A borough hero fades into history

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Brig. General James L. Dalton, left, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, center. -Contributed by the Naugatuck Historical Society

His name is read aloud with the borough’s war dead each Memorial Day and adorns a street sign in the Glendale neighborhood of Naugatuck.

Other than that, Brig. Gen. James Leo Dalton II, an assistant division commander in the U.S. Army who was felled by a Japanese sniper’s bullet during World War II, is barely remembered in the borough.

“In all of the things I’ve done in the past, I’ve never heard his name mentioned,” said Robert Genovese, who has for decades been active in borough veterans’ affairs. “It’s probably a shame.”

Newspaper articles published during the Vietnam War identify Dalton as the highest-ranking Army officer in borough history. At the time of his death in 1945, he was one of the Army’s youngest generals, and his superiors told the New York World-Telegram that he might have commanded the Army one day if he had lived.

“The General, who in his prior command as Regimental Commander for the 161st Regiment had been exposed so many times to extreme danger, was suddenly killed in his moment of triumph,” wrote Sgt. James P. Cundari in a 2007 memoir. “In a war of this type, even Generals got killed.”

Dalton, 35, had been promoted from colonel only the month before his death.

“It goes okay out here Pete, like any other corner of the war men live hard and scramble and scratch to beat the other guy — and some don’t come back,” Dalton wrote in a letter dated April 25, 1945, to a friend in the borough. “We will win this war and I hope we never face the prospects of another such …”

As assistant commander of the 25th Division, Dalton’s leadership was instrumental in the capture of Balete Pass, a strategic point in the Philippines. On May 16, 1945, the day after the battle was won, Dalton was shot in the head while inspecting the Japanese defenses he had just conquered. The government of the Philippines later renamed the area Dalton Pass.

Dalton was with five others when the sniper opened fire, according to the World-Telegram. He was shot trying to take cover under an overhanging rock. He fell against the leg of Lt. Col. J. D. Vanderpool, and rolled back into the line of fire already dead, Vanderpool told the newspaper.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur expressed “great sorrow” at Dalton’s death, and in 1966 told the Waterbury Republican his “dedication to his country and his bravery in combat established a record never equaled.”

He left a wife, Katherine Starbird, the poet laureate of Vermont, and two young daughters. They were living in Vermont by the time Dalton died, but his aunt Esther still lived in the borough. Newspaper articles report his military mass filled St. Francis Church.

Dalton’s family moved to Naugatuck shortly after his birth in New Britain. He grew up in a neighborhood he called The Hill, which includes Galpin Street and Highland Avenue, and went to St. Francis Grammar School. A borough friend, George McNamara, described him decades later in the Waterbury Sunday Republican as “a typical youth, one who loved the outdoor life.”

Dalton graduated in 1927 from Naugatuck High School. The yearbook indicates that Dalton, known as “Jimmy,” ran track and played football.

“Jimmy certainly does sail on when it comes to the track team, but Jimmy did not stop with the cinder path,” his entry reads. “He sailed right through his studies to the shores of Annapolis, where he is our first alternate.”

Dalton entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1929, graduating four years later as a second lieutenant. He started his military career in the cavalry at a time when cavalrymen still rode horses instead of tanks, and was assigned to Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont — presumably where he met his wife.

During a polo match, Dalton’s horse took fright and nearly trampled a group of spectators, according to numerous newspaper retellings. Seeing the danger to the crowd, Dalton pulled on the reins until the horse fell, with Dalton underneath. His sacrifice earned him a spinal injury and six months at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. After his hospital stay, he was assigned to the infantry.

Dalton was at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 bombing and later received the Silver Star medal as commander of the 161st Regiment, one of the two units that conquered the Japanese stronghold at Guadalcanal. He was widely quoted as saying, “Boy, am I glad to see you!” to the commander of the other unit as they met and shook hands on the battlefield.

He was known as “Dusty Dalton” for conducting inspections in white gloves, which he would run along windowsills in search of dust.

Borough veterans reacting to “draft card burnings, peace marches and other indications of a growing lack of patriotism among members of today’s ‘In’ generation” proposed a scholarship program in 1966 in Dalton’s name, according The Sunday Republican. The fund gave out a handful of scholarships before drying up, articles from the Naugatuck Daily News indicate.

Sixty-seven years from the month Dalton was killed, his story is fading into obscurity as his World War II contemporaries die, including the community icon Franklin Johnson Sr. two years ago.

“The only person who would know anything about it would probably be Frank Johnson, and he passed away,” said Stanley Borusiewicz, quartermaster of the borough’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Borough historian Sandra Clark believes General Dalton Drive was named in the early 1950s. Since then, she said, she has not heard much of the borough’s onetime war hero.

“‘Lest we forget,’ and we do,” Clark said.