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Lost World War II artifact makes its way home to Groton

By John Ruddy | The Day, New London, Conn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 31, 2016

When Edgar Davies of Groton came home from World War II, he was unwounded, intact and ready to live a productive life.

He got married, raised a family and went to work at Pfizer, where he enjoyed a 37-year career. 

But he had left something behind on the fields of France, and though he died in 1987 without seeing it again, it wasn't gone for good.

More than three decades after the war, a French teenager was exploring the forest outside his village when his metal detector picked up a signal.

Digging almost 3 feet into the ground, he pulled out a gold-colored chain with a small brass plate attached. The plate bore two words, engraved in neat script, with the first letter of each word in Old English capitals. It said, "Edgar Davies."

Three more decades would pass, but just after Thanksgiving 2015, the old soldier's lost ID bracelet finally found its way back to Groton.

Davies was a student at Chapman Technical High School in New London when the United States entered the war. He graduated in 1942, then spent a few months as a machinist's apprentice at Electric Boat.

But like so many in what would later be called the Greatest Generation, he was soon in uniform. Drafted by the Army in February 1943, he was shipped off to Texas for basic training. Two months later, he wrote home with news.

"I have a chance to go to an army specialist school although I don't know whether I'll make the grade or not," he told his parents.

Anticipating a need for skilled replacement officers, the service had established the Army Specialized Training Program. Thousands of college students and enlisted men who met rigorous entry requirements would earn a bachelor's degree and a commission in just 18 months.

Davies did make the grade and found himself at North Texas State Teachers College studying everything from engineering to American history.

"There are about 12 girls for every soldier!" he wrote when he arrived. "Oh Boy! what a time I'm going to have. I've got a date for tonight already. Woo! Woo!"

But when he was halfway through the program, the fortunes of war changed his plans. With infantrymen needed more than officers for the planned Allied invasion of Europe, the program was shut down.

Davies, like thousands of others, was transferred to a combat unit.

Called "Sonny" by all to distinguish him from his father, Edgar Sr., the younger Davies was the oldest of seven children, one of whom hadn't even been born yet when he shipped out for Europe in October 1944.

Wartime photos show a young man with dark hair and a confident smile who was officer material but headed into the fight as a private first class.

When and how Davies got his ID bracelet is a bit of a mystery, according to his younger brother, William Davies of Niantic.

Too young to be aware of what was going on at the time, William Davies thinks he remembers hearing that his mother sent the bracelet while her son was overseas but was unsure whether he ever received it. Later, he said, she was afraid to ask.

The back of the brass plate reads "Love Mom and Dad" in script. The "o" in "love" is heart-shaped. It also says "US Army" and has Davies' serial number, 31326424.

The tide had turned in favor of the Allies by the time Davies' unit, the 103rd Infantry Division, arrived in Marseille, France, after an adventurous crossing.

"We ran into a storm out in the middle of the Atlantic which made me seasick for two days," he wrote. "... We saw a couple of boats that collided. ... One was on fire and the other was pretty badly damaged. I guess there were a couple of sailors killed in the collision."

By then the Normandy invasion was in the books, Paris had been liberated and the Nazis were in retreat.

"The town near us looks as though it has been pretty badly bombed," Davies wrote. "As yet we haven't had a good look at it. We did get a pretty good look at the harbor though. The place is just filled with sunken ships."

The 103rd fought several engagements over the next month and briefly crossed the border into Germany. Just before Christmas, as the Battle of the Bulge raged to the northwest, Davies' unit took up defensive positions on the French side, in the Lorraine region.

H.K. Brown, a member of Davies' regiment, recalled the bitter winter weather in a memoir.

"At first we rode south, in convoy, stopping every few hours to build a fire and warm ourselves and our rations," he wrote. "It was cold! Cold! Cold! Awful cold!!!"

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, Brown's company spent one night manning a forested position that overlooked twin towns, one on each side of the border: Grosbliederstroff and Kleinblittersdorf.

Nothing remarkable happened there except the capture of a lost German soldier. But as subsequent events revealed, Davies was nearby, and when he left, his ID bracelet had somehow vanished.

Christophe Ultsch grew up in Grosbliederstroff, a French town with a German name that changed hands repeatedly as wars shifted the border. He was fascinated by local military history.

In 1981, when he was 17, he searched the forest around the village, where American troops had been 37 years earlier. He believed he was the first to explore the area.

With his metal detector, Ultsch found a moment frozen in time. All manner of debris lay scattered just as the soldiers had left it.

One foxhole yielded a toothbrush, a tube of Colgate-Palmolive shaving cream, five brass coat buttons, and other ordinary items. There was also an ID bracelet belonging to someone named Edgar Davies.

Ultsch collected his artifacts and displayed them at a small museum he runs called "Souvenirs de Guerre" (War Memories). Over the years he tried to track down soldiers whose names were on various objects.

Around 1996 he sent Davies' name to a veteran in Kansas who had fought in Grosbliederstroff, but he was from a different unit.

After the Internet made searching easier, Ultsch learned through the National Archives that Davies had lived in New London County. From there he tracked down New London's newspaper.

In October, The Day received an email from Steve Newton, Ultsch's friend and translator, seeking information about Davies.

"We don't know if Edgar died in action or returned home," Newton wrote. "We would like to give back his bracelet to him or a relative. Can you help?"

The author of this story located Davies' obituary, found his son in the phone book and put him in touch with Ultsch, 34 years after the bracelet came out of the ground.

The package that arrived at Rick Davies' Groton home on Nov. 30 was far too big for just a bracelet. When he and his brother Glenn opened it, they found a trove of artifacts, each carefully bubble-wrapped, down to a single 1944 penny.

"I'm 100 percent sure that everything I sent you belonged to your father because it was from a foxhole for one soldier," Ultsch wrote in French. "... France will never forget the sacrifice made by these young Americans during this terrible conflict."

Items like a razor, a Garand rifle cartridge case, and packets of Nescafe instant coffee have brought to life the experiences of their father, who didn't talk much about the war except for a few stories.

He recalled running from a Nazi tank through a forest with tree branches crashing down around him, and he once spent a long night in a foxhole with the lifeless body of a friend, his sons said. He also claimed he once "liberated" a wine cellar.

A history of the 103rd Division, called "Report After Action," recounts that near the end of the war, Davies and another soldier captured 10 German boys along the Rhine River. They were between 10 and 14 years old, and most were members of the Hitler Youth.

Davies wrote plenty of letters home, one of which ended abruptly after four sentences and arrived in a dirt-smeared envelope. When his parents read it, they feared he had been killed.

Rick and Glenn Davies had not read the letters before they were dug out of a relative's attic this month. Nowhere does their father mention his ID bracelet, and his sons had no idea it existed until October.

"I think my father would have loved to see all this stuff come back," Rick Davies said. "It's like he came back to touch you with the bracelet. It's been good."

j.ruddy@theday.com

©2016 The Day (New London, Conn.)
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