The story of a fish, and a murder

Our saga of Howard Tong begins after he caught a fish at the Oregon Coast in 1939. It ends in murder in 1972. Along the way, it includes a tangled web of tragedy, lawsuits, mystery, and insanity.

Actually, let’s back up a few years and begin our story in 1931 at Oregon State University, where fraternity boy Howard Tong proposed to his college sweetheart, Gwendolyn Morgan. Within a year, they welcomed a daughter, Carolyn, joined a year later by another baby, Delores.

Howard and Gwen Tong, 1939.

Howard and Gwen Tong, 1939.

Howard’s teaching career blossomed despite the Great Depression, and by 1938 he was principal of the high school in Gaston, but life was not all rosy in the Tong house on Second Street, near the school. Public school teachers didn’t make much in small-town Oregon. With a salary of a little more than $1,000 a year, and with only about $500 in assets, the young family was burdened with $3,300 of debt, and filed for bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy would prove to be the least of the Tongs’ problems in 1938, however, as 5-year-old Delores died.

Howard got back on his feet quickly however, and in 1940 found a better-paying job elsewhere. Then, as World War II raged, Carolyn got a baby brother, John. Things once again looked bright for the Tongs, but then once again tragedy struck, as John died at just 8 months old. Continue reading

War hits home in Washington County

There was a time when the Civil War meant more in Washington County than water-cooler arguments about whether the Ducks or Beavers will win the big in-state rivalry.

In the 1860s, the Civil War meant that county residents had to ride off on their own horses with their own rifles to fight the Indian Wars after the regular Army was called back east to wage the War Between the States. The southern mountain men and northern missionaries who settled Washington County didn’t argue about field goals and touchdowns, but rather about slavery.

walkingcoversmallWashington County’s role in the Civil War was minor, but veterans of the war played a major role in the area’s development. Take Gen. Thomas Thorpe, one of the war’s most-decorated heroes; after the war he came to Oregon to be Forest Grove’s school superintendent. Or Francis Bailey, a Confederate veteran who became one of Oregon’s most-famous doctors and mayor of Hillsboro.

Washington County residents have played a major role in every war since, from the Spanish-American War to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some made international headlines for their courage, while the heroism and sacrifice of others went largely unnoticed.

Also often unnoticed are the incredible changes the conflicts on the battlefront brought to the homefront back in Washington County. World War II hit home in a very personal way, putting the region’s forests in the crosshairs and creating war heroes here at home, including one Cornelius woman who nearly died in a horrific Portland shipyard accident, then returned to build more Liberty Ships after months of grueling rehabilitation.

World War II helped pull Washington County out of the Great Depression, but also derailed efforts to build roads to the Coast. Perhaps its most lasting impact, however, was the racial strife it created in local farms, forests and factories as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned and Mexican farmworkers were enticed to replace them.

Other conflicts don’t get the attention of the Civil War and World War II, but the sacrifices of those on the battlefront and effects back here on the homefront were every bit as profound. Consider, for example, the battle for Manila during the Spanish-American War, the effects of which had many lasting impacts on life in Washington County.

At 6:30 p.m. March 18 at the Washington County Museum, I’ll take a look at how each major American war has affected us here at home, and salute some of the local people who answered the call to duty. General admission is $6. Seniors/children/college/ID $4. Active military and veterans? $3. The event is in downtown Hillsboro, 120 East Main. There’s plenty of parking (no time limit after 5 p.m.) and the museum is convenient to MAX.

A century ago, a broken dam led to broken dreams

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon. Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

Fueled by his faith in God, Lovegren had been able to create a utopian future for his fellow man that had eluded contemporaries in Gaston and Laurelwood. His bold action had bested Gaston in its secularism and Laurelwood in its search for balance with the world around it.

Lovegren had overcome secularism and the naïve hope for harmony with nature. In three short years he had foreseen the obstacles and he had overcome them. He had overcome every obstacle anyone could throw in the path of a devout, brilliant-but-uneducated child of the American miracle. He had achieved the promise God made to him back in Sweden.

