Sunday, June 10, 2012


National Commander, American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor

Uncle Kenny
When I still very young, I already knew that Uncle Kenny was different from my other relatives. He had tattoos on his arms and his back. He was an electrician and smoked Lucky Strikes. He came from rural western Pennsylvania and used expressions like "redd off the table." He sat flat-footed on his haunches, with his arms around his knees, the way he learned from the Filipinos. And he had been a prisoner of the Japanese.

And on one or two occasions that I recall from childhood, he referred to himself as a Jew.

He was also my sandak (~godfather).

Kenny Stull was the eldest son of Francis Jackson Stull and Velma Thompson and was married to my mother's older sister, Ethel Gordon. Aunt Ethel had grown up in Vandergrift Pennsylvania without any Jewish education to speak of. There were no outward signs of anything specifically Jewish in their home or their lives.
The house on Franklin Avenue,
two and a half years ago.
I was surprised how annoyed I was that the
owners had allowed it to deteriorate so.

They had gotten married shortly before he went off to war and although he had been home a couple of years by the time I was born, they had no children. I guess that's partly why my parents chose him to be my sandak. Besides, the sisters were close despite the eleven year age difference.

We lived in Pittsburgh and they were in Vandergrift, but we visited with them often and when we'd stay over, it was at their house on Franklin Avenue, rather than with my grandparents. When I was very young - I want to say six, but that's crazy even for my parents -  my mother put my younger brother and me on a bus to Vandergrift for a few days' visit with Aunt Ethel and Uncle Kenny.

They had a "Lassie phone" with a party line and you had to dial the operator and ask for Vandergrift 577A. I knew how to do that well before first grade.

One time we went to see them when I was about five and they brought out a little blonde girl, maybe three years old. "This is Sally. Soon she will be our daughter." Sally became Donna and about two years later, they had a daughter on their own. Aunt Ethel was in her fortieth year.

With their children and son-in-law
 Eric was born seven years later. Aunt Ethel died when he was just turning fourteen.

A few days before his thirtieth birthday, Eric was killed in a freak automobile accident in which he should have played no part.  Donna died of cancer five years later, leaving a husband and two children. The second daughter has not responded to our attempts to make contact during the last few years, even when my mother died.

I stayed in touch with Aunt Ethel and Uncle Kenny until I moved to Israel thirty-nine years ago. They travelled to Chicago for my wedding and we visited with them a couple of times in Vandergrift.

To the extent that I thought about it at all, it was obvious to me that he had become Jewish because he married a Jewish girl and they wanted to keep her parents happy and his references to himself as Jewish were for effect. Shows how much I knew.

He Killed a Girl
One day, when I was about twenty-six and here in Israel, my mother started talking ex nihilo, as she did from time to time. I will tell you what she said, but mixing in the details I have learned since. I don't know if my mother knew all these details as she had been ten years old and hadn't yet known Kenny.

Indiana (PA) Evening Gazette, 3 February 1937
"Mudless Shoes Freed Motorist"
On the evening of 8 January 1937, Kenneth Jackson Stull of Leechburg was driving on the road between Leechburg and North Vandergrift and he hit a girl. She had been walking along the road - one of a group, which apparently included her mother. Catherine Frayer Beatty was seventeen when she died and had been married for two weeks.

On 2 February, a coroner's jury accepted the highway patrolman's testimony that it was an accident. She had no mud on her shoes, so she must have been walking on the road itself, not off to the side as Mrs. Frayer had claimed. It had been dark, so he wouldn't have seen her. No charges were brought.

Soon after, he was in church on Sunday morning and the angry voice from the pulpit said something like "There is a murderer among us. The law says he is not guilty, but he knows and we know he is a murderer." Kenny left the church, never to return.

Having renounced his spiritual anchor, he was rather at a loss what to do next. My mother said "He drove around until" - and she made it sound like hours, but it may have been days or weeks - "he came to a 'Jewish church' and he went in." And some time after that, he completed his conversion and became Jewish.

