Pvt. Donald Owens was among the lost soldiers of the 90th Division 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. More than 64 years after his death, a token of his sacrifice has been found.
Sometimes a battleground and a burial plot are one and the same.
In a forest just outside Lunéville, France, 19-year-old Pvt. Donald D. Owens and four other men with the 90th Division, 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion clear a path for the American military.
Owens, a volunteer soldier who grew up in Navarre, helps navigate the 22-square-mile forest in their M-10 tank. Fighting intensifies each day and tanks are sent to the hardest points of the fight. On Oct. 9, 1944, a German Panzer strikes their tank and they burn to death.
Today, Owens’ name is one of 444 inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Avold, France. He is not one of the 10,000 Americans buried there.
The end of Owens’ abbreviated life marks the start of the six-decade-long story to bring him home.
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 Oct. 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, Louis, 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 Louis’ 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 Louis’ 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 Hellums’ 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.
Louis began tracking down Owens’ family, a task so long and difficult that push pins and a map are needed to keep up.
Louis 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.
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.
Closure for family
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.”