Continue reading

Tears of horror, tears of joy on Christmas 1941

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove: The Life and Times of the Prettiest Town in Oregon Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback. All Rights Reserved:

No air raid sirens sounded over Forest Grove less than six weeks later on the night of December 7, 1941, but the next morning the town awoke to the same dreadful news that rocked the rest of the country. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, leaving a horrific death toll among the American military personnel stationed there. The aftermath was chaotic and communication systems failed. Anxious families back on the mainland awaited word on the fate of their loved ones. One such household was the Burki family farm on Spring Hill Road near Gaston. Their son, Frank, was born on the farm and had grown up to play football at Forest Grove High School and then for Pacific University. In November 1941, in the middle of the football season and his freshman year of college, Frank Burki quit school to join the Navy. In less than a month he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Days before Christmas, the Burki family got the awful news from the Navy. Their son Frank was among those killed on December 7. It had not taken long for this war to hit home in Forest Grove. Christmas was a somber one across town, particularly at the Burki home. Continue reading

My deep thoughts on immigration

My ancestors were not whipped and chained and hauled to America. They did not work the cotton fields that made the United States a world power.

My ancestors did not indenture themselves to come to North America for the “privilege” of being a navvy, to break their backs carving out the railroads that made the United States a superpower. As such, my ancestors never had to retreat from the arsons, whippings, and lynchings that sent many fleeing back home to Asia, their dreams unfulfilled after all of their work was done. Continue reading

Rosie the Riveter? Plain Jane? They put the “her” in “heroic.”

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback:

Just as it had in World War I, the military conducted a census of women willing to do jobs traditionally done by men, including tasks such as welding in Portland’s shipyards, or running saws in Forest Grove’s lumber mills. The government set up a welding school in Forest Grove, and the first class filled quickly.

Margaret Steinbach of Cornelius proved to be an ace student and was the first to be hired at the Swan Island shipyards in Portland. She reported that she loved her job. The city was jolted a few months later, however, when another shipyard worker from Cornelius, Jane Schneider, mother of two small children, was crushed between a crane and the ship she was working on. The first News-Times story reported that while she was in “very critical” condition at Portland’s Emanuel Hospital, she was showing some signs of improvement.

Two weeks later, she had improved enough to return home by ambulance, and eventually she was able to walk again. Her story drove home the fact that women who took physically demanding wartime jobs in the shipyards, which were working at breakneck speed to supply the Navy, were very much in harm’s way.

Jane Schneider’s story also drove home another point: Forest Grove-area women were tough as nails. About two months after being critically injured, she returned to work at the shipyard.

The night the lights went out: A Halloween Tale

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback

In October 1941, the town buzzed in anticipation of the opening celebration for the Wilson River Highway, but the celebration had to be delayed because although rainfall in the Fall of 1941 was below normal, the dirt portion of the highway had turned to foot-deep mud. Rescheduling the opening, however, soon took a backseat to more urgent matters in preparation for possible war. On Halloween night, the Army was planning a mock air raid on Washington County to test preparedness, just in case the Japanese tried a sneak air raid over the area. More than 100 fighters, bombers, and military surveillance planes would fly over the county, prepared to drop flare “bombs” over any city in which even a single light stayed on. Batteries of anti-aircraft artillery would blast blanks into the night sky to add to the realism. Continue reading

An homage to Gordie Howe

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974, Copyright 2010, Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

When the other boys were actively dating in high school, I went dateless, too timid to ask out even the girls I hung out with all the time. I got all that timidity from my mother, yet she loved to tell stories about her adventures in college and in the Army. In her stories she was athletic and confident, yet the woman I knew was fragile and afraid.

She hated the Viet Nam war, yet she was more proud of her World War II service as an Army second lieutenant than she was of anything else she ever did. I was of draft age during Viet Nam and could not imagine voluntarily signing up to fight in Viet Nam, so I tried to place myself in the shoes of my mother 30 years earlier. Women were not actively sought after for the military, and she had other traits that made her service odd. She came from a well-to-do family. She had multiple college degrees. She was not a great physical specimen. No one was demanding that she go to war, yet she did anyway. I don’t think any of that entered into my decision to visit “Mac,” at least not consciously. When I got to Galveston I expected to call, make my mother happy and get a free meal. I got much more than that. Continue reading

Justice delayed is justice denied

Michael Medill will not face charges for posting warning signs at Henry Hagg Lake. Or maybe he will. It sort of all depends on the mood of bureaucrats on any given day.

On Saturday, September 6, Gaston resident Michael Medill was arrested for placing signs at Henry Hagg Lake warning about a dangerous drop-off at the Sain Creek swimming area. Continue reading