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Finding Sgt. Owen

A few weeks ago, one of our Richmond political reporters shot my editor an AP story, no more than a few paragraphs, a brief, about a soldier from Winchester, Va., who'd been killed in action on D-Day in World War II and whose Purple Heart citation had turned up in a box of junk at a Salvation Army outlet in New York state.

Was I game to take on a bit of detective work? my editor asked. Could I figure out who this Sgt. Richard Owen was, how on earth his Purple Heart citation and service photo wound up abandoned in New York and where the citation should go? Was there family left? Or anyone who even cared about this guy anymore?

The story hit me viscerally. Here this soldier had put everything on the line and given his life for his country. And in just one generation, it appeared he was completely forgotten. Worse, discarded.

At first, I thought perhaps the offense would have been worse if it were the actual Purple Heart medal that had been tossed. But some veterans quickly set me straight. Indeed, the medal itself is nearly sacred, but to some, the citation is even more meaningful because it refers specifically to an individual and his unique acts of heroism or sacrifice.

I became determined to find out who this man was and how something like this could have happened. A handful of others, the folks at The Salvation Army, military bloggers, journalists, genealogists, historians and a slew of regular folks, likewise joined in the search. From The Salvation Army in Massena, N.Y., we had just scraps of information, mismatched puzzle pieces, really. This is all we had to start with, Owen's photo and his purple heart certificate:

Richard E Owen.jpg

Purple Heart Richard E Owen.jpg

From the Purple Heart citation, we knew Owen's service number. That led to the discovery of his service as an elite paratrooper in Easy Company, part of the 506th parachute infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne - this is the group of soldiers made famous in the book Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose, which was later made into an award-winning HBO series.

This series is my son's favorite and has played almost nonstop in our house for years. It served as the inspiration for his birthday party a few years ago, when, at his insistence, we staged Easy Company's D-Day drop into Normandy. I wrote about hosting a war party for the Post. That led to Frank Maio, a Vietnam Airborne vet who is close to many Easy Company members, setting up a meeting for my son with Clancy Lyall, one of the handful of surviving Easy Company members.

I contacted Clancy, but he had no memory of Owen. Frank began contacting the other Easy Company survivors and came up empty as well.

Richard E. Owen Missing Air Crew Report (Pg 6).jpg

I got in touch with the National Personnel Records Center to see if they had information on next of kin, only to find that most of Owen's records had been destroyed in a fire in 1970. But another searcher discovered records at the Virginia Library of the state's war dead that showed Owen had enlisted at 28, trained with the Rangers, broke his leg, then joined the paratroopers.

Some of the puzzle pieces were falling into place. Owen's war history at least was becoming clearer. But what about the rest of his life? The folks at The Salvation Army said that there was a 15-cent stamp on the back of the photo, with the name Mrs. Richard E. Owen and an address on West Cork Street in Winchester.

I called the only person I know in Winchester, Joe Bageant, author of the book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, whom I had written about. He told me to call his wife, Barbara, who worked in the archives section of the regional library. Barbara found some old WWII scrapbooks of newspaper clippings that mentioned Owen and popped them in the mail to me.

From the clippings, which included his obituary, we discovered he'd been married to a Ruth McCann and that he'd had a brother named Carpenter Paul Owen. I enlisted the help of our crack staff researcher, Meg Smith, and asked her to help me track down relatives. Pretty quickly, Meg found McCann's obit, listing some of her survivors. Then Meg put together a file with the survivors' names and possible phone numbers.

That's how I found Ellen Marshall, Ruth McCann's great niece. When I first spoke to her, she wasn't sure where the actual Purple Heart was, but said she'd check with her sister, Susanne, who had helped their mother clean out Aunt Ruth's house after she'd died. The next day, Susanne called to say she had the Purple Heart, and kept with it a gold watch Richard had given Ruth the last Christmas before he died.

Ellen and Susanne began poking around their attics and offices, digging through old family treasures and photos. They had safely preserved Owen's family Bible, his stamp collection and a lock of his hair in a golden locket that their aunt had always kept close.

Ellen had the letters her Aunt Dottie had written Owen, encouraging him to write to Ruth, eight days after he was already dead. Ellen also sent me this photo of the couple, who had met working at the local Winchester post office, on their wedding day:

Richard E and Ruth Owen 001.jpg

Mark Seavey is a military blogger for the American Legion. His website on The Burn Pit had become search central for most people helping to track down the story of Sgt. Owen.

Despite Seavey's three-hour drive to look for Owen's birth certificate in Indiana and Campbell's relentless digging, we weren't able to locate Paul Glass, Owen's orphaned nephew who had lived with him, nor could we find anyone from Owen's side of the family, though we all had searched mightily.

I wrote a story about the search for Sgt. Owen after The Salvation Army decided to return the Purple Heart citation to Susanne. They're planning a ceremony in Charleston, S.C., where Susanne lives, on May 15, Armed Forces Day. The citation, she said, must have inadvertently been sent to an auction house when she helped her mother clean out Ruth's house.

The amazing thing is, after the story was published, I began receiving a flurry of emails that put the final pieces of the puzzle together. One was from a friend of Paul Glass, who reported he'd died last year after a long battle with Parkinson's and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A long-lost cousin in New Jersey wrote in with a phone number, asking to be connected to the rest of the family.

I got another note from the daughter of Sgt. Owen's older brother, George, saying she was sorry we'd never found their side of the family. Veterans groups wrote in saying they wanted to help lay wreaths in St. Louis, where Owen is buried, on the day of the citation return.

I forwarded each of the emails to family members, made sure phone numbers were exchanged and connected the people who'd dug up so much family history with the family members who would most appreciate it. As a result, Susanne is returning Owen's family Bible to the Owen side of the family. Photos are being shared back and forth. Susanne has contacted the Purple Heart museum, which wants to design an exhibit around the loss of the citation and the search for Sgt. Owen. Likewise, a local Winchester historian is hoping to do the same at the museum there.

And 65 years after a young soldier was killed when his plane was hit by enemy fire, crashed and burst into flame, his story lives on.

By Brigid Schulte  | March 11, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, The Blowback  
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