station, which housed the island’s communications switchboard. Had the round impacted on the wall itself, experts say Cannon would probably be alive today.
The explosion inside the power station crushed Cannon’s pelvis and caused profuse bleeding. But, after quickly surveying and his wounded men, Cannon refused to evacuate. Instead, he insisted upon the evacuation of his wounded troops and he remained in command until the power station’s vital switchboard was back in operation.
A few minutes after reaching a first aid station, Cannon, who is buried at Knightstown’s Glen Cove Cemetery, died from loss of blood. He was the second United States Marine killed and the first to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II. He was one of four Marines killed at Sand Island that night.
But for the all the damage they inflicted that night, the Japanese didn’t get away unharmed. When last sighted, some Marines reported seeing heavy smoke pouring from one of the ships, damage apparently done by the islands ample gun emplacements.
Cannon was born in Webster Groves, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, on Nov. 15, 1915. His father was a Texan and his mother, Estelle Ham, was born in Tipton and raised near Shirley. Shortly after Cannon’s birth, the family moved to Detroit. Cannon’s younger sister, Peggy Schlender, in a 1999 interview with The Banner, recalled George as a wonderful brother growing up.
“George was probably one of the kindest persons you would ever know,” she said from her home in Sawyer, Michigan. “After our father died, he pretty much raised me, and we were just inseparable. He was a very wonderful, very special person … a golden child.”
One change that arose in George following his father ‘s death was his decision to attend Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind. The men of the Ham family had a very rich tradition of military service, which may have motivated George to attend Culver. His uncle, Samuel Vincent Ham, was a West Point graduate and rose to the rank of Army Brigadier General at the time of World War I. According to Schlendler, Uncle Vincent often told his nieces and nephews the story of how he was wounded in a battlefield in Germany. Instead of being evacuated, Uncle Vincent said, he had his troops carry him forward on a stretcher so he could continue directing fire and commanding troops. Sound familiar.
“This story was a part of George and all of us growing up,” said Schlender. “I think he may have had that story in the back of his mind when he was wounded in action during World War II. I think he wanted to uphold the highest traditions of the family.”
But, for all the talk about military academies, battles and honorable traditions, George Ham Cannon was, by all indications, very much a man of art and academics. He earned a bachelor'’ degree in engineering from the University of Michigan prior to accepting a commission in the Marines. According to his sister, Cannon was also a world class flutist who had performed as the top flute player with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. He planned to pursue a law degree at the University of Michigan once his commission was up. He never got the chance, but would have made an outstanding attorney, according to Schlender.
While none of the Cannon children were raised in the Shirley area, they did spend summers in Indianapolis and on their uncle’s farm between Shirley and Wilkinson. Their uncle was Walt Titus and his sprawling 540-acre farm was never actually cultivated. Although he would eventually breed trotting horses there, Walt Titus discovered a rich supply of natural gas on the property. The farm was a gift from his father, Dr. Charles Titus of Wilkinson. The gas discovery relieved Walt from paying any gas bills for the duration of their residence there, according the Schlender.
But, this farm, the lane to which was known as Ham’s Pig Path, was where George and Peggy spend a good deal of their summers.
“The Hoosier roots are very, very deep in our family,” said Schlender.
The United States Marines at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis have visited Cannon’s grave at Glen Cove Cemetery. Oddly, his marker does not reflect that he was a Medal of Honor recipient.
George Ham Cannon lives on in many ways. The United States Navy eventually built an elementary school on Midway Island to serve the children of servicemen and residents there. They named the school in Cannon’s honor.
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