By Kelly Haugh
FREEPORT, Pa. – The next time you’re stuck in the sea of orange cones that is the Freeport Bridge project, take a moment to reflect on the bridge’s young namesake instead of cursing the construction that will keep creating traffic hassles into 2013. What locals commonly refer to as the Freeport Bridge is officially named the Donald R. Lobaugh Bridge, but who is Donald R. Lobaugh and why should we care?
According to various media reports and the work of historian Richard A. Beranty of Kittanning, the story of Lobaugh’s life could have come straight from Hollywood. He was a local juvenile delinquent who in 1940, at the age of 16, was sent to a reform school after he was arrested for stealing a car. Freeport residents figured he would never amount to much, but he proved them wrong in the biggest way possible.
On July 22, 1944, Lobaugh’s heroic actions helped save 39 American lives and earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor. He was 20 years old.
The rebellious teen who originally fought the reform school at every turn was able to turn his life around thanks to some personal intervention from Superintendent Arthur Prasse. After the country became embroiled in World War II, Lobaugh tried to enlist in the Army, Navy and Marines but was rejected from all because of his criminal record. It was only after Prasse pulled some strings with the Army that he was allowed to enlist on February 11, 1942, just four days after he turned 18.
Lobaugh entered basic training May 15 and then earned his paratrooper’s wings by successfully completing the Army’s jump school. William Galino, a former schoolmate from Freeport, told the Valley News Dispatch that Lobaugh was extremely proud of his accomplishments and what he’d learned during his training.
While Lobaugh was learning to be all that he could be, World War II was in full swing. By 1944, the tide in the Pacific was finally beginning to turn in the Allies’ favor as U.S. troops under the leadership of Pacific ground commander General Douglas MacArthur began to oust the deeply entrenched Japanese from several islands in the Pacific.
Lobaugh was assigned to the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division as a replacement infantryman, landing at Aitape, New Guinea in early May. Only two months later, on July 10, the U.S. forces would be overrun by a surprise attack as an estimated 10,000 Japanese troops streamed through their defenses. What followed were 11 days and nights of fierce combat in the dense New Guinean jungle.
On July 21, the enemy succeeded in cutting off a small group of 40 American soldiers, including 20-year-old Private Donald R. Lobaugh. They were completely surrounded.
First Lieutenant Leonard Lowry, of Susanville, California was also part of that isolated platoon and served as Lobaugh’s commanding officer. He recounted his experience in 1945. “There was only one route of withdrawal and the enemy had a machine gun and riflemen covering this point,” he said. The outnumbered platoon had been able to fight off the Japanese through that first night, but by morning they were only 50 yards away.
Pinned down by enemy fire, the men were preparing to fight their way out, but the 50 yards between them and the Japanese gun emplacement was completely devoid of cover. Their charge to break through the enemy line would most likely result in high losses, especially with the Japanese machine gun trained on them. Lobaugh knew what they were facing, so he approached his squad leader, Sgt. Edward Jirikowic of Kaukauna, Wisc., with a selfless request.
“When we were ready to go into that heavy fire to knock out the (Japanese), Pvt. Lobaugh came to me and said that one man could keep them busy enough to allow the rest to break through safely,” Jirikowic told the Valley News Dispatch in 2005. “He asked permission to try. The fire was extremely heavy and I did not give it. But I did not refuse. Next thing, I saw him crawling alone toward the enemy position.”
Lobaugh crawled across that open field until he was close enough to stand and toss a grenade toward the Japanese. That’s right. When surrounded by enemy fire, the former juvenile delinquent willingly stood up and exposed himself to those bullets so his fellow soldiers wouldn’t have to.
He got hit almost as soon as he released the grenade, but this brave soldier wouldn’t let that stop him. He continued on his self-appointed mission, charging towards the Japanese and taking out as many of them as he could even as he continued to be struck by bullets.
Lobaugh’s heroic charge succeeded in taking out two Japanese at the enemy machine gun and inspired his hemmed-in platoon, invigorating them for their own dangerous assault. Because of him, 39 men lived.
“His action forced the other Japanese to withdraw the gun, and as they attempted this the rest of our unit went ahead and broke through,” Lobaugh’s platoon leader, Lt. John Kerlizyn of Newark, N.J., explained. “In the advance of the platoon, at least 10 more enemy were killed and others wounded, and the platoon did not lose a man – except Lobaugh.”
Displaying true courage, bravery, patriotism and love for his brothers in arms, Lobaugh voluntarily sacrificed himself in the ultimate selfless act. He knew when he volunteered that he wouldn’t survive, but he chose to do it anyway.
“What guts that kid had, what guts,” Lowry said as he recounted Lobaugh’s charge. “When he got part way across that space, Lobaugh raised up and tossed a grenade at the (Japanese). They opened up on him right away and I know he was hit by that first burst. But instead of turning back, he got up on his feet, held his rifle to his shoulder, and started to rush the (Japanese) firing as he went.
“Lobaugh was hit and wounded several times but he kept on blasting at those Japanese until he got that fatal burst. No, he didn’t knock out the (Japanese) guns. But he made it so darned hot for them that they got the hell out of there and made it possible for the rest of us to fight our way out.”
Lowry nominated Lobaugh for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for battlefield valor. It recognizes “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
He was posthumously awarded the medal on Feb. 25, 1945, and it was presented to his mother, Ida Lobaugh of Freeport, during a ceremony in Pittsburgh on May 9. Lobaugh’s nephew, Sidney Elder of Freeport, donated his Medal of Honor to the Freeport Library, where it is permanently on display.
His Medal of Honor citation reads, in part, “Pfc. Lobaugh’s heroic actions inspired his comrades to press the attack, and to drive the enemy from the position with heavy losses. His fighting determination and intrepidity in battle exemplify the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Lobaugh is the very definition of a hero. He gave his young life for the country he loved, and that sacrifice deserves to be remembered. As the case that holds his Medal of Honor reads, “Lest We Forget.”