Sometimes a battleground and a burial plot are one and the same. In a forest just outside Lunéville, France, Pvt. Donald D. Owens, Corporal Clayton Judge Hellum, Pvt. Lawrence N. Harris, Sergeant Ernest Rabe, Tech/4 Ernest Peabody with the 90th Division, 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion clear a path for the American military. Fighting intensifies each day and tanks are sent to the hardest points of the fight. On Oct. 9, 1944, a German Panzer struck their tank. Only Peabody and Rabe escaped. The other 3 burned in their tank.
Tank and its Crew
Private Donald Owens' Childhood in Navarre
Owens was born in Navarre, the son of Gerald H. Owens and Tracy Define, and the younger brother of Gerald "Jackie" Owens. He attended Navarre Elementary.
Mary Wantz, 86, of Canton, remembers playing with her cousin when they were young children. "He was always a nice kid," she said. "He was quiet though. We used to play together. He was a gem, a really nice boy." The family moved to Massillon when Owens and his brother got older, Wantz recalls. In 1937, following his parents' divorce, Owens relocated to Cleveland with his father. There, he enrolled in Cleveland's James Ford Rhodes High School, on the city's west side. Owens played football and basketball there and appears in a black-and-white yearbook photo as one of the school's "Boys Leaders." In March 1943, two months before graduation, Owens voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army.
He trained at Fort Meade, Md., and went on leave in January 1944. During a trip home, Owens visited his high school, in all likelihood to take care of his education. This was the last time his family would see him, alive or dead. Six months later, he was deployed to Normandy. Kenneth Rasmussen, 85, of Westlake, was in the class of '43 at Rhodes. The retired optometrist remembers Owens as a "good looking guy" whom he would bump into in the hallways at school. In the fall of 1944, Rasmussen was stationed in the Pacific with the U.S. Army's 24th Artillery Division. His mother sent him a letter, notifying him of his classmate's death. "He was the only person in our class that was killed, which is kind of amazing," Rasmussen recalled.
In October, Rasmussen and about 45 other classmates gathered for their 65th reunion. Owens' name came up. But what the classmates didn't know then was that their old friend Donald Owens had resurfaced half a world away.
Final Resting Place
There was no question that Owens had died during the attack, but where he took his final breath and where his body would burn to ash was a mystery to the U.S. Army even 10 years later. Col. James B. Clearwater, chief of the Memorial Division of the Department of the Army, wrote to Owens' uncle on April 21, 1953. "After a detailed study of the negative reports of the investigation and the pertinent facts regarding this case, the Department of the Army has been forced to conclude that the remains of your nephew are not recoverable," Clearwater wrote. "Realizing the extent of the grief which Donald's loved ones have sustained, it is deeply regretted that there is no grave at which to pay homage." The Army gave "full consideration" to the search for Owens and the two men who died with him - Cpl. Clayton Judge Hellums and Pvt. Lawrence N. Harris. The American Graves Registration Service had scoured the area for the soldiers' remains or the wrecked tanks in which they perished. Other men and other tanks were recovered, but not Destroyer No. 4082368. Not the bodies of Owens, Hellums or Harris, either. Two other men who were on the tank, but who survived the blast, could not provide any useful information. All the Owens family had was an official statement of death.
Gérard Louis walks through the forest of Parroy with flowers in hand each October 9. It is his way of honoring America's role in the war, specifically the three men who gave their lives that day more than 64 years ago. Louis, though, is more than just a history buff. He is the first character in the second chapter of Donald D. Owens' life story. In 1999, Gerard, a self-described amateur historian, discovered bizarre black tracks on the forest floor. He would return, only to find more evidence of the war's imprint on the region. He gathered personal belongings from some of the soldiers who fought and died there. Louis was drawn back, time and again, for three years. By 2003, the grounds had been furrowed by weather so fierce it once almost destroyed the forest, Louis recalled. That's when he saw the dog tags - a miniature grave marker of sorts, sparking in the dirt. Louis rushed to the small artifact to find the name "Corporal Clayton Judge Hellums" engraved on the small, metal plate.
Louis notified the military, but heard nothing in return. He took the story to a local newspaper, which published his account under the headline "On the trail of Corporal Hellums." A military research center in Belgium learned of the discovery through the article and tracked down Hellums' surviving family members. The tags were given to Hellums' family during a memorial service in France in 2006. But Gerard's work did not end there. "I made the oath, on the site of this forest, to find families so that these soldiers could return home," reads a transcribed version of Gerard's account. "It is my line of conduct."
That same year, he was joined by the U.S. Army's Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, based in Hawaii. With its help, Louis found Owens' tags less than 10 feet from where he found Hellum's tags. They were four inches underground. Louis and the JPAC team continued to search the area, both for the remains of Owens and Hellums and for any sign of Harris.
