It’s difficult to describe anything as a “feel good story” on a day when we are commemorating the Honored Dead, but I suppose this story comes as close as any. CBS News is providing the details of a tale which took place long ago in a small village a bit to the north of where I live, in Gowanda, New York. They have a war memorial in their town just like so many other places around the country. But for the lifetime of most of the current residents, one name has been missing. Carroll Heath was a young boy born during the depression who got off to a very rocky start in what turned out to be a tragically short life.
Heath’s name appeared in the 1940 census as living with an aunt and uncle on a farm near Gowanda. The same census listed his mother as a patient at the Gowanda State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. His mother apparently remained a patient at the hospital until her death in 1962.
Heath didn’t enter the Gowanda school system until 1936. He was already a few years older than his classmates, which may have accounted for his relative anonymity in a group that had known one another since first grade.
“With all the bouncing around, he was probably in and out of school,” Alan Mesches said. “It wasn’t unusual in the Depression era for kids not to go to school all the time.”
Growing up with no father around and a mother who was locked up in a mental hospital for her entire adult life couldn’t have been easy. But Heath managed to graduate high school and, like so many other young men of that generation, enlisted in the Army to go fight in the war. Sadly, he did not return.
Heath’s senior picture appears in the 1940 edition of the Gowanda High year book. Unlike most seniors, he didn’t list any school activities. The yearbook staff’s description of him reads: “Quiet, curly locks, good natured.”
Heath enlisted in the Army in late February 1941. By December of that year, he was serving in the Army’s 1st Signal Training Battalion on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. On Dec. 8, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese warplanes bombed U.S. air bases on Luzon. Days later, Japanese troops began landing. The battle for the Philippines would last into early May 1942, when American forces finally surrendered.
The U.S. military listed Heath as missing in action as of May 7, 1942. His remains were listed as “unrecoverable” and his date of death listed as Dec. 31, 1942. How and where Heath died is unknown. He’s among the more than 73,000 Americans still listed as MIA in World War II.
We may never know how Carroll met his end or where is remains are today, but he is among the ranks who paid the ultimate price for the rest of us. Heath is one of our nation’s heroes, but there are other heroes in this story as well. A couple of different people spent years digging up and verifying all the details which could be found regarding his life. And this year his name will be added to the community’s World War II memorial. A star will appear next to his name, indicating that he is one of the roughly three dozen residents of the village who gave their lives in the war. With no surviving, immediate family to mourn him, at least he will no longer be forgotten.