Letters home from two doughboys in the Great War

James H. Kendrick

Sgt. James R. Kendrick of Company B, 14th Engineers, in The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville on December 8, 1918. My great-uncle George F. Cunningham was in the same outfit. I found this clip on Newspapers.com.

Frank Riggie wished he were with his brother Joe on the Western Front, facing the German army. He said so in a letter.

Joe thought Frank was nuts.

“You do not realize what you are saying when you announce a desire to be with us,” wrote Joe, a first sergeant with Company C, 14th Engineers, in the fall of 1917. “Consider yourself fortunate that you are in Vermont instead of France. The sound of heavy gunfire is continuous, and, believe me, when you hear the first shell screech overhead you commence to realize that war is a rough game. We are all looking forward to the time when our work will have been completed and we start back to the good old U.S.A., but we will stick until the curtain drops.”

The letter home is one of two from doughboys of the 14th Engineers I found on a research website. It was printed in the Riggie brothers’ hometown newspaper, the Essex County Herald of Guildhall, Vermont, on December 14, 1917.

I latched onto the letters because my great-uncle George F. Cunningham served in that U.S. Army regiment during the First World War, helping to build, run and maintain narrow-gauge railroads. George, a private first class from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was the subject of my last blog. He joined Company B as a replacement in March 1918 amid a massive German offensive and served in France until the next year, months after the armistice. He didn’t leave behind any record of his experience that I know of, so I wanted to see if others in his regiment were more open about what they saw, heard and felt.

Back in the old days, letters from hometown boys fighting overseas appeared in the local press. That’s what I was mining Newspapers.com for, and I got lucky with Joe Riggie’s account and one from a soldier who was in my great-uncle’s company. They give a glimpse of the men and the times.

Riggie’s letter, dated November 13, 1917, was headlined Over There: An Interesting Account of What the Railway Engineers are Doing “Somewhere in France”. The 14th Engineers had come to the war just three months earlier and were assigned to Britain’s 6th Army Corps. Joe opened by thanking Frank and his wife, Iva, for a gift they’d sent him.

“Your package containing cigars, etc., reached me October 30th, and this is the first opportunity I have had to write and thank you. You have no idea what a treat those smokes were, and such good ones. … American smokes of every kind are not obtainable here, and the issue of English tobacco is punk, mostly mixtures, and resembles and tastes like curled hair.

“Our only pastime is smoking and reading, as we are located in a very desolate and barren section of France. Of course, there is plenty going on in a military way, action galore, but absolutely nothing for recreation. Lights are not allowed at night any more than necessary, as they expose us to danger from enemy aeroplanes, but we have candles that we can use until 9:30 p.m. Am quartered in a low hut (shaped like a half barrel cut lengthwise) and have been very busy with the carpenter’s tools manufacturing my office furniture. Just getting settled now and it is somewhat better than doing business in a tent, especially when the weather is such as it has been here during the past six weeks. Rains nearly every day and the mud is terrible.

“The people at home little realize what a tremendous operation this war means, and those who imagine that there is pleasure with any of the active organizations in this country should join the colors immediately. I am perfectly contented, however, and in the very best of health. …

“Not very cold here as yet, but foggy and damp. We are operating narrow-gauge lines at present, and you should see our boys handle the dinky outfits. Perhaps you imagine that the trains consist of the locomotive, cars and caboose of the ordinary makeup at home – no such trains here. To be sure, there is the engine, but no caboose or coach for the crew, and the cars are like large dry-goods boxes, no cover or running board. The shells, if large enough, are loaded like pulpwood, as well as all other kinds of explosives. …

“While we do not consider ourselves in any particular danger, it would amaze you people at home if you only knew how little a life is worth in the war zone. We have been exceedingly fortunate, though, and none of the boys in my company have cashed in. …

“We move so often that it is hard to find time to write a decent letter, [but we] have not moved for over six weeks, except from tent to tent and hut to hut. About time to set us in motion again. …

“No one knows when we will return, but [we] do not expect to be here less than two years. Write often as you can and give me all the news because letters are appreciated more than money. By the way, we are paid in French money every month at the rate of 5 francs 10 centimes … . It takes 100 centimes to make a franc, and 10 centimes is about the same as two cents in American money. Very easy money to get accustomed to, and I like it much better than English money.”

The other letter is from James R. Kendrick, a sergeant in Company B, who wrote to The Tennessean less than a month after the war’s end. It ran in the Nashville newspaper on December 8, 1918, under the headline Nashville Soldier Wants to Get Home. Apparently there was a girl waiting for him there.

“I landed in January of this year,” Kendrick wrote. “After arriving over here, I was placed in the 14th Engineers, a railway operating regiment … which was in the first bunch of Americans to land in France. We were lucky enough to be in the big drive at Cambrai March 21, as we were with the British at that time, and believe me, we had plenty of experience of real war, and we were again lucky to be the first troops to pull in to Chateau-Thierry after Fritz was driven out and followed the boys right up to Fere-en-Tardenois. …

“I hope to see dear old Nashville next year some time. Would like to see old Broadway this afternoon, after working for the Bearden Buggy Company for a couple of years. It seemed like home to me, although I happen to hail from Birmingham, Ala., but my heart is in Nashville on Russell Street, where the grandest little woman in the world is. You can tell the world that Tennessee can’t be beat for girls.”

After reading these letters, I couldn’t help but wonder what became of Joe Riggie and James Kendrick, who had served our country “over there.”


They were working on the railroad – and blunting German attack

Pfc. Cunningham with cooks

Pfc. George F. Cunningham (second from right) of Company B, 14th Engineers, with the cooks of Company I during the First World War.

A few years after the First World War ended, a British commander wrote glowingly of the U.S. Army railroaders who served alongside his troops on the Western Front. The 14th Engineers, he said, were “gallant New Englanders” who not only kept up a lifeline to the Allies but threw themselves into the fight when catastrophe loomed.

I’m connected to one of those gallant doughboys, but he wasn’t from New England and he wasn’t a railroad man.

