While members of my immediate family have served in the military, only distant members of my family–none of whom I ever met–have died in service to their country. For that, I am extremely fortunate. Knowing that, I endeavor every Memorial Day to highlight an individual in my family tree who did make this ultimate sacrifice. I spend time researching the individual in a more detailed way than time usually allows. I like to think that the time I spend learning more about these individuals’ sacrifice and sharing that information with others serves as an homage.
Today, I did some research and discovered a wealth of information about the harrowing Vietnam War experience of a distant cousin (5th cousin 2X removed): Billy Ray Laney.
A particular special operation in which Billy Ray was involved later became the subject of numerous military investigations that went on for over thirty years. I have read several reports that have included the testimony of one of Billy Ray’s surviving comrades in which his comrade describes Billy Ray’s fatal mission. While Billy Ray’s status remained “MIA” for over ten years, further investigations involving DNA did eventually produce more answers for the Army as well as for his family.
Clifford Harding was born October 17, 1942, in Iola, Kansas, and resides in Lawrence, Kansas.
Aubrey Laney was born October 17, 1991, in Plano, Texas, and resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Clifford is my uncle. Aubrey is my niece.
My Uncle Clifford and my mother, his older sister, Sandra Joyce Harding (b. 1938), grew up in a very small town in southeast Kansas: Iola, in Allen County.
He and his family moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in the late 1950s.
He took up farming with his father, and he eventually took over the Harding family farm and manages it to this day.
He has been married and divorced three times and has an adult daughter, Kathy Lee “Katy” Harding (b. 1987), from his third marriage.
Clifford continues to work the land, spend time with his beloved dogs, and follow KU Basketball.
Aubrey Laney is proud of her birthplace, especially because her husband has ties to Texas as well. However, she and the rest of my brother’s family did not remain in that state for long. They returned to Oklahoma where my brother and his wife began their married life together. Aubrey graduated from Owasso High School and earned a Bachelors degree from Oklahoma State University.
She was married in Waimanalo, Hawaii, on May 29, 2018, to Kevin Hammett. They are expecting their first child—a boy—in December.
John W. Laney and Cordelia Paris were married on October 15, 1877, in Greene County, Missouri.
John and Cordelia Paris Laney were my great great-grandparents.
John Wesley Laney’s father, John Laney (1817-1894)–my 3X great-grandfather–and his brother, George Marion Laney (1829-1893), had relocated to Greene County, Missouri, from Greene County, Tennessee in 1848. Cordelia’s father, John James Paris (1837-1884) was born in Kentucky, but sometime before marrying Cordelia’s mother–Rebecca Angelina Hampton (1836-1874)–he had moved to Greene County, Missouri. Rebecca was born in Tennessee, but had come to Greene County, Missouri, as a teenager.
The two were married and raised a family in Greene County, Missouri.
The couple had five children, the youngest of whom was my great-grandfather, Ernest Arthur Laney.
Interestingly, it appears that following John Wesley’s death, Cordelia married his older brother, Rev. Samuel F. Laney, who had become a widower four years earlier.
John Wesley and Cordelia Paris Laney are buried together in Maple Park Cemetery in Aurora, Lawrence County, Missouri.
Rev. Samuel Laney and his first wife Sarah are buried together in Concord Cemetery in Ridgely, Barry County, Missouri.
Omar Laney was born October 1, 1911, in Joplin, Missouri.
He was my paternal grandfather.
Omar Laney was the only child of Ernest Arthur Laney and Norma Ethel Lewis, both natives of Missouri.
He attended Joplin High School, where he was a member of the ROTC.
He was married for a few years to Juanita Calhoun with whom he had a son, Billy Gene Laney. The marriage ended in divorce.
On September 6, 1936, Omar married Elizabeth Ann Williamson, my grandmother, in Joplin.
My father was born in June of the following year.
The time the young family would have together was relatively short. When the U.S. entered World War II, Omar joined the Merchant Marines, spending long periods of time away at sea. He travelled all over the world, as you can see from the various ship manifests below.
