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Search for WWII soldier who left his name in a Dutch cave turns up some leads

By TORSTEN OVE | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: August 31, 2020

PITTSBURGH (Tribune News Service) — The search goes on.

A few leads have turned up in the search for “Gimpy Joe,” a soldier from Pittsburgh who scratched his name into the stone walls of a cave in the Netherlands in 1944, but nothing concrete has surfaced.

Last month, Walther Odekerken, who lives in the town of Valkenburg and leads historical tours of a cave there, found an inscription signed by “Wm. Thompson,” aka “Gimpy Joe,” from “Pgh, Pa.” It was signed on 9-17-44, the day the Allies liberated the town from the Germans in World War II.

Who was he?

Mr. Odekerken wants to find out and has since received several replies from people in the Pittsburgh area who think they might have an idea.

But that’s as far as it has gone.

“Well, I looked into a few names but no luck yet,” he said last week by email. “It is hard to dive into all leads being so far away.”

One man in Whitehall, Mike Hogan, sent an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and to Mr. Odekerken saying that in the late 1950s and early ’60s he was a caddie at the Youghiogheny Country Club in McKeesport and recalled a man named Bill Thompson "who had a discernible leg limp but still walked 18 holes."

He described Mr. Thompson as a "feisty, slightly built man with a black receding hairline who made concessions in his golf swing to accommodate his leg limp."

Mr. Hogan said many World War II veterans were members of the golf club. He said Mr. Thompson never talked about the military, but that was typical of the war generation.

“I hope this is the man you are looking for!” Mr. Hogan said. “If I can recall any other feature about Mr. Thompson, I will pass it on to you.”

He said his brother in New York, who had also been a caddie at the country club, had the same memory of a William Thompson who walked with a limp. But Mr. Hogan said he has had no luck finding him in any old phone book or other listings.

“Remember, I am following a lead that might be the wrong William Thompson, so I trust you have other leads besides mine to identify the stone mason,” he said.

Another local connection, Rose Kozubal, 58, of Trafford, wrote to say her father was in the 30th Infantry Division, the same division that Mr. Odekerken believes Mr. Thompson served in during the war.

Ms. Kozubal, a member of her local historical society, has visited the Normandy battlegrounds and was intrigued by the story. She volunteered to help find “Gimpy Joe.”

“The fascinating and exciting part about this story for me is that there was a man in my hometown of Wall, Pa., (15 miles east of Pittsburgh) who was known as ‘Gimpy Joe,’ ” she wrote. “What an unusual nickname and could it be the same ‘Gimpy Joe?’ My 87-year-old mother and two older sisters recall my father knowing this man from our hometown” in the 1970s.

She said she has contacted a local funeral director, a family friend, to see if she has any recollection of the William Thompson family in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

Those leads are somewhat promising, but others haven’t panned out. One problem, of course, is that William Thompson is a very common name, even if Gimpy Joe is not.

One woman contacted Mr. Odekerken on Facebook in recent days to say her dad was William Thompson. She was excited at first but then realized her father had fought with an entirely different unit and was not at Valkenburg.

For his part, Mr. Oderkeken has been going through the records of the 30th Infantry Division, which lists several William Thompsons. He also found an old draft card for a William J. Thompson who lived in Baldwin. But there’s no way to tell if it’s the right man.

So it goes.

Mr. Odekerken said he will keep looking.

This kind of sleuthing from a continent away would be almost impossible without the internet. But through social and traditional media, he at least has been able to get the message out.

His goal is to honor William Thompson and hopefully secure a photo of him to include in his tours.

Mr. Odekerken, 53, is an actor who had previously rented a cave named Roebroekgroeve, one of the many famous caves around Valkenburg created over the centuries by the excavation of marlstone for building material. He had used the cave for theatrical tours and team-building exercises since 2001, but when COVID-19 hit he switched to leading smaller groups on history tours.

The caves had been used over the years as sanctuaries in time of peril. During the war, the occupying Germans used some of the caves to build underground factories. They used the Roebroekgroeve cave as a storage facility for those factories.

The 30th Infantry closed in on Valkenburg in September 1944, however, and the Germans fled. The Americans liberated the town after four days of bitter fighting from Sept. 13 through Sept. 17.

After the battle, many American soldiers visited the caves and left their mark. But in Roebroekgroeve, William Thompson is the only name Mr. Odekerken has found.

The inscription carved into the stone says “Gimpy Joe” with an arrow pointing to the name “Wm. Thompson.”

Below that, it says “Pgh, Pa.” and then the date: “9-17-44.”

Anyone with information about Gimpy Joe can reach Mr. Odekerken at info@jutenjul.nl.

tove@post-gazette.com

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