Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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November 11, 2012

‘Brothers’ united again through families

MONTCALM — “They were brothers,” Rhonda Corbett said of her uncle, Pfc. Oscar C. Harris and Pvt. James W. Brown, two paratroopers who were killed in action at Fosse, Belgium on Jan. 3, 1945. They were among a group of 13 paratroopers with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment who had made four combat jumps, but on that cold January morning, they were fighting to hold back the German Army offensive that would later be called the Battle of the Bulge.

“Oscar was the big brother at home, but Oscar and James were like brothers in the Army,” Corbett said during a telephone interview from her home in Littlefield, Texas. “They had so much in common. Both of their fathers were ministers. Both of them were farm boys and both were good Christian boys. I can see what made them close.

“But when you face death with someone, it gives you a bond that you can’t describe,” Corbett said.

Corbett’s mother, El Wanda Harris Rogers, was only two years old when her brother joined the Army, and she was six when he was killed in action. The family knew very little about him until 3 or 4 years ago when Corbett started an extensive genealogical study of the family to prove their Native American heritage and gain acceptance by the Cherokee Nation.

During the course of her research, she came across information about Oscar Harris and even became aware of Sgt. William H. Tucker’s recollection about the 505th’s combat history, that contained details about the assault on Fosse. “The last two men killed were two close comrades, Pfc. (Oscar C.) Harris and Pvt. (James W.) Brown when an artillery shell landed between them,” Tucker wrote.

In the spring of 2010, her knowledge of her uncle and his friend, Pvt. Brown was limited until a Jones Hill resident, Kenneth Davidson, independently took it upon himself to find Brown’s final resting place in a very overgrown portion of Tabernacle Hill Cemetery in Montcalm. In early May 2010, Ken and his brother, Roger Davidson, found Brown’s headstone, and cleared a path to it so Brown’s sister, Joyce Spaulding, could visit the grave.

Several months passed before the story of Davidson’s successful search prompted a representative from the Military Awards Branch to reach out and attempt to make contact with any surviving members of Brown’s family to present the medals Brown had not received during the war.

By Memorial Day of 2011, the DOD had made the presentation, but more importantly, members of the Brown family and the Harris family started communicating, became friends and Pfc. Harris’ sister, El Wanda (Harris) Rogers found out on Feb. 27, that they would receive her brother’s Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, WWII Victory Medal set, Good Conduct Medal, Combat Infantryman First Award and other decorations.

“I’m passionate about it,” Corbett said. “When I see a veteran’s license plate, I stop and leave the driver of the car a note telling them, ‘Thank you.’ My hubby calls them my love notes, but he understands,” she said. “If I see a veteran or any person on active duty, I stop them and thank them. I’ve been doing that since I was 14, and I started wearing Captain John Blevins POW bracelet. He was captured on Sept. 6, 1966, and I wore it every day until he was released in the early 1970s.

“My dad was in the Army, and my father-in-law was in the Marines, but finished his service in the U.S. Air Force,” she said. “My husband was in the Air Force. Another of my dad’s brothers was in the Army and one of my cousins was sent into places in Vietnam that no one ever knew about. We have several family members who served.”

Corbett and Carl O’Donnell of Bradenton, Fla., a member of Pvt. Brown’s family, have been in contact and have exchanged photos. Corbett said that she has learned more about her uncle as a result of seeing the shared photos of the two solders. “Carl has a scrapbook about James and now he has a page in the book about Oscar,” she said.

On Friday morning, Ken Davidson returned to Tabernacle Hill Cemetery to place a new cross and floral decoration as well as two new flags at Pvt. Brown’s headstone. Several of his relatives are buried at the cemetery, but it is becoming increasingly more challenging for him to tend to his family’s graves as the years advance.

Corbett extended her “undying thanks and gratitude” to Davidson for the fruits of his labor. “This journey,” she said. “I feel like I know who these guys are now.” Harris and Brown made four combat parachute jumps and were not injured until the fourth, according to Corbett.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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