The Search Continues
Gerard began tracking down Owens' family, a task so long and difficult that push pins and a map are needed to keep up. Gerard asked a friend, Jean Faure, a 75-year-old French Canadian, to help research Owens and search for family. Faure had helped him find information about Harris. Faure found Norm Richards, assistant historian of the 90th Division Association. And Richards contacted association member and Cleveland resident Duane Thomascik. Enter Myra Stone, the librarian at James Ford Rhodes High School. Stone and Sue Bennis, associate of the reference department at the Westlake Library, searched online databases, property records, marriage certificates, newspaper obituaries and students' permanent records. "She was working from her end and I was working from my end," Stone said. "We were back and forth." Stone, whose father was stationed in Pearl Harbor with the Air Force during the war, found at the school a register of students who served in the armed forces. Within a week, Bennis and Stone were able to track down family members in Mobile, Ala. "I get calls all the time to find people, from the police and the FBI," Stone said. "I thought this was very interesting. It is the most exciting thing I've ever done in my career. It's very special." Stone has been so inspired by the story she is planning a trip to France this summer to meet Louis, the Frenchman who found the tags.
On my visit this past August 2009, through Philippe Sugg, I had the opportunity to not only meet Gerard Louis, but actually walk through the Foret de Parroy with him as both he and Philippe pointed out foxholes. Additionally, he took me to the spot where he discovered the dogtags and assisted in the JPAC search for further artifacts. It was my distinct pleasure to meet him and now count him as a friend.
Some 75,000 American casualties in World War II were never found. The military believes nearly half of them can be recovered. JPAC continues to hold Owens' tags for testing. Sgt. Matthew Chlosta, a spokesperson for the Hawaii-based JPAC, said Owens' tags are currently being processed, which can take a few weeks to a month depending on the information available. JPAC identifies the remains of a fallen soldier by matching their mitochondrial DNA to a maternal line. The family is the first to be notified once identification is made. Owens' story is not complete until a proper tribute has been paid to him, believes Stone and others, including some of her students.
The yearbook staff at Rhodes High School plans to dedicate this year's publication to him. Stone and senior Rhys Schwarzman, who has followed the soldier's story through the research of his librarian, have asked the Cleveland Metro School District Department of External Affairs for something more. Schwarzman and Stone want the school to posthumously award Owens his high school diploma and dedicate part of the graduation ceremony in June to his memory. "He had that kind of patriotism to go off and serve his country and not finish high school," Schwarzman said. "It was pretty noble." Principal Diane Rollins has prepared the diploma, but said graduation will stay as is. "It's their (students') day," she said when asked about the idea.
Lois Owens, the wife of the late Gerald "Jackie" Owens, never knew Donald D. Owens. Nor did her children. "I know they've heard their dad talk about their Uncle Donald," Lois said. "This absolutely means the world to them and me, too. We can put closure to this." Lois said her husband called out Donald's name just before dying in 2004 at age 82. She wants to retrieve Donald's tags and bury them next to his brother in Mobile. "I'm so sorry he passed away before this happened," Lois said of her husband. "They knew he was in the tank and it was destroyed, but they never knew how or where." Kenneth Owens said his uncle deserves some kind of honor, no matter how late. "We never got to know him," he said. "But these tags are a part of him. We'd like to get them in memory of him."
Letter from Gerard Louis to Dwight Hellums
Mister Dwight Hellums,
Gérard Louis showing me the area where the dogtags were discovered I am an amateur historian, especially of the second world war. In particular, my region in which violent fights took place at the end of 1944. I am thus a passionate person regarding military searches. Please note I do not talk for any party (French or American associations make no difference).
Everything began in 1999 in the Forest of Parroy, near the city of Lunéville, Meurthe-et-Moselle. I was walking one day and discovered very bizarre black tracks on the ground. During many months, I returned to the place and found a multitude of military and personal objects. I kept these objects at my home, but in December 1999 a violent tornado almost destroyed the total forest. Since I was convinced that men had died in that forest, I kept going back, but it took me more than two years before finding the exact place of my findings.
Finally in 2003 on the ground furrowed by rains, I discovered an object which shone on the ground. I hurried to collect it to find Corporal Clayton Judge Hellum's dogtags, your brother. I knew later that he was the tank companion of Private Donald Owens and Private Lawrence N Harris.
Immediately I notified the American military authorities which answered me immediately and put me in connection with the Great Bursar in Épinal - department of Vosges. After waiting for three months, he notified me that he could not follow up on my report, and he mentioned that your brother Clayton, as well as Lawrence N Harris and Donald D Owens were all three reported missing.
I thus remained alone with this story and kept watching the site to ensure that nobody would damage it by making inappropriate excavations; I watched during three years.
Only then I notified the newspaper of the city of Lunéville regarding the searches. Three weeks after the publication of my article, the 90th division was contacted by an association helped by a Belgian member, as well as a French one living in the United States (Illinois). They were able to redraw, your family and it is at that moment that the story was able to begin.. You and your sister had the opportunity to come in France in 2006 and go on the scene where your dear brother died to defend the Freedom.
Following the discovery of this dogtag, I made an oath on the site of this forest, to find families so that these soldiers could "return at home" and it is my line of conduct. Meanwhile I extended my understanding of their history with my friend Philippe, amateur historian as well.
