On Veterans Day, the USA honors those who have served in our military. This year, the holiday will have even more meaning for the families of two fallen WWII servicemen. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Second Cavalry veterans, this Veterans Day will be a special one for the families of Private First Class (PFC) Fred Warren Ashley in Idaho and Flight Officer (F/O) Richard Wesley Lane in Nebraska as their remains have been returned home to their families after a 73 year absence. This is a story of closure, but also a story of how our veterans continue to serve their nation, their comrades, and their families long after they have put away their uniforms.
On 27 December 1944, a B-17 Flying Fortress crashed near Linz, Austria after taking catastrophic German anti-aircraft fire. F/O Lane was a member the 483rd Bomber Group (Heavy), 815th Bomber Squadron, 15th U.S. Army Air Force based at Sterperone, Italy in late 1944. F/O Lane and his crew were on a bombing mission to Linz when they went down. Some of the crew parachuted out and survived, but F/O Lane was killed. A local family sheltered the surviving crew members and recorded the information the crew left and later guided recovery crews to F/O Lane’s remains.
Approximately four months later and 150 miles to the northeast, the Second Cavalry Group (Mechanized) was in the western region of then Czechoslovakia. Known as “The Ghosts of Patton’s Army,” the Second Cavalry’s reconnaissance units had led Patton’s famed Third Army across Europe to help bring the war to its final few days. On 3 May 1945, 1st Platoon, C Troop, 2d Cavalry (1/C/2) had secured an area near the towns of Paseka (present day Paseka, Czech Republic) and Neuhurkenthal (Nová Hůrka, Czech Republic). Even though VE day would be less than a week away, there were still active German units resisting the Americans in the area. On 4 May, 1/C/2 was attacked by a much larger German force, including some elements of the SS. 1/C/2 was defeated and surrendered with several killed or wounded, including PFC Ashley from Idaho who was wounded and later died. The Germans removed the survivors, wounded, and dead from the area. PFC Ashley’s remains were recovered a month later after the war ended.
In life, PFC Ashley and F/O Lane never met as far as we know, but in death the two would become linked and their families would work with the Second Cavalry Association to recover their remains and acknowledge both for their sacrifice to our nation. After the war, the U.S. military began to consolidate many burial sites into larger cemeteries which are managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission. During one of these moves, PFC Ashley’s and F/O Lane’s remains were placed side-by-side. In a subsequent move, their remains and identities were swapped. This situation remained this way for over 65 years.
In 2013, Patrick Biddy, a Second Cavalry Association member and former medic who served with C Troop of the Second Cavalry in the 1980s, heard from Dave Gettman, another Association member and veteran, who was seeking information about the troopers who had been killed or wounded in the action near Neuhurkenthal and Paseka. Biddy and Gettman had been the driving force in finding the information for all of the troopers involved, except for PFC Ashley who could not be accounted for. Knowing PFC Ashley was still missing, Biddy and Gettman sprang into action and over a period of years, they took on the role of detectives. With assists from another Second Cavalry veteran, John Walker, who lives in Europe, and the Second Cavalry’s Reed Museum director, Ryan Meyer, they eventually found what they believed could be PFC Ashley’s remains. They successfully navigated the sensitivities of notifying and working with the families of PFC Ashley and F/O Lane to coordinate with the Department of Defense (DoD). In 2018, after positive DNA tests and confirmation from the DoD, F/O Lane’s correctly identified remains were sent to Nebraska and PFC Ashley’s to Idaho. Their families were able to finally put their loved ones to rest with the full confidence that they had been found and positively identified. This wonderful story is far more nuanced and detailed than I can explain here, but visit our history website at https://dragoonshistory.com/ to learn more details as we publish them.
Let’s celebrate Veterans Day as always, but this year let’s do so with the full knowledge that veterans continue to serve their buddies and their families as well. Service to their own and their families is a feature of veterans’ associations around our great nation. Our nation is filled full of these veterans groups. Find one and join or support one today. If you cannot find one, visit our website and donate at http://www.2dcavalryassociation.com/donate.cfm to ours. We’ll put your donation to good use.