Memorial Day … remembering an uncle killed in WW II Germany

??????????By Lynn R. Mitchell

Memorial Day is a time for my family to remember the uncle I never knew, Clarence Franklin Osborne, who was born on August 1, 1917, and killed in action in Germany during the closing days of World War II, on March 21, 1945. He was 27 years old. Married for five years, he left behind a young widow but no children. My mom was in her final year as a student at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia.

Mom, the youngest of the 10 siblings, researched in later years and found answers that helped a young sister put closure on her older brother’s death. For a decade Mom researched and talked with those who fought with Clarence, catching up with his fellow soldiers in the sunset years of their lives. In a notebook of almost 400 pages detailing not only his life but also the battles that surrounded and included his participation in the war, she documented this part of our family history that is also world history, and made identical notebooks for my two sisters and me.

Memories of a big brother
In 2005, Mom wrote the following about Clarence:

I remember my brother as very handsome, carefree and happy, and a wonderful brother. Since we had no car [while growing up], we had to walk every place we went. My mother used to say that she could not go to sleep when the boys were out oat night until she heard them come in the house. Clarence loved to whistle and whistled all the time. Mom said she would always hear him whistling as he came down the road and she could then go to sleep.

During World War II, Clarence was drafted into the Army and reported for duty on April 27, 1943. After only five months of training at Camp Croft, S.C., his unit shipped out on September 29, 1943, for the war in Europe and became a replacement in the 36th Division in Italy. He was a private, but was later promoted to Private First Class, and was First Gunner in a mortar squad of Company D, 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment of the Texas National Guard 36th Division which was part of the U.S. Fifth Army under General Mark Clark.

His first battle was on December 15, 1943, to liberate the little town of San Pietro, Italy, from the Germans. For fifteen months he fought — from San Pietro in southern Italy until they liberated Rome, then from the Riviera in southern France to the northern border of France — plus one day in Germany.

Clarence was killed in the last great battle the 36th had to fight, on March 21, 1945, just about six weeks before the Germans finally surrendered.

Clarence was much too young to have had to endure what he did and to die when he was so young and so close to the finish line. I do not want anyone to ever forget what he did so we can have the freedom we have today.

Early years
My grandfather was from Grayson County, Virginia, and my grandmother was from Allegheny County, NC, just across the New River. They married and began raising a family in the mountains of Grayson County, farming the rocky, inhospitable slopes of the southwestern Virginia mountains.

Clarence was born in a two-room cabin in Volney (Grayson County) on August 1, 1917. In February of 1918, my grandparents boarded a train and left Grayson County in the midst of the Great Depression, moving to Burkeville, Virginia, where they lived for a decade and found work while surviving that bleak time in history. In 1929, they moved to the Richmond area, settling in Chesterfield County where many family members still live.

Clarence at DuPont
During the Depression, Clarence was a teenager and left school to began farming with my grandfather to help provide food for the ever-growing family. At the age of 16, he was able to get a job working for E.I. DuPont Company in south Richmond. DuPont was the largest manufacturing company of chemical products in the world. Though Clarence began in the rayon division, by the time he was drafted he was working in the new nylon division making products that would be used to make the new nylon parachutes, airplane tires, and many other items needed for the war effort.

My mom tracked down Clarence’s sergeant, Dock Roberts, who was in 92 in 2005 and lived in Texas. At the time of Clarence’s death, Dock was 31 years old and he said he and Clarence were the “old men” of the unit. Clarence’s death hit Dock hard and, though he had not spoken of the war after returning home, he dredged up memories of those days and was a wealth of information and able to answer many questions for Mom.

One thing Dock shared was that once when the soldiers were sitting around talking, Clarence told them about working at DuPont and that he was making something called “nylon,” the newest invention to help in the war effort.

DuPont honors a fallen employee
DuPont’s custom was to publish pictures and information about their employees’ achievements in the monthly magazine so when the war began they shared pictures of employees who had left to serve their country with their branch of service, rank, and a short bio. Under “News from the Front,” they updated that information with names of those who had been injured or killed.

