Road named for WWII heroes from Royalton
Photos from Matt Wireman
ROYALTON – Two young men from Royalton killed in World War II were honored on Saturday, with a section of Sandbottom Road named in honor of the Whitt brothers.
On October 19, members of the community and the family of William “Byron” Whitt and Forest Grey Whitt gathered as the two were honored, with people coming from as far west as Wyoming.
Magoffin County Judge-Executive Matt Wireman explained to those in attendance that he formed a committee of veterans to start honoring the heroes from Magoffin County, which are going through the seven volumes of veterans compiled by the Magoffin County Historical Society. The group is narrowing down veterans to be honored by focusing on prisoners of war and those that paid the ultimate sacrifice, Wireman explained.
“One of the things that made us focus on the Whitt brothers was the fact one of them is still on the Arizona,” Wireman explained. “There’s a lot of folks in Magoffin County and Eastern Kentucky that have no idea that we still have somebody from here on the Arizona. As we dug further into this, we saw that another brother was also killed in action during WWII. Forest received the Navy Cross. That is only superseded by the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
Wireman said the there was actually a third brother in the service at the time Byron and Forest were killed and he was sent home.
“This has all the makings of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ right here in Royalton, Kentucky,” Wireman said.
Wireman read the telegrams sent to the family when Byron was missing and, several months later, declared deceased. He also read the citation written to the president regarding Forest’s actions, which led to him being posthumously honored with the Navy Cross.
“That was one bad man from right here in Royalton,” Wireman said. “He was 19 years old and when you hear what he done, it’s just amazing and I hope I can get through it. I don’t know if it’s the fact I’m a veteran or from Royalton, or the fact I got a 20-year-old son, but this is a very emotional day for me, as well.”
Wireman explained that he didn’t think they would be able to track down any of the family, but he was astonished by the number of people who came to support the Whitt brothers.
Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class William Byron Whitt was aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, and his body was never recovered from the ship.
Private First Class Forest Whitt was assigned to the Pacific theater of WWII and died in battle at Okinawa, Ryukyu Island. His actions were best described in a citation from the president, honoring him with the Navy Cross:
“For extraordinary heroism while serving as a Group Leader in a Rifle Platoon of Company I, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 18, May 1945. When his platoon was halted by heavy enemy machine-gun, small-arms and mortar fire during an attack on a strongly defended ridge, Private First Class Whitt voluntarily went forward with a supporting tank to direct accurate return fire on a ken enemy emplacement. Exposing himself to an intense hostile barrage with complete disregard for his own safety, he skillfully directed the fire of the tank, destroying the emplacement and its occupants. Returning to his group, he relentlessly advanced his men halfway to the summit of the ridge before the unit was again halted by merciless fire from the determined Japanese garrison. Undaunted, he ran forward once more, reached the top of the ridge and, using hand grenades and automatic weapons fire, annihilated twelve of the enemy. Although mortally wounded as he again returned to the ridge with a fresh supply of grenades, Private First Class Whitt, by his unfaltering leadership and indomitable fighting spirit, had rendered valiant service during a critical stage of the action, and his conduct throughout upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
Bryon and Forest’s nephew, Phillip Whitt, spoke at the ceremony.
“I spent a lot of time here in Royalton growing up, and when I got to be 10-11-12 years old, my parents let me come spend summers with Mamaw and Papaw,” Whitt remembered. “They had these three pictures over the mantel in the second bedroom – one big picture of Byron, one big picture of Forest and a big picture of my dad. They were all three in their uniforms and looking like very gallant young men, and I used to lie there in that bed and look at those pictures and just wonder about what kind of men they were and wishing I could have met them – to know them at that time in their lives.”
Whitt, of course, only knew his father, Chalmer, but he heard stories.
“Forest was apparently quite well known in the area and best I can tell, he was very well known by the young ladies,” Whitt joked. “He was apparently quite the character and based on the stories I’ve heard, I think that, had he survived and gone into corporate America, he would have been the CEO of some really powerful company.”
Whitt also expressed gratitude to Wireman and the county for honoring the heroes in his family.
“I think this is just really wonderful that Matthew has done this and I’m so taken with it,” Whitt said. “I wish my parents could be here today to see this and I know they would have really appreciated this greatly.”
Alma Holliday, a close family friend of the Whitts, could remember growing up alongside the family, celebrating holidays together and other community events.
“Mr. Whitt was a good neighbor and he raised a good family,” Holliday remembered. “They were hardworking."
Though she was quite young, Holliday can remember the day a man came to tell the Whitt’s that Forest had died in battle, after already losing Byron four years before.
“We were old enough to know our guys were dying in the war and it was hard. It was really heartbreaking for the whole family because they had already lost Bryon and it was very difficult, but the family held together, and we had to go on. All of us. We had to make the best of it and keep going.”
Holliday said after Forest’s death, a lot of young men went into the service to show their patriotism.
“It was a scary time,” Holliday said.
The Magoffin County DAV concluded the ceremony with a 21-gun salute and Wireman noted that it was a great day in Royalton as these two war heroes were honored.