Stockman, soldier, family man: Ken Halligan remembers life on the Plains and WWII battles
American hero and astute cattleman, Ken Halligan spent years defending our freedoms and a lifetime punching cows in one of the last great frontiers: western South Dakota.
Born on the Cedar Butte, S.D., homestead in 1921, he was the second of John R. and Ethel (Roush) Halligan’s six children. The now 92-year-old Halligan remembers the building of Highway 40 in the 1920s. “The England family had an elevator grader that used 30 mules to pull it,” he remembers. “That was quite a sight.”
“Most of the ranchers, Berrys, Callens and Becktolds ran commission steers,” he remembers of the country between the Pine Ridge line and the Little White River. A car dealer named Paul Meyer, from Wood, was supposed to have had 28,000 head of Texas steers. When Halligan was six or seven, anthrax hit and fires from disposal efforts could be seen every night along the Big White River. “The stock market crash of 1929 cleaned the steers out of the country.”
Halligan recounts the time his father traveled via train to Mitchell, S.D., for a gallstone operation. “My mother had two or three kids and the place to take care of. We always kept an ‘up horse’ or a good saddle horse in the corral. Horse thieves took all our broke horses and with Dad being gone we never did find a trace. This started a feud with horse thieves that goes on yet today,” he said.
When the horse thieves returned, his dad was home. “He went on the trail immediately.” He and the sheriff tracked the thieves and horses to a sale in Nebraska. “The draft horses were some Dad freighted with and had camped with. He was able to call his horses out of the bunch. Two young fellows were arrested and would not give evidence of the ring of thieves so they served time.”
“My parents were great judges of cowboys,” Halligan remembers. “Mom would look out the window and get a look at the horse and saddles and name them ‘Cowboy,’ or ‘Bum,’ or ‘Phony,’ or ‘Farmer,’ or the lowest was a dressed-up dude with a good saddle, boots and hat – he was a ‘Thief.’” Most of the good cowboys had jobs until the big companies went broke in 1929, Halligan said.
“The crash of ’29 didn’t make much difference to my family,” he said. “We just had the cream check for cash flow and the sale of the broke horses. Cattle brought very little except for the big finished steers. Some thought we lived in poverty but we ate good and had horses to ride and the whole county to ride in. We had many picnics and dances.”
As the second child, Halligan said he was a “goof.” “One time I got to go on a horse roundup. I ran across a mother coyote and was going to follow her to find her den. She led me off into the Badlands so far they had to turn the roundup loose to find me. I wasn’t lost, just a long way from home for a six-year-old. I knew my stars to find my way home in the dark,” Nonetheless, he recalls being grounded afterward.
In May of 1931 the family, including five children, started to trail to Parmelee where Halligan’s folks had purchased a foreclosed “rural credit” ranch. “The land at Cedar Butte was being farmed at a fast rate,” he recalls. They headed out with 40 head of cattle and 40 horses, a Farmall tractor with iron lugs on the wheel pulling a hayrack loaded with machinery, a hayrack carrying furniture pulled by a team of four horses and an old Model T heading to the new home. “Eugene (older brother), me and Oscar Stone, an old time cowboy, trailed the stock. We left at daylight ahead of everyone else.”
Halligan said his first saddle was an Army saddle. “The cowboys on the range made fun of my outfit. They called me ‘captain’ or something but I liked the saddle.” The family’s horses were out of Morgan coach driving mares crossed with mustang studs, mainly buckskin with dorsal stripes. They were the best and never had to be shod, he said.
“The non-Indian people in the Parmelee area were business people and cash farmers with no livestock. The rest of us were milk cow and horse people,” Halligan explains. “The cash farmers went broke in the 1929 crash but still owned their equipment, big houses and big cars. They tried to keep up a good front but in 1934 everyone went broke!” But there were house and barn dances, picnics, skating and sleigh rides for entertainment. “Some neighbor boys helped us build a bucking chute to buck out cows with. We were trying to ride them with saddles which was not easy,” he remembers. “We had some great buck-offs!” Those boys had an advantage at community contests, he said because “the good bronc riders couldn’t get the rhythm of a cow. You had to bicycle them.”
Families from around the western part of the state moved to this community in 1933 seeking grass and water for their horses, as the banks had foreclosed on cattle and sheep. “They told about dust storms that filled their corrals with dirt and buried fences. We soon found out what they were talking about.”
The grass didn’t green up at all in 1934. Governor Tom Berry’s steers ranged for three years before Halligan helped round them up in 1937. “Those steers got big!”
Halligan graduated from the Nebraska School of Ag in 1939. “Hitler was on the move in Europe,” he remembers. Finding work was nearly impossible as everyone assumed the young men would be drafted. “I didn’t like water so I enlisted in the Signal Corp. as soon as I was 20. I wound up in an amphibious outfit on the ocean!” he said.
“War was a great adventure I would not want to repeat. The folks at home had it just as bad,” Halligan said. Soldiers could handle the stress of war for about two years before they broke down. “Some changed for the better, some turned into vicious killers and some went crazy,” he said. “The midwest rural boy and the Ozark Mountain boys seemed to handle the stress the best.”
“’D’ Day we had been briefed on what to expect – lots of dead Japanese bodies. I can assure you there were no Atheists that climbed down the landing nets into the landing boats. We had all made our peace with God the night before. As we approached the beach, there were bodies floating but they were American. That’s when I grew up and found out war was serious. We got on the beach and met two jeeps with American bodies dangling from them. The drivers looked like zombies. They called it ‘battle fatigue.’ An infantry colonel came up and said ‘Fall in.’ We were going to replace these people and that was my introduction to real war on Kawagelin.”
