Joseph Edgerly: No Soldier Left Behind

by Les Hughes

© by author 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

551st Main Page

551st Chronology

551st Insignia

History of the 551st

Roll of Honor

Belated Recognition


Return to Articles

Home Page

 

 

The Last Patrol

At 0700 hrs on 4 November 1944, a 19-man patrol from “C” Company of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion led by 2LT Richard Hallock was dispatched to the mountains north of Mollières, France1, to determine whether the area was still occupied by the enemy. After scaling the side of a mountain and finding two pillboxes commanding its approaches unoccupied, the patrol pressed on in the direction of a rocky ledge in the basin between the pillboxes. With PFC Edgerly in the lead as #1 Scout and PFC Carter as #2 Scout, the main body of the patrol followed by bounds, its progress slowed by the two and a half feet of snow that lie on the ground. After the main body of the patrol had proceeded about 75 yards past a large boulder lying in the basin, and with the scouts still about 150 yards short of the ridge, the main body of the patrol came under attack from concealed positions ahead – first from a machine gun, and then from a 20-mm cannon. Hallock ordered a withdrawal to the boulder, which offered the only cover in the basin. Soon, those behind the boulder found themselves exposed to flanking fire. Rather than risk having the entire patrol cut off, Hallock ordered a withdrawal from the basin, leaving behind four men who had been unable to reach the boulder: PFC Joseph A. Edgerly, CPL Clarence R. Carter, PVT Joe G. Rowe, and PFC John F. Chappell, Jr.2 CPL Carter alone of the four men cut off from the main body of the patrol would return: the remaining three men were reported missing in action.3

In the course of researching the 551st Battalion’s casualties, I found that Dan Morgan listed each of the three missing members of the patrol as killed in action (KIA). But when I examined the casualty records of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), I found that Edgerly’s status was a finding of death (FOD), which is a designation typically reserved for individuals whose death, in the absence of a body, is inferred from circumstantial evidence.4 I was puzzled. Morgan, in his history of the battalion, had written (my comments in square brackets): “Joe Edgerly had lavished care and affection on Furlough [the battalion’s Dachshund mascot]. Legend has it that she went on this patrol. Joe’s body was not recovered until the next day, and according to legend, she [Furlough] stayed with his body overnight, until the recovery team came up the next morning”.5 Orfalea, in his history of the battalion, repeats this.6 Why, I wondered, did Edgerly have a casualty status of FOD if his body had been recovered the next day?

In 2014, I obtained, via a Freedom of Information Act request, a copy of the Individual Personnel Death File (IDPF) of Joseph Edgerly. The file, covering 120 pages, illuminates both the reason for the FOD casualty status and the tenacity of the War Department and the American Graves Registration Command in accounting for missing service personnel, a task that continued long after the Second World War ended. And it illustrates how time alters memories.  

Joe Edgerly

Joe Edgerly enlisted in the Army on 1 July 1942, ten days after his eighteenth birthday. In November of that year, following basic training at Camp Roberts, California, he entered the paratrooper training program at Fort Benning, after which, in early January 1943, he processed through Hampton Roads on his way to Panama and the 551st. Dan Morgan and others put him in “B” Company in Panama and afterwards, but he is listed among “C” Company personnel at Mackall and in France.

Morgan wrote of Edgerly: “He had a very rough start in life as a homeless youngster living on the streets of Boston…”7 Similarly, Orfalea describes him as having been “…a homeless waif in Boston as a child…”8 and “an orphan who escaped the streets of Boston to move out west before he hit his teenage years”.9  While census records suggest Edgerly may have had a problematic home life and a hardscrabble childhood, they contradict his having been homeless or an orphan. At the time of the 1930 US Census, six years after Edgerly’s birth, his mother and father were living apart: his father, listing his marital status as “married,” was living with his widowed mother and her son by a second marriage; Edgerly’s mother was listed as the divorced head of her own household of four children. Edgerly’s father is not to be found in the 1940 US Census, but his mother still appears as the divorced head of household, but now with six children (Joe the eldest), two born since the 1930 census, and all of surname Edgerly. Additionally, when Edgerly enlisted, he designated his mother as next of kin, and her and his paternal grandmother as the beneficiaries of his GI life insurance. At the time of his enlistment, he listed his education as one year of high school. These facts argue against his being an orphan or homeless. On the other hand, the fact he enlisted at Camp Grant, Illinois, indicates that, by age 18, he had left Boston for greener pastures.