In the June 1945 issue, there were eleven full pages dedicated to news from the front. One was a 3″x5″ picture of Clarence with the following:

Private First Class Clarence Franklin Osborne, formerly in Plant 1, Spinning, gave his life in action in Germany March 22. He entered service April 27, 1943, after ten years with the company, and received his training at Camp Croft, S.C. He went overseas in October 1943 and served in Italy, France, and Germany. Walter M. Osborne, foreman in the Chemical Building of Semi-Works, is his brother.

Clarence’s wife received a letter from DuPont dated April 25, 1945:

It is with deep regret that we who were associated with your husband here at Spruance Plant have learned of his death.

While we know how weak and meaningless are any words of condolence in your time of grief, we want you to know that the Management of the plant and Clarence’s former fellow employees do feel the greatest sympathy for you.

Our regret at Clarence’s passing is tempered somewhat by a feeling of pride that we were privileged to know him and work with him. During his service with the Company he made many friends, all of whom esteemed him highly and each of them joins me in expressing to you our sorrow and sympathy.

The American Flag at the main entrance to our plant will be at half mast through May 13 in honor of former President Roosevelt but Tuesday, May 1, has been selected as the day that the lowered flag will honor jointly the memory of our former President and your husband. We feel that such action will again remind all of us of the high price of freedom.

Yours very sincerely,
/s/ G.E. McClellan
Plant Manager

1st Gunner
Dock Roberts, the sergeant of Clarence’s unit, provided background information invaluable to the family. He broke down once while talking with Mom, excusing himself and then returning to the room. Mom described him as a burly man who was 6’6″ tall and 300 pounds. She also talked with Emelio Albert who survived the war. Both were able to fill in details of the months of war leading up to Clarence’s death.

When Clarence was shipped to Italy, he was 1st Gunner on a mortar gun. The mortar squad was made up of eight men — the Sergeant and seven others: the 1st gunner who carried the tripod, 2nd gunner who carried the tube that attached to the tripod and in which the shells were loaded, 3rd gunner who carried the base on which the tripod was placed in order to fire it, and four more men who were ammo carriers. Clarence’s buddy Emelio Albert, who retired to California, said he was an ammo carrier. Another ammo carrier in their squad was William H. Shumaker from Dillwyn, Virginia. Emelio had joined Dock’s mortar group in Naples in June of 1943 as a replacement when he was 18 years old and they were preparing for the invasion of France. He was seven years younger than Clarence but said Clarence was his buddy and he called him “Ozzie.” Both Emelio and Dock said they grieved the deaths of Clarence and another of the gunner team, Harry Yale from Long Branch, NJ, because their eight-man mortar squad had been together for so long they felt like a family. Dock told Mom that he had known a lot of people who were killed — or died in later years — but nothing had hurt as much as Clarence’s death because they were especially close due to their closeness in age.

Snow and mud during winter 1943-44
The Italian Campaign was one of the most difficult of World War II with some of the hardest battles for foot soldiers in Italy which was very mountainous with heavy snows in the winter of 1943 and heavy cold rains in the later winter and spring of 1944. The earth turned into a quagmire and the fox holes were filled with water. Mud was so deep it was nearly impassable for vehicles as well as the men on foot. In the summer of 1944, the ground turned to dust which swirled at the least disturbance. The Texas veterans’ most vivid memories of the Italian fighting was the weather and the terrain.

Clarence’s first battle was December 15, 1943. Starting December 8, the 36th Division had been trying to take 4,000-foot Mt. Summacro (Hill 1205) so they could liberate the little town of San Pietro at the base of the mountain. Sergeant Dock Roberts and Roy Goad, Commanding Officer of the 143rd Regiment, were wounded on Hill 1205. San Pietro was at the entrance to the Liri Valley and was heavily fortified by the Germans. It had to be taken by the Allies before they could enter the Liri Valley in the drive to liberate Rome.