George Cunningham, circa 1917

George Cunningham, circa 1917

Most of the regiment’s 1,200 men had been recruited from New England railroads and arrived in France in August 1917, just four months after the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Americans did not yet have a command structure in place in France, so the engineers were attached to Britain’s 6th Army Corps and went immediately to the front. Their job was to build, operate and maintain “light” or narrow-gauge railroads.

“At the time the 14th Engineers came under my command, our failure to recognize earlier the urgent need for light railways was being repaired, but the personnel necessary to operate them was lacking,” wrote Major-General Aylmer Haldane, commander of the 6th Corps. “The arrival, however, of our comrades from across the Atlantic speedily changed the aspect of affairs in this respect, and soon in many directions trains were carrying men, supplies and materiel from the railhead at Boisleux-au-Mont to the vicinity of the forward trenches.”

Boisleux-au-Mont is just south of Arras, about 70 miles from the English Channel. The British were holding the line there when, early in 1918, the Germans launched a blockbuster offensive intending to break through, march to the sea and end the war.

AP story about book on 14th Engineers

An Associated Press story about British Major-General Aylmer Haldane’s book on the 14th Engineers. This clip is from The Morning News of Wilmington, Delaware, dated June 30, 1923. I found it on Newspapers.com.

On March 27, 1918, six days after the Germans began their great push, a 22-year-old carpenter from West Chester, Pennsylvania, joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He was my great-uncle George F. Cunningham, assigned as a replacement to Company B, 14th Engineers, in the face of the German juggernaut.

In his book “History of the Fourteenth Engineers, U.S. Army, from May 1917 to May 1919,” Haldane wrote: “The oncoming wave of Germans bore down for a time all endeavors to oppose it, and when at length it was brought to a standstill, the light railways in front of the corps, from railhead to the forward trenches, had changed hands. Now was the opportunity for the 14th Engineers, who at the critical moment proved that, while they could operate railways with all the skill required, they could as readily handle a rifle and share in the greater dangers of the firing line.

“I can vividly recall my chief engineer, Brigadier-General Harvey, reporting to me how stubbornly the 14th Engineers had taken part with the British infantry in helping to storm the onrush of the German troops, and my pride in having those gallant New Englanders under my command.”

George Cunningham's binoculars, Paul Fussell's book and Army portrait of George

George Cunningham’s Army binoculars, the Army portrait of him and Paul Fussell’s 1975 book about the British experience on the Western Front

It’s not clear how much of this combat my great-uncle engaged in. So far as I know, he did not leave behind any accounts of his experience in the Great War. But his discharge certificate lists the “battles, engagements, skirmishes, expeditions” he participated in as the Somme Defensive – the push-back against the Germans’ all-out drive — from April 20 to May 20, 1918, and the Aisne-Marne campaign from July 18 to August 6, 1918.

A private first class, he remained with the 14th Engineers in France until April 27, 1919, five months after the armistice. He was honorably discharged in May 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey. In June, back home in Chester County, he married Ethyl Mae Pierce, one of my maternal grandmother’s older sisters. He died at age 58 in 1953, the year before I was born.

George Cunningham at 1934 family reunion

George Cunningham with his wife, Ethyl (lower left), at a family reunion August 26, 1934, in Colora, Maryland

From what my older relatives have told me, he was a taciturn soul given to raising pigeons. An aunt told me that she heard he was gassed in France, but his records don’t mention it, saying only that he was never wounded and left the service in good physical condition. I have one item of his that he gave to my grandfather: Army-issue binoculars that got nicked when I dropped them down concrete steps some 50 years ago.

Haldane’s book was privately printed in Boston in 1923. I first saw it in 1997 at the U.S. Army Military History Institute (now the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Recently, while mining the research website Newspapers.com, I found an Associated Press story that was written when Haldane’s work was published. It ran in newspapers across the country.

The 14th Engineer Regiment was transferred from the British 6th Corps to the U.S. Army in August 1918. According to the AP story, it was led by a railroad executive from the Midwest, Lt. Col. Albert T. Perkins. His battalion commanders were Maj. B.W. Guppy, bridge engineer of the Boston & Maine Railroad, and Maj. D.S. Brigham, trainmaster of the Boston & Albany Railroad.

Alpha Company didn’t mutiny, says officer who was there

Lt. Alan Freeman in Vietnam, 1969

Much has been written about the reported mutiny of soldiers in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade on August 25, 1969, in Vietnam’s Song Chang Valley. I learned about it in the 1990s while interviewing retired Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon for my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about a grenade accident in an Army classroom that killed my cousin Nicky Venditti and two other newly arrived Americal Division soldiers. Bacon had briefly headed the replacement and training unit at Chu Lai before taking command of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment.

I previously blogged about Bacon’s account of the supposed mutiny and also presented a version by James Dieli, a soldier who was there. Now here’s another account, this one from an artillery officer who served in the unit’s headquarters.
It comes from Alan Freeman.

As Freeman sees it, Alpha Company’s headline-making troubles in Vietnam began with a brawl that had nothing to do with fighting the enemy. Company A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry had seen a month-and-a-half of intense combat in the mountainous jungles south of Da Nang. The Americal Division, as it did occasionally with other units under its command, pulled the soldiers out of the field and brought them back to the coastal base at Chu Lai for rest and recuperation, R&R.

Lt. Freeman, a 21-year-old artillery forward observer detailed to Alpha Company, was with them. “We went to shows and drank a lot of booze,” he told me. “I think the second day we were there, we were watching a show and this chair came flying over my head.” A brawl had broken out with the men of another company. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Eli Howard, took action over this breach of discipline. “We got kicked off R&R and got helicoptered the next morning into a really bad situation.”

