On September 14, 1944, Ensign Richard “Dick” Yentzer of the United States Navy received a Purple Heart onboard the USS Tulagi. The medal was awarded by Rear Admiral Calvin T. Durgin, who commanded the escort carrier’s Task Group.
The Purple Heart is the oldest medal in United States history. General George Washington was not authorized to offer men promotions based on merit, so he created the Purple Heart. Any enlisted soldier who performed a meritorious action was awarded the Badge of Merit, and “permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.” Washington intended the award to be a permanent part of the military, but after the American Revolution it faded away. The award was resurrected in 1932 by the General Order #3 signed by General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of War to honor meritorious conduct in the Army, and named it the Purple Heart. It was awarded to some World War I veterans retroactively upon its revival. The first person to receive the new Purple Heart retroactively was General MacArthur.
Meritorious conduct could have many meanings, including being injured in combat. It wasn’t until 1942, when the Legion of Merit was created, that the Purple Heart became what we recognize it as today: a medal “awarded in the name of the President of the United States … to members of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under component authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded, was killed, or who has died or may hereafter die of wounds received”in the line of duty.
Dick Yentzer graduated from Sheridan High School around 1939, and then went on to the University of Wyoming. He joined the United States Navy in 1942. Ensign Yentzer was trained as a naval pilot to fly Hellcats, among other planes, and stationed aboard the Tulagi, a Casablanca-class escort carrier as part of Observation Fighting Squadron One (VOF-1). When most people think air craft carriers they think of the giant ones like the USS Enterprise, a Yorktown-class carrier. Nearly a third of the aircraft carriers the United States built during World War II were these smaller escort carriers. Unfortunately, no examples of these ships survive today. Five were destroyed in service and the rest were scrapped.
Ensign Yentzer received his injuries on August 21, 1944 while the Tulagi participated in Operation Dragoon, the Allied landing in southern France. Aircraft from the ship flew hundreds of attacks against the Axis powers between August 15th and August 21st, of which Yentzer participated in fourteen. They also completed spotting missions for enemy gun emplacements and railway depots. The commendation from his commanding officer, W.F. Bringle, described the encounters that led to Ensign Yentzer’s injuries that day:
“While engaged in a fighter bomber missions against enemy motor transports in the vicinity of Bagnols, France, Ensign R.V.B. Yentzer received hits in his plane from intense anti-aircraft fire. Two hits entered the cockpit canopy wounding Ensign Yentzer in the forehead with a piece of shattered cockpit. While returning to base Ensign Yentzer and section mate sighted three enemy JU-52s and all three were destroyed, Ensign Yentzer accounting for one aircraft. On landing on board twenty-four holes were found in Ensign Yentzer’s plane."
Rear Admiral Durgin and his staff used the Tulagi as the flagship for Operation Dragoon and remained aboard when they were steaming for the United States. On September 14th, the Tulagi was two days out of Quonset Point Naval Air Base, Rhode Island, where they were to spend a ten day leave before heading to the Pacific. By October 31, 1944 the Tulagi was preparing to leave San Diego for Pearl Harbor and then the Pacific Theater, and Yentzer is listed on the muster roll as a Lieutenant Junior Grade.
VOF-1 underwent a change of directive at Pearl Harbor becoming Composite Spotting Squadron One (VOC-1), and was transferred to the USS Wake Island, another Casablanca-class escort carrier. Their job was to spot naval ships, submarines, and other things at sea. The Wake Island’s escort carrier unit suffered multiple kamikaze and torpedo attacks. The squadron still saw combat operations as the Allies island hopped through the Pacific, notably at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. According to the Navy’s official unit history written by VOC-1, Lt. Yentzer received five Distinguished Flying Crosses and thirteen Air Medals. He also shot down three Aichi D3A Type 99 Carrier Bombers at Okinawa with another pilot from his squadron. That brought his total planes shot down to four.
Dick Yentzer left the Navy in 1945, and started a business, Big Horn Airways with his brother Jack, doing agricultural spraying and dusting. Big Horn Airways is still in operation today, and based in Sheridan.
General George Washington, 1782
United States Army
Purple Heart Recommendation, August 31, 1944, United States Navy