From North Africa to Italy
The men of the 36th Division had come into Italy after fighting in the deserts of North Africa and were still wearing their summer uniforms. They were not prepared for the bitterest winter Italy had experienced in years. Most had no overcoats, raincoats, or even gloves.

Much of the fighting for Hill 1205 was by climbing, literally hand-over-hand, straight up the side of the mountain which was very rugged, with sharp rocks sticking out the entire route. Germans were entrenched on the top of Hill 1205 with large boulders for fortification along the edge of the top of the mountain. The first Allied soldiers reached the top and surprised the Germans who began rolling large boulders off the mountain onto the climbing American soldiers.

The 1st Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment moved on from Hill 1205 to the battle to liberate San Pietro at the base of the mountain. Clarence was a replacement for the 36th Division and entered the fighting on December 15. On December 16, they finally succeeded in capturing San Pietro but a high price was paid … the 143rd suffered 1,100 casualties.

Dock said San Pietro was the beginning of the siege, the first line of defense for Casino, which they liberated in 1944. Christmas of 1943 was spent at San Pietro. There is a picture of Clarence in the pictorial history book of the 36th Division, “The Fighting 36th,” taken on Christmas Day which shows him and a number of others sitting and standing around their dead comrades. Also, he had sent a small snapshot taken of himself to my grandparents as he stood in front of his tent. It was taken on Christmas Day as he sat on something dressed in his rumpled uniform and looking very tired.

Many lost in Rapido River crossing
According to Dock, the two-day attempt to cross the Rapido River on January 20 and 21, 1944, was a total disaster and many men died unnecessarily. Called a colossal failure by General Walker (see General Walker’s Story of the Rapido Crossing) where more 2,100 American soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing, General Walker recalled, “A heavy fog, cold and dense, hung over the river that night of 20 January. Visibility was near zero.”

In their attempt to clear the way to capture Monte Cassino, the military had to cross the river which was swift and deep, and take the town of San Angelo. The first night was unsuccessful so they were sent back the second night. The riflemen went across first, followed by a heavy mortar platoon on the second night. Dock and Clarence were in the mortar platoon from the 1st Battalion of the 143rd and crossed together on a footbridge. Many of the men drowned and others who were not swept away by the rapids were killed by Germans dug into the hill above them. Most of the men who got across were killed by unrelenting German mortar and artillery fire. A few survivors, including Dock and Clarence, swam the icy waters back across the river after the footbridge they had originally used was destroyed by Germans. Clarence was lucky to have survived.

Clarence was in combat a total of 15 months, starting with the battle of San Pietro and ending with his death near Bergzabern, Germany. It had been continuous, heavy fighting including such well-known battles as Monte Cassino, the Rapido River crossing, and San Angelo and more, all the way up the valley to Rome, which was liberated from the Germans on June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day invasion at Normandy.

Operation Dragoon
After Rome, the 36th had a retrieval and training period near Naples where they prepared for the invasion of the French Riviera in southern France. That invasion was known as the 2nd D-Day invasion and was code-named “Operation Dragoon,” sometimes known as “The Forgotten D-Day” (see Operation Dragoon website).  It was the second largest amphibious invasion during the war (behind Operation Overlord aka D-Day) with a fleet of more than 1,500 ships, including nine aircraft carriers, that left Naples on August 13, 1944, passed through the Sardinia-Corsica Straits, and landed on the beaches of the French Riviera between Toulon and Cannes on August 15, 1944. (See History of Operation Dragoon.) Clarence landed on “Green Beach” aka “Camel Green.”