It was a U-shaped ambush, with the enemy firing from both sides on the Americans caught in the middle. Freeman landed with the company commander, Capt. Dennis Chudoba. Mortars hit around them. Freeman saw the dirt kicking up next to him and couldn’t figure out why. He turned and saw there was someone shooting at him. “If he’s a good shot, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Freeman had been dodging bullets since arriving in Vietnam in May 1969 after completing a six-month officer candidate program at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He had been working closely with Chudoba even though they were in different units. An infantry company typically had two field artillery men – a forward observer and a radio operator. Freeman was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment at Landing Zone Center and was immediately sent out with Alpha Company as its forward observer.

That spring, the company came under fire almost daily. In June, Freeman said, he was wounded by a couple of Chi-Com (Chinese Communist) grenades.

Freeman was glad that Chudoba was in charge. A West Point graduate on his second tour of duty, he was the ideal company commander, Freeman said. He had fought the enemy, he knew tactics, he was “really sharp” and, on top of all that, he was a nice guy. Freeman, as forward observer, was almost always at his side. “We respected Chudoba, we trusted him.”

The U-shaped ambush lasted a few days, after which the inexplicable happened. Lt. Col. Howard, the 3rd Battalion commander, flew in by helicopter and replaced Chudoba with a young first lieutenant, Eugene Shurtz Jr. Shurtz had gotten his commission through ROTC and had no combat experience. Freeman said the move deprived Alpha Company of a “great leader.”

“We had been through 40 days of hell, and we held together. But after we lost Chudoba, there was no continuity with the company.”

With Shurtz in charge, Alpha Company got orders to scout a part of the Song Chong Valley, about 30 miles south of Da Nang. “It was supposed to be a one-day in-and-out,” Freeman said. “We didn’t bring any food. All we brought was water and ammo.”

They were helicoptered in and took fire as they landed. They came to a village, where the company’s Kit Carson scouts – former Viet Cong who scouted for U.S. infantry units and served as interpreters – spoke with villagers and returned to report there were no Viet Cong in the area. Alpha Company’s grunts started walking through the village in single file.

“Our first five or six people got through to the other side and then all hell broke loose,” Freeman said. The next several men in line were gunned down. The unit was under attack.

Freeman was astounded that the enemy had fired .50-caliber guns at the helicopters. In his four months of combat, he had never come across an enemy unit that was firing guns of such large caliber. It led him to believe that Alpha Company was up against a large outfit.

They later found out it was a North Vietnamese Army regiment of about 10,000 soldiers who were planning to overrun a couple of U.S. batteries, including the one at LZ Center. “How our intelligence didn’t know they were there, to me is mind-boggling,” Freeman said.

Alpha Company got cut off and took heavy casualties. “We just started getting slaughtered, and so we finally pulled back. I was calling in artillery like crazy to try to help us.”

The men clustered in one area, not realizing the size of the NVA force pitted against them in the jungle. The enemy kept probing as artillery shells screamed in. An Associated Press photographer, Oliver Noonan, was with Alpha Company’s headquarters section with Freeman, Shurtz, the radio operators and a sergeant-major. Noonan had accompanied the unit from LZ Center. He told Shurtz to get him out.

Shurtz called battalion headquarters and explained the situation to Howard, who said, “We’ll come in and get him.” One of the officers with Shurtz told him, “Do not bring that helicopter in here. It’s too hot.” But Shurtz let the UH-1 Huey from the 71st Aviation Company come in. It arrived safely with Howard aboard and picked up Noonan. But as the chopper left, it was “blown out of the sky,” Freeman said. Everyone aboard was killed.

Alpha Company was surrounded for several days. “Sometimes we dug as much as we could into the ground. We’d try to fortify as much as we could, because every time we moved in a different direction, people would get mowed down. I thought I was going to die.”

Eventually, the firing stopped. Battalion headquarters determined that the NVA had left the area and ordered the men to move up to the top of a hill, where they regrouped. They figured on spending a couple of nights there before returning to LZ Center.

But then the new battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon, ordered Alpha Company to go back down the hill to recover the bodies from the helicopter wreck. Shurtz got the order and held a briefing with his remaining officers – Freeman and one platoon leader, a lieutenant. (Of the two other lieutenants, one was killed and the other wounded. Sergeants had replaced them.)

When the word got out, five men said they weren’t going to go. They came to the command post where Shurtz, Freeman and the one other lieutenant were. “They told Lt. Shurtz that they weren’t going, that they had like five days left in the country and they’d had it. They weren’t going down the hill.” Freeman said Shurtz was so green, he didn’t know what to do. Shurtz called back to battalion HQ and told Bacon: “My company refuses to move.”

Unfortunately, Freeman said, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who was covering the death of Noonan, was standing right next to Lt. Col. Bacon. Soon after, Freeman said, Arnett “notified the world” that an Americal Division company had refused to move.

While Shurtz was on the phone, Freeman and the other lieutenant told the men who had spoken up, “If you don’t go with us, we’re taking your guns. You can stay up on the hill without any guns.” That changed their minds; they agreed to go.

Freeman said Shurtz’s report to Bacon “blew me and the other lieutenant away.” When Shurtz got off the phone, Freeman asked him why he’d said that to the battalion commander. “He just had this shell-shocked look on his face.”

Soon after that, the company started down the hill. But Shurtz didn’t call Bacon back and tell him that they were now on the move. Meanwhile, Bacon was flying in his executive officer and a sergeant to deal with the recalcitrant soldiers. “We get halfway down the hill and we have to turn around and go back up the hill to secure it so the helicopter can come in,” Freeman said.

Several days later, what remained of Alpha Company went to a secure area. Freeman guessed the unit was down about 40 soldiers out of more than 100. It was replenished with 50-60 soldiers who had not been involved in the battle.
“All these reporters come in – ABC, NBC, Time, Newsweek – and they start talking to everybody about what went on. You can imagine the stories they got when they talked with people who weren’t even there. For some reason, the reporters did not ask anyone who had actually been there during the firefights. Not one talked to me.”

After six months in the field as a forward observer, Freeman ran a battery at LZ Center, then returned to the field with an air cavalry unit – tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The so-called mutiny has stuck with him all these years. “It’s always bothered me that that’s what our company was noted for – and it was not true.”

