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Mountain Home Magazine

Our Unknown Soldier

Dec 08, 2016 04:41PM

Seventy-five years ago, December 7, 1941, was the day that would “live in infamy,” according to the President of the United States as he announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor and declared America's entry into war. But strangely, America's first soldier lost in the Second World War had been killed more than a year before, in Norway, a neutral country half a world away from Pearl Harbor.

Our first casualty was a young man who belonged to Tioga County. Army Air Force Captain Robert M. Losey, graduate of West Point and Cal Tech, expert in meteorology and aeronautics, was the great-great-grandson of arguably the first of the Revolutionary War veterans who settled Tioga County. The 1804 History of Tioga County cites Jesse Losey as a veteran of Bunker Hill and a witness to the execution of British spy John Andre as well as a probable soldier in further battles in New York and New Jersey.

Bob, military attaché to the American minister to Norway, was struck in the heart by a splinter from a Nazi bomb on April 22, 1940, while helping to evacuate American Legation civilian families during the country's invasion. Hailed as a brilliant young man and military officer, his death was big news in newspapers all over, and even made “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not.” The first land death in the war was held to be a curiosity to rival legendary Philadelphia Athletics’ pitcher Rube Waddell chasing his entire team except the catcher from the field in a 1907 game and striking out the side. That’s an urban myth (he did it in exhibition games, but never in a regulation game). But Captain Losey’s story is true.

Many Losey relatives live in the county today. Captain Bob's father was born in Nelson, and his great-grandfather, grandparents, and two aunts, Mary Losey Brown and Lillian Losey Preston, are buried there. Jesse, the Revolutionary War veteran, who died at eighty-five in 1844, rests in the Fairview Cemetery in Holiday.

The Loseys and my family were neighbors for generations, and Bob and his sister Margaret shared a dear aunt with my brothers and me—the Loseys connected to Aunt Lill by blood, and John, Tony and me (the Luggs) by “courtesy.” Bob Losey was the love of Aunt Lill's life, and I owe her many stories of the Northern Tier, including those of her family.

American roots run deep in a place like Tioga County, Pennsylvania, connecting all of us to our families and the land and its history, some of it remarkable and hidden out of sight. This is a family story I heard as a child and pass on now; somehow each time it means more with the telling. In 1791 or 1792, the Revolutionary War veteran Jesse Losey and his wife, whose name is lost, came by canoe from New Jersey to settle in what is now Tioga County, back when it was mostly wilderness in the far west of the young republic he’d helped make possible.

Jesse and his wife had one son, Artemus, born in 1799. Mrs. Jesse died young and was buried in an unmarked spot close to the verge of the Williamson Road, near Tioga. Losey men were craftsmen, highly skilled with all tools and machinery. Artemus and his son James bought the Campbell sawmill at Beechers' Island, now Nelson, in 1830, built a lovely home and a dam to divert water from the river to a mill race for power for the mill. They built furniture and wagons as well as sawing the lumber for many of the town's 19th century homes and the Presbyterian Church. Jim died when my father was six; and Dad remembered his childhood awe that Jim was the first person in the region to own a flashlight.

Two strands of my family—the Bottoms and Luggs—arrived in Tioga County nearly three decades after the Loseys. Their friendship began in 1930 when the Loseys bought the Nelson mill. Charles Bottom, my great-great-grandfather, had settled in Farmington, bought the Beecher farm on Beechers' Island in 1828, and worked it while his family still lived at their farm on the hill two miles or so south of the Island. The Charles Lugg family arrived from England in 1830 and settled adjacent to the Bottoms in Farmington. Their first child to be born in the United States, Robert S., married the girl next door, Rebecca Bottom. The two decided to raise tobacco and persuaded Rebecca's father to grant them the Island farm, with its wonderful land. Tobacco was a natural and soon very popular, thanks to the alluvial soil, as well as to the fact that General Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and presidential candidate, was taken with the taste of the broad leaf cigar wrapper tobacco when he tried it at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Since it was identified with our region and as President Grant was identified in photographs with a cigar in his mouth, northern Pennsylvania tobacco received a boost and was grown successfully on the Island until 1954, as it was at most farms in the Cowanesque Valley until the 1930s. Tobacco made the Luggs and Loseys next door neighbors, their land since the 1970s under the Cowanesque Lake. The tobacco business required large sheds, which helped create a demand for lumber just at the time that Jim Losey, at age twenty-three, returned safely home from four years of fighting in the Civil War.

Jennie Merritt had grown up by the time Jim returned, and they were married. Robert S. and Rebecca Lugg both died in 1893 and their son and his wife, Charles and Emma Preston Lugg, remained in the old Beecher house. The very close relationship between the families began then, according to Aunt Lill.

