After years of searching, connecting a World War II soldier's death to a family in Rancho Murieta.
Carol Valladao remembers her Uncle Dick as more fun than her other uncles. She was an 8-year-old, and he was a handsome high school football player, closer to her age than the other uncles. “He was playful, a lot of fun,” she recalls decades later in her Rancho Murieta living room. “Uncle Dick was a tease.”
Richard “Dick” Conway graduated from Leeds High School in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1943 and joined the Army that summer. It was the middle of World War II, and lots of boys went straight from high school into the service. His first stop was basic training, then he came home for a 10-day leave at Christmas. After that, he shipped out for Europe.
Carol Valladao remembers the family being told the following October that Uncle Dick was missing in action in France. Then, she remembers, the family was told that Pfc. Richard J. Conway, 180th Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, had died in action. He was 19 years old.
Today, Carol Valladao remembers her Uncle Dick Conway, dead 73 years and buried an ocean away. Does anyone else remember? On this Memorial Day, a day of remembrance, it turns out the answer is yes.
ø ø ø
An envelope arrived at the Valladaos’ home last November, forwarded from an address in Fair Oaks where they had lived briefly more than 30 years ago. The letter was from T. Sean Schulze, a retired U.S. Army major now living in Stuttgart, Germany.
Schulze wrote that he was trying to locate relatives of Pfc. Richard J. Conway, who died in France in 1944.
The letter explained, “During my frequent trips to France, I have gotten to know a number of French citizens who honor the memories of the American soldiers who fought and died to liberate France. Many of these French citizens have adopted the graves of American soldiers, setting flowers at the graves on Memorial Day and other holidays. Some of them also research the soldiers themselves – where they were from, the units they were in, where those units fought, and where the soldiers fell in battle.”
One of these people, Jean-Marie Siret, was caring for the grave of Pfc. Richard Conway, Schulze wrote, and Siret had asked Schulze’s help to find any surviving Conway family members.
ø ø ø
After receiving Schulze’s letter, Dick Valladao, Carol’s husband, replied with a large envelope of information about Dick Conway. He heard back promptly from Schulze and Siret.
It turned out Siret is a man in his mid-70s living in the village of Frémifontaine in eastern France. He is retired after 33 years in the French military. His wife’s father, Georges Fortier, was a member of the French resistance during World War II. As American troops took back Frémifontaine from German forces in the fall of 1944, Fortier fought alongside the Americans and narrowly escaped capture by the Germans.
“After my father-in-law told to me his experience during WWII, I decided to honor all the men who fought for the liberation of the village of Frémifontaine,” Siret wrote.
In 1999, he arranged for construction of a monument in Frémifontaine to the U.S. Army’s 45th Division, which battled to free the area and lost many men. This prompted a veteran who fought in Frémifontaine to send Siret a copy of his wartime memoirs.
Jean-Marie Siret, left, and T. Sean Schulze, the men who made the connection from France to Rancho Murieta.
The personal histories of the soldiers who fought in the area give a sense of the terror and dislocation of young Americans in war – the fears of one soldier in his first nighttime combat, the horror and smell of men burned to death inside a tank, the sight of battle-fatigue victims incommunicative and weeping.
In one of the memoirs, Siret read this: “As Company L moved on from the German position which Hays had destroyed, a patrol was sent to reconnoiter approaches to a crossroad toward the Mortagne River east of Frémifontaine. Leading the patrol was Private First Class Richard J. Conway, whose mother, Mrs. Martha A. Conway, resides at 3903 Monroe Avenue, Sioux City, Iowa. Conway encountered a German roadblock manned by three Germans and one light machine gun. He ordered the other men of his patrol to ride down and take cover in a ditch. Then he advanced alone, firing a Browning Automatic Rifle. With his accurate firing, he killed three Germans and broke up the roadblock. Just as victory crowned his efforts, a long-range shot by a German sniper killed him.”
Siret, who knows the area well, realized the location where Dick Conway died is less than 500 yards from his own home. Given that connection, “Since that time I visited Richard's grave at Epinal cemetery for the Memorial day and many other circumstances and especially with children,” Siret writes in imperfect English.
For his actions, Dick Conway was awarded the Silver Star.
