Purple Heart tribute nearly 70 years in the making
RENO – Sgt. James T. Suder never met his brothers’ children, but he brought some of them together Thursday to reclaim a piece of family history.
Four of Suder’s nieces and nephews traveled to Marietta to obtain the Purple Heart awarded after their uncle’s death on Christmas Eve 1944 aboard a troop transport sunk by an enemy torpedo in the English Channel. The medal was discovered by Brian Dean, 75, while he was cleaning out items in the Montgomery Street home he shared for a dozen years with his wife, the late Nancy Dean.
“We knew he had one,” said Janet Agnew, 67, of Pittsburgh, daughter of Suder’s brother Henry. “I just figured it got lost in the mail.”
In fact, the medal and accompanying documents at some point came into the possession of Suder’s sister, Margaret. She never married, and when she passed away in 1988, she had a friend who lived nearby serve as executrix of her will – Nancy Barnhouse, who would marry Brian Dean more than a decade later.
Nancy Dean passed away earlier this year, and Brian is headed back to his native England on Nov. 5. While going through boxes in the house recently, he found the medal, which she’d somehow come into possession of while dealing with Margaret Suder’s effects.
Brian Dean contacted The Marietta Times last week about his discovery, wanting to make sure the medal was returned to the family of the soldier who’d earned it with his life.
“That belongs to the family. It doesn’t belong to anybody else,” he said.
After her name was discovered on materials referencing Suder on Ancestry.com and FindAGrave.com, efforts were made to contact Sandi Click, 53, of Springfield, the daughter of Suder’s other brother, Charles. Click read the story on MariettaTimes.com and posted a message in the comments section, trying to get in touch with Dean.
“I was amazed, and all I could think about was how to get it back,” Click said Thursday. “I just wanted it to be with family.”
Dean saw her message and called her Monday morning.
Click contacted her brother Charles and cousins, Agnew and her brother, Jim (named for their uncle), and the four made their way to the Pioneer City on Thursday, where Dean gave them the medal and related documents. The cousins said they hadn’t been together for years prior to Thursday.
“Even though he never married (and) he never had a family, he’s still impacting this family,” Click said.
The family members thanked Dean for not simply keeping the medal or getting rid of it.
“That’s not the English way to do it,” he said.
“Well, the family’s German, and I’m half Italian, and half-Italian people hug,” Agnew said before embracing Dean.
Although they never met James, the cousins knew about him from their fathers. But they never saw a picture of him until after their grandparents, his parents, died, so devastating was the loss.
“Grandma put everything away after Jim died,” Agnew said. “It was sort of like, just not talked about, because Grandma couldn’t talk about it.”
The first picture Agnew saw of her uncle was in her grandparents’ attic.
“They just had it faced toward the wall,” she said. “They couldn’t even look at it to go up there.”
Agnew recalls her father having a special bond with his youngest brother.
“My dad always teared up every time he talked about him,” she said.
Click said James Suder was a member of the rowing team at his alma mater, Marietta High School, and had a talent for photography.
“He built his own box camera. He had a darkroom in the basement,” she said.
Click still has pictures James took of his family, as well as a Christmas card he made using a picture of one of the Boston terriers the family bred.
He joined the Army in 1943, serving in Nebraska and Alabama before arriving in England on Dec. 1, 1944. Less than a month later, he was aboard the SS Leopoldville, a converted Belgian liner transporting troops to France when it was struck by a torpedo from a U-boat, according to an article referenced by Click on www.uboat.net.
Due to a variety of factors, rescue was slow in coming. But after speaking with Allan Andrade, who researched and wrote a book about the sinking, Click learned her uncle was almost certainly in the portion of the vessel where the torpedo struck and would likely have been killed instantly.
After meeting with Dean Thursday, the family went to East Lawn Memorial Park in Reno, where a marker is erected for James Suder, whose body was never recovered from the English Channel. There, they placed the Purple Heart medal on the gravestone of their uncle and took photos.
Click said having the medal back in the family helps them remember their uncle’s service and death.
“I just think it’s important to remember somebody who made this sacrifice. Because otherwise it’s a waste,” she said, adding that may be how her grandmother felt about the death of her youngest child. “But it’s not a waste if we talk about it and celebrate (him).”