By Leo Wolfson, Political Reporter
NODE, WYOMING — Fallen World War II veteran Maj. Virgil Olds will finally be officially recognized for his service. It only took 77 years.
“People have been thinking about it, it finally happened,” said Jimmy Shane, a American Legion member who arranged to have a Veteran’s headstone placed for Olds.
On Friday, American Legion Post 1 of Van Tassell and Niobrara County VFW honored Olds with a headstone marker at the Node Cemetery outside Lusk. Until then, there had been no headstone or any kind of recognition at the cemetery for Olds, a fighter pilot shot down while flying over Tokyo, Japan, in 1945. His body was never recovered.
“Today, we’ve again been reminded of the debt we cannot repay, the ultimate act of brotherhood, one who gave all for the United States of America, one who gave it all for the cause of liberty,” said State Rep. J.D. Williams, R-Lusk. “One who gave all for the common good. One who gave all for you and me.”
American Legion member Jimmy Shane can see Olds’ property in Node from his own, spending decades contemplating the life of the 30-year old fallen service member. He had been putting American flags around Olds’ mother and grandparents’ gravestones as a makeshift marker for the fallen veteran on Memorial Day.
“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” said Williams.
In 2019, he decided to see how they could recognize Olds with an official veteran headstone, but the ensuing effort required some bureaucratic maneuvering.
Finally this summer, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, stepped in to coordinate with the Wyoming VFW and Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery in Evansville to get a headstone arranged for Olds.
On Friday, the headstone, a gray face tombstone engraved with black lettering, was unveiled on POW MIA Recognition Day, a day held to remember and honor returned U.S. Prisoners of War (POWs) and all Americans still captured, unaccounted for or missing in action.
“Today we honor,” said Ed Tirado, commander of VFW Post 3511, pausing to fight back tears, “Mag. Virgil Olds, son of Niobrara County.”
Also attending Friday’s ceremony was Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. congressional candidate Harriet Hageman.
Birds chirped loudly nearby on the mild and sunny early fall day, where somber reflection met with proud honor as Shane and other organizers were finally able to pay tribute to a man who gave his life for his community and country.
“In Wyoming you are family and we will pursue every … avenue and stop at nothing to make sure that we remember all those who have served their families and the legacy that they leave for Wyoming,” Gordon said.
A Life Cut Short
Olds was born in 1915 on a ranch about a mile south of Node.
Today, the community about 10 miles east of Lusk, only has one resident. In the early part of the 20th century, the unincorporated town had more than 100 residents.
Olds’ mother, Mildred Olds, died a week after giving birth to her only child, Virgil. He was raised by his grandparents and lived a traditional rural life.
But Olds had an adventurous spirit.
Torrington resident Donna Peterson remembered Olds visiting her brothers on his Indian Motorcycle when she was a child and giving them rides. She found the nature of his death fitting of his service.
“I think that’s the way he would’ve wanted to go,” she said.
Growing up, Olds attended a small schoolhouse in Node and later graduated from Lusk High School in 1933.
Olds was a mason by trade but unbeknownst to his grandparents, he also took flying lessons in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and other places as a young adult. His sense of adventure would propel him into military service and his untimely death.
Olds’ military training began in the Lusk unit of the National Guard. After five years of service, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and a year later, promoted to first. In September 1940, Olds’ guard unit was mobilized for war service.
He continued excelling in the military, promoted to captain of his Second Battalion 116th Quartermaster Corps after a year.
“This put him in a position to apply for flight training … and his ability was such that he was accepted without loss of rank,” Shane said.
Olds went into flight training in 1942, which he performed while also serving as a flight instructor. Later, he trained for Boeing B-29s and participated in the Japan theater of World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps.
Shane said Olds kept his aviation career a secret from his grandparents as long as possible so they wouldn’t worry about him.
“All through the war he looked into the welfare of the elderly couple that had brought him to manhood,” Shane said.
In his will, Olds left his entire estate to his grandparents. They passed away shortly before and after his own death.
“He was selfless as an officer, as a leader, a son and a grandson,” said Brig. Gen. Michelle Mulberry, chief of staff for the Wyoming Air National Guard.
On May 24, 1945, Olds led his battalion in his plane, nicknamed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” pathfinding a bombing mission over Japan. It is believed Olds and his crew were shot down on the mission.
“I can’t help but think that on that day in May 1945, as he and his crew flew the pathfinder mission over Tokyo, Japan, that there was a sense of peace and calming among him and his crew, and that they had the utmost respect for him as their leader,” Mulberry said. “Maj. Olds and his crew, they will never be forgotten.”
Olds was promoted to the rank of major a few weeks posthumously and awarded a Purple Heart and an Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a denotation of three Air Medals.
There have been more than 80,000 veterans captured or still missing while fighting in wars for the U.S. Military.
Olds’ name can be found at the National Memorial Cemetery in Hawaii and now at the Node Cemetery, where he will rest in peace with his mother and grandparents.
Cutting Through Red Tape
Recognizing Olds was no small task for Shane and company. He said he was told by the Veterans Administration in 2019 it could not place an official military headstone unless Olds’ body or ashes were found. Also making matters difficult with the VA was the fact that Olds had no known descendants.
The group made no headway initially when reaching out to Wyoming’s delegation in Washington, D.C.
“This has been an example of if you don’t succeed the first time, try again,” Shane said.
During a Memorial Day celebration in May, the local American Legion gave a presentation on Olds’ life and requested attendees to contact their political representatives to request a military marker for Olds. Shane and others also sent letters.
Within a few days, they received a call from a representative in Cheney’s office who told them they were working on the request.
“Congressman Cheney’s office led the way for getting this headstone and she was the one that requested that the headstone,” Tirado said.
Next came a call from the Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery, which informed the group memorial stones would be made available in a few months. The Oregon Trail Cemetery also tracked down Olds’ National Guard records, which were on display at a nearby church in Node during Friday’s ceremony.
“We couldn’t believe how fast this thing came together and can’t start to thank anyone else that wrote letters and the American Legion Post 1 for all their involvement in this,” Shane said. “This was the right thing to do and the least we could do for a man of 30 years of age that gave his life for this country.”
Tirado expressed gratitude that Shane, 87, was able to arrange Olds’ headstone before it was too late.
“If it would have been 10 years in the future, we might have had this information,” he said. “Nobody would’ve known and nobody would’ve been there to carry on that legacy.”