What appears not to be in dispute is Edgerly’s popularity in the battalion – recollections of him by veterans of the battalion are invariably warm. “Joe Edgerly was an unforgettable person. After all, how many of us would go AWOL to the front? Joe was almost a perfect physical specimen: very muscular, adventuresome, carefree and gung-ho. So when we got to Italy Joe went AWOL from the battalion… He was gone a few days, maybe four… the next time I saw him he mentioned that he had done this, and I asked him why. He said he had just wanted to see what combat was like. He’d gone up to the Fifth Army front. …To me, that is derring-do of the highest order.”10 “Joe was one of our outstanding athletes – boxer, track, weights, one-arm pushups, whatever. He was also a champion of the underdog, in the most realistic sense.”7 “…many men in the battalion would have the impression that Joe Edgerly was the one who gave us Furlough [the battalion’s Dachshund mascot], an impression that stemmed from his concern and affection for her.”7  

Legends of Fall

But what of the patrol of 4 November 1944 that left Edgerly, Rowe, and Chappell missing? Let’s start with the statement of Morgan, repeated by Orfalea: “Legend has it that she [Furlough] went on this patrol. Joe’s body was not recovered until the next day, and according to legend, she stayed with his body overnight, until the recovery team came up the next morning.”5

Surely, neither Edgerly, who always had Furlough’s welfare at heart, nor the other members of the patrol, either out of concern for her welfare or their own, would have taken Furlough on a patrol into contested territory. Especially telling is the report of the patrol’s action, dated 23 November 1944, wherein it is stated that two and one-half feet of snow lie on the ground traversed by the patrol. Imagine a Dachshund keeping up with the patrol in snow that deep! The legend is improbable but not surprising: it reflects the affection in which the men held both Furlough and Edgerly, and the degree to which the two were associated: if Joe Edgerly had to die, that’s the way his buddies would have wanted it to happen, with Furlough by his side. More surprising is the recollection that Edgerly’s body was recovered the next day, a claim that equally is legend – months would pass before the remains of any of the three men lost on 4 November 1944 were recovered. But one can imagine how such a belief might have arisen: the battalion was dispersed along a line in the Maritime Alps, and word of the patrol’s casualties would have circulated by word of mouth, altered and embellished in the process. And November 1944 was a time of flux for the battalion. Two weeks after the fatal patrol, the battalion was relieved and withdrawn to St. Jeannet, near Nice; and three weeks after that, the 551st was on its way north, to the Ardennes.  

The Search

Although remains suspected to be those of Chappell and Rowe had been recovered months later, all three men were officially carried as MIA when hostilities in Europe ended. Shortly after the end of the war, in an effort to learn more about the action of 4 November 1944 that left Rowe, Chappell, and Edgerly missing, the Army queried Clarence Carter, the lone survivor of the men who were cut off during the ambush, regarding the fate of the three missing men. Carter had returned to duty after the ambush, and later, as a member of “A” Company, was wounded during the Bulge. In a letter dated 4 October 1945, Carter wrote (comment in brackets mine):11

“In answer to the letter which I received just today on the fate of Joseph A. Edgerly, John F. Chappel Jr, and Joe G. Rowe. I inform you that all three were killed in action on a reconnaissance patrol mission in which I was a member. Description of action: We went forward in a five men echelon to observe German positions. Before we could get to the top of the Ridge we were fired on by two machine guns and several small arms. We had to back down the hill to withdraw, then another gun opened up on us from the side about 75 yards from us. We hit the snow but it was too late to get away. The rest of the patrol left over the rise, left us there to take it. It was just about dark when the ferrys (sic) came down on skies (sic) to check up and see if we were dead. I was the only one to come out alive. No witness (sic) were left. They were killed about 8 miles off of St. Savaius on 4 Nov. 1944 by machine guns and small arms. The place of burial is unknown. Their [sic] were no other witnesses.”