Freeman laid the blame on a “tremendous failure of leadership,” starting with Howard, the battalion commander. “One time, Howard flew in to observe our company and decided he would walk point. It struck us all as very odd for him to do this, almost like a death wish.”

Shurtz was young and inexperienced, and “should never have been put in the position that he was put in.” As a result, he didn’t know what to do when the five soldiers said they wouldn’t go down the hill.

“If Chudoba had been with us, we’d have taken casualties but it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad,” said Freeman, a retired engineer in San Diego. “He would have known how to handle the soldiers when they did not want to go back down the hill.”

Freeman described a run-in he’d had with Howard, described as a “hot-tempered taskmaster” in Keith William Nolan’s 1987 book, Death Valley, about the summer 1969 offensive in northern South Vietnam, the I Corps tactical zone. Freeman said that when he was in the field, he didn’t wear his rank and didn’t shave, because he wanted to look like the guys he was with. They didn’t call him Lieutenant; they called him Arty, for artillery. Howard overheard that one day, “and he called me in and he raked my ass over the coals for not having their respect.”

But it wasn’t about respect, Freeman said. It was about the forward observer and his radio operator fitting in with the other soldiers so they wouldn’t stand out as targets. “When we went out, we had three antennas. The Viet Cong and the NVA weren’t stupid when they saw the antennas. Who do you think they were shooting at?” Howard, he said, should have known that, just as he should have known the risk of putting a green lieutenant in charge of a company.

Freeman said Alpha Company doesn’t deserve a bad rap, especially in light of the heavy fighting it faced in the Song Chang Valley – fighting he said is glossed over in the record-keeping at the time. He said he has seen some of the unit daily records supposedly showing what was happening hour by hour, and they don’t reflect the intensity of Alpha Company’s contact with the enemy. He also has copies of citations for medals awarded to soldiers who were with him in the battle.

“When you look at the number of medals awarded versus the daily reports, it’s mind-boggling. It’s as if nothing was going on.”

A day of great stories about Americans at war

It’s terrific to hear authors talk in person, right in front of you. You experience firsthand the passion behind their work.

I got a quadruple dose of that May 6 during the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pa.’s daylong conference, Americans at War, at the Holiday Inn in Fogelsville. Four of the five speakers have written books and had them on hand for sale.

Despite the sponsor’s name, the lineup wasn’t limited to Civil War topics. That’s what drew me after I found out about the conference at an April meeting of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. I was there to talk about my Vietnam War book Tragedy at Chu Lai. Sitting beside me, my friends Ed Root and Tony Major of the Civil War Round Table told me about the event, gave me a flier and encouraged me to attend.

Later, when I read about the presentations, I thought wow! The speakers were experts on battles of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, and on the search and recovery of POWs and MIAs. I had to go.

I had a particular interest in the talk by Michael C. Harris, author of Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America. As a boy in Downingtown, I played in the East Branch of the Brandywine Creek. In the 1990s, I read Thomas J. McGuire’s Battle of Paoli, about the “Paoli Massacre” that happened nine days after the fighting at nearby Brandywine.

Allentown, where I’ve lived for three decades, is steeped in Revolutionary history. It was the site of several Continental Army hospitals, a prison for enemy soldiers, and the church where the Liberty Bell was hidden. One Christmas week, after reading Richard J. Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers, I drove to Washington Crossing and stood in the snow and cold on the bank from which Washington’s ragged army pushed off for Trenton. I had to get a sense of the moment.

In his talk, Harris laid out how the Battle of Brandywine happened and in particular the role of the American general John Sullivan. I bought Harris’ book, and while he was signing it for me, he invited me on a carpool tour of the battlefield he’ll be giving May 20. I’m going.

D. Scott Hartwig, author of To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, talked about how the bloodiest single day in American history happened. Army Col. Douglas Mastriano talked about his search for the truth about World War I hero Alvin York through archeology and ballistic forensics analysis, which led to his book Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. In a sidelight, he entertained us with the amazing story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that saved America’s “Lost Battalion.” Gregory J.W. Urwin told what happened to the U.S. defenders of Wake Island after the Japanese captured them in December 1941, the subject of his book Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity.

Retired Army Col. Ward Nickisch, who led teams that recovered the remains of POWs and MIAs, capped the conference with stories of perseverance, dedication and the far reaches of science.

It was a day of eye-opening scholarship into aspects of our military history I knew little about. If another one like it comes along, count me in.

Busting the Lane Gang: the John LoPinto story

John LoPinto, CID agent

John LoPinto, an agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome, was one of the top investigators of the Lane Gang. This photo was taken Aug. 8, 1944. He was 36.

Just past noon on the day after Christmas 1944, gun-toting U.S. and British criminal investigators and Italian police converged on an apartment building in Rome. A tipster had revealed that one of the most dangerous Army outlaws of World War II, a rogue private from Pennsylvania, was hiding inside with a Canadian cohort.

Werner E. Schmiedel, alias Robert Lane, had led a gang of American and Canadian army deserters that terrorized soldiers and citizens from Naples to Rome. Collared after a months-long spree of violence, he faced charges that included carjacking a Polish general’s Cadillac and gunning down an Italian man in a wine shop. But on Christmas Eve, he and other Allied bad guys busted out of a Rome jail and scattered.

The soldier who got the tip on Schmiedel’s whereabouts was Technical Sgt. John LoPinto of Ithaca, N.Y., an agent with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome. He took a lead role in planning and carrying out the December 26 raid that bagged Schmiedel without a shot being fired, bringing the swaggering malcontent to justice.

Werner E. Schmiedel

Lane Gang leader Werner E. Schmiedel of Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County

Schmiedel’s capture that day had all the drama of a Hollywood gangster showdown. But I didn’t have the details on it and didn’t know about LoPinto’s role when I was working on an article about Schmiedel for The Morning Call a few years ago. (It ran in July 2015. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/2mYEmws.) Schmiedel was of interest to Lehigh Valley readers because he grew up on a farm near Allentown. To tell his story, I’d spent almost a year-and-a-half gathering material that included his court-martial records and personnel file from the National Archives at St. Louis, and contemporary accounts in the press. Early on, in 2013, I wrote a blog about Schmiedel and updated it after my story appeared in The Morning Call.