Mary Losey was born to Jennie and Jim in 1871, and Leon, who would become Captain Bob Losey's father, was born in 1883. Jennie, at forty-three, with a twenty-two-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son, discovered she was pregnant; at the same time Emma Lugg was expecting her first child. The Lugg child was stillborn; the Losey child was our Aunt Lill. The Luggs were to lose several subsequent babies and, as one might expect, Lill was much loved and cosseted by Emma and Charlie Lugg. One of the most precious lines I have ever read is from Jennie Losey's diary entry for December 29, 1904: “A live boy at the Luggs.” It was my Dad, Robert Preston Lugg, terrifically premature, the only Lugg baby of his generation in our branch to survive. They piped a gas line through the living room floor and installed a little gas stove, soaked the baby in olive oil and cotton, hired 24-hour nursing care, and he thrived.

Leon, Captain Bob’s future father, had been growing up as what I have always envisioned as a typical Nelson boy. His diary from his early teens centers on learning the woods and hunting and trapping muskrats in the river and selling hides. Leon was serious, curious and very bright. One entry in the diary was a trip Leon made, escorting Mary to the “Mansfield Normal” by train in the 1890s.

Leon entered Princeton University, and upon graduation in 1907 married Nell Moore from Trenton. The Loseys were devout Presbyterians, and Leon was destined to be a Presbyterian minister. Persuaded by a Princeton classmate to “go west” to consider mission work, Leon and Nell moved to Andrew, Iowa, where Bob was born in May, 1908. In Leon's 1923 obituary there are glowing reviews about his ministry and particularly about his outdoor adventure work with the boys in his congregations and the respect he garnered for his mentoring of the young people. To me, his son Bob's teen interests in geology and weather nurtured in Montana echo Leon's love for the Pennsylvania outdoors.

In 1920, Leon's family moved back to the West, and Bob spent his teenage years in Montana, where he continued pursuing his interest in weather and geology. Lill always wore a pinkie ring set with an unusual stone that Bob had found as a boy and had set for her. It was naturally marquise-shaped with two tones of gray curved together, and it was the final adornment she slipped on every day. Leon's career thrived, but it seems that tragedy was never far from the Losey family. Leon was stricken with appendicitis in 1923, and died within the week.

In the meantime, my father had been appointed to West Point in 1922 and spent a year there. At midyear, when my grandmother told Dad that there was no way that Grandpa Lugg could continue handling the farm, that Dad would have to choose between continuing at West Point and coming home to take over the farm; he chose the farm and claimed never to regret it. Dad completed his college work in animal husbandry at Penn State, his military commitment summers in the Reserve, and life on the farm was lovely if not very lucrative. Bob Losey was appointed to West Point in 1925 and loved it, graduating in 1929.

Mom, Ila Hess, graduated from Mansfield in 1925, and taught for a few years in the region. In 1928, she was playing the piano for the Nelson school's Christmas celebration at the church, and Dad, home from Penn State, asked for an introduction. She had just enrolled to begin her master's degree at Columbia the next year and Dad decided it was time to visit Lill more often and incidentally do some courting. Mom and Dad were married in 1934 in the chapel at Valley Forge, with Lill as their only attendant.

In time, Lill moved to Brooklyn and attended Pratt Institute, where she earned her degree in domestic arts, and was hired at Western Electric's main office in New York, where she worked until her retirement in 1954. Lill's job for Western Electric was at the base of the communication mega-industry of the twentieth century. During World War I and for decades after, she trained and supervised the telegram delivery boys for New York City, scheduling, advising, and, I suspect, mothering. She was terrifically proud of her “boys,” and would often say about many of them, “He went straight to the top!” After Lill's retirement a number of them as retired company managers were to visit Nelson for a weekend with their wives and savor the wildlife and beauty, as well as Lill's cooking.

Bob Losey had selected the option of joining the Army Air Corps after West Point. He was stationed in Texas for his flight training before his work at Cal Tech in meteorology and aeronautics. He was referred to in the contemporary records as “the Air Force's crack meteorologist.” Cal Tech professors later called him “perhaps the most brilliant student who ever attended the school.” He was assigned to Gen. H.H. Arnold's central staff. If you didn't happen to have a big brother, as I did, who considered “Hap” Arnold next to Jimmy Doolittle in his list of heroes, I can tell you that during World War II the general was credited by many to have been the “father” of the modern Air Force. Bob was stationed then in Washington, D.C., where he and Lill could see each other more frequently. Part of Bob's duty at this time was evaluating aircraft for its performance in various climates. The Russo-Finnish War was ongoing, and military observers were convinced that a large war which might be imminent would be certain to be fought in sub-zero temperatures and therefore aeronautics would be more vital than ever in the design of aircraft.

