I had convinced myself I had pieced together the story of Leslie Gruber’s World War II unit along with some surviving members, photographs and a story of their service by one of the members. Much of my ‘proof’ that he had served with the 1142nd Combat Engineers was the six sketches of Army officers that were all dated within three days of each other in early September 1945, so they “must’ve served together”. Also, Lt. Col. Frank Pethick, Jr., who was in one of the sketches, was the Commanding Officer of 1142nd Combat Engineers. The unit history told of being stationed at Camp Gruber (cannot forget that one) near Muskogee, Oklahoma which is near where Leslie met his wife, while her Army officer dad, Major Lynton “Pappy” Scharff, was stationed there. My impetuousness was fueled by the possibility of learning about a family member’s military service when the overwhelming majority of the World War II Military Records had been destroyed by a fire in St Louis on 13 July 1973. The 1142nd Combat Engineers unit has a website and I e-mailed the web contact, who then alerted the surviving members of this proud unit.
Before the end of the next day (!), they ‘caucused (electonically)’ and told me I had erred in placing Leslie and four of the five officers in the 1142nd (Pethick was the only one who actually served in the 1142nd). None could remember any of the names of images or Gruber, Harrison, Barnes, Fry or Chapman; and the company roster did not include them either. The veteran, Nick D, who e-mailed me had served in Lt. Col Pethick’s headquarters and would’ve known if the officers in the sketches were there.
What brought Burnley and the other officers together in September 1945 long enough for sketches to be made is open to much speculation.
So we have two stories:
- The tale of how I obtained the sketches including Uncle Leslie
- The story of the 1142nd Combat Engineers, a unit maybe like the one in which he served.
Obtaining the sketches
An artist, Lt. Col. James O. Burnley (1914-2009) served in the
1142nd Combat Engineers US Army Engineers with Leslie and he made this sketch shortly after the end of World War II. He stored it along with images of five other officers who all served together in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1142nd Combat Engineers . “During his Army days Burnley painted as an avocation and while on leave. ”
Burnley held onto his paintings and drawings but after he passed away in 2009, the body of work went to his son. His daughter-in-law recently was researching these sketches of six Army officers on the Internet and she found my old genealogy blog with pictures of Leslie. Last week. she contacted me from the website and I just received the sketches today.
James O. Burnley was born in Kansas City, Mo. His high school art teacher recognized his talent and ‘to encourage his pursuit of art’ gave him art supplies. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1932 to 1936. Then he went to the Art Students League in New York, also on a scholarship. Burnley worked in New York City as a commercial artist until he was drafted on 18 June 1941. After his two decade Army career ended in 1966, he retired to Hudson, Wisconsin where he built his home and studio. His subjects included portraits, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes and modern art. He licensed the Riverside Studio Gallery to produce ‘high quality artist proof prints of selected paintings’ and they can still be ordered.
These are Burnley’s images of five other officers who served with Leslie.
The 1142nd Combat Engineers
The 1142nd Combat Engineers unit was formed 15 October 1943 and Col. Frank Pethick, Jr. was the Commanding Officer. The group’s base was at Camp Crowder, Missouri. In early 1944, they participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers. Camp Campbell, Ky. was the Group’s base in June 1944. The 1142nd sailed for England August 29, 1944 and arrived at Liverpool, England on September 6th, 1944″ where they were temporarily assigned to the Ninth Army, VIII Corps. On 26 September 1944 the Group joined the war on the continent at Omaha Beach. On 8 October 1944 the 1142nd was assigned to the First Army XIX Corps to enter “Belgium (near Alebeek) to support operations against the Siegfried Line in the Siege of Aachen, Germany.” In 1945 the 1142nd was bridging rivers in Germany:
- February 1945 – Roer River bridge near Julich, Germany
- March, 1945 – Rhine River bridge near
- April, 1945 – four more bridges across the Rhine in Germany
Bill Stephenson was a member of the unit from 1943 to 1946 and took many photographs (posted here). Willy Wilem(s) was a Dutch youth of 10 in Zichen, Belgium (a temporary base for the 1142nd) who befriended the unit. Willy’s photos of Zichen (now called Zichen Zussen Bolder) of the town ‘then and now’ are here.
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