Despite my effort to cover all the bases, it turns out I didn’t have all of the official paperwork the case generated. The revelation came last month, when I heard from a man in upstate New York who alerted me to an extraordinary document.

The man is LoPinto’s son Joe LoPinto of Freeville, N.Y., near Ithaca. He posted a note on my blog site saying he could provide more information because his father was a top investigator of the Lane Gang. Joe’s older son, John, found my story on the internet and wondered why his grandfather’s name wasn’t in it.

The name wasn’t familiar to me, but it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the records. Why wasn’t LoPinto in my story? I couldn’t say for sure. It might have been for the same reason I didn’t use the names of, for example, the Army prosecutor and Schmiedel’s lawyer – it wasn’t something I felt readers had to know. But I did remember that the court records don’t give details of Schmiedel’s recapture. There’s only a brief mention of the raid in a Stars and Stripes story about the Lane Gang’s wild doings.

“Lane and his second in command were surrounded in a civilian apartment,” staff writer Dean Boswell wrote in the GI newspaper at the time. “When the two refused to surrender, the CID and [British] SIB agents, accompanied by MPs, crashed the door to an apartment and discovered the two men cowering inside a closet.”

Joe LoPinto told me over the phone that his father and three other Criminal Investigations Division agents wrote the report on the Lane Gang that Army prosecutors used to nail Schmiedel. That document, 70 pages long, is not among the voluminous court-martial records I’d gotten from St. Louis. But LoPinto has it, and he sent it to me on a disc.

John LoPinto stateside

John LoPinto stateside with a new Buick Roadmaster

He said of his dad, “He was instrumental in the prosecution.”

Some Schmiedel anecdotes the former investigator told his family aren’t part of the CID report, his son said. When Schmiedel was on the loose and knew the military police were hunting him, he baited LoPinto by calling the CID’s Rome headquarters and telling the agent to meet him in various parts of the city and they’d shoot it out.
“Dad would take his police special .38 service revolver and go down there in a jeep and Schmiedel wouldn’t show up.”

After authorities identified Schmiedel’s girlfriend, a prostitute, LoPinto and several partners found her in a dance hall. LoPinto asked her to dance, and as they took a few turns, one of his associates went through her purse. He snatched a photo of Schmiedel, hurried off to CID headquarters and had it copied, and then put it back in her purse within the hour, before she knew it was missing. Copies of the pilfered picture were distributed throughout Rome, Naples and vicinity.

Part of that anecdote is in my story, based on a Stars and Stripes account. But the GI paper doesn’t have the gem about luring the woman onto the dance floor.

Joe LoPinto said the Italian press called his dad a hurricane or tornado because he would storm into whorehouses, where AWOLs and criminals hung out, and everyone there would jump out the windows to get away from him.

John LoPinto’s path to becoming a wartime criminal investigator started in Flushing, N.Y., where the son of immigrants from Sicily grew up. “He was basically a street kid, but he was very bright,” said his son, who is 64 and a builder. “He found the public library because it was a place to get warm, and then he discovered all the books in it.”

He went to City College of New York and Dartmouth, where he was a Golden Gloves boxer, and then to law school at New York University, where he edited the Law Review. After a stint as an attorney in Greenwich Village, he moved to Ithaca in the 1930s. When war broke out, he volunteered as an infantryman and fought in North Africa. But the CID needed people like him. He spoke Italian, was college-educated, had a background in law and was tough and aggressive. He joined the CID on Sicily and moved up to Rome.

“Dad was tenacious, well-educated and was just intent on doing everything properly, doing his job, especially given that he was the son of immigrants. The books he read were Horatio Alger. He was a self-made man.”

Lane Gang arsenal

The Lane Gang arsenal, in photo that was included in CID Report No. 115

LoPinto and fellow agents John X. Monahan, Henry L. Manfredi and Eugene F. Land of the 6709th CID Platoon in Rome laid out their case against Schmiedel in Report No. 115, marked “Confidential” and dated February 12, 1945. In a summary, the Report of Investigation of Activities of the Lane Gang says that all of the living military members were in custody by November 3, 1944. That was the day Schmiedel was first arrested in Rome, with Land making the pinch. On November 25, five civilian members were arrested in Naples, followed by three more in mid-January.

The narrative of the Christmas Eve breakout begins on Page 13 with the statement that eight prisoners escaped from the Central MP Jail in Piazza Collegio Romano about 1:40 a.m. Among them were Schmiedel and two other members of the gang – Delmar Joseph McFarlane, a Canadian, and Carl F. Green, an American.

Within hours, MPs nabbed Green and two others on Via Carla Alberto and locked them up. LoPinto got 20 civilian police officers to help MPs surround the buildings where the remaining escapees were believed to be holed up.

“On 26 December 1944,” the report says, “Agent LoPinto received confidential information to the effect that Schmiedel and McFarlane were in hiding in civilian clothes in Apartment No. 4, at No. 13 Via Carla Alberto, Rome.”

LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi of the CID, and Sgt. Eric Swetnam of the British Special Investigation Branch hatched a plan to seize the two fugitives.

“Accordingly about eight MPs and five Italian police were called to cover the exits of the apartment building. The five civilian police in plain clothes … were placed around the front entrance of the building with orders to let no one leave. Then a confidential contact was made with the apartment in which Schmiedel and McFarlane were hiding. When it was ascertained with certainty that they were still in the apartment, Agents LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi, Sgt. Swetnam and about three MPs entered the building and proceeded up the stairs one floor to the apartment. Schmiedel and McFarlane were ordered to come out.”

They did not respond, so the agents and Swetnam went into the apartment, followed by some MPs. Confidential sources had revealed that Schmiedel and McFarlane were concealed in a standalone closet, a wardrobe. Again they were ordered to come out and didn’t respond.

