The story of a Purple Heart citation and a search for the medal's owner


Richard E. Owen 101st ABN / 506 PIR, E Co

    
            
By Brigid Schulte, Washington Post Staff Writer (Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report)
Saturday, March 6, 2010:
   
On an ordinary Saturday in January, volunteers at the Salvation Army in Upstate New York were sifting through donations
of unwanted stuff when Shelia Gladding opened a box of what looked to be the usual chipped glass trinkets and forlorn bric-a-brac.
Then she scooped out a piece of paper. "Purple Heart," it read.
"For military merit and for wounds received in action resulting in his death June 6, 1944." D-Day. Next to it, she found a sepia-tinted photograph of a smiling, handsome blond man in uniform, the Purple Heart recipient, Sgt. Richard E. Owen. On the back of the picture was a 15-cent stamp and the address of a Mrs. Richard E. Owen in Winchester, Va. Gladding froze. How could this be? The official recognition of the ultimate sacrifice a soldier can make to his country, tossed in a box of discarded household items? "It wasn't even wrapped neatly in paper," Gladding said. "I thought of my father, who fought in World War II, and how upset he'd be if he had a Purple Heart and his certificate wound up like this one, in a box of junk." Gladding gave the certificate and photo to a Salvation Army manager, who passed them to Capt. Ron Heimbrock, who runs the charity's branch in Massena, N.Y. Heimbrock has seen his share of strange objects that people cast off. For years, he kept a miniature church in his office that someone had built entirely of matchsticks. But he had never seen anything like this. Surely this was a mistake. Surely these were treasures that must be returned to someone who cared. Heimbrock embarked on a search that would soon span the country as amateur genealogists, military bloggers, veterans groups, journalists and well-wishers transfixed by the mystery rummaged through courthouse records in Indiana, pored over newspaper archives in Pennsylvania, paged through old city directories in Winchester, surfed every corner of the Web and cold-called every Owen in dozens of phone books in a desperate attempt to find his next of kin. "I am consumed by the story," a military blogger wrote last week. "I refuse to believe that this hero goes unremembered." The collective work of the hunters revealed the fact that Owen had been shot in the leg by hooligans at age 11. That he was one of five children and that his sister's name was Dimple. But how did the precious personal effects of a fallen soldier from Northern Virginia wind up abandoned in a tiny New York town of 13,000 on the Canadian border? At first, Heimbrock ran into dead ends. He tried finding the person who'd dropped off the box, but the Salvation Army doesn't keep donor records. Through Web searches, Heimbrock discovered that Owen was born in 1913 in Indiana and had enlisted in the Army National Guard in Winchester in 1940. He was listed as single with one dependent. Then came the first break: From military Web sites, Heimbrock discovered that Owen had been a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, a member of Easy Company, the men lionized in the book "Band of Brothers" by historian Stephen Ambrose. Owen was killed when Germans shot down the C-47 transport that he and other members of Easy's headquarters unit were in shortly after 1 a.m. on D-Day, the first wave of the massive Allied assault on Normandy. An eyewitness wrote that the plane was shot clean through with anti-aircraft tracers, climbed steeply in an attempt to land and instead hit a hedgerow and exploded, instantly killing everyone on board. The plane would burn for three days. There, the trail went cold. In mid-February, Heimbrock contacted the local newspaper, the Daily Courier-Observer, which ran a few paragraphs. The Associated Press picked up the story, which ran across the country, followed by TV spots from Kentucky, where the 101st Airborne is stationed today, to France, where Owen was initially buried in a mass grave with the other men on board. Within days, an entire battalion, it seemed, joined Heimbrock in the search. People contacted the handful of survivors from the Band of Brothers. No one remembered Owen. Owen's records at the military's National Personnel Center had been destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. But intrepid searchers found copies at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Bit by painstaking bit, the story of Owen's life came into focus. His parents were both ministers of the First Christian Church, and he spent his childhood in Indiana, Pennsylvania and, finally, in Winchester. He studied at Bethany College in West Virginia before going to work as a postal clerk in Winchester. There, he met tall, dark-haired Ruth McCann, a down-to-earth woman five years his senior who'd grown up on a farm
outside of town. Owen joined the Virginia National Guard in 1940. The dependent noted on Owen's enlistment record was an orphaned nephew, Paul Glass, who lived with him. In September 1941, while on furlough from Fort Meade in Maryland, Owen, then 28, married 33-year-old Ruth McCann, the Mrs. Richard E. Owen of the Salvation Army photograph. One year later, Owen shipped out to England. There, he transferred to a Ranger battalion, where he broke his leg. But within months, he had joined the paratroopers of Easy Company. "He was already very old, at 28, to be joining the Army back then," said Mark Seavey, a military blogger for the American Legion. "Then he goes and joins the Rangers? Then, after he broke his leg, the paratroopers? You know that this guy was one tough individual." But even as Seavey drove for hours to visit churches and comb through records, he had a nagging fear: What if they found Owen's family, offered to return the certificate, and nobody wanted it? Susanne Marshall keeps Owen's family Bible in a place of honor in her home office in Charleston, S.C. She has a tag with his shoe size and Army serial number. Her sister Ellen, of Falls Church, has Owen's stamp collection. A sister in California, Sheryl Griffin, has a lock of Owen's hair that Ruth saved in a golden locket and gave to her, tearing up as she said something about always remembering Owen and the power of deep and true love. The women, Ruth's grandnieces, share the letters that Ruth's sister Dottie wrote to Owen in June 1944, explaining how the family had been up at 5 a.m. listening to news of the D-Day invasion. "Our Ruthy is as brave as they come, but I do of course hope that she will hear from you soon. And I do mean soon." The letter, dated June 14, was returned, marked "undeliverable." Owen had already been dead for eight days. Ruth, who remarried in 1950, never spoke much about Owen, the nieces said. But even as girls, the sisters understood that Owen's death had devastated their great aunt. "It affected her her whole life," Susanne said. "He was part of her heart, always." Last week, after Heimbrock and his army of searchers could find no living relative on Owen's side of the family, they discovered Ruth's great nieces. Until the day she died in 2002, at 93, Ruth kept Owen's Purple Heart medal in the top drawer of her dresser. Susanne Marshall, who helped clean out Ruth's house after she died, has had it ever since. She keeps it on her desk along with a gold watch that Owen gave to Ruth, inscribed "Ruth & Dick 12/25/43." Susanne doesn't remember seeing the Purple Heart certificate when she cleaned out the house and sent several boxes of Ruth's belongings to a local auction house. Susanne was horrified to learn that the certificate had been unceremoniously dumped at the Salvation Army. "I don't know what happened," she said. "This just slipped away." On Thursday, Heimbrock contacted Susanne and said he and other searchers would like to reunite the certificate with the Purple Heart medal in a ceremony in Charleston on May 15, Armed Forces Day. They plan to lay a wreath on the mass grave where Owen's remains now lie, in St. Louis. And 1,000 miles away, in Winchester, another wreath, on Ruth's grave. BACK