ALBANY, N.Y. – Sisters Barbara Thompson Hutchinson and Joyce Thompson Vallone have long known that their distant cousin Carroll Heath died in the Philippines during World War II and his remains were never recovered.
What they didn't know until recently is that the young Army private from western New York died while in captivity, one of thousands of Americans to die in Japanese hands after the fall of the Philippines in 1942. It was a revelation that brought Hutchinson to tears.
"He needed help, and it wasn't there," said Hutchinson, who lives in Gowanda, where Heath graduated from high school in 1940. "I can only trust that he had faith in God and it sustained him."
The new information emerged thanks to the efforts of a Gowanda-born father-son team of veterans seeking recognition for Heath, whose name was left off the WWII memorial in Gowanda.
Robert Mesches, a WWII veteran, was a high school classmate of Heath's. Mesches' son Alan, a Vietnam-era veteran, has spent months researching Heath's school and military record to fill the blanks in the life of a missing soldier who was essentially forgotten by his hometown and was lost during the chaotic early stages of the fighting in the Pacific.
A Memorial Day weekend story by The Associated Press on the Mesches' efforts resulted in Hutchinson and Thompson coming forward with new information on Heath's fractured family life and Army service. Heath's father wasn't around and his mother was a patient at the state psychiatric hospital in Gowanda. Before enlisting in the Army in 1941, Heath lived with his mother's sister, Nellie Colvin, near Gowanda. There he found plenty of support, Vallone said.
"The fact that Carroll designated Aunt Nellie as his contact and named her his beneficiary when he registered for military service is a clue to the love and gratitude he must have felt for her kindness to him," Vallone, who lives outside Phoenix, said in an email.
The sisters said they knew very little about Heath while growing up, other than that he died in the Philippines during the war. Colvin died in 1979, and the sisters' mother died a few years ago, passing down to them a scrapbook Colvin had kept. It wasn't until the sisters learned about the AP story that Vallone dug out the scrapbook from among their mother's things and checked its contents. Inside were two documents they didn't know existed.
One was a Western Union telegram from the Army dated Nov. 23, 1945, informing Colvin that Heath died on Luzon Island on Dec. 31, 1942. No other information was provided. But in a letter dated Jan. 1, 1946, the commander in chief of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, offered Colvin his condolences on the death of her nephew "while a prisoner of war of the enemy."
It's still unknown where and how Heath died, or where he was buried. Several thousand Americans died in Japanese captivity during the months after U.S. forces in the Philippines surrendered in May 1942, including hundreds who perished during the infamous Bataan Death March. A U.S. military report from 1950 determined Heath's remains were "unrecoverable.'"
Heath was 22 or 23 when he died. The new information on Heath's POW status before his death adds another layer to the man's life story that's still being written more than 70 years after his death.
"It paints a clearer picture," Alan Mesches said. "Either way, he died in service to his country."