Mr. McMurtrey—Part 2
Wed, 10/20/2021 - 12:28pm admin
In my previous article, “Lowell McMurtrey, WSHS Alumnus, Teacher, and POW,” I mentioned that researching newspaper accounts and the records preserved by the State Historical Society of Missouri gave me a different perspective of my former teacher. A more personal, human understanding, which I wanted to convey, and also provide an accurate account of what happened.
Lowell McMurtrey, a 1941graduate of WSHS, entered the U.S. Army in December 1942, after marrying Margaret Mitchell just six months before. He received basic training as a tank cannoneer at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, and four months later was on ship bound for North Africa to join the 7th Army commanded by General George S. Patton, Jr.
Several of the newspapers of the day indicated that Mr. McMurtrey enlisted in the Army. Reading them I thought it odd or extremely patriotic that he would enlist after being married for only 6 months. Nevertheless, I included that information in Part 1. Since then, I obtained additional information from the State Historical Society of Missouri (SHS) that indicated those newspaper reports may not have been accurate.
Thomas H. Miller, a Manuscript Specialist with the SHS, interviewed Lowell McMurtrey on August 20, 2004 (4 days before his 82nd birthday), at the Willow Care Nursing Home as part of SHC’s Ex-POW Oral History Program. Coincidentally, 4 months later, I would visit Mr. McMurtrey at Willow Care.
At the time of the SHS interview, Mr. McMurtrey suffered from age-related memory issues, but with skillful questioning by Mr. Miller and gentle prompts from his wife Margaret, he provided lucid, factual information,
During the interview, both Lowell and Margaret confirmed that he was drafted. When asked by Miller if he wanted to go to war, he responded, “No, I didn’t want to go to war. They drafted me.”
The regulations of the Selective Service Act of 1940 allowed deferments that included farm workers, the medical community, the ministry, and when dependents required support of the registrant, but not for being married. According to Cengage Encyclopedia.Com, “Volunteering was prohibited in late 1942, and the draft became the only way to enter the armed forces . . . a majority of the men donned the uniform via the draft.” Before the prohibition, one could volunteer and choose the desired branch of service.
While in Africa as part of the 7th Army, he was assigned to guard General Patton’s tent one night. I can only imagine the awe a boy from Willow Springs felt meeting the notorious general. In the SHS interview, Miller asked him if he had any interaction with General Patton. Mr. McMurtrey responded, “Yeah, he says, ‘Go get me something to drink. I’m out of water.’ So I went and got him some water. He said over there somebody had some water. I came back and it fell in the ditch. I had to go fill it up again . . .. I got back with the water, and he said, ‘Thank you, soldier.’”
Margaret added to the story. “But the funny part was you see, he told him to go get some water, and he said you weren’t supposed to . . . if you are guarding somebody . . . you weren’t supposed to leave them.”
After the African campaign, he transferred to the 5th Army commanded by General Mark Wayne Clark. The Willow Springs News reported: “After being stationed in North Africa a short time, he participated in the invasion of Sicily and later in the invasion of Italy. He has been in action since he went overseas in May of last year.”
The West Plains Journal-Gazette reported: “Young McMurtrey has been in the battle areas since May 10 of this year when he arrived in North Africa with replacement troops, which were immediately sent to the front. He participated in the Battle of Sicily and helped make the landing on Salerno beach [Italy]. Although his letters gave no details of his experience, they had revealed to his parents he has been through close brushes with death.”
So, imagine the terror on March 2, 1944, when Lowell’s mother, Mrs. Adel McMurtrey, received the following Western Union telegram from the Adjutant General of the Army: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Private First Class Lowell M. McMurtrey has been reported missing in action since three February in Italy. [As] Further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.” And imagine having to break the news to her daughter-in-law Margaret.
The same day, the Journal-Gazette reported that Judge M.K. McMurtrey and Mrs. McMurtrey were with their son’s “grief-stricken wife, the former Miss Margaret Mitchell, daughter of Justice Roy Mitchell and Mrs. Mitchell.”
In case you are wondering (I was), why was the telegram sent to his mother and not his wife? Although Margaret received subsequent correspondence from the War Department, the information saved in the SHC files, and the newspaper accounts also show, some initial notifications went to his mother. I’m not sure of the protocol at the time, but, for whatever reason, I suspect the Casualty Notification Card that service members complete, may have listed his mother.
On April 29, 1944, Adel McMurtrey received a letter from Brigadier Robert H. Dunlap in Washington, DC. “Up to the present time no further information has reached the War Department regarding your son’s whereabouts. A report has been received, however, which states that Private McMurtrey was a crew member of a tank assigned the mission of attacking the enemy in the north end of Cassino, Italy, in conjunction with an infantry attack. No trace was found of your son or his tank after the enemy was engaged.”
Imagine the thoughts that raced through her mind when she read, “No trace was found.” Was he blown up? Local newspapers reported the family feared he was no longer alive.
Over four months passed, waiting and worrying, before the family heard anything. Finally, on June 7, 1944, Margaret received a telegram from the War Department: “[The] Following unofficial short wave broadcast from Germany has been intercepted Quote I am a prisoner of the Germans. I am treated well will write later I love you Darling Lowell McMurtrey. Unquote. Pending further confirmation this report does not establish his status to be a prisoner of war stop. Any additional information received will be furnished stop.”
The Howell County Gazette reporting on this news implied the broadcast was authentic. “The phrase ‘I love you, darling’ was one which Lowell used in talking to Mrs. McMurtrey. Also there was no other way of anyone knowing the box number and address of Mrs. McMurtrey at Willow Springs.”
To be continued.