I don't think he knew any of the Gordons at the time. He didn't marry Aunt Ethel until November 1940. Very possibly he decided that since he had become a Jew, he should look for a Jewish girl. Yet they were married in Hardy West Virginia, so it seems they eloped. (Thanks to Beth at the Vandergrift Historical Society for that  bit of information.)

Soon the army came calling. He learned about the Phillipines. And Bataan. And Corregidor. He survived the infamous death march and whatever else the Japanese had in store for their prisoners.
The four Vandergrift Gordons in WWII        (My mother was too young)
The Jewish Criterion (Pittsburgh) 24 September 1943.
 He came home, went to work for my grandfather for awhile, eventually going off on his own. He tried a few businesses, eventually settling on one he called Ken Electric, was elected to serve as a Vandergrift Councilman and smoked his Lucky Strikes.

Beth Jacob Cemetery, Lower Burrel Pennsylvania
Uncle Kenny served two one-year terms as National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor veterans organization and participated in a veterans trip back to the Far East to see the camps once again.

He lived his last years near his second daughter down south and died weeks before his seventy-sixth birthday.

Milt Rosenberg and His Guest, Jan Thompson
I often have podcasts on while I work and two or three times a week will listen to Milt Rosenberg's wonderfully eclectic night time interview show on WGN in Chicago. On Memorial Day, he had on a woman named Jan Thompson who is in the process of releasing a film called "The Tragedy of Bataan."

As I listened to the archived show the next day, I decided to google "Kenneth Jackson Stull," just to see what is out there. What I found included this
On January 25th  members of the “A” Company led by the 803rd Battalion’s Executive Officer, Captain James D. Richardson joined men of the 21st and 34th Pursuit Squadrons, all virtually untrained and poorly equipped to become combat infantrymen in the defense of the Aglaloma-Quinauan Point area on Bataan’s rocky southwest coastline.  These raw troops aided by Philippine Army and Scout forces engaged in combat with about 600 Japanese invaders who had attempted a landing behind the lines.  On January 26th in a Japanese ambush, 10 men of “A” Company were killed-in-action and another 38 wounded, decimating the unit.  On February 5th “A” Company’s survivors were relocated to Corregidor where they spent the next 3 months engaged in tasks that they had been trained to do, i.e., widening and extending Kindley Field, the island’s airstrip, constructing aircraft revetments, maintaining roads and utilities, etc.  Working in the open, the unit was exposed to ever-increasing Japanese artillery barrages and air raids and suffered eight more casualties including the C.O. of the company, Cap’t Zbikowski who was killed on April 2, 1942.  Just prior to Corregidor’s surrender on May 6, 1942 the remaining physically fit “A” Company men were integrated with marine and navy defenders on the beaches at Monkey Point.  Troops of the Japanese 61st infantry Regiment, a component of the 4th Division landed on the north coast of Corregidor on May the and the island was surrendered by General Wainwright the following day.

Pvt. Kenneth Stull left Corregidor in the latter part of May and after a brief stop at the Bilibid Prison in Manila he was transported north to the Cabanatuan P.O.W. camp where he remained until November 1942 when he sailed to Japan on the freighter, “Nagato Maru.”  After his arrival in Japan in late November 1942, Stull spent some time at the Shinagawa P.O.W. camp/hospital in Tokyo, perhaps in ill health prior to moving to the large Omori camp located on an island in Tokyo Bay and connected to Tokyo proper by a 300 foot long timber causeway.  The Omori camp became the home for many Air Force personnel downed in the Pacific during the war or over Japan in the last year.
Thanks to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum at
the Brooke County Library in Wellsburg West Virginia for this envelope
I sent the link to some of my family, including to three of my DC-area second cousins who are some years older than I.

