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Whitefish Silver Star recipients among Flathead veterans included in new book

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | May 31, 2023 1:00 AM

Army Chief Warrant Officer Manford Lloyd Kleiv had a dream of returning to his hometown of Whitefish following the Vietnam War.

On Oct. 9, 1964, he was flying a support mission as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam when his aircraft was hit by enemy ground fire and lost engine pressure. He skillfully landed, settling the helicopter without loss of life.

First evacuating the crew and setting up defensive positions as the enemy advanced, Kleiv then amid a hail of fire raced back to the helicopter to make a distress call for help. He returned to his position by his crew, and once again raced through fire to send a second call. Attempting to return to his crew, he was shot and killed by an enemy sniper.

While records are incomplete, Kleiv was most likely the first Montanan to be awarded the Silver Star in the Vietnam War for “His fortitude, courageous actions, and deep concern for his crew members enabled them to be evacuated from the area by helicopter.”

At the time of his death, Kleiv had spent more than 20 years in military service and had been looking forward to retiring after his tour in Vietnam.

“He wanted to roam the Montana countryside,” The Missoulian reported in January 1945, “Hunting and fishing and skiing. But always his base would be Whitefish.”

Instead, Kleiv returned home to be buried at the Whitefish Cemetery near his mother.

AUTHOR AND military historian Doug Sterner shares the story and that of many other Montana veterans in his new book “Beyond Belief: True Stories of Montana Heroes That Defy Comprehension.” The book is set to release this summer.

The Kalispel native, who now resides in Pueblo, Colorado, last year released a similar book on Colorado veterans. He has authored more than 100 books.

“Heroes don't talk about what they did,” Sterner said. “Their heroism doesn't happen on a good day. It happens on what may have been the worst day of your life, you or someone else is wounded. And that's why real heroes don't talk about what they did. But because they don't talk about it, many families do not even know that they have a hero in their family.”

A veteran himself having served two tours of duty in Vietnam, it’s become Sterner’s life work to document distinguished service award recipients and share their stories with the world.

In 1998, he launched a website to document the citations and biographies of Medal of Honor recipients and later expanded his efforts to document recipients of other distinguished awards. Ten years later, Sterner partnered with the Military Times, and his work was integrated into the Hall of Valor, considered the largest and most complete unofficial database of U.S. Military award recipients.

His wife Pam authored a policy analysis paper that became the basis for the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, and together they shepherded the legislation through Congress where he testified on the issue and the need for a military awards database.

His work has inspired several books featuring veterans, and now he’s placed his efforts on publishing books on every state to record personal histories and uplift readers.

“A number of communities do not even know some of the great heroes that came out of their hometown. You may go to a cemetery and see his headstone and not realize that man or woman served and, and did something heroic,” he said. “And so my first hope with the book is restoring history to individuals and to communities. My second hope is to inspire others by the positive things that these people have done and encourage them to emulate that.”

INTENTIONAL IN selecting the veterans featured in the state books, Sterner makes a list of veterans who have been honored. Then he looks broad-based at the state to narrow down the veterans by geography, wanting to make sure that not all the veterans who are featured come from the large cities in a state. He also wants to represent all branches of military service.

Sterner makes a particular effort to ensure women veterans are included. The cover for the Montana book features Capt. Sara Stires, of Billings, who is the first and only woman in the U.S. Navy to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroic actions taken while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. After nine years of serving as a naval aviator, Stires now serves as a Navy oral surgeon at the Naval Academy.

Sterner’s research process, along with that of the contributing writers for the book, includes scouring archived newspapers and genealogical records, and relying on his past work when it comes to military records, battle details, incidents and geography. Sometimes it includes contacting the descendants of the veteran who provide additional details and photographs, or reaching out to a school librarian who sends along a yearbook photo of a veteran.

While the focus begins with one veteran it also often extends to include family members, who often also have served in the military.

“I look for the individual hero,” he said. “But then I also look for their parents, their siblings, and things like that. I've run across several stories, one I'm working on right now is about one boy from Glasgow who was getting three Silver Stars in the Pacific while his kid brother was in Europe getting a Silver Star.”

