Remembering Just One of Many on Memorial Day

I spent a rainy afternoon before Memorial Day weekend shifting through a packet of newspapers.

The papers are brown and old, and smell like attics and forgotten steamer trunks. They are smooth and soft to the touch and don't like to bend anymore.

These oily scraps of paper are now 70 years old -- 25 years older than myself. These collected clippings were assembled by hands I have never seen, and tell a story about a man I never met.

All of the articles concern themselves with the movement of a particular outfit in the U.S. Army -- the 508th parachute infantry. In 1944, the 508th was attached to the 82nd Airborne as part of something called the First Allied Airborne Army. The 508th served in Normandy during the D-Day invasion, but none of the clippings mention anything about those important days.

Instead, the story begins in September 1944 when the 508th was dropped into Holland, near Arnhem. A place one officer called ''our little patch of hell.''

IN BROAD DAYLIGHT the 508th went in, Sept. 17, 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden. They were attempting to relieve the badly pinned down British paratroopers who were trying to hold out near a bridge at Nijmegen.

The bridge is a mile and half long, made of concrete. It was seized intact by British armor and the American paratroopers. If you've ever seen the movie or read the book "A Bridge Too Far" you know of the bridge I'm talking about.

Capturing the bridge before the Germans could destroy it allowed the allies to break through the Seigfried line. It was the last bridge left across the Northern Branch of the Rhine. The New York Sun on Sept. 21, 1944 ran a double-deck headline -- letters two inches tall -- shouting "Allied Troops Take Bridge Over Rhine."

"The isolated airborne troops were holding fast against heavy attacks by reinforced German assault troops," it read that Sunday. By Monday the Trenton Evening Times reported that the Airborne troops were "an island" isolated from supply and reinforcement and in a "critical plight."

COMPANY B HAD PUSHED into a small group of houses near the German border town of Wyler one day after landing to take sixteen 20 mm German guns. Company B took Wyler on Sept. 19. Once secured, the town was roadblocked. The company withstood several large-scale attacks during the day and by nightfall, Company B was running low on ammunition. The paratroopers were faced with a coordinated attack from three sides. After inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, Company B withdrew from Wyler and set up a defense around a roadblock southwest of town.

It was here that a young man from Trenton, New Jersey volunteered for one of those brave acts that turns some men -- who pass without notice on the streets in times of peace -- into what some would call heroes.

UNDER THE STARK heading “Posthumous Award,” another clipping tells of why Pvt. E. F. Matthews was awarded a Certificate of Merit for heroic conduct in action.
"On Sept. 21, 1944," his commanding officer Major General James Gavin told his parents "... during an enemy attack on our positions near Wyler, Germany, Private Matthews, upon his own initiative, made a reconnaissance of a draw through which it was believed enemy troops were infiltrating. He returned with valuable information, which enabled us to prepare an enemy flanking maneuver and break the thrust. When the enemy had withdrawn, again Pvt. Matthews moved to the draw on reconnaissance. While investigating ... he was killed."

YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER heard of Pvt. E. F. Matthews. Few readers my age probably ever heard of Arnhem, or Nijmegen -- and certainly not of the little town of Wyler.
I had never knew of my connection to these places, until a Sunday ten years ago when I first dug out and read these old clippings.

I think his parents learned the next day that their only son had died. There is a scrawled note in pencil at the top of the Sept. 22 Trenton Evening Times that says “1 1/2 miles from Wyler, Germany.”

I can see a mother on the telephone writing down that location on whatever paper was at hand -- before she knew the significance of the information. I can see her voice going quiet and soft. I can see her setting the phone down gently.

Matthews was an only child. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Matthews, couldn’t have children of their own so they adopted this little boy. He was active in Boy Scouts--Troop 44. There was an observance of silence that week among all the local troops for his passing. Blessed Sacrament Parish draped colors for 30 days.

Growing up in Trenton, he ran track at Trenton High School and later at Riverside Military College. He was there only a year before he up and joined the army in July 1943. He was a member of Company B, 508th infantry, 82nd Airborne Division.

He was 21 years old.

Private E. F. Matthews isn’t in any of the history books, although he is listed in the roll of honor in the History of the 508th Parachute Infantry. His tiny act of courage probably did not turn the tide of the war. The little town of Wyler isn’t even on any map that I can find.
His bravery and sacrifice will not otherwise be remembered 70 years later. 

Yet, each memorial day I dig out these clippings, look at the old maps and faded headlines. I tell his story and keep is name alive, even though he is just one of many who have served and died for our freedom. 

So why do I remember to honor a man I've never met?

My father’s uncle Frank helped my dad when he was young and growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The youngest kid in a big Irish family, my dad owes a lot of his successes in life to Frank Matthews.

When I was born -- 25 years after their son had died halfway around the world -- my dad asked them a favor. He asked if he could give his youngest son the name of their only son.

I am Edward Matthews Hunt.

I will not forget.


Addendum: A few days after this column was published in the Christian Science Monitor, I was contacted by someone who served with Eddie Matthews in the 508th. He gives a long letter with details of the movements of the unit. The writer, (whose name I have lost) said that he first med Ed while stationed near Nottingham, England at Wollaton Park. 

"I have often thought of Ed, he was the type of person that never complained but always saw the bright side and was more than willing to share whatever he had. He was the solider that made the army a better place, I know if you could have met him, you would agree..."

Originally written for the Chinook Observer newspaper in 1994. It has since been republished in The Tidepool and the Christian Science Monitor. 

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