Cousin Dick Sincoff wrote back:

I greatly appreciate the article. A significant omission was the Bataan Death March, which he survived. At a local theatre in D.C., not long after the fall of Corregidor, we saw captured Japanese film and saw Kenny standing near Gen. Wainwright. My mother made us stay through to the next showing to confirm it. She ran from the theatre; she called Ethel in Vandergrift and told her that he was alive. Ethel already had received a telegram from the War Department that Kenny was missing in action and presumed dead.
He continued thus (emphasis mine):

After the release of prisoners, he went to rehab hospital in Hawaii for many weeks and finally was flown to Andrews air base in suburban Maryland outside of Washington. I went with my mother and father to greet him. He was rail thin but held himself tall. He still had the thick glasses he wore--albeit wired and patched. He spoke very little about the war thereafter, but in 1948, when I was 13 and spent 2 weeks with him, he opened up some, told me some of the horrors and some of the sabotage that US prisoners did while in the camps. He was often beaten because he was Jewish.
As you know, Kenny converted to Judaism. At one time while a POW, the camp boss told told all Jews to come forward, and Kenny did so. As he stepped out, a fellow American, held his arm and said, "Stull, you don't have to do that." Kenny said yes he did, because he was a Jew. I felt great emotion hearing his stories, as I guess did he. For the rest of his life, he never liked men with extra-short haircuts and avoided rice.
On summer afternoons after work, he would walk with me on the bluff overlooking the river and rail tracks and softly tell me things, out of earshot from Ethel. I still wonder if he opened up with others as he did with me. Maybe I was just a kid who needed to know, who needed to hear the horror, and maybe not let it happen again. But it did, didn't it?
This is the story of one man, my uncle and sandak and has significance for me and other family members, so I can close here.

I really should be saying kaddish for him. For my sandak.

Afterword for Genealogy Researchers
But there is also a lesson here for us genealogy researchers which I don't want to pass by. I don't know who besides me knows the story of the conversion. Cousin Dick, for instance, will learn those details when he reads them here. Nor do I know how many other people know the bits I emphasized in red above. I certainly hadn't and my mother probably didn't either. Until last summer, Cousin Dick and I had not seen each other in probably fifty years, though we have been exchanging emails recently.

Often when we researchers contact cousins, we will talk to one or two of a group and assume we have them covered.  That is not the case. You can never tell when a particular story or piece of information has fallen only to one specific person. And even so, what makes something come up from distant memory into conversation. It is important to talk to everyone, and not just once. And there are still important things you will miss.

Graphic by Sarajoy


  1. I knew some of this story, but hadn't heard the part from your cousin Dick. Wowee, Zowee what a gem of a story. Yes. You really should say Kaddish for this man. They really were the Greatest Generation.

  2. I do have a twinge of regret that I didn't place a stone on his grave when I visited the cemetery. I remember seeing the name Stull and thinking, "Hmm. That doesn't sound very Jewish."

  3. Interesting and moving story. Thanks for sharing, Israel.

  4. Late one night in the summer of 1976 Daniel, Ron, and I set out for Williamsport, PA to pick up Sarajoy. She had spent part of the summer with our friends, the Harrisons. The four of us then drove to Pittsburgh. Daniel and Ron drove home and left Sarajoy and me there for a few days. As I recall the boys left the Goldmans with fried chicken which did not make it to the Ohio border.

    One of the things I wanted to do with Sarajoy was to visit with Uncle Kenny. This was later in the year that Aunt Ethel died.

    One morning Sarajoy and I drove to Vandergrift with Aunt Esther. She was driving one of those huge boat size cars. Although I was 19 years old, I was actually a relatively inexperienced driver, having lived in Israel as a teenager, where the driving age is 18. Well, Aunt Esther pulled into the alley behind the furniture store, got out and told me I should take the car and go. I knew how to get to Uncle Kenny's house, but was very hesitant about driving this huge car. I remember stopping at every corner - even when I had the green light.

    Back to Uncle Kenny. Sarajoy and I spent a few hours listening to his stories. I am sorry I was not reliable about journaling, because I don't remember as much as I wish I did.

    He told us about the car accident and how that brought him to Judaism. He talked about making an effort to show his future father in law his sincerity - I'd like to remember more about this.

    He also talked about Donna coming into their family. I remember a story about him sealing the bond with her by taking her shoe shopping and how that became a custom for them to do together.

    He did not talk about the war at all. I learned new things about that from this post.

    Great work, thanks and keep it up!

  5. Jennifer L Myers15 February, 2023 03:57

    Kenneth Stull was my uncle.His brother Dale was my dad