One winter day in early 1940, my parents received a phone call from Bob Losey. “I'm in Elmira and I won't be able to get to Nelson. Could you meet me for dinner at Hill Top tomorrow night?” Of course, they did, and surely there would have been a good deal of laughter in their reminiscences. They talked about family, of course. Brother John had been born December 1, 1937 and Margaret's daughter Penny was born two days later, both first children and first grandchildren in families that never had babies enough. And they talked about Bob's presence in Elmira: he was at Harris Hill, watching airplanes, of course, and he would have been able to share his interest in their behavior without affecting security. He told them he was headed to Finland as assistant to the military attaché there. It was the last time they saw him.

The Russo-Finland War had been active since 1934. Both Russia and Germany were involved at points, and I still don't know why Russia and Finland ended up on the same side ultimately. (Didn't they?) Bob was able there to examine both Russian and German planes that had been shot down, and after his death it was reported that his findings and recommendations had been inestimably useful in design modifications for U.S. planes.

The best source for information on Bob's personality and the direct facts of his story is Florence Jaffrey Harriman's autobiography of her time as minister to Norway, Mission to the North. The Nazis invaded Norway April 9, 1940, and the Legation evacuated Oslo to move north and east toward Stockholm in Sweden. Bob was ordered to Norway from Finland as full military attaché and found Mrs. Harriman's group in a small inn at the border of Norway and Sweden around midnight April 12. One senses from Mrs. Harriman's narrative that the remarkable coverage of Bob's death in the United States media was personalized, thanks to the affection of two war correspondents with her group who had been in Finland with him. I revere that coverage, but I am even happier to know that he was among so many friends who truly appreciated him. Mrs. Harriman had quickly become one of them.

Mrs. Harriman's instructions were to “follow the government and the Royal Family,” who were on a divergent route from the civilians. Since the family members of the Legation were following a plan that had been set out before, north through Lillehammer, it was determined that Bob would take the diplomatic car with the chauffeur to try to meet with the families somewhere south of Trondheim. Mrs. Harriman tried to persuade Bob she should accompany him, but he discouraged her, telling her that the observations she would make were as valuable as his, and that her loss would be more significant than his: “I certainly don't want to be killed, but your death would be the more serious as it might involve our country in all kinds of trouble, whereas with a military attaché...” His final argument was that if he and the chauffeur went on alone, they could travel day and night without stopping, and Bob was relieved that the minister acceded. He then said, “Our first job now must be getting those women out.” (There were also eight children.) They agreed, and from there the goal for both was Sweden. And so they left.

Two days later Mrs. Harriman received the news: “Captain Losey was killed yesterday by a German bomb.” The chauffeur later told Mrs. Harriman that the group had reached Dombas, a small town where there was an important railway junction. They had just loaded the car on a train when there was an air attack. Passengers went into a tunnel for shelter, and Bob stayed about thirty feet into the tunnel—judged relatively safe but where he could, of course, observe the performance of the planes. The shrapnel hit, and he was gone. Five British citizens—also neutrals—were killed at the same time. When the minister arrived in Stockholm, she met with the senior Scandinavian attaché: “...he and Captain Losey had been together in the Finnish War. The boy was dead, and suddenly one saw how everyone who knew him had the same impression that I had. Menken [United Press] and the correspondent from the Paris Soir were very much cut up. He had been so young, so disinterested, so thoughtful...” Then, after a description of the lovely, simple funeral ceremony with royalty, many journalists, and representatives of the diplomatic corps, Mrs. Harriman added her own feelings: “I had known the young Captain only a few weeks, but the circumstances had been so full of danger and problems that I felt I had known him a long time, for I saw what his character was, and as taps were sounded, it seemed as if I had lost a son.” One of the American newspapers had headlined that the American minister had wept at Bob's funeral. Aunt Lill gave copies of Mrs. Harriman's book to several friends, and though we had owned one for years, I had not read it closely until perhaps fifteen years ago.

And I have read it again since. I had cried with Lill over Bob more than once in my youth, and decades later, I could see from the book that Aunt Lill felt that Mrs. Harriman's words and tears really had suggested that someone like herself in many ways stood in for her near to the place and time of Bob's insupportable loss.

When Bob's body was returned home for a burial service at West Point, Dad and Mom went to New York to be with Lill for the service. They never talked about it to us, at least to my knowledge; in fact, it had not occurred to me to ask. After that time, in fact, Dad never again visited either New York City or the Point; the first we talked of it with Mom, I think, was after Lill's funeral in 1973.