I’ve always loved this photo of my Dad and his mother and her mother-in-law. This photo was taken on the streets of New York sometime during the war. I’m guessing that the three family members pictured here had travelled from Joplin, Missouri, and met my grandfather’s ship upon its arrival and were sight-seeing during his short leave. A camera buff, Omar probably took this photo.
I love how the photo captures the determined look on my grandmother’s face as she clutches my father tightly to her body. I read her expression as (1) a protective mother, perhaps fearful of dangers that might befall her child in bustling New York City, and perhaps (2) an anxious mother and spouse, knowing that her time with my grandfather was going to go by far too quickly and that all too soon he would be shipping out again. It’s also interesting for me to note how very young she appears in this photo.
Jayhawk Ordnance Works, built during World War II, was a large ordnance plant producing ammonium nitrate. From the story at left originally printed in an employee publication, it appears that Omar worked at Jayhawk prior to his military service and that he returned to visit while on furlough.
After the war, the former military chemical plant was privatized, and at one point it was the world’s largest producer of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the world.
After the war, my grandfather returned to Joplin where he lived all of his life except for a period of ten years when he and my grandmother resided in Lawrence, Kansas, where he was employed as an engineer for Cooperative Chemical Association.
My grandfather passed away in 1985 at the age of seventh-three, just before I graduated with my undergraduate degree
He lived to see the first member of his family—his son—graduate from college. And he lived to see my brother and me grow to adulthood.
I never thought about it before writing this post, but maybe my granddad’s vehicles—of which he was very proud—had something to do with my favorite color being red…??
I will always remember those times that I made him laugh and just how how subtle that hard-earned chuckle was—just like my Dad’s laugh. And, like my Dad, he had a little twinkle in his eye when he smiled or when he was thinking of playing a prank. He had many interests and had many dreams and aspirations that were sadly just out of reach for him, mostly for health reasons.
I will treasure always my memories of my grandfather, particularly at those holiday gatherings that I know he loved so much. I will also treasure the memory of the special effort that he and my grandmother made to attend the recital I gave as a senior in high school.
And just maybe I will think of him the next time I’m in need of a new vehicle and debating about a color choice!
Ernest Arthur Laney (1889-1958) was my father’s paternal grandfather. He was a miner in the lead and zinc mines that at one time dotted the landscapes of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
One generation further removed on my father’s maternal side, his great grandfather, David Williamson (1846-1908) was also a miner. David Williamson, along with numerous brothers and sons, had been coal miners in Scotland before immigrating to this country. They worked in these same mines and, as recent immigrants, they were probably particularly desperate for this work and qualified to do little else.
While the working conditions and health hazards of this particular segment of workers has not gotten as much attention as has the plight of coal workers, those who mined ore were no less vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.
Eagle-Picher Mining and Smelting Company was a conglomerate that owned many of the mines in the tri-state area. My great grandfather Laney worked for this company. At least one of his assignments was to a mine near Picher, Oklahoma.
While those who worked in lead and zinc mines did not suffer the effects of Black Lung disease, there were inherent dangers in their work environment nonetheless.
My father remembers as a child playing, climbing up and sliding down the huge piles of “chat”—the detritus brought up with the ore. The toxins contained in these erstwhile playgrounds of by-product had yet to be discovered.
Eventually, Picher was declared a Superfund site, and the town in which my father was born is no longer in existence. My father and I shared a heart-breaking documentary that details the environmental destruction wreaked by the tri-state mining industry upon Picher and the subsequent abandonment and condemnation of this once vital community. The film is entitled The Creek Runs Red, and I highly recommend it.
As members of a collective bargaining unit, my great grandfather and fellow Eagle-Picher miners had the backing of a labor union in combating such environmental work hazards and in negotiating for better pay on their behalf. Eagle-Picher miners were members of Local 861 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (which later merged with United Steel Workers of America.)
I am proud to have recently discovered, through researching newspapers of the time, that my great grandfather was personally involved in negotiations on behalf of those Eagle-Picher miners, successfully securing a new collective bargaining agreement in 1946.