Monday, May 28, 2012
Memorial Day: Remembering Ulysses Sonnier
This Memorial Day weekend, I've been thinking about a second cousin I never got the chance to meet. Ulysses Sonnier ("you-LEASE" in Cajun French) was the brother of my Sonnier cousins of Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. He was born to Jean Baptiste ("John B.") and Aline (Legere) Sonnier on Sept. 1, 1922, the ninth of their 14 children, in the small community of Ossun, near Scott, Louisiana.
I didn't know him, but I can tell you that his family spoke Cajun French as well as English (probably more French at home), were devout Catholics, and lived in a rural community of farmers near a larger college town. He attended a local elementary school where, in the '20s and '30s, he probably was punished if he spoke French instead of English. The 1940 census indicates that he completed high school.
The Sonniers attended Sts. Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Church in Scott, where many family members were christened or married, and where several are also buried in the small cemetery. If he were like other cousins in the area, he probably had plenty of farm chores, but may have enjoyed fishing and hunting in his spare time. Social activities revolved around the church and visiting with relatives. His maternal grandparents Euclide and Eugenie Legere lived very near and he probably saw them quite a bit, along with other relatives who lived in the area.
A muster roll I found on Ancestry.com gives Ulysses' Navy enlistment date as July 14, 1942, at the age of 19. (He may have joined the Naval Reserves before then.) Two older brothers may already have joined the Army by that time; they also served in World War II, while a younger brother served in Korea. Ulysses was an Aircraft Machinist's Mate 2nd class who was assigned to the Pacific escort carrier U.S.S. St. Lo (CVE-63).
The muster roll reports the date he "was first received on board" as April 18, 1944, so Ulysses would have been aboard the carrier to support the invasion of the Marianas and the epic air battles now known as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot," as well as the invasion of the Philippines.
Just after that action, Ulysses and the St. Lo's task group faced overwhelming odds on October 25, 1944, when a large Japanese force was spotted approaching the Leyte Gulf. The small escort carriers, then off the Philippine island of Samar protecting transports and Gulf beaches, were no match for battleships and other heavy-duty vessels--no large-scale American backup was nearby--but somehow they prevailed, though with losses, in the "Battle off Samar."
The battle was, for the most part, over in about three hours, and the Japanese ships were retreating. But according to the official action report, the sailors of the St. Lo had no more than about half an hour to ponder their unlikely victory before everything plunged into chaos once again. With watches in place, a few St. Lo planes and a couple from damaged sister carriers were being landed on deck, refueled and reequipped with bombs. There was even a chance for those in combat since 0700 to have a cup of coffee and breathe again, when antiaircraft fire was heard, an alert went out, and two minutes later at 10:53 a.m., a kamikaze pilot struck the deck of the St. Lo. The plane and its bombs exploded, triggering several more explosions, fires and the eventual sinking of the carrier. Just when it seemed the crew could celebrate a David-and-Goliath-type victory, an attack by one Japanese pilot changed everything for the St. Lo, its crew, their families, and for the Sonnier family back in Louisiana.
I have not heard the story of how the family got the news of Ulysses' death, and I do not know exactly how it affected them. I have only recently come to know a few of them myself, but I wanted to pay tribute to the one relative I know of who lost his life in war, at least in recent memory. One sister wrote me that they are proud of all their family members who served in the military, and I suspect that Ulysses, and the Sonnier family, would probably echo that sentiment: If he was a hero, then all who served were heroes, whether or not they died in action. He was, like many other young men from small towns across the country, just doing what needed to be done. It's a sentiment I have heard more than once from World War II veterans.
At least a couple of siblings have been active in the St. Lo Association, and some of Ulysses' siblings, nephews and nieces have attended its reunions. Ulysses was survived by his parents, his maternal grandfather, and 12 of his 13 siblings in 1944. Today, more than 67 years later, three siblings remain who remember Ulysses at age 22, and perhaps a handful of older nieces and nephews, cousins, classmates or St. Lo crew members. But many, many nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, cousins, and other family members will remember his sacrifice and keep his memory alive for years to come.
Thank you to my Sonnier cousins for the use of the photo above and information about Ulysses, and to the several military historians, amateur or professional, who have made info about the U.S.S. St. Lo and the Battle off Samar available online. Additional sources include the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census and several military records from Ancestry.com. Any errors are mine; corrections and clarifications are welcome. Text copyright 2012 by Liz Hall Morgan, all rights reserved.