Mystery of Champion man’s dad in WWII solved 61 years later

By William K. Alcorn


James “Jim” G. Russ Jr. had yearned since he was a boy to know how his father died in World War II.

Finally, more than 60 years after Army Cpl. James G. Russ Sr. perished, thanks to a persistent pair of Luxembourg men, he got his answer in 2005.

Russ, 71, was 2 years old when his father died in a tank Dec. 26, 1944, but that was all he ever learned about his father’s death, he said in an interview in his Champion home.

The Department of Defense notice of Russ Sr.’s death, sent to family members in North Carolina, probably contained some details but it was never shared with him, Russ Jr. said.

But now the mystery has been solved.

The Luxembourg men, who spent 10 years researching the history of Russ Sr.’s tank in WWII, wrote a book about it — “The Tank Accident in Hesperange, December 26, 1944.”

“We wrote the entire story of the tank from its landing in France until the end of the war,” said Christian Pettinger, who co-authored the book with Roland Schumacher.

The men live in Fentange, a suburb of Hesperange, Luxembourg, where the accident occurred. Pettinger is a newspaperman, and Schumacher is a university professor.

SDLqThree American soldiers died in the accident. They wanted to find out all they could about the soldiers and the accident in hopes of erecting a monument and writing a book so that these American soldiers would not be forgotten,” said Kathy Russ, Russ Jr.’s wife.

“We were able to find letters of one of the soldiers telling of their engagements, and we learned they were with the 10th Armored Division. It took two years to identify the tank-crew members and track down the families of the men who died in the accident,” said Pettinger, interviewed by telephone from the Russ home, which he recently visited.

According to an eyewitness, who was 13 at the time, Russ Sr.’s tank was crossing a bridge over the Alzette River in Hesperange coming from the Battle of the Bulge heading back to France.

Tanks were going both ways across the bridge and Russ Sr.’s tank moved too far to the side. Its track broke through a walkway, causing the tank to fall upside down into the river, the eyewitness recounted.

Two crew members escaped, but Russ Sr. and two others whose stations were in the top part of the tank, which was under water, drowned.

Russ Sr. was a turret gunner. The other two who died, Cpl. Lewis W. Meade and Tech 4 Isidore M. Vasko, were an ammo loader and a bow gunner, respectively.

William Keeler, tank commander, and Oscar L. Davis, its driver, were able to free themselves from the tank. Meade had replaced Charles D. Cary, who had been injured Nov. 22, 1944, about a month before the accident.

A monument to honor the three men who died, erected at the spot where the tank was pulled out of the river, now part of a public park in Hesperange, was dedicated Oct. 19, 2013.

Russ, accompanied by his wife and their son, Edward, Edward’s wife, Jennifer, and a friend, Nancy Ruggieri, cut the ribbon at the dedication.

“It was a very emotional time,” Russ Jr. said.

Despite years of searching, Pettinger and Schumacher were unable to identify names of the tank crew until two unrelated chance events in North Carolina and Champion provided the information.

Kathy and Jim explained.

Pettinger and Schumacher learned one of the men was buried in North Carolina, where Russ Jr. was born.

Their request for information about Russ Sr. landed on the desk of Sandra Lassen, a librarian in Jefferson, N.C., who recognized the name from a monument listing the names of local men killed in WWII.

“She knew dad’s sister, Eula Osborne, and called her, and Eula said, ‘Why don’t you talk to his son,’” Russ Jr. said.

“She [Sandra] was thrilled because she knew Christian and Roland did not even know Russ Sr. had a son,” Kathy said.

“Sandra called us in November 2005 and asked if the two men could email us, and after we agreed it started a lifelong friendship for all involved,” Kathy said.

The second-chance discovery was Kathy’s.

She had gone through letters Russ Sr. had sent home during the war looking for names or other identifying information, each time setting aside two pieces of French paper money, but without success.

“Christian asked me to look one last time. After again looking at the letters, and as I was putting the money back, I noticed something on a bill that said ‘To you from the crew, love James.’

“I looked more carefully and discovered that the bills were signed by all the crew members.”

“Christian was ecstatic. That was the key. That was the breakthrough,” Kathy said.

In addition to the monument, the town council had a placard affixed to the bridge railing containing text by Paul Keller, the eyewitness to the accident, one side in English.

“The admiration that all citizens of Luxembourg have for the American soldiers who came to their rescue during WWII is beyond words. In their country, wherever the flag of Luxembourg flies, the American flag is with it,” Kathy said.

While Pettinger was here, he was presented a resolution from the city by Mayor Douglas Franklin commemorating his visit to Warren.

Pettinger said his satisfaction is that these men now will not be forgotten, and that the men’s families finally know what happened.

“My parents and grandparents still remember the war, and they remember what it was to be under the repression of the Germans. They were very happy when Americans liberated them,” Pettinger said.

“You can’t believe the trouble these people went through for us. It was a wonderful experience,” Kathy said.

Originally, Russ Sr. was buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery with more than 5,000 American soldiers, most of whom died in the Battle of the Bulge. But later, his family had his body brought to North Carolina for reburial.

The Russ party visited Paris after they left Luxembourg.

“In Paris, the buildings impressed me. In Luxembourg, the people impressed me,” Russ Jr. said.

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