The headstone reads “Benjamin W. Fairbanks.” But that’s not who’s buried there.
Positioned over a gravesite at the sprawling Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, Calif., it seems indistinguishable from the 145,000 other headstones lined up around it in endless rows. They stretch as far as the eye can see, and they’re all alike — upright tablets with curved tops, grayish-white coloring, and engraved inscriptions; motionless ghosts solemnly stationed at their posts.
The inscription on this particular headstone provides all the usual details of the deceased: “Benjamin” was born in Minnesota on Oct. 18, 1908. A Private First Class with the U.S. Marine Corps, he fought in World War II. He died during the war, on Aug. 7, 1942.
All those details are absolutely correct, when applied to the right person. But as one White Earth researcher found out, Benjamin W. Fairbanks is not that person. It wasn’t Benjamin killed in battle that fateful day in 1942 — that honor belongs to Benjamin’s younger brother, Clyde.
It was Clyde Richard Fairbanks, born and raised on the White Earth Indian Reservation, who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1941. It was Clyde Richard Fairbanks who fought and died for his country.
And it’s Clyde Richard Fairbanks who’s buried there at Golden Gate National Cemetery, under the headstone with his brother’s name on it.
Tim Fairbanks, the researcher who uncovered this tale of mistaken identity, said the falsehood was created by Clyde himself — years before he became a Marine. It started innocently enough, it seems. Clyde just wanted to play college football.
He was a talented athlete, Fairbanks learned, and a football coach from Davis and Elkins College, in West Virginia, wanted him on the team. Clyde was ineligible because he didn’t have his high school diploma. But his older brother, Benjamin, did.
“So that’s where the name change came in,” Tim Fairbanks said.
Clyde played on the school’s team for at least four seasons. He was only 19 years old when he got recruited, and he probably never imagined that the false identity he’d just adopted would end up following him all the way to his death.
Discovering the truth
Until Tim Fairbanks started digging around, there were very few people who knew it was really Clyde buried under that headstone with Benjamin’s name on it.
In the mid-2000s, Fairbanks started researching fallen veterans from White Earth Reservation as part of an effort to create a White Earth Hall of Honor memorial. Clyde was one of the veterans on his list.
A distant relative of Clyde’s (Fairbanks thinks they share the same great-great-grandfather), Fairbanks remembers hearing Clyde's name as a kid, with at least one family member referring to him as a war hero. As such, Fairbanks thought it’d be easy to find information about Clyde. Instead, all his searches turned up empty.
He scoured every available official source, and called every person he could think of, but after six months, he still had nothing on Clyde. In a last-ditch attempt to find something —anything — he contacted the White Earth tribal newspaper.
“The Anishinaabeg Today paper put an article in for me, where I stated that I was looking for information on guys who died in the war and that I needed more info on, and one of them was Clyde,” Fairbanks said.
It felt like a long shot, but it worked. After the article ran, Fairbanks got a call from a man in Massachusetts who introduced himself as James Chandless, Clyde's son.
Chandless wasted no time in setting the record straight, Fairbanks recalled, plainly telling him, “You’re not gonna find anything under Clyde Fairbanks. He joined the military under his brother’s name, Benjamin Warren.”
Fairbanks was floored. In all his research on White Earth veterans, he had never come across a situation like this before. But sure enough, as soon as he began checking his sources for information under Benjamin’s name, he easily found what he had been searching for all along.
Military records show Benjamin W. Fairbanks (aka Clyde) enlisted in the Marines on Dec. 18, 1941, in Philadelphia, and was assigned to active duty that same day. A Private First Class, he joined the 1st Raider Battalion, a specialized unit similar to the Navy Seals of today.
“He must have been kind of a hardcore guy to be in the 1st Raiders, somebody that liked physical contact,” Fairbanks said.
Clyde’s battalion was charged with “hitting the beaches first,” Fairbanks said, and it was as his battalion was leading a beach invasion at the start of the Battle of Guadalcanal, in the British Solomon Islands, that he was killed by enemy fire.
'Blazing mad with grief and hatred'
Marine Corps Private Russel H. Frederick tells the full story of Clyde’s death in emotional detail, in an article called “My Baptism Of Fire In The Solomons,” which he wrote for a 1943 Naval publication. He fought directly beside Clyde, but apparently never knew him by his real name, as he calls him Benjamin in the article.