By “St. Savaius” Carter meant St. Sauveur, which today appears on maps as Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, six miles southwest of Mollières, seven and one half miles south southeast of Isola (cited below), and six and one half miles from where Edgerly’s remains were recovered. When Carter wrote (by hand, I suspect) “ferrys” and “skies,” I believe that he meant: “It was just about dark when the Jerries came down on skis to check up and see if we were dead.” This interpretation makes sense in that the Americans had gone up the mountain to patrol; the Germans, in positions above, would have had to come down to check for American dead. The comment suggests Carter may have fooled the Germans into believing he was dead; then withdrew to safety under the cover of darkness. But I have found nothing specific relating to the circumstances of his return from the patrol, and they remain something of a mystery, especially in light of the battalion’s report of 23 Nov 1944, more than two weeks afterwards, which seems to imply that all four men are still missing.  

Key locations in the recovery of remains of members of the patrol of 4 Nov 1944. X marks the location of Edgerly's remains. The undulating yellow line (top, right) is the French-Italian border.

The remains of two soldiers had been found together in the “vicinity, Isola, France,” the same general area where the patrol had been ambushed.12 Precisely when these remains were found is not clear from the documents in Edgerly’s IDPF, but both Rowe and Chappell were carried as MIA as late as September 1945. The identification tag (“dog tag”) of Joe Rowe was found with one set of remains. Only remnants of clothing were found with the other, one with the laundry mark “C-8228,” which pointed to John Chappell. (Laundry marks consisted of the first letter of the individual’s last name and the last four digits of his service number.) Both sets of remains were interred in the Luynes U.S. Temporary Military Cemetery at Aix-en-Provence, 13 miles north of Marseille: Rowe’s under his name, and Chappell’s, pending formal identification, as X-160. The identification of X-160 as Chappell was still considered tentative as late as March 1946. The fact that the remains were probably those of members of the patrol on which Edgerly had disappeared led the Quartermaster General, on 15 March 1946, to ask the Graves Registration Command in Versailles, France, whether other remains had been found in the same area as those of Rowe and X-160 that might be Edgerly’s.  

In fact, unburied skeletal remains had been recovered in the area of Testa della Rubina, about one mile north northwest of Mollières. The exact date the remains were located is not given in Edgerly’s IPDF, but the official report of the recovery is dated 15 October 1945. Recovered with the remains were size 8½EE combat boots; a reversible, fur-lined ski parka; socks; and remnants of a shirt and trousers. No identification tag was found, nor did the surviving remnants of clothing bear any useful markings. On 18 October 1945, the remains were interred at Luynes as X-187.

In the absence of remains identified as Edgerly’s, a Finding of Death was issued on 8 November 1945; setting, by statute, the date of his death as 5 November 1945, one year and one day after he went missing. Later, when Edgerly’s remains were formally identified, his casualty status would be changed to “killed in action” and the date of his death to 4 November 1944, but it is the status FOD that appears today in NARA’s files.

By August 1948, when it was apparent that X-187 might be Edgerly, the Graves Registration Command requested Edgerly’s dental records. Five pre-mortem tooth charts (the first recorded in Basic Training; the last in Italy) were compared with those of two post-mortem examinations (the first in October 1945; the second in August 1947). In September 1948, the identification of X-187 as Edgerly was complete. The basis of the identification was cited as: (a) dental records, (b) Edgerly’s recorded stature versus those inferred from the skeletal remains13, (c) the 8½EE combat boots recovered with the remains (Edgerly was on record as wearing size 8½D), and (d) the nearness of the recovery site to where Edgerly had been reported missing. On 5 October 1948, the American Graves registration Command notified the Quartermaster General that X-187 was Joseph A. Edgerly.

On 5 November 1948, four years and one day after PFC Edgerly had been declared missing in action, a letter was sent from the Memorial Section of the Quartermaster Corps to his mother, Mrs. Marion Edgerly of Charlestown, Massachusetts, notifying her that her son’s remains had been identified and requesting that she, as next-of-kin, specify whether she wished his remains interred abroad or returned to the States for interment. On 1 December 1948, Mrs. Edgerly notified the Army by telegram that she wished her son to be interred abroad.