They then headed north through France toward Germany, driving the Germans north toward their homeland and liberating one French town after another. Dock talked about them going through the town of Nancy which was a little resort town. As “foot soldiers,” they traveled on foot, Dock said sometimes 100 miles a day, all the way up the Rhone River Valley to the Colmar Pocket in the Alsace region of northeastern France near the border into Germany. Christmas 1945 was spent in the town of Strasbourg which has both French and German influence. It is the founder of the Christmas tree tradition and has one of the world’s finest cathedrals. This was a far nicer Christmas for the 36th than the one in San Pietro, Italy, the year before. Dock said they received heavy resistance as they approached the German border.

Clarence’s death
Clarence spent the night before he was killed in the town of Wissembourg, France, which is about two miles from the German border. According to Dock, their unit left on foot at about 9:30 the next morning, March 21, 1945, and crossed into German around 10:00 a.m. Their mission was to take the village of Bergzabern, Germany. It was slow going and they did not reach the Siegfried Line, which had been opened up by the Armored Division ahead of them, until that night. They were in the main fortification of the Siegfried Line when Clarence was killed Another member of their squad, Harry Yale, from Long Branch, NJ, was killed at the same time as Clarence.

Dock said there were little roads going off in all directions and their battalion took a wrong road and they were lost — behind the German main line! They heard the Germans talking up above them and they knew the Germans had heard them thrashing around in the woods below. Suddenly the Germans began firing their rockets and mortars. That was when Clarence and Yale were hit by shrapnel from a “screaming meemie.” Dock said all the men hated the “screaming meemies” that the Germans used because they had an eerie moaning sound, kind of like a woman crying, and there was no way of knowing where they were coming from or where they might land.

Emelio told my mother that the men scattered and he could not find the men on his mortar gun so he had run through the “line” of his battalion asking if anyone knew where they were. When he finally found them, Dock asked him if he had seen Clarence and Yale but he had not. Dock said they were afraid Clarence and Yale had been hit but they had to go on as they were under attack. Emelio said as he was running through the woods he had heard someone moaning but did not know who it was. We will never know whether it was Clarence or Yale, or someone else. The sad thing was that even if they had not died of their wound, they would have frozen to death in the snow because it was the next day before they were found.

Battle of Bergzabern
Bergzabern was the last major battle that the 36th Division had to fight. Dock said that there was no more major fighting after they took Bergzabern because the Germans were on the run, retreating across their homeland. The 36th crossed the Rhine River and went on to Hamburg, Germany, where they spent some time in April 1945. Dock said they were there when they heard that President Roosevelt had died. They then pursued the German stragglers on and were in the Australian Alps, south of Munich, when they received word that the Germans had surrendered, effective Noon on May 6, 1945. At that time, all units were to halt in place and not fire unless fired upon. The doughboys were so excited they could not control their relief so they fired their M-1s into the air.

It was the T-Patchers of the 36th Division who accepted and controlled the final terms of surrender bythe Germans on May 8, 1945.

KIA … a family notified
Military records show that Clarence was killed on March 22, but Dock said it was the night of March 21. They took Bergzabern from the Germans the next day, March 22. After the fighting stopped, Dock and another sergeant went back to try and find their casualties. Both Clarence and Yale were dead, lying side by side. Apparently they were hit at the same time with shrapnel from the same “meemie.” Dock went back again the next day, March 23, with the litter bearers to pick them up, which is probably the reason military records show Clarence’s death as March 22. Apparently, the military people had assumed they were killed the day before in the battle for Bergzabern. At that time, they probably did not know that Clarence’s Battalion was behind the German main line.

Dock said Clarence would never wear his dog tags but carried them in his pocket instead so Dock told the litter bearers to be sure they found Clarence’s dog tags. Sure enough, when they rolled his body over, the dog tags had fallen out of his pocket and down into the snow. Mom said she was thankful Dock went with the litter bearers or Clarence would probably have been listed as an unknown and the family would never have known what happened to him.

Clarence was buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery in St. Avold, France. His body was returned to the United States on December 17, 1948, which would have been his 10th wedding anniversary. He was re-interred, with military honors, on December 19, 1948, in Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery located in Chester, where he grew up and where many family members are buried.

