Remembering A Delaware County World War II Hero

Bill Reese, who died during the Battle of Troina, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Chester kid who grew up on West Eighth Street, Bill Reese was killed in Italy during World War II. For single-handedly attacking a German machine-gun nest in August 1943, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor—with the place of battle badly misspelled. Reese was one of 8,781 soldiers—2,237 killed or missing, 5,946 wounded, and 598 captured—lost by Gen. George S. Patton’s Seventh Army during the Allied invasion of Sicily.

After his death, Reese became an item for inventory and distribution by the Return of the World War II Dead Program, operated by the U.S. Army’s Graves Registration Service. Established at the end of the war, the program was in charge of accounting for 281,000 corpses, then sorting them into piles to be returned to this country or buried abroad.

The Return of the World War II Dead Program cost $150 million. “It was unprecedented in expense and scope, and remains unique in world history,” said historian Bill Beigel, author of a forthcoming book on the subject. “No other nation returned its dead to the homeland after [World War II].”

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Reese was the middle child of Howard M. Reese—a county “inspector,” according to the 1930 census—and his wife, Helen. At Chester High School, from which he graduated in 1938, he was a manager of the football team and a member of the math and science clubs. According to the yearbook, he also was “often seen in physics lab.” Longtime Delaware County journalist Bob Finucane described Reese as “a good-looking kid who would start the girls drooling when he’d drop into the Boyd Drug Store on Friday night for a milkshake.”

Drafted soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Reese was assigned to the 26th Infantry. “Bill hated the Army. We all did,” Chester native Bill Pennington told the Delaware County Daily Times in 2007. “It was a different life, but it was especially tough for Bill. He was placed in the First Division, the Big Red One. It was an old regular Army division, and I don’t think they were too kind to the draftees.”

After basic training at Camp Lee, Va., and amphibious-assault training in Florida, the unit was sent to North Africa in 1942. Reese first saw action in the November 1942 invasion of North Africa. Landing near Casablanca, Patton’s men overcame stiff opposition from German-allied Vichy French forces, then drove east into Tunisia through the Kasserine Pass. Reese was wounded during this campaign, but recovered.

Six months later, the Allies moved on to Sicily. Patton landed his troops on the island’s southern coast, then moved northwest, capturing Palermo, before turning east. Most German troops were gathered in the northeast corner of the island, with a defensive line that ran around Mount Etna to the sea on the north and east.

Patton resented the British, who had landed at Sicily’s southeast corner and were moving toward Messina in the northeast by a shorter, coastal road. Reasoning that the Seventh Army deserved some glory, Patton plotted a route through the mountainous interior. “The mountains are the worst I have ever seen,” Patton wrote on Aug. 1 in his diary. “It is a miracle that our men can get through them, but we must keep up our steady pressure. The enemy simply can’t stand it, besides we must beat the (British) Eighth Army to Messina.”

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Under Patton’s orders, troops led by Omar Bradley attacked Troina, an important anchor of the Etna Line that was defended by a panzer division and Italian infantry. The Axis forces, in deep trenches, had a clear view of the oncoming Americans, who had little cover.

The battle began July 31 and lasted a week. Key hilltop positions changed hands often. Reese’s 26th Infantry was assigned to seize Monte Basilio two miles north of Troina, thereby cutting off the enemy’s retreat. However, German artillery limited the 26th’s advance to half a mile, and the regiment was pinned down for two days. By Aug. 5, food and ammunition were low, and casualties were high. Then, the Germans—determined to remove this threat to their rear—attacked again.

At this moment, Reese moved forward. Though just a private, he was in charge of a mortar squad, and he led the men to a position from which they could rain 60 mm shells on the advancing German infantry. When his crew was down to three shells, Reese ordered his men to the rear while he advanced to a new position.

With his last mortar round, Reese knocked out a German machine gun. Rather than retreat at this point, however, he picked up his rifle. “Despite a heavy concentration of [enemy] machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire—the heaviest experienced by his unit throughout the entire Sicilian campaign—he remained at this position and continued to inflict casualties upon the enemy until he was killed,” related the official report.

Four months later, the Reese family was informed that their son had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at “Mount Vasillio.” “Bill Reese had a bad temper,” remembered Pennington. “He’d tackle anything or anybody. Believe me, he’d tear into anyone. You know, I always thought that’s why Bill did what he did to earn that medal. I think he got mad because of what the Germans were doing to his buddies and he took after them.”