Joseph A. Edgerly is interred in the Rhone American Cemetery at Draguignan, France, the city the 551st liberated in August 1944, as is John F. Chappell, Jr., who died with Edgerly, and ten other members of the battalion. The third man lost that day, Joe G. Rowe, is interred in the Baltimore, Maryland, National Cemetery.14 Records suggest that Clarence R. Carter, the only one of the four reported missing on 4 November 1944 to have survived, died in 1972, at age 49.15

Odds & Ends

Joe Edgerly’s father was also Joseph A. Edgerly, though there is no evidence Joe ever appended “Junior” to his name. Indeed, census records suggest the possibility that young Joseph Edgerly might not have been born with that name. Joe does not appear in the 1930 US Census. Instead, the household of his mother includes a son Robert, age 6, the age that Joe would have been in 1930. Robert is missing from his mother’s household in the 1940 US Census, but son Joseph, age 16, is present. 

Joe Edgerly’s mother bore six children and lived to be 81 years of age. His two sisters have disappeared from public records, perhaps due to marriage and changes of surname. But the men of the Edgerly family can be traced, and while it is impossible to gauge what success in life they might have enjoyed, it appears that longevity eluded them: Edgerly’s father died at age 49; two brothers at age 52; a third brother at age 62.

References

Morgan, Dan (1984). The Left Corner of My Heart. Wauconda, WA: Alder Enterprises.

Orfalea, Gregory (1997). Messengers of the Lost Battalion. New York: The Free Press.

Individual Personnel Death File (IDPF) of Joseph A. Edgerly. Human Resources Command, Department of the Army.

Endnotes

1. At the time of the patrol and the recovery operations, Mollières and Testa Della Rubina (referenced when Edgerly’s remains were found) were noted on maps in Edgerly’s IDPF as being in Italy. Today, they lie in France, in land, I assume, that was ceded by Italy to France in the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947. Isola, then and now, is in France.

2. The battalion’s Operational Summary for November 1944 [Morgan, p. 318] states that one Frenchman, in addition to the four Americans, went missing on this patrol. It is reasonable to surmise that the Frenchman was one of the FFI guides who worked with the battalion.

3. “Statement of Circumstances Surrounding Missing in Action Personnel,” from Headquarters, 1st Bn. 551st Parachute Infantry (Rein) to The Adjutant General, 23 November 1944. The battalion’s Intelligence Summary for November 1944 [Morgan, p. 317] states that the patrol “encountered machine gun fire from well concealed pillboxes.”

4. NARA’s list of dead and missing is organized by the state and county of residence specified by the individual upon enlistment. Edgerly’s name should have appeared in the list of casualties of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, but instead it appears in the Sussex County list.

5. Morgan, p. 280.

6. Orfalea, p. 180.

7. Morgan, p. 89.

8. Morgan, p. 69.

9. Morgan, p. 179.

10. Morgan, p. 154.

11. IDPF of Joseph Edgerly.

12. Isola lies about 5.5 miles roughly west of the site where Edgerly’s remains were found, but the term “vicinity” is vague.

13. At the time of his enlistment, Edgerly’s height and weight were recorded as 5’ 6” and 139 lbs.

14. One of the battalion’s veterans whose recollections Dan Morgan and Gregory Orfalea tapped for their books was Ellery Sweat, a surviving member of the patrol on which Rowe was killed. Sweat recounted [Morgan, p. 310] that he was carrying the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) that day, and as the climb progressed, he became very fatigued. Rowe offered to carry the BAR and give Sweat a chance to recover, and it was Rowe who was in possession of the BAR when the ambush was sprung. Sweat believed that Rowe’s covering fire with the BAR was instrumental in allowing the bulk of the patrol to extricate itself from the ambush.

15. I concluded this from the Social Security Death Index, for which I used personal information for Carter gleaned from his enlistment file and from census records. (The roster of battalion personnel that Morgan compiled has the wrong ASN for Carter. His correct ASN appears in the battalion’s Bulge casualty lists and in Edgerly’s IDPF.)