Lacy Tilley

PRINCETON — Ray Tilley and his comrades on the West Virginia Honor Guard were getting a little anxious as they waited in Roselawn Memorial Gardens for the funeral procession bearing the late Big Creek High School Coach Mario Poletti to arrive. Poletti’s Mass of Christian burial was held that morning at the Christ The King Catholic Church in War, but highway construction between War and Princeton slowed the procession and the honor guard had another burial detail later that same day at another cemetery.

Mark Blevins, a 1971 Big Creek grad who played for Poletti in high school had traveled from his home in Knoxville, Tenn., to the wake on June 5, 2006, but spent the night with his aunt in Bluefield, Va., before going to the graveside services for Coach Poletti. Blevins, 54, a former Bluefield College men’s basketball coach, noticed that the honor guard was anxious, and approached Tilley, 77, of Princeton, to tell him about the highway construction delays he experienced the day before.

“We are so spoiled in this country,” Blevins said Friday in a telephone interview from Tennessee. “Any time I talk with any veteran I always thank them because the freedom you and I both enjoy came as a direct result of their sacrifice. These people like Ray Tilley, a highly decorated Korean War veteran, have given so much of themselves for me. When I talked with him, I told him if there was ever anything I could do for him, I will do it.”

Tilley is a soft-spoken man of few words, but on that day — June 6, 2006 — he was thinking about his brother who landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and was killed in action. “We lived on a little 24-acre farm on top of Herndon Mountain on the Mercer County side,” Tilley said. “There were 14 children in the family, eight girls and five boys. All five of us boys were in the service, but Lacy was the only one of us who got killed in action.” Lacy and Ray Tilley were both awarded the Purple Heart and Ray received a Bronze Star in Korea.

“Mr. Tilley told me that his last memory of his brother was when he was leaving the home on Herndon Mountain. He said he was only 10 years old at the time,” Blevins said. “I just couldn’t get that image out of my head — one brother waving good-bye to another brother. I knew I was about to go on a History Channel sponsored tour of Normandy, so I offered to look up his brother’s grave for him.”

“This man was a stranger to me, but somehow, I believed what he was saying,” Tilley said. “We were a poor family. When the War Department contacted my father about returning Lacy’s remains back here, my father (his parents were King and Cozetty Tilley) didn’t believe in disturbing someone’s remains and none of us ever had the money to travel over there. I told Mr. Blevins my brother’s name and left it at that.”

Blevins has a passion for history and taught the subject here as well as in his present position as a teacher/coach in a big high school in Knoxville. He traveled to Utah Beach and visited the American Cemetery there, but did not find a grave bearing Lacy Tilley’s name. “I’m looking everywhere for Lacy’s grave, but I can’t find it,” he said. “I was with the History Channel tour group, and I knew they wouldn’t wait for me, so I went to the curator of the cemetery, and he located Lacy’s grave at the Brittany American Cemetery in St. James, France, about three hours away from Omaha Beach.”

The Tilley family had scant news about the death of Private Lacy L. Tilley, who was serving in the 320th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division.

“He survived the D-Day landing, but was bottled up in Normandy by the German defenders in the hedgerow campaign,” Blevins said. “He was one of the soldiers who were part of Operation Cobra, the breakthrough campaign that led to the liberation of France.” Operation Cobra started on July 25, 1944, and Lacy Tilley died in combat on Aug. 12, 1944. “I was able to get the people at the cemetery to get me a picture of the headstone and some information about the cemetery, so Ray Tilley would know exactly where his brother was buried.”

It took a few months before Blevins could get the information together. He met with Tilley at the Princeton Applebee’s in late January of 2007, and gave him the information. “I didn’t know how he would take it, but he was so happy ... so pleased,” Blevins said. “He was overwhelmed. Really. He’s such a gracious man. He wanted to know the whole thing. He wanted me to tell the story. I came back up to Princeton again about six months later and gave him some more stuff.

“You could stay in Normandy for two or three weeks and not see everything you wanted to see,” Blevins said. “The Americans are kept so well, but what I found interesting was that a lot of farmers in that part of France buried the U.S. paratroopers right where they were killed and tended their graves as well right on their farms. When the older generation passed on, the younger generations that followed do the same thing. I know France in general got a pretty hard knock for not supporting our efforts in Iraq, but people in that part of France love Americans.”

Tilley wasn’t surprised by Blevins’ actions. “When he came home from that service and talked about the mystery man, he was absolutely convinced that Mr. Blevins was going to bring back that information to share with him,” his wife, Judy Tilley said. “He was absolutely convinced of that.”

Tilley’s brother Lacy was in the U.S. Army, his brothers Albert and James were in the Navy and Elmer was in the Army Air Corps. Tilley’s father worked at the Lamar Mines, and Tilley himself went into the coal mines when he was 15 years old. He left the mines when he was drafted to go to Korea with the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.

“It was cold over there in Korea,” he recalled. “It got down to 45 degrees below zero. All of us were getting frost bite until they came along with those rubber suits to wear. We were about the last ones to get those suits,” he said. “I froze my feet a little bit.”

He served 14 years, 4 months and 4 days in the Army, came home and worked for a time as police chief at Matoaka from 1955-60, and served as a deputy sheriff for Sheriff Homer Ball. Tilley has been a member of the Mercer County Veterans’ Council Honor Guard and the West Virginia National Honor Guard for 20 years, and has served at as many as four funerals in a day. He also drives his fully-restored 1948 military Jeep in local parades.

“I can’t tell you how much what Mr. Blevins did meant to me,” Tilley said. “It touched my whole life. He wouldn’t even let me buy his dinner over at Applebee’s as a way of saying thanks for what he did. I just don’t know how I can thank him except for maybe putting this story in the paper,” he said. “It meant so much to me.”

Tilley had not been in Korea for too long before the medic in his unit was killed. He knew a little first aid from his days in the coal mines, so he started helping the wounded soldiers in his outfit. Eventually, he became a medic and as a result, he received both a combat infantry badge as well as a combat medic badge in addition to his Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals.

Tilley will drive his Jeep as the lead vehicle in the Bramwell Memorial Day Parade that starts at 2:45 p.m., on Monday.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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