“Agent Manfredi and Sgt. Swetnam pushed over the closet. As it was falling over, Schmiedel and McFarlane jumped out of it in the face of drawn guns. They were dressed in civilian clothes and had their hair recently bleached. Bottles of hair bleaching chemicals were found on a stand near the closet, evidencing recent use.”

The two thugs were returned to the Central MP Jail. Within six months, Schmiedel – who ran away from home at 17, joined the Army, and lied and bullied his way from post to post – met his fate. He was court-martialed, convicted and executed for robbery and murder. LoPinto was in the crowd June 11, 1945, at an Army stockade near Aversa, Italy, when the 22-year-old badass died at the end of a rope.

I keep the copies of his records in my attic. The pile of paper in a plastic bin is about 8 inches high. I went through it page by page the other night, looking for LoPinto’s name, and found it typed at the bottom of statements from witnesses he had heard. Elsewhere, his signature is at the end of handwritten statements from Schmiedel and James W. Adams, a crony from Oklahoma. Adams was convicted with his boss in the October 10, 1944, shooting death at the wine shop in Rome, even though it was Schmiedel who pulled the trigger as the pair robbed patrons. Adams got the death sentence as well, but his penalty was changed to life in prison.

The trial transcript shows that the court-martial prosecutor twice called LoPinto to the stand to answer questions about aspects of the investigation and what he knew about the defendants. It was nuts-and-bolts police stuff that didn’t grab my attention when I read his testimony several years ago.

John LoPinto medals

CID Agent John LoPinto’s Order of the Crown of Italy and Bronze Star

LoPinto’s work in Italy earned him a Bronze Star medal for meritorious service. “He spent many sleepless nights and many days of fruitless search and investigation,” the citation reads in part, “but by his perseverance, planning and technical knowledge, he was able to contribute immeasurably to the tracking down and capture of the most dangerous members of these gangs and was instrumental in the recovery of important quantities of Allied military supplies and equipment.”

The Italians showed their appreciation by knighting him with the Order of the Crown of Italy, an honor his son said made him a hero back home in Ithaca.

LoPinto about 1978

John LoPinto about 1978

In civilian life, LoPinto was a lawyer handling a wide range of civil and criminal cases for five decades. He died in 1988 at age 80. His wife, Mary, died in 2008. They had two sons, Joe and John, and daughters Rosalia Miller and Cornelia Fiocco.

Lopinto’s legacy of military service to the country was passed on to his son Joe, a Marine Corps veteran, and Joe’s younger son, Scott, who will soon be deployed to the Middle East with the 1st Marines.

Joe said he once asked his father why he never became a district attorney.

“When you’ve hunted a man down and tried him and watched him hang,” said the onetime soldier who fought to put Schmiedel and his henchmen behind bars, “it dissuades you from wanting to pursue that career path.”

The mystery of RAF air gunner W.J.D. Carter

Wellington Mk. 1 bombers

Wellington Mk. 1 long-range medium bombers

I’m writing again about 1938 Allentown High School grad Bob Riedy, who ran off and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed on a training flight in England early in 1942. This time I have yet another angle.

Riedy died when the twin-engine Wellington bomber he was co-piloting crashed at a Royal Air Force base near Oxford. He and the pilot died instantly when the plane hit the ground. The only other crewman, a gunner, was seriously injured.

In the 1990s, when I started looking into Riedy’s life and death, I wondered what became of the gunner. If he survived his injuries and were still living, maybe he could tell me what he knew of Flight Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy and what happened that day.

He is listed in RAF records as Sgt. W.J.D. Carter, an air gunner with the RAF Volunteer Reserve. His job would have been to man one of the Wellington’s .303 Browning machine guns mounted in the nose, tail and waist.

According to the accident report, Flight Sgt. C.G. Wiley of the RCAF was the captain/pilot of the Wellington Mk. 1 medium bomber, serial number L4265. He, Riedy and Carter were on a training flight when the accident happened at 1:25 p.m. March 18, 1942, at Mount Farm in Oxfordshire, a satellite base for No. 15 Operational Training Unit.

The report notes L4265 “swung off runway during takeoff, attempted to become airbourne but struck stationary aircraft on edge of fire track, aircraft rose 200 ft in vertical climb, stalled and crashed.” It goes on to blame Wiley: “Pilot contrary to training instructions failed to stop aircraft and line up runway prior to takeoff.” The station commander determined that the accident was due to “swing” from side to side, pilot inexperience and error of judgment.

The Vickers-built Wellington was a “write-off.” The other plane, a Hudson light bomber of the Training Ferry Pilots Pool with serial number N7332, was “damaged but repairable.”

RAF expert Frank Gee wrote to me in 2002 that the Wellington in the crash “was a very elderly aircraft. She was built pre-war and I’m pretty sure she was on No. 9 Squadron at the outbreak of war.” That squadron, he said, sent six Wellingtons to attack German warships at Brunsbuettel, Germany, on Sept. 4, 1939, and two were shot down. “By March 1942,” he said, “L4265 was somewhat knackered.”

Gee, of Surrey, England, was skeptical of the report’s findings. “I don’t accept that Wiley should be blamed for the crash. It is so easy to put it down to pilot error without taking into account that the Wellington was war-weary and should have been pensioned off. Just think of the punishment she took in the hands of sprog pilots [novices] in the OTU, the heavy landings, etc. Anything could have happened to cause her to swing from side to side during the takeoff run.”

Another RAF expert in the U.K., author and researcher Ross McNeill, noted that the damaged Hudson had been among 200 aircraft flown in from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California, in 1939 and 1940. He said it was repaired and used at the No. 12 School of Technical Training before being scrapped in February 1946.

Concerning the crash, McNeill emailed me in 2000 that Wiley had been in charge of the Wellington. In RAF planes, he said, the captain was the pilot regardless of rank.

