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Jordan Vinson, For the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Feb. 9, 2015, Roi-Namur, Marshall Islands — Under a cluster of coconut palms on a tiny coral island more than 6,400 miles from Milwaukee, Lynne Rivera and Paula Smith honored their father’s final wish.
Frank Pokrop had been a sniper in the 4th Marine Division during World War II. Trudging through the jungle, trapped behind enemy lines, he was shot and nearly lost his life on Namur, one of two conjoined islands at the northern tip of Kwajalein Atoll in the heart of the Marshall Islands.
Seventeen at the time he enlisted, 18 and a corporal when he took part in the Battle of Kwajalein, the experience never really left him.
He served as president of the 4th Marine Division Association, helped organize reunions, and for 47 years ran a scholarship committee for division members’ college-bound children and grandchildren. Twice, he returned to the island for anniversary commemorations, in 1985 and 1994.
The speck of land in the central Pacific kept calling her father back, said Smith, who lives in Menomonie.
Pokrop achieved much in his life — coach and counselor, teacher and principal, community volunteer and church leader. He and his wife, Maxine, had three children and five grandchildren.
But when he died at age 89 a few weeks before Christmas — the anniversary of Pearl Harbor to be exact — it was time to head back to Namur one final time.
And so on Jan. 30, just shy of 71 years after the island battle started, Pokrop’s daughters landed here and climbed out of a 19-seat turboprop commuter plane, bringing with them their father’s ashes.
‘I Am Humbled’
Rivera and Smith were guests of honor at a special military funeral performed by American service members and civilians who work at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll base. Dan Farnham, a Kwajalein resident and World War II history buff, coordinated the trip. The sisters were joined by three surviving veterans of Operation Flintlock, the campaign against the Japanese in the Marshalls in 1944 that included the Battle of Kwajalein.
Clutching a small black box containing her father’s remains, tears streamed down Smith’s cheeks as she listened to Army Col. Nestor Sadler, commander of the Army garrison on Kwajalein Atoll.
“Ms. Rivera, Ms. Smith — daughters of the late Frank Pokrop — I am humbled to stand before you today and honored by the late Frank Pokrop’s last wishes to be laid to rest among fellow Marines here on these hallowed grounds,” Sadler told the group gathered at the north end of the island. “For 71 years ago, they fought as comrades, side by side, as part of Operation Flintlock.”
Handing the black box to Sadler, Smith let go of her father for the last time. A call to arms was announced, and the three living veterans answered roll call with verbal affirmations.
Then Pokrop’s name was called three times. Each time, there was silence — an acknowledgment of his passing.
An American Legion rifle squad fired a three-volley salute. Taps poured out of a trumpet. And then Sadler scattered Pokrop’s ashes onto a dry, shaded patch of sand and soil, returning him to the earth where about 200 Americans and 3,500 Japanese defenders were killed in combat.
The ceremony was a perfect way to honor her father, said Rivera, of Milwaukee.
“It was a moving and emotional experience,” she said. “And Col. Sadler did an excellent job in embracing Dad’s philosophy in life. It was where he wanted to go back to.”
Pokrop had planned for Namur to be his final resting place since 1998, when he first wrote letters to the State Department, the Department of the Army and Marshall Islands authorities to ask permission.
In the years since, he never questioned the decision.
“My father would have been very happy,” Smith said after the ceremony.
Death Seemed Imminent
Home today to a high-tech U.S. military weapons testing range and space debris tracking installation, the islands of Namur, Roi and Kwajalein were important naval and aircraft resupply bases used to power Japanese forces throughout the central Pacific during World War II. Roi is Namur’s neighbor to the west, connected by a land bridge; Kwajalein is at the southern tip of the atoll.
The American plan to take the Marshalls came on the heels of a controversial battle at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands two months earlier. Nearly 6,400 Americans, Japanese and Koreans died in 76 hours of fighting. The carnage stunned the American public, although Adm. Chester Nimitz defended the effort for knocking down “the front door” of the Japanese defenses.
Vowing to avoid another Tarawa, U.S. commanders hammered Japanese bases on Kwajalein Atoll from the air and sea, leveling much of their defenses before troops poured out of their landing craft onto the beaches.
Nevertheless, a formidable Japanese contingent remained, tucked in foxholes, bunkers and concrete fortifications. Having largely fled Roi after the shelling, the remaining defenders took up protected positions on Namur and waited.
Pokrop and five other snipers found themselves trudging through the sunbaked jungle on a patrol run Feb. 1, 1944. As daylight began to fade, small arms fire barked out from a concealed Japanese position, killing one of the snipers instantly and wounding four of the others, including Pokrop.
“Somehow they got surrounded by Japanese on three sides,” Smith said. “They didn’t realize they had gotten behind Japanese lines. … They thought they were dead.”
Then Marine Lt. Col. A. James Dyess appeared, pushed the Marines into “some kind of hole,” Smith said, and fought the Japanese back.
“With no protection and heavy fire coming at us from a few feet away and dusk approaching, we were certain to be killed,” Pokrop wrote in a 1988 letter featured in a 2001 biography of Dyess. “All of a sudden Col. Dyess broke through on the right, braving the very heavy fire, and got all of us out of there.”
Dyess would die the next day, while leading his unit toward one of the few remaining Japanese positions at the north end of Namur. He was awarded the Medal of Honor a few months later; the airfield on Roi bears his name.
Coming Full Circle
Having experienced war and facing what he thought was certain death, Pokrop never took life for granted, Smith said.
Using the GI Bill, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and two master’s degrees — from Western State College in Colorado and the University of Michigan.
He went on to work as coach, counselor, teacher, vice principal and principal at numerous places, including Bay View, James Madison and Rufus King high schools.
He led the Holy Name Society and the choir at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, and served as a lector for a half-century. He and his wife, who died in 2008, worked together for years on the Jackson Park Fourth of July celebration.
Their two daughters remain in Wisconsin. Rivera works for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and Bon Ton Stores; Smith teaches harp at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Their son, Frank L. Pokrop III, lives in California and works for CareFusion, a medical technology corporation.
Through it all, Pokrop’s brethren in the 4th Marine Division — and one fallen comrade in particular — stayed with him.
“As you may see, Col. Dyess has never been out of my thoughts for these 43 years,” Pokrop wrote in 1988. “And he will always be there until I die.”
Now, Pokrop is back where those memories began.
“Yes,” Smith said before catching her flight back to Wisconsin. “He’s come full circle.”
Jordan Vinson is a freelance journalist and photographer who lives and works on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.