Halligan served as floating reserve when one commander threw all his Marine force in when the tide was wrong and the soldiers were “slaughtered.” Halligan said another infantry was ordered in but they refused until the tide was so that they could get to the beach. They did and eventually set up a beach head.
Halligan’s company and many more moved during the night to the Leyte Gulf, after two little islands had been taken. “When daylight came we were in the bay with 500 other ships, some say it was 700. What a sight!”
Soon they were spotted by the Japanese and “Zeros came like hornets,” leaving behind blinding smoke and falling shrapnel. Unbeknownst to the American soldiers, a main battle fleet had been lured north following a decoy, leaving them with no air cover. “For eight days we didn’t see a plane except for the Japanese with the Red Sun on them.”
“The battle for Leyte Island was on. This was one of the greatest sea and air battles,” he recalls. “We were bombed and strafed around the clock.”
Halligan remembers grabbing a machine gun to shoot down a kamikaze suicide plane heading down the beach. An officer gave the order not to shoot, thinking it was American aircraft. “The plane flew into the side of a troop ship. I regret very much that I did not defy orders and shot down the kamikaze.” The Japanese almost won Okinawa with their suicide tactics.
On Cebu Island at the University of the Philippines, Halligan’s unit rescued a teacher and eight children tied up with piano wire just before the Japanese killed them. The teacher who was well educated and spoke excellent English struck out on a personal mission to have those soldiers transferred to the Philippine Army. She had also witnessed the “death march” of U.S. and Philippine scouts from Corregidor and Batton to Camp O’ Donnell and wrote of the war in horrific detail.
As a “lineman” stringing telephone wire, Halligan and his cohorts were particularly attractive targets to the Japanese. “Sometimes they would wait a couple of days to shoot at a lineman,” he said.
“My luck ran out in January of 1945. I was on a pole as usual, getting wires off the ground so the tanks and artillery could come up when I heard a mortar round. I don’t know for sure what happened, I was impaled on a guy stake and then went into shock. I remember the medic giving me morphine and then getting into an aid station.” Halligan said the doctor put his arm back together. “I had told him in my delirium that I would shoot him if he cut it off and I guess he believed it!”
After healing up, Halligan returned to his outfit. Later in the war, he was called into the headquarters. “You have a reputation for being able to whip anyone in the company,” he was told. Halligan said he had only fought twice, once with a bully and once with a boxer so he doubted that it was true. He was offered a position as 1st Sergeant of A Company and after finding out his pay would improve, he accepted the job.
Nearing the end of his deployment, Halligan recalls an incident in Korea. “We were being replaced by a strict G.I. Army bunch. We were to feed them supper and then turn the kitchen over to them. In combat units, the most powerful position is Mess Sergeant. Nobody messes with his policies or you eat junk. This company lined up to eat by rank, the captain on down to the privates at the end of the line. The Mess Sgt. came over and informed me he would not feed the outfit in that order. I told him I knew of a better way. We reversed the line. The privates ate first and officers last! Our cooks kept asking the privates how they liked their meat cooked, and such. They had the biggest smiles you have ever seen.”
The unit headed home on Thanksgiving Day, 1945, about four years after Halligan was first deployed. He remembers that about 30 of the men were hiding monkeys that they intended to take home with them.
The ship landed at San Francisco. “One of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen was the sun shining on the Golden Gate Bridge.” Behind it was a sign, ‘Welcome home 101st Sig BN, Job Well Done.’
“Nothing was the same at home,” the well-decorated Halligan remembers, after hitchhiking and paying taxi drivers to get back. “All the young people I had known were married and didn’t want me around.” Adjusting to civilian life was not easy for the soldier who was awarded a Purple Heart. “I about re-enlisted and I hated the military!”
He soon found a job as a telephone man out of Rapid City and met a young lady named Ruth Verch. They were married in 1947 and by 1949 his love of ranching got the best of him and he leased some grass, quit his job and began his new life. After renting some ground around Parmelee, he moved his family to Bad River country which was “good cow country but Hell on horses and women.” Good neighbors were worth more than gold. Ten years later they had the chance to buy a place and the family which now included five kids moved south of Draper to become independent ranchers.
Halligan served as an officer for the National Cattlemen’s Association, director and president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, member of the state Brand Board and in many other prestigious positions in the cattle industry. After his son Jim took over the ranch and his wife lost a valiant battle with breast cancer in 1996, he lived in Pierre and did order buying at the local auction barns. He later married an old friend Florence Williams who died in 2013.
Reading history from Ireland to America, Halligan said “it’s always about land.” Wars are fought over hunger and the need for more land.
Being a good cattleman today is crucial, but so is understanding the land, Halligan said. “The land will take care of you if you take care of it.” But the family farm and ranch is being challenged by corporations. “Looking at the chicken, hog and dairy industries gives us a clue. When a corporation has control of the land, they control the people. South Dakota ranchers are the salt of the earth and basically the only independent agricultural industry left but are often working at basically zero profit. How long can it last?”
Today Halligan is content to watch his children and their families “make a difference” in their chosen fields.
Editor’s note: Ken’s daughter compiled two short books with stories of his life as a soldier and his life at home. If you would like a copy of either, please contact Linda Gilbert at 605-375-3281. Linda’s help in writing this story is very much appreciated.
Ken passed away in 2014. His obituary is available here.