Bob Riedy in Allentown High yearbook

Robert Harvey Riedy in the 1938 Allentown High School yearbook, the Comus. He studied English and science. “Bob is a quiet, good-looking lad,” reads the text alongside the graduate’s photo. “He likes football and basketball. Since he has good common sense and good judgment, we may wager that he will succeed in anything he takes up. Because his mind is usually wandering around in the air, he is planning for a career in aviation. Besides this, he has a love for the water. It just seems that Bob isn’t adapted to land at all.”

“If the clerk who recorded the crew details was being efficient,” McNeill wrote, “then Sgt. Wiley was in the left-hand seat in the cockpit, Sgt. Riedy was in the right-hand seat. For takeoff the gunner [Carter] would have been seated close to the wing root.” That’s the part of the wing closest to the fuselage.

Carter was admitted to Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, with serious injuries, L.C. Morrison of the Air Historical Branch (RAF), Ministry of Defence, wrote to me from London in 2000.

Gee said Carter “must have survived the war because I have made inquiries at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he is not listed as a casualty. Pity we don’t know what squadron he joined after getting fit again, presuming he wasn’t grounded because of his injuries. That may have been a way of tracing him, through his squadron association.”

I asked Morrison how I could find Carter.

“The Ministry of Defence does not retain contact with former Royal Air Force personnel once they have left the service,” he said. “The RAF Personnel section at RAF Innsworth will forward a prepaid envelope on to the last known address, bearing in mind that this will now be nearly 60 years old.” He gave me the address in Gloucester.

McNeill, of Worcestershire, helped me with the process.

“The way to go about this is to draft a letter to both the serviceman and his next of kin,” he wrote. “Put these into unsealed, individual envelopes and address with the serviceman’s rank, full name and serial number. Be sure to write your address clearly on the back [with] ‘If undelivered please return to.’

“Now send both the letters in one envelope to the RAF Personnel Management Agency. Include a letter explaining why you want to contact the serviceman or his living relatives and ask that they be sent to the last known address.

“One of three things will happen.

1. “The letter is returned as ‘addressee unknown’ by the post office. Look at the postmark to see where it was returned from and write to the local paper with a contact request. They will usually print it and sometimes an aunt or uncle will reply.

2. “The letter is returned by the new occupier of the house. Try a personal letter to the new occupier asking if they still have the forwarding address of the person they bought the house from. Follow the trail until you reach the serviceman’s family.

3. “The letter is answered by the serviceman or his next of kin. Bingo!”

I did as McNeill suggested in April 2000 and got this reply from P.L. Stafford of the RAF Personnel Management Agency, who provided the former sergeant’s full name – William John Donald Carter.

Stafford wrote, in part: “I have forwarded your two enclosures to the last known home address and next-of-kin address still held on record after 54 years, as requested, in the hope that a favourable response will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. I will inform you should either letter be returned to me for whatever reason.”

But there was a fourth possible outcome that McNeill hadn’t mentioned: that I would never hear anything. And that’s the way it went. I got no response at all. My letter was never returned, and I didn’t hear back from the RAF’s Stafford.

McNeill had also suggested I write to the Royal British Legion, which he described as “the U.K. equivalent of the VA.” I did that but never got a reply.

Morrison, at the Ministry of Defence, had suggested I place ads in two publications for RAF veterans – Air Mail, the magazine of the Royal Air Forces Association, and Intercom, the magazine of the Aircrew Association. I paid 10 pounds sterling ($21.72) for the following item in the Information Wanted section of Intercom’s autumn 2000 edition:

Ex-Sgt. W.J.D. Carter RAFVR, Air Gunner. He was injured 18 March 1942 when a Wellington Mk. 1 of 15 OTU crashed on takeoff at RAF Mount Farm, Oxfordshire. I wish to contact him or anyone who knows his whereabouts.

For 20 pounds sterling, I put a similar notice in Air Mail.

Nothing came of either inquiry. No one has ever contacted me with any information about Carter.

His fate remains a mystery.

The Channel Dash and a Yank in the RCAF

Bob Riedy in photo that ran in Times of London, 1942

This photo ran in The Times of London and shows Bob Riedy at far right. It ran under the heading, “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.”

It’s time to put to rest whether Bob Riedy saw combat before a training accident killed him.

I say he did.

The evidence is convincing, and it’s been out there since 1942, but I always hedged about it because I hadn’t checked one last authoritative source.

Recently, I did that, capping a search I began 25 years ago.

I’ve written before about Bob Riedy, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II. He learned to fly and was sent to England, where he was killed on a training flight at a Royal Air Force base near Oxford.

Almost a month after Riedy’s death, his parents received what The Morning Call of Allentown called a “voice from the dead” – a letter their son had penned. In the envelope, Riedy had enclosed a clipping of a photo from The Times of London that shows him and five other airmen standing in front of a British bomber and grinning broadly. They are not named. Over the photo, a line reads: “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” Beneath it is a caption titled “Breather” with text saying the men were among fliers who desperately tried to prevent the two German battleships from fleeing Brest on the French coast to reach German ports. The action on Feb. 12-13, 1942, was called the Channel Dash but formally was Operation Fuller. It pitted the RAF against 250 Luftwaffe aircraft, with the British losing 40 planes, the Germans, 17, and the battleships escaping largely intact.

Riedy, a 20-year-old sergeant-pilot, was killed the next month, on March 18. His parents were told only that he died in action. A boyhood friend from Allentown, Paul L. Fritz Jr., was serving with the RAF and found Riedy’s grave at a cemetery in Brentwood, Surrey, and cabled Riedy’s mother he had planted flowers there. For a 1992 article in The Morning Call, Fritz said he remembered hearing that Riedy was shot down over the English Channel in his Hurricane fighter.

Though Robert Harvey Riedy had wanted to fly fighters, he was assigned to bombers. The details of his death came out later in 1992 after I obtained RCAF and RAF records. They show he died at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire on a practice flight when his twin-engine Wellington bomber clipped a parked bomber on takeoff, rose 200 feet and plummeted to the ground. Riedy was in the co-pilot’s seat. Both he and the pilot died, and the only other crewman on board, a gunner, was badly injured but survived.

