Honoring History

2020 marks 75th anniversary of the end of World War II
Thursday, November 12, 2020
Honoring History

The Windham Basketball Team 1938 – 1939. All went to serve in World War II and all came back. Shown here are (back row, from left) Jack Leutjen, Clavin Leutjen, Jim Kimble, Dick Dresen, Fay Rogers, (front row) Howard Neill, Bob Clark and Hugh Neill. Hugh and Howard Neill were identical twins who served as medics. Photos courtesy of Mike Ridgeway

Honoring History

Shown here is Sgt. Arthur J. Strong, of Windham in 1943. Arthur married Dorothy Champion on April 22, 1942. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from January 1941 to September 1945 and the Air Force in 1947. After his service, the couple lived out their days in the Windham Depot.

Honoring History

An unknown Navy ship during World War II. This was one of the photos Mike Ridgeway found in his father's belongings. Ridgeway has been documenting the young men from Judith Basin who fought and sacrificed for Democracy. Photo courtesy of Mike Ridgeway

Honoring History

Another unknown location from a World War II photo by John 'Johhny' Ridgeway who fought for his country-75 plus years ago. Photo courtesy of Mike Ridgeway

Honoring History

The Windham Football Team 1939 – 1940. All went to serve in World War II and all came back. Photo courtesy of Windham Community Hall

Honoring History

The Windham Varsity Letter. While the school is now closed, it was once where many young World War II veterans received their education prior to enlisting. Around 70 young men from Windham served in World War II. Photo by Melody Montgomery/ Varsity Letter courtesy of Mike Ridgeway

Honoring History

(Photo right) Written on the back of the photo, “My dad looks like a cranky guy here but he’s really very nice. Notice the Ex Lax sign in the Background! Cute, huh?” In the day, the drug store run by Duncan was the center of Windham. Duncan was known as the Wizard of Windham. Shown with him is Mrs. Gillespee. Photo courtesy of Mike Ridgeway

“At the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is appropriate to think about all the men from Judith Basin who served, in addition to how considering how World War II affected their homes and families in Judith Basin,” said Mike Ridgeway, a former attorney who grew up in Windham.

Ridgeway is now working on a documentary about the 500-plus young men from Judith Basin County who served their county in World War II, 1939 - 1945.

“My greatest research endeavor is to track the stories of these gentlemen down,” said Ridgeway. “There are many families in Judith Basin who do not know their parents’ and grandparents’ stories... It is interesting to look at the scope of the war, actually two wars at once, the war in Europe and the Pacific, and then look at what was happening in Judith Basin County.”

Ridgeway’s own father, John Ridgeway of Windham, was one of the around 70 men from Windham enlisted to serve in the Second World War, as well as a lot of the men Ridgeway knew while growing up. Another World War II veteran, for example, who Ridgeway knew while growing up was his high school science teacher, Bob Lillegard.

“He was a community-minded and gentle individual,” said Ridgeway.

Ridgeway initially started researching the Windham area, but his work has since extended across the county. He has even discovered information about veterans that their family members and later generations had not known, like the reason behind Hugh Neill receiving a Bronze star.

Researching the Judith Basin Press

Ridgeway regularly visits the Judith Basin County Free Library to comb through newspaper reels and glean information about the many men from Judith Basin who served in World War II.

“The Archives of the Judith Basin Press are just full of stories of various Judith Basin veterans from the World War II period,” said Ridgeway.

Ridgeway started leafing through the papers one at a time in the summer of 2019.

“An awful lot in the paper was related to what was happening overseas in the 1940s,” he said.

Stories Ridgeway finds in the local newspaper include information on prisoners of war and rationing as well as letters home.

“The Judith Basin Press has been a valuable source of information,” said Ridgeway.

The Judith Basin County Free Library’s ongoing project to digitize the papers in conjunction with State Historical Society, which will further enhance search ability and bring the past to the present (see montananewspapers.org).

Interviews

Years prior to turning to the newspaper for information, around 2005, Ridgeway began visiting with World War II veterans and their family members in person, documenting his interviews with these county elders on film.

Ridgeway has interviewed nearly 15 veterans, including Albert T. “Whitey” Rosman, Timothy McAllister, Howard and Hugh Neill, Avis Perry, Maxine Neill, T.R. Brady, Carl Linse, Pat Kirby, Marian Danielson, Marion Wambach, Frank Koncillya, and Ben Steele of Billings.

Of these individuals, all but one of have since passed on, but their stories remain. The lone remaining World War II Veteran in Judith Basin County is Tim McAllister of Geyser.

Of the over 500 young men of Judith Basin who fought in the Second World War, 20 sadly did not return home. Those who did return had witnessed the monsters of war. They saw the world, but while protecting us in Judith Basin, they saw much more.

One person interviewed was a Navy Corpsman – a medic for the marines. His name was T.R. Brady. Ridgeway knew Brady all his life, but Brady had never spoken about his service until he was in his 90s. He served some of his duties on the Island of Tarawa, where there was a brutal assault, Brady told Ridgeway.

Brady went home to build a quieter life, like so many of his Judith Basin brothers. Two brothers who also returned home were identical twins Hugh and Howard Neill, who served as medics during the long struggle in Italy and North Africa. These are just a few of the stories Ridgeway has gathered for his work on the documentary.

“The work I have been completing is a way to continue to honor these gentlemen and their families by sharing information with present and later generations,” said Ridgeway.

Editor's Note: If you have information about WWII to share with Ridgeway, contact the Judith Basin County Free Library.

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