By Amy Nicole Tangel
With Memorial Day ahead of us, we remember those who fought for our country and have gone before us as we honor their service. I recently revisited my own ancestry in hopes of learning more about my great grandfather who served and died in World War II.
Ever since I was old enough to know the story of my great grandfather, I have always been drawn to it. From my perspective as a child, and until more recently, learning about what happened to him from the time he left home until after his death was somewhat of a mystery to me. His death was a tragedy that turned the course of my grandmother’s life at a very young age. It left her with scars she rarely spoke of, and I never had the courage to dig deep with her to find answers to my family history. I didn’t want to upset her, and I always thought, ‘one day’. One day never came, and she passed away in 2016 before I ever had the chance, but her passing was the last of a generation and it fueled my fire even more. I have slowly been able to put some pieces together over the years, but a recent trip down memory lane with my aunt brought me new understanding and revealed a heart-stopping tale I had never been told.
His name was Pvt Roland Douglas and he served in the U.S. Army. He was born in 1911 in Owls Head, N.Y., and graduated from Lake Placid High School and barber school before marrying my great grandmother, Elizabeth Cline, in Saranac Lake, N.Y., on May 23, 1934. When he was called to service in 1943, he left behind a wife and three daughters, Helen (my grandmother), Betty and Alice in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he once ran a local barbershop, worked as a chauffeur and was a volunteer firefighter.
In a genealogy document written by his daughter, my late, great aunt Betty Douglas Coats, she tells how her father was a barber by trade, but when the depression hit in the 1930’s he had to go to work as a chauffeur. In December of 1943, he was drafted into the Army, completed basic training in Camp Wolter, TX, and was shipped off to France in 1944. Records have indicated he fought numerous battles for approximately four months until his death on, September 23, 1944.
Under the leadership of General George S. Patton Jr., Great Grandfather Douglas was serving in Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division at the time of his death and was killed in action in the Foret de Gremacy area of France. I have often imagined the past and wondered what it was like for my great grandmother to have the worry of her husband fighting a war and suddenly becoming the only parent raising three daughters in such economically troubled times.
It is said through family lore he told his family he knew he wasn’t coming home, and I often wondered, given the times, if he was ever able to write letters home or if there were any specific moments left behind. So, I asked my aunt, Teresa Wells of Barre, VT, great grandfather’s granddaughter, if she knew of any letters and if she could share with me any stories she knew.
“I do know that Grandpa was in France and was shot out of a tree by a sniper. His watch stopped at his time of death when he hit the ground,” she said.
I had never heard the story of his watch before and hearing of it for the first time made my heart skip a beat. She said as far as she knew, the watch had never been reset, but that my uncle had the watch and he had the exact time. It was like the watch was connected to the heartbeat of my great-grandfather’s life, and when his heart stopped, so did the tick of his watch; forever symbolizing the moment during battle when he took his last breath. I reached out to my uncle, Bob Macey of Stillwater, N.Y., great grandfather’s grandson, and owner of the watch to see if he could share with me what he knew about its history. While we spoke on the phone, he held the watch in his hands and checked the time for me. 9:34 is the time, and although it is not known from the watch whether it is morning or evening, it remains as it was received.
During WWII many soldiers were buried in Europe and later flown home. It was a double-edged sword for families who lost their loved ones in this war. Not only did they have to grieve, but many times they had to grieve without a body and try to carry on, only to reopen the wounds years later and grieve all over again when the bodies returned home.
In the notes written by his daughter Betty, she tells about the location where my great grandfather’s remains were interred in Andilly, Lorraine, France in a what was then a U.S. Military Cemetery, and describes the timeline of his return home to Lake Placid years later.
“Pvt Douglas’ remains were shipped home, arriving at 6:30 p.m. on November 29, 1948 at the train station in Lake Placid, N.Y. A funeral was held November 30at 2:30 p.m.,” she wrote.
He was buried in North Elba Cemetery in Lake Placid following his funeral and on December 14, 1948, Great grandfather, Pvt Roland Douglas, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
My grandmother, Helen, was the oldest of her siblings, but she was only a 7-year-old when her father passed away, so memories were hard to come by, but collectively through stories passed down, his legacy remains alive. The time may have stopped the day Pvt Douglas died, but for his family, the honor of his service will always be remembered.