While on a recent walking tour of the Old Wheelersburg Cemetery with the Local History Department of the Portsmouth Public Library I came upon the stone of 1st Lieutenant Robert C. Lemley. Aside from the simple grave marker unadorned with the trappings typical seen with the headstones of service members there was the last line that read, “Killed in Action Hannover, Germany.” This young officer, several years younger than myself, had crossed the Rhine into Germany. I quickly thought to myself “when was VE Day?” A quick internet search later I learned that Victory in Europe was May 8, 1945. This young man had died on April 9, 1945; less than a month of hostilities remained when he perished.
My knowledge of the Second World War is limited to the broad view of how the war unfolded. I understood about large armies and divisions moving across multiple continents and even some of the smaller groups and their various battles, but to learn about a man who died over 70 years ago and a world away made me feel as though my reach to understand was beyond my grasp to research.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, any branch of government is a paperwork machine. The actions of not only armies and divisions are well documented, but the actions of battalions, companies, and platoons were also well documented during the Second World War. Through resources such as the National Archives and Military Associations who work to preserve unit histories, we can come to understand in minute detail the actions of these units. After deciphering Lieutenant Lemley’s unit from his marker (C Company, 771st Tank Destroyed Battalion) I thought that a quick search of the National Archives would unlock who he was, how he had served, and how he had died on the foreign field. However, my search was much too broad; four years of war had generated mountains of paperwork, right down to the ammo expenditures of individual tanks. At that point I decided to go simple, and a simple Google search yielded the information I needed. TankDestroyer.net is a historical military enthusiast site that is an unofficial repository of official documents, personal documents and stories. Here the 771st has it’s own unit history and access to offical documents such as Department of Army After Action Reports and Casualty Lists.
Once seeing that After Action Reports (AARs)were available for the period in which 1 LT Lemley died I carefully read them from beginning to end. These documents record the actions of the battalion and its companies. Information such as when and where they conducted their operations, actions against the enemy and the results of those actions, as well as casualties sustained. Below is excerpt from one of these AARs and the original can be found here.
Bracketed is the information that details the demise of Lieutenant Lemley. From it’s reading it appears that while in the A Co Command Post, Lt. Lemley and his Company Commander came under indirect artillery fire which resulted in the death of Lt. Lemley and the wounding of Captain Beaver. This excerpt does not name Lt. Lemley by name so further verification is required.
The TankDestroyer.net website also provided documents from the Dwight D Eisenhower Presidential Library which included the official 771st Tank Destroyer Battalion History. Below is an excerpt from that document, and the full document can be found here.
As we can see from this document, 1st Lieutenant Robert C. Lemley was the only member of the 771st TD Bn Killed In Action on April 9, 1945.
The point of this post wasn’t to inform the reader of Robert C. Lemley’s genealogy, to whom he was related, or where and whence he came; it was to reconcile the story only partially written in stone. At the heart of our work in genealogy, outside the excitement of how expansive our family trees grow, is a much deeper purpose. That purpose is to gain an understanding of the people who were before us, and to better understand the “dash” between the dates of birth and death.