Never forget
Mom’s account from talking to Dock and Emelio preserved the history of Clarence’s military service and death for our family records. She added a note:

Clarence, and thousands more, made the supreme sacrifice and gave all they had for our country, some battle-scarred for life, and others giving their lives. That is what gives us the privilege of living in this free country, that we would not have if we had not won World War II. But for all of those courageous young men who left their homes and families to fight, suffer, and in many cases die in foreign countries during that war, we would all be speaking German or Japanese now — that is — if we had survived the takeover of those two brutal, dictatorial countries. A terrible price has been paid over the years for our continued freedom which so many Americans take entirely too lightly. Our freedom was bought with the suffering, blood, and sacrifice of many and we should never forget it. May God continue to bless our country.

Memorial Day 2014 … may we never forget the sacrifices of those who died and the families who sacrificed their loved ones for the freedoms we enjoy.

UPDATED May 25, 2014: Mom added more information today when I asked about how the family was notified or, rather, not notified as the case was, of Clarence’s death. She responded:

Pop and I worked at Bellwood [Defense Supply Center, a landmark in Chesterfield]. I was the receptionist in the Personnel Department in the Administration Building which was by the front gate into the depot, and Pop worked in one of the supply warehouses.

We did not have a telephone at home, so I called [sister] Verna each morning when I got to work and we exchanged any information we had about who had heard from Clarence, the health of the family, etc. It had been several weeks since any of us had received a letter from Clarence, so we were all really worried about him.

Every day, the Richmond newspapers published a list of those who were KIA, MIA, or WOUNDED and that day Verna saw “Clarence Osborne” listed as KIA so she called the Red Cross, which was very active locally. The Red Cross called their office in D.C. and checked the “dog tag” number … and found that it was Clarence’s number. Verna called and gave me the news.

Someone in my office had Pop brought to my office and he was told to take his lunch box with him. Poor Pop did not know what to expect … was he being fired? Had Mom died? Had something happened to Clarence? He had no idea until he got to my office and I remember the pitiful look on his face. Someone told him Clarence had been killed so he and I (without saying a word to each other) got in the black Huppmobile Pop had bought for me to drive him to and from work, and headed home.

Our house was beyond where [cousins] Jim and Bea live now — past Shoesmith’s Tree Nursery — at the end of the road just before reaching the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. As we approached, we saw Mom carrying a bucket of water from the pump to the house. We saw her stop and put her bucket down, waiting for us to get to her. She knew something bad had happened for us to be home in the middle of the day and she did not know what it was but suspected it had something to with Clarence because none of the family had heard from him for several weeks. When we got to her, we stopped and told her and she nearly collapsed.

I have no memory at all of whether Pop or I told her, nor anything other than all three of us crying. Soon, people began to arrive and that is all I remember. For many years, I have tried to recall details of that time but but it is all just a big blur. What I do remember vividly is that our whole family was affected, Mama and Pop. That was the first death in our family. Clarence was only 27 years old (much too young to die) and he had been gone for nearly two long years, fighting a war in some far-away place. There was no TV and certainly no access to maps or things so that, too, was a blur. TWO CHRISTMASES had gone by since we last saw him, and now we knew he was NEVER coming back. I was just a teenager but it was so sad around out house and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do.

Most people did not have telephones so most of the bad news was sent in a telegram and someone from the local post office would take the telegrams to the homes. That did not happen in our case and we never did get the dreaded telegram … not even his wife, Malinet, received it. We never did know what happened but we do know that the war was raging and I am not surprised at how easy it would be to make mistakes.

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One thought on “Memorial Day … remembering an uncle killed in WW II Germany

  1. […] Thomas Dale was the only high school in Chesterfield County at that time. Most of the grads lived on farms and milked cows before heading to school. Some were hit more by the war than others … Mom recounted losing her brother Clarence (see Memorial Day … remembering an uncle killed in WW II Germany). […]

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