ø ø ø
Dick Valladao is in his study, going through scrapbooks of letters, photos and news clippings about his wife’s uncle and this new connection.
“Two questions I’ve had in my mind,” Valladao says. “Number one: Where was he killed? Now, we know exactly where he was killed. And number two: Why would somebody adopt the gravesite, to care for it?”
Dick and Carol Valladao today.
From 2000 on, Siret says, he searched for Dick Conway’s relatives. He wrote letters to every Conway he could find in Sioux City, to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and to the Sioux City police department. No one replied, he says.
He arranges annual trips to the Epinal American Cemetery for fourth- and fifth-graders from Frémifontaine and nearby villages. The kids get a little bit of history in the classroom in advance, he says, and then they walk the cemetery, stopping to learn about soldiers who died to liberate their villages.
ø ø ø
Seventy-plus years after the war, the area around Frémifontaine is peaceful – gentle green hills and narrow roads through forests and farm fields, past quaint homes and some houses that bear a resemblance to American suburbia.
In 2000, the Valladaos visited the Epinal American Cemetery, about 25 miles from the forest crossroads where Dick Conway died. He is among more than 5,000 soldiers buried in Epinal.
In a letter after the trip to Dick Conway’s sole surviving brother, Paul, who would die in 2013, Dick Valladao wrote of meeting the cemetery attendant, a small man who spoke little English. The attendant went to his computer to locate Richard Conway’s grave from among the rows and rows of crosses: Plot A, Row 31, Grave 9.
“We asked him if there was some place where we could buy some flowers, and he said that wasn’t necessary, as we could pick some flowers from the rose garden,” Valladao wrote. “He retrieved a bucket with some sand in it, a rag, a set of clippers and his Polaroid camera, and we set out toward all the crosses. On the way out he used his clippers to clip some red rosebuds. When we arrived at the grave marker, he took the sand from the bucket and rubbed it into the engraving on the cross so that the inscription would stand out, then wiped off the excess with the rag. We placed the flowers at the base of the cross, then he took a Polaroid picture of Carol and me standing behind the cross. He then left us to ourselves. We probably spent about an hour there, saying a prayer and walking throughout the cemetery area. It is truly a beautiful place, and as sorrowful as the situation is, you get a good feeling for having been there.”
They stopped on the way out to thank the cemetery attendant, and he told them the next day, as it happened, was the annual celebration by surrounding towns of their liberation by the U.S. forces in 1944.
The Valladaos returned in the morning, two Americans among 150 French villagers, town officials and French army representatives in uniform. “There were a number of elderly gentlemen, dressed up in business suits wearing ribbons all over their chests,” Dick Valladao wrote. “There were other townspeople there, both men and women, but all appeared to be quite elderly. The town band was also there.”
The ceremony began with brief speeches in French, and then four beautiful floral pieces were placed on easels behind the stone monument that is the centerpiece of the cemetery.
“At the completion of the setting of the floral pieces, the band played the French national anthem followed by the American national anthem,” Valladao wrote. “I can assure you that our national anthem never sounded so beautiful.”
Unbeknownst to the Valladaos, Siret’s first Frémifontaine monument, honoring the 45th Division, was already standing 25 miles away. Less than two years later, he would erect a sign honoring Richard Conway at the forest crossroads where he died. But the Valladaos wouldn’t learn about that until Schulze’s letter from Germany last fall, which made its unlikely journey to Rancho Murieta, prompting all of these memories.
ø ø ø
On Sunday, Siret, Schulze and a friend will visit Epinal American Cemetery for the Memorial Day ceremonies. Siret wrote the other day, “This day I shall be present beside my friends Sean and Eric at Epinal cemetery for the official ceremony on Sunday 28 (in France) and shall lay a rose at the bottom of Richard’s marker and shall pray God for him.”
ø ø ø
After Dick Conway’s death, his parents received a small box of personal items he had been carrying – rosary beads, a ring, a few coins and a bracelet. The bracelet looks like it was handcrafted in Europe during the war to sell to soldiers for their sweethearts back home.
This bracelet’s message is simple, from young Dick Conway of Sioux City, Iowa, a veteran of war in Italy and France, to all of us in the America he left behind forever. “Do not forget me,” it says.