This tank crew of M10 tanks was a part of the "773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion". Five men were on board: the Corporal Clayton Judge Hellums, your brother, Private Donald D Owens, and Private Lawrence N Harris and two other men whose names I do not know.
The Forest of Parroy extends for 21.5 square miles. The fights began on September 29th, 1944 and tanks were sent to support the hardest point of the fights: a place named "Le haut de la Faite" and the road of Bossupre. The date is October 9th, 1944. The tank M10 was fired at point-blank range by a German Panzer tank which was posted in some 300 feet. The Panzer was hidden behind a forest house. We believe the tank got hit before noon and was out in the open (out of the woods) moving on the forest house when the enemy tank opened the fire.
Clayton, Donald and Lawrence had no chance. They died, were burned, and were split when the tank exploded. Because of the presence of ammunitions inside and its fuel, the tank was not approachable because it burned for 24 hours, making it impossible to identify. However there is an enigma! Two other occupants were ejected by the tank during the impact according to reports and survived their grave wounds, but we do not really know what took place. Were they inside? Posted on the tank? Or did they walk to the side of the tank? We do not know these two men and I do not know if they are still alive.
Later the wreck of the tank was cut by a dealer in scraps and fragments transported outside the forest, thus leaving three men reported as missing seemingly forever and without indications on how to find them.
All of this because one day, I was attracted by a black color on the ground, and my curiosity urged me to persist in my searches during those many months. To arrive, thanks to my tenacity, at this result.
In May, 2006 the people in charge of the JPAC of Hawaii came to see me. First to thank me and for finalizing a research mission on the site and second to apologize, in the name of the United States, for the refusal to help in regards of the Great Bursar retired.
Thus, in May 2006, during the second mission of the JPAC, my biggest enjoyment was to find the dogtags of Private Donald N Owens, who was less than 10 feet from where I had found those of your brother, Clayton Hellums, and approximately 4 inches underground.
In September, 2006, I worked during three weeks with a research team for the JPAC. It was the first time they accepted two French people to participate full-time. Many indications were found, and in September the mission was partially finished.
During your visit in 2006, the authorities of the JPAC authorized me to come on the site to collect the remains, it was a deep emotion. Months later I was contacted to watch the site to avoid unwanted visitors and damages. I went every other day during one year since I owed it to these men who had given their lives for our freedom.
In the middle of August 2007, a new team of JPAC arrived with 12 men and we worked hard together during six weeks. My friends and farmer neighbours arranged a shuttle of two tractors with tanks to be able to sieve the ground. We moved 178 cubic feet a day! Everything was centralized in the laboratory of Hawaii for studies and DNA testing, since these three soldiers were still reported missing. They are conducting a long analysis, but I have good hope that Clayton, your brother, Donald and Harris will return to your country, even if only parts of them return. Regrettably we have never found the dogtags of Lawrence N Harris. I had the pleasure to be decorated with the badge of the JPAC for services returned by their Director.
Every October 9th I put flowers on this place and I honour them in my way.
Here is roughly, Mister Dwight Hellums, a part of the story of your brother Clayton. I am only a simple amateur historian who works on the ground, the main indications are on the scene of the battle and fortunately that day, luck was with me for these coincidences. Your brother Clayton Judge Hellum, Donald D Owens and Lawrence N Harris will stay forever in my heart.
Receive Mister Dwigty Hellums, all my gratitude for the sacrifice of your brother for the liberation of our country.
More to the Story
Recently, Dan Rabe, son of Ernest Rabe, reached out to me sending me additional information regarding this story. Sergeant Ernest Rabe was the tank commander of the missing crew. Severely injured, he survived. Here are some words documented later in 1948 from Commander of Co. "C" 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and can be viewed in the photos below:
On 9 October, 1944 I was in command of Co. "C" 773 Tank Destroyer Battalion which, at that time, was in support of the 315 Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division. PFC Harris was a crew member of an M-10 Tank Destroyer in the first platoon of Co. "C" which was in support of the 3rd Battalion of the 315th Infantry Regiment.
I did (k)now PFC Harris and did participate in the action in which he was killed.
I did not directly witness his death, however, the following statement of facts are the evidence which led us to report his death.
On October 9, 1944 the 79th Infantry Division attacked in the Foret de Parroy near Luneville. Attack hour was originally set for 0600 hours but I believe was moved back to 0630 hours. About 0700 hours I was informed by radio at my position with my second platoon, supporting the second battalion further north, that destroyer had been hit. About 0830 hours I got to the position and found that first platoon had been forced to fall back about 100yards behind where the destroyer had been hit. I was informed by Sf. Sgt. (then Sgt.) Lyman Foster, Security Sergeant of the first platoon, that Tec/4 Ernest Peabody had been the only member of the crew to get out. At about 0900 hours I was able to get to the position and found Sgt. Ernest Rabe, gun commander of the destroyed vehicle, seriously wounded about 15 yards from the vehicle. He informed me that he and Tec/4 Peabody were the only members who got out of the vehicle.
At that time, the M-10 which was completely destroyed was still burning and I could not get close enough for inspection.