Riedy had died in an accident, not in a blaze of glory over the channel.

The Morning Call published the The Times photo on April 16, 1942. The accompanying story doesn’t mention what Riedy said in the letter to his parents, the fourth one they received from him after his death. Evidently, his parents didn’t share with the newspaper the contents of any of their son’s last letters, and it’s not clear whether they still exist. His mother, Eva, died in 1968, and his father, Harvey, a Democratic leader in Lehigh County, died the next year. They had no other children.

The clipping Riedy sent his parents in 1942 points to his role in combat. But at the time of the Channel Dash, he was still in training, assigned to No. 15 Operational Training Unit, part of RAF Bomber Command’s No. 6 Group. That OTU trained night crews on the Vickers Wellington, the RAF’s main medium bomber early in the war. It had a crew of five or six, the capacity for 4,500 pounds of bombs, and machine guns in the nose and tail turrets and at the waist.

My question was: Were trainees pressed into the fight against Germany?

Early in 2000, I got help on this from an expert in England – Ross McNeill of Bewdley, Worcestershire. He had been a glider instructor in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was an author and researcher into Allied aircraft losses of 1939-45.

“OTUs were the final training stage for an operational crew and included operational sorties,” McNeill emailed. “As the crew neared the end of OTU training, the pilot was detached to an operational squadron to fly two sorties as a second pilot or ‘second dickey.’ The operational crews detested this duty, as they believed that it used up their quota of luck. Many aircrews were shot down, and the loss of the pilot meant that the ‘headless’ crew at OTU had to disband … and repeat the training with a new pilot.

“Once the second-dickey trips had been completed, the crew were required to graduate by taking part in an operational sortie in an OTU aircraft as either mine-laying or leaflet-dropping. After this trip, the crew would be posted to an operational squadron. OTUs were also used as diversions for main-force raids by flying navigation exercises close to the enemy coast, then returning.”

After arriving in England in the fall of 1941, Riedy was first posted to the 20th OTU at the Scottish port of Lossiemouth, which also trained night bombing crews flying the Wellington. He reported to the 15th OTU at Harwell on Feb. 3, 1942.

“This means that he was at OTUs for four months, … about right for the 30 hours’ OTU training and the additional ‘pilot in command’ hours required by a change in training requirements,” McNeill wrote. “I suspect that the posting to No. 15 OTU was due to the crew nearing the end of training and being moved down to a base closer to the occupied coast for their graduation operation, and were engaged in circuit/area familiarization flying.”

No. 15 OTU went on seven operational missions the year Riedy was in it. Was the Channel Dash one of them?

“The records for units involved in Operation Fuller are very confused and incomplete,” McNeill said. “In essence, Bomber Command flew 472 sorties and used every available aircraft, with the exception of Whitleys on the 12th February 1942 …. The RAF was initially not aware that the [German battleships] had sailed, and most RAF aircraft were intercepted before reaching the ships.

“So in summary, Riedy could have taken part in the attack, but it would take quite a search of the archives to prove it.”

He said all RAF units had to keep Operations Record Books, which came in two basic types, Forms 540 and 541. “One was the day-to-day war diary of the unit and consisted of aircraft serials, time up, time down, crews, mission details, etc. The other was the monthly summary of the unit missions and normally included postings in/out, casualties and social events. These ORBs still exist in the Public Records Office at Kew, London. The problem is that they vary in content from unit to unit and clerk to clerk.”

I wanted to keep looking, but the Public Records Office would not do the research for me, and short of visiting the place, which wasn’t practical, I’d have to hire a “record agent” who would do the work for an agreed fee. This would involve pulling the books, finding the entries, copying them and presenting the results.

That was the end of it. I dropped my search.

Recently, while going through my file on Riedy, I remembered that I hadn’t ever pursued a Public Records Office inquiry. Seventeen years had passed. Would I now be able to search online for the information? It was worth a try.

Sure enough, I found help on the website for the National Archives of the U.K. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. I set up an account online at no cost and went hunting. Navigating the site might have been difficult if I hadn’t come across a key reference code in a letter I’d saved in my Riedy file. The January 1994 letter concerned my search for information on the fatal training accident at Oxfordshire. It was from S.H. Clarke at the Air Historical Branch (RAF), Ministry of Defence in London. He said I could find the operations records for No. 15 OTU at the Public Records Office under catalog reference “Air 29/654.” I entered that code on the website and got a hit, but not what I was hoping for. Instead there was a line saying those records weren’t available online. Still, I had an inexpensive option: For 8.24 pounds, or $10.38, I could request a “page check” by the office staff. They would let me know if they found anything.

This was the last authoritative source I needed to tap, and I was finally getting around to it. Do the records show Riedy had gone up against the Germans in the Channel Dash, or anywhere?

No, they don’t. Not even close.

Here’s the National Archives’ response, sent by email two weeks after my inquiry: “Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to locate any evidence for a Sergeant Riedy participating in a combined RAF and RCAF effort 12-13 February 1942 to stop the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst from reaching German ports after fleeing Brest, France. There is only the evidence for the unit carrying out the ferrying of aircraft to the Middle East.”

Disappointing, but conclusive? Was this an example of confused and incomplete records?

In the end, it all goes back to The Times clipping that Riedy sent his parents early in 1942. I’ve often wondered what he said, if anything, about the Channel Dash in his letter. Maybe it was something like, “This picture was taken after we returned to our base. The Germans gave us a hard time, but I got home OK.” I also considered that maybe he hadn’t been in pursuit of the enemy battleships and had written: “Mom and Dad, the paper was wrong about this. We were in our planes but didn’t get near the action.” If that were the case, though, I can’t believe his parents would have shared the clipping with The Morning Call without clarifying the circumstances. Or that the newspaper would have withheld that information, deliberately deceiving its readers about Riedy’s role.

No, this proud young man, a 1938 graduate of Allentown High School and former aircraft engineer eager to do his part for freedom, wanted his family to know he was not just in training anymore. He had gotten into the air war against the Nazis and hoped to have another crack at them.