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The Germans retreated that night, so Reese’s remains likely lay on the mountain for no more than a day.

Handling of the dead during World War II was far more sophisticated than during the Civil War, when corpses rotted on the field or—if time permitted—were dumped in mass graves. In the 1860s, and even in World War I, returning large numbers of bodies to their families was not thought feasible or important. According to Beigel, returning World War I dead was debated in Congress, but ultimately not done. Instead, as a substitute, federally funded Gold Star pilgrimages in the 1930s enabled military mothers and widows to visit military cemeteries in Europe. Over the course of the program, 6,654 women participated.

By the 1940s, military authorities had planned ahead. According to Beigel, anticipation of mass casualties caused the reconstituted Graves Registration Service—disbanded after WWI—to create systems to identify and store corpses until they could be returned to this country. “They thought 90 percent of families would want them back,” said Beigel.

It was less—about 60 percent.

A ship’s hold filled with World War II dead. National Archives Image courtesy of Bill BeiGel. 

Bodies were stored by burying them at temporary cemeteries whose locations depended on the progress of fighting at the front. However, GRS troops were seldom far behind the initial assault.

On D-Day, according to historian Mason B. Webb, GRS Sgt. Elbert E. Legg volunteered to arrive by glider with the 82nd Airborne. GRS wasn’t scheduled to come until later, but Legg thought it important to establish a collection point for corpses. “The schedule called for the Graves Registration unit and its vehicles to arrive on the beach about D+3,” Legg later said. “This would be too long for mass casualties to go unprocessed on the battlefield.”

In Sicily, GRS first located two cemeteries near the south-coast landing sites for men killed early in the campaign. Others were at Palermo and Caronia on the north coast. Reese’s body probably went to Caronia, which, located about 40 miles from Troina, was closest. All were considered temporary, intended to stockpile bodies, not permanent resting places.

Reese was buried in a shroud or, possibly, a wooden coffin, and without embalming—what would be called a “green” burial today because it allows rapid decomposition. “During the war, there were more than 200 of these temporary cemeteries,” said Beigel. “Some had only 10-15 guys; others, more than a thousand.”

Sicily’s cemeteries were subsequently emptied, their dead consolidated at a new distribution cemetery on the Italian mainland. Reese’s second burial site was near Paestum, known for its Greek ruins.

With the end of fighting, the next of kin of all American casualties received a letter from the War Department offering four choices. Their loved ones’ remains could be buried in a U.S. military cemetery abroad, a national cemetery within the U.S., any private U.S. cemetery, or any cemetery in the world, provided the home government was friendly with the U.S.

This process was not without controversy. Political leaders worried that former allies would be insulted if their soil wasn’t thought good enough for U.S. dead. For this reason, the exhumation of some U.S.-bound dead happened at night.

In Chester, Howard and Helen Reese decided that what was left of their middle son should come home to Delaware County. So, in 1948, Bill Reese and several thousand other dead GIs arrived in New York in the hold of the USS Carroll Victory, a cargo ship that had most recently carried livestock to Greece and Poland as war relief.

Dead that were not repatriated from Italy were eventually moved to one of two permanent sites: the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno and the Florence American Cemetery in Florence. “I’ve seen photos of the holds of some of these ships,” said Beigel. “They were filled to the brim. There were thousands of coffins.”

It was often sobering to the crews, he said: “By 1948, we were involved in the early stages of the Cold War. So, they were looking at all these dead guys and wondering what they died for.”

Ships filled with thousands of corpses were not, however, aesthetically unpleasant. After consulting with a national mortuary association, said Beigel, the military contracted for vast numbers of coffins that sealed hermetically. Since, like Reese, many of the men had been dead for more than five years, it was probably a moot point.

On Friday, Aug. 6—five years and a day after he died—Reese’s remains were picked up by E.F. White Funeral Home.

He lay in state for two days with an honor guard at the American Legion hall. According to the Chester Daily News, a “steady stream of mourners” paid respects. One was Maj. John Kelly, Reese’s former commander, who walked with a cane, his leg shattered in the same battle.

Chester Mayor Ralph Swarts declared Saturday a citywide day of mourning. All flags were at half-staff. At 10 a.m., hundreds lined Seventh Street as the funeral procession moved to St. Michael’s Catholic Church and then again as cars with family and politicians followed the hearse to Chester Rural Cemetery—Bill Reese’s third and final burial site.

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