And how had Lill and my generation in Nelson become so close? In the 1930s at Nelson, the infrastructure bolstering of the New Deal was in hand and Lill's brother-in-law rented the Losey house to groups of workers for the WPA projects and lent no supervision in the treatment of the house. After some very rough use, it came up for tax sale, and my grandfather bought it. At Lill's next visit home, he announced that it was to be hers whenever she wanted it. She was single and he was much worried about her future. He acknowledged the house was visibly in bad shape but had the admirable Losey structure and he had had the roof replaced and would be responsible for expenses until she wanted it. Mom and Dad painted and papered the interior and it was rented to responsible neighbors.

In 1953, Lill called one summer day, and Mom and Dad laughed at her message that she was arriving in Mans eld by bus in a couple of days, and would they meet her in Mans eld and keep her for a few days? That was evidently her usual modus operandi. And of course, fresh sheets were put on the spare-room bed and she moved in. She announced she was retiring the next year and would like to move into the house, taking my late grandfather up on his 1930s promise. Would Mom and Dad arrange for it? She would spend some weekends in Nelson planning and wasn't there a carpenter who could take the job on? So Mom was “clerk of the works” for the next year, making decisions and working with the carpenter, who was a retired master and friend who was a standby with the farm carpentry. George Learn was back to work full time, and Lill moved in.

However, tragedy struck again. Dad, forty-nine and happily mid-career in his thirteenth year as county commissioner, was stricken with a heart attack. He was hospitalized a month—then died. My memories of that period are of two levels—I was twelve. One was of total bleakness. He was so much fun. The other was the overwhelming kindness of our wonderful town. I know Mother and the boys shared that feeling, and I think it was a lifesaver for Lill as well.

Lill was bereft with the rest of us. Mom was left with a farm, a full time job teaching in Elkland High School, three virtual teenagers—Tony was eleven—and all sorts of community involvement. She was named county commissioner to fill out Dad's term and then elected to two more terms after that. She loved carrying on his work, and her time in Wellsboro was a godsend to Aunt Lill as well. Never having driven, she rode the twenty miles to “the Boro” with Mom once a week or so for shopping or hair appointments or general interest. Thank heaven, we could get the Dodgers on the radio! She was a FAN.

Then Cupid struck. Not once, but twice. Friends lined Mother up with state veterinarian Dr. Ross Wiley and they made a match. Then a childhood friend of Lill's returned to town from Detroit, loved seeing her again, and, entranced with Nelson once more, married Lill. She was 67, had never been married, and Harry Preston (not related to the other two Prestons in town) was thoroughly delightful. I wish it was a “happily ever after,” but Harry died within the year. Poor Lill. I think we all expected her to fold, but she squared up her shoulders, took driving lessons and enjoyed her new car and independence. Of course she was distraught. Bob still was the great love of her life, and hers and Harry's happiness had been so brief, but as she always had, she moved on. Lill always referred to the Corps of Engineers plans, first announced in 1948, to build the dam that flooded the lake and washed away our town, as the “damn dam,” but both she and Dad were gone before the major upheaval took place.

Lill's niece Margaret and her husband Morrie Lee came to Nelson at Lill's death to help with the settlement of Lill's estate. Though appreciating the house, they lived in the Hudson Valley and had a lovely life, Penny was living in California and Robert Losey Lee was in Ohio, both with families, and the house would be a millstone for them. I was single and working in Mansfield; they knew the story about Grandpa's buying the house for Lill; so they gave it to me!

The old Losey House belonged in the New Nelson up in the Cowanesque Valley, where the town was resettled. So when the Corps of Engineers condemned it, I moved it into the new town, restored it, and when my tax accountant asked me to marry him, I did, and we moved into it and were very happy there for ten years.

The restoration of the Beecher/Lugg house was a bigger proposition, but we moved into it with Mother in 1990 and did a restoration there, too. at house was moved up the hillside south of town on the edge of the old farm. At the foot of the hill, in the edge of the lake are the trees, barren now but still erect, that fronted the lovely old Losey House, now evolved and moved, but still part of Nelson. One of those trees is a favorite roost for a pair of bald eagles. I recall the 1776 contest for the national bird and wonder, “Is he there for Jesse, who helped inspire his choice back there in Philadelphia? Or for Jim, who fought to keep the Union together and helped build my beloved old town? en I think of that memorial that was built in Dombas, Norway, in the 1980s to Bob Losey and five British citizens who died on another infamous day in April, 1940. That one states that its purpose is to give tribute to the friendship from other nations whose citizens gave their lives to help.

To American Friendship...three men I never knew, but for whom I've felt freedom blooming where they walked.