Frederick wrote: “When we were 50 yards from shore, (Japanese) machine guns started chattering, spraying bullets all around us … At 25 yards we struck thick coral, razor sharp, and I could hear it scratching the bottom of our boat. ‘Over the side,’ the captain ordered, and we vaulted into the water. I went over the port side and, as I did, I heard a cry from Ben Fairbanks, who was alongside of me. Ben had started over the starboard gunwale (upper edge of the side of the boat), but a bullet drilled him through the heart and killed him instantly.”
The enemy was “raining bullets on us,” Frederick continued, “but the shock of Ben’s death stopped me for a few seconds. I was blazing mad with grief and hatred. I looked in the direction from which the shooting came. There was a machine gun nest in a sandbag emplacement. Instinctively I reached for a grenade and hurled it at the (Japanese). It struck right in the center of the emplacement, and the (Japanese) and their guns were blown up in a cloud of dust. I had done for Ben’s killers … Ben was one of our squad and now there were three of us left.”
After his death, Clyde’s mother spent several years trying to convince the Marines and the Department of Veterans Affairs that it was Clyde who was killed, not Benjamin. Yet it’s still Benjamin’s name listed in military archives and databases, and it’s still his name on Clyde’s headstone, “so none of that ever got changed,” Fairbanks said.
Fairbanks doesn’t know of any other national memorials or monuments that bear Benjamin’s name. Clyde is remembered properly in the local area, listed as Clyde Fairbanks on the monument at the Detroit Lakes Veterans Memorial Park, and of course on the White Earth Hall of Honor.
Born to Benjamin S. and Hannah J. Fairbanks, Clyde was one-quarter Chippewa Indian and an enrolled member of the White Earth tribe.
An informational note sent to Fairbanks by one of Clyde’s grandchildren states that, “Very little information has been substantiated about Clyde (Ben) Fairbanks’ childhood.”
Nevertheless, the note goes on to state that Clyde most likely attended either the St. Benedict Missionary School or the Government Industrial Boarding School assigned to the Chippewa Indians in White Earth at the time.
He later attended a Midwest preparatory school, Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Ill., where he was discovered for his athletic abilities during a scrimmage football game and recruited to the team at Davis and Elkins College (D&E) by notable coach Cam Henderson.
Under his brother’s name, Clyde enrolled at D&E. He attended the school from the fall of 1928 to June 1932, and again for a semester in 1934-35.
Allen Byrne, a former editor of The Inter-Mountain Newspaper of West Virginia, raved about the 1931 D&E football team in an article and mentioned Ben (aka Clyde) personally, naming him as one of three “stalwart” players of Indian ancestry on the team: “All were fine fellows, liked by everyone, were average to excellent students, and so far as I know were eligible to represent D&E on the playing field. And, of course, it goes without saying, they knew how to play football.”
Clyde also played basketball for D&E.
For several years after college, he continued to live around the East Coast, up until he enlisted in the Marines. He was married for about five of those years, and fathered three children.
Today, Tim Fairbanks said, any White Earth relatives of Clyde’s that once remembered him and talked about his heroism in the war have since grown old and passed away. Clyde’s close relations live in the Massachusetts area, and, “I don’t know of anybody here anymore who knew Clyde, or knew of him,” Fairbanks said.
Keeping the memory of Clyde alive in White Earth — and indeed the memory of all of White Earth’s war veterans — is Fairbanks’ passion, and the whole purpose behind the White Earth Hall of Honor.
Completed in 2012 after four to six years of research, fundraising and installation, the Hall of Honor features framed displays of 31 veterans from White Earth Reservation who died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. There is also a list of names of 57 men who served in the Civil War.
Each veteran has his — or in one case, her — own display, containing information on the person as well as a photo and replicas of medals or patches of honor earned. The displays are up for public viewing along a wall of the White Earth Health Center, where Fairbanks worked before his retirement two years ago.
“The Hall of Honor in the White Earth Health Center was put up to honor our warriors from White Earth who gave the supreme sacrifice during wartime,” Fairbanks said. “It's great to see these heroes remembered.”
If you go
WHAT: White Earth Hall of Honor
WHERE: White Earth Health Center, 40520 County Road 34, Ogema
WHEN: Open during regular health center hours, 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
HOW MUCH: The public is welcome; there is no cost.