Sunday, July 11, 2004
Larry Strother makes the Parkersburg News.
North Hills man sees father's grave in Italy after 60 years
By EVAN BEVINS NORTH HILLS -
When Larry Strother saw his father's final resting place for the first time in the 60 years since his death in World War II, he dropped to one knee and cried.
"I'm not a real emotional person," Strother said. "It really got to me, hit me hard when I walked up to my father's grave and saw his name on the cross. "It's something you can't really describe," he said.
Strother was 18 months old when his father, Raymond, was killed in action May 24, 1944, near Anzio, Italy. The younger Strother has no memory of his father. "It was the way I'd lived and was raised, and I never really knew that much difference," he said. "Until you're in your 20s, 30s, whatever, you don't really take too much notice of it because it's just normal."
Strother, who lives in North Hills, knew his father was buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, Italy. He and his mother, Doris Delong of Parkersburg, had photographs of the cross at Raymond Strother's grave site, but had never seen it in person.
The chance to visit the cemetery finally presented itself this year. Strother and his wife, Carol, accompanied the Anzio Beachhead Veterans Association, of which the younger Strother is an associate member, on an 11-day trip to Italy in late May and early June to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome.
Being buried overseas was Raymond Strother's wish, Delong said, one of the last things he told her before returning after being home on leave. "(He said) 'Leave that body alone, because I won't be there; I'll be here with you,'" she said. "I agreed with him - sure, I'd do that - but I never thought.... "I thought he'd be back," she said.
Larry Strother said his father was not talked about much, something he found he had in common with others he met through the American World War II Orphans Network (AWON).
"We have what we call the 'Wall of Silence.' I grew up; my father was not mentioned," he said. "This was very, very common. Some of the mothers couldn't handle it."
Delong said Raymond Strother was discussed, but it was when Larry was too young to remember.
As he got older, Larry Strother wanted to find out more about his father. "I have two daughters. They would once in a while ask questions, and I didn't have the answers," he said. "I wanted to know who my father was and what he was like."
Raymond Strother was born in Harrison County, W.Va. He worked at the Viscose plant and the Workingman's Store in the Parkersburg area and married the former Doris Christopher in May 1941.
Delong said Larry Strother's quiet nature reminds her very much of his father. "He's always been very quiet, but his dad was very quiet, very reserved," she said. Raymond Strother was drafted into the Army at age 30, less than a year after Larry was born. He kept a small diary of his experiences, which tells of shipping out from Fort Patrick Henry, Va., and traveling to Casablanca, Morocco. He then went across North Africa, on to Naples, Italy, then to Anzio.
Obeying Army rules, he did not keep the diary during combat, noting in one entry simply, "Was in combat for 33 days. Some close calls. It was hell."
The assault at Anzio, intended to help the Allies advance to Rome, was an initial success. Eventually, however, it met with strong resistance from German troops, who had disarmed their former Italian allies after Italy's unconditional surrender in 1943, according to the U.S. Army Web site, www.army.mil. The Allied troops dug in and fought off German counterattacks in February and March.
Raymond Strother came to Anzio in the spring of 1944 as a member of the 34th Infantry Division, 135th Infantry Regiment, M Company. He was with the unit about three months; it primarily consisted of National Guardsmen from Iowa and Minnesota. Some members were injured or rotated out and replaced with soldiers from other units.
Larry Strother has worked extensively to find someone in the unit who knew his father. So far, he has not succeeded, but after reading about the subject and speaking to men from his father's division on the trip, he thinks he has a better understanding of why.
"The veterans' feelings were they didn't want anything to do with these new guys, the replacements, because statistics show replacements didn't last very long," Larry Strother said. "People would come in; they wouldn't even know their name. A day or two, they were dead."
On May 23, Allied forces launched a new offensive from their foxholes and trenches on the Anzio beachhead, the Army Web site says. The battle added to the drain on German forces in Italy, eventually allowing the 15th Army to break through German lines in the south.
On the second day of the offensive, Raymond Strother died.
The family initially believed he had been struck down by a sniper's bullet, but a retired military officer Larry Strother met through AWON found different information. "He has pretty conclusively shown my father was killed by a German military barrage," Strother said. Records indicate only one member of Raymond Strother's company died on May 24, the day Raymond Strother died, Larry Strother said.
That information is just a portion of the benefits Strother said he has received through AWON. There are between 1,000 and 2,000 members, although World War II took the lives of the parents of 183,000 children, Strother said.
AWON's annual conference was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend this year, during the same time the Anzio veterans were heading to Italy. Strother consulted with AWON members who told him he had to take the trip with the veterans.
"They said, 'If you don't go now, you might not get a chance to go with them,'" Strother said, noting World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day. The veterans were glad to have him along. "I was accepted by them," Strother said. "All these guys were willing to talk, and any questions I had, they were willing to answer.
"They really added a large dimension to this trip," he said.
In addition to learning about his father and where he fought and died, Strother got the chance to visit places such as Pompeii and the Vatican. He, Carol and their fellow travelers also attended a reception at the Rome home of the American ambassador to Italy, with a guest list that included President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
On Memorial Day, the group went to the cemetery at Nettuno. Finally, Larry Strother was at the place where his father had been laid to rest. "Seeing a picture was one thing, but being there.... It was very emotional," he said.
Delong said she was "thrilled" her son took the trip. "There's no words for that," she said. "For him, it put something there that he had never had before."
Although he had read about Anzio and learned about his father's military activities, actually being there gave Larry Strother a new perspective.
"It's just a form of closure really," he said.
"You read about the Anzio beachhead, you think of a little, maybe a strip, maybe like Myrtle Beach or something, but it's very large. (Now I) can envision the lay of the land, the geography, the whole bit. "By making this trip (and) reading the books, I understand better what they went through," he said.
Larry Strother invited anyone who lost a parent in World War II to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the AWON Web site, www.awon.org.
in memory of PVT Raymond Snowdon Strother