THE VIGNETTES provide a glimpse into the lives of the veterans beyond the days when they were called upon to rise to a challenge and sacrifice beyond themselves.

“I don't think the book should be about what they did,” he adds. “It has to be more about who they were.”

Silver Star recipient Ted Kusumoto was a first-generation Japanese-American whose family moved to Whitefish.

He and his siblings attended schools and Whitefish High School where the boys in particular were outstanding athletes, according to the book. Kusumoto played on the school’s 1940 conference basketball team and his younger brother Dale was also a Bulldog basketball star. Younger brother Meach was the Bulldog’s star quarterback.

After graduating, Kusumoto enlisted in the Montana National Guard. It was while serving in Italy that he was advancing with his unit against heavy German fire. After being temporarily stunned by a grenade that fell near him, he threw one of his grenades into the enemy position before advancing to throw two grenades destroying a German machine gun.

One month later the war in Europe ended and Kusumoto returned home and was honorably discharged.

“Without Ted’s citation, his valor would be a mystery as he suffered from PTSD and never talked about it,” his nephew David says in the book.

Beyond recording the history of the individuals who served, Sterner hopes the stories serve to inspire.

“We can all find someone in these heroes to identify with,” Sterner said. “An Asian-American person can identify with one particular veteran, and somebody who was short and in ill health can identify with this guy who was short and in ill health, and both did something incredible. So the variety of our heroes makes it possible for every person to find someone that they can identify and say he or she was just like me, and look at what they did when the chips are down. And now if I ever find myself in a situation, I can rise to that occasion inspired by what they did.”

SHARING THE stories of honored veterans who remain, members of their communities, has become a part of the books. Sterner was surprised to learn that in his community, while many knew veteran Randy Haba, few knew that he was a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest military aviation award presented for non-combat valor. Sterner selected him for the cover of his book on Colorado.

“I have a sneaky feeling that when this book comes up, because Kalispell is such a close-knit community, there's going to be people seeing names in there that they're going to recognize and it just got to make their day to see that person they live next to or their uncle or whatever, and find out what they did,” Sterner said.

A familiar face for some in the Flathead Valley that is featured in the book is Kalispell native Matthew Christensen who was honored with the Soldier’s Medal, one of the military’s rarest awards given for “heroism at the risk of life not involving conflict with an armed enemy.”

The 1992 graduate of Flathead High School, was honorably discharged from the Army in 2000.

While serving in the Nebraska National Guard, he attended seminary school and later became a chaplain candidate for the U.S. Army. Deployed to Iraq he served as chaplain for an aviation unit in 2010.

While serving as a chaplain in Alsaka, after attempting to calm down a solider, who was intoxicated, suicidal and armed, Christensen prevented him from striking another solider with a machete. In presenting Christensen with the honor, Lieutenant Colonel Frank F. Baltazar said he “stepped in to do what was right, despite the risk, uncertainty, and fear of losing his own life.”

Having returned to Kalispell, Christensen has served as associate pastor for his home church Trinity Lutheran.

Providing a complete picture of the veterans' lives is important to Sterner, even when becoming emotionally involved in sometimes sad stories.

“I am impressed with the humanity of our heroes, that they are just like us,” Sterner said. “They have failures, they have frailties. They have things that they struggle with. And yet they are up to the challenge. I think what I've learned is just to appreciate more and more, the better nature of the American people and especially our men or women in uniform.”

The book “Beyond Belief: True Stories of Montana Heroes That Defy Comprehension” is set to be released on July 1 in hardback, paperback and Kindle on Amazon, or from the author’s website at www.herobooks.org.

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Silver Star recipient Manford Lloyd Kleiv

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Silver Star recipient Ted Kusumoto

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Doug Sterner, a Kalispell native and author of more than 100 books on the military and veterans, served in Vietnam. (Courtesy photo)

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The book “Beyond Belief: True Stories of Montana Heroes That Defy Comprehension” by Doug Sterner is set to be released on July 1.

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Silver Star recipient Ted Kusumoto (number 11, seated at far right) played on the Whitefish High School conference basketball team. The photo appeared in the Great Falls Tribune on March 4, 1940.