Fourteen names were engraved onto the World War II section of the Memorial Union's Gold Star Hall this year, thanks in large part to the tireless research of James Olberding.
Olberding, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Ames, is a member of the committee that oversees Gold Star Hall, a living monument to ISU students who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. He helped to establish the Gold Star Hall committee in 2003 and played an instrumental role in starting the practice of yearly ceremonies to commemorate veterans listed in Gold Star Hall.
"I'd walk through Gold Star Hall and see names of people I went to school with," Olberding said. "I discovered by going to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., that there were some people who had been missed."
Those missed names inspired Olberding to begin a years-long effort to make sure every ISU student who gave their life in an armed conflict receives their due recognition by inclusion in Gold Star Hall.
One might think that all the names of eligible WWII veterans would have surfaced in the nearly 80 years since the end of the conflict, but Olberding continues to find overlooked names in his quest.
The 14 World War II veterans added to Gold Star Hall in 2023:
- James Bernard Cavanagh, Pottawattamie County
- Charles Kenneth Follett, Union County
- Lewis John Fredericks, Franklin County
- James Fred Koch, Black Hawk County
- Robert Edward Koutsky, Linn County
- Frederick Eugene Lindgren, Woodbury County
- Lloyd Donald McNeil, Calhoun County
- Orlan George Middlen, Lyon County
- Thomas Dee Parsons, Jefferson County
- Jennings Marion Peterson, Polk County
- Walter John Ruchotzke, Cedar County
- Rodney A. Van Nimwegen, Sioux County
- Willard E. Ward, Wayne County
- John Homer Westburg Jr., Dallas County
To be eligible, someone must have attended Iowa State full time for one or more academic terms and died while in military service. Today, Gold Star Hall includes the names of around 600 students who served in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, the USS Liberty, Iraq and Afghanistan. The university honors several veterans listed on the wall with an annual Gold Star Hall Ceremony, held earlier this week.
The 14-member Gold Star Hall Committee periodically hears from friends, roommates and family members of veterans they believe are eligible for inclusion on the wall but have been left off for various reasons. The committee researches each case to make sure the suggested veteran meets all the required criteria for inclusion. It's not uncommon for a name or two to be added in a given year, but this year's addition of 14 World War II veterans was an unusually large find, said Lana Seiler, an administrative assistant at the Memorial Union and a Gold Star Hall committee member.
"Gold Star Hall was intended to be a living memorial," Seiler said. "The efforts of Jim and the rest of the committee keep the memorial alive so that additional veterans who meet all the criteria -- past, present and future -- can have a place on the wall."
How he did it
Olberding's effort to uncover the 14 WWII names began several years ago when the De Moines Register published the names of numerous WWII veterans from across Iowa who died during the war. Olberding wrote the newspaper's editor to ask where that information came from, and the editor sent him a database from Ancestry.com. The database contained thousands of names of Iowans broken down by county. The list included military service numbers and rank, in addition to their names.
Olberding suspected this massive trove of information likely contained some names of veterans who had attended Iowa State and should be recognized in Gold Star Hall, so he and the Gold Star Hall committee collaborated with the registrar's office to check each name against enrollment records. Olberding's hunch turned out to be right, and the search resulted in the addition in August of 14 names to the World War II section of Gold Star Hall.
Olberding was born in Schenectady, New York, and spent much of his childhood in Ohio. But when it was time to go to college, he chose Iowa State due to strong family ties to the university. His father, aunt and three uncles graduated from Iowa State College, and his mother attended Iowa State for a time as well. He completed a bachelor's degree in history in 1963 before he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent two-and-a-half years in Vietnam and was awarded a battlefield commission on his first tour. He served in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV, a joint-service command established to provide advisory and assistance efforts to South Vietnam.
In 2003, he began putting the skills he learned as a history major at Iowa State to use by researching Iowa veterans. He sent a letter to then-president Gregory Geoffroy regarding the need for an ongoing process for evaluating and adding new names to Gold Star Hall. Thus was born the current committee and the annual ceremony.
But there's more work to be done, Olberding said. The database he cross referenced with ISU enrollment records contained only Iowa veterans. He believes there are still veterans from other states who attended Iowa State who are not yet on the wall. To find them, he said he'll go through old issues of the "Bomb," the former ISU yearbook, to find hometown information for students from out of state.
It's a painstaking and seemingly never-ending job, but Olberding said he plans to continue the research as long as he can.