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Research project highlights WWII service of Albion soldier

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 27 November 2013 at 12:00 am

Clifford Williams was 35 when he was killed at Normandy

Photos courtesy of Kevin Pawlak – Kevin Pawlak of Albion traveled to Normandy in France last March as part of a research project about Clifford Williams, one of 69 Orleans County residents who died in World War II. Williams was the only one from the county to die at Normandy.

ALBION – Kevin Pawlak, 21, looked through a list of 69 names of Orleans County soldiers who were killed in World War II. He was most interested in any names that listed deaths in June or July 1944.

Pawlak, a senior history major at Shepherd University in West Virginia, took a class last spring, a practicum on World War II that included a trip to Normandy, France.

Students were asked to see if someone from their hometown had died in Normandy. The students would research that soldier and go see his grave.

Of the 69 Orleans County residents who died serving their country in the war, only one perished at Normandy: Clifford J. Williams.

Pawlak had never heard of him. He needed to come up with a 20-page report on Williams. What started as an academic exercise became far more meaningful.

“I really felt like I started to get to know him,” Pawlak said Tuesday after giving a presentation at Hoag Library about Williams, who grew up in Holley and worked in Albion. “He was someone who was lost to the pages of history.”

Pawlak did much of his research at Hoag Library, looking at old newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s. He praised the “phenomenal collection of microfilm resources” at the library. He donated a copy of his report to the Hoag and also gave the presentation on Tuesday in appreciation for the library’s help with his project. Pawlak titled his presentation: “Albion’s Forgotten Hero: Clifford J. Williams.”

Clifford Williams

Williams volunteered to join the Army at age 34. He married his wife Lillith in 1935. She joined the WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and worked as a nurse at a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. The husband and wife was the only couple in Orleans that enlisted during the war. It made them somewhat of a celebrity locally, Pawlak said.

Williams wasn’t interested in fame or attention, Pawlak said. Williams was a linotype operator for more than a decade, working for the Orleans American and Orleans Republican newspapers. When he joined the military, The Republican had to cut back from 8 to 4 pages. Eddy Printing helped the newspaper set its type in Williams’ absence.

Pawlak combed through the old newspapers and found some details about Williams while he was stationed at Camp Croft, S.C. The newspaper noted that Williams received a medal for expert marksmanship. He would serve as a machine gunner with the 39th Infantry, arriving in England in December 1943.

Williams wrote to Bill Monacelli, a columnist for The Orleans Republican, and reported that London had suffered “considerable damage” from the war.

“Cars here are very small and drive on the left side of the road,” Williams wrote to Monacelli. “Money is a problem as it is so different from ours.”

Williams said he connected with a local soldier in England: his brother-in-law Melvin Reid from Holley.

Williams arrived in France on June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day. He would see fierce action, according to a letter dated July 13 that he sent home.

Kevin Pawlak shares the story of Clifford Williams and the 39th Infantry Regiment during a lecture Tuesday at the Hoag Library. The 39th was led by Col. Harry “Paddy” Flint, who died the same day as Williams, July 24, 1944. Flint is pictured behind Pawlak.

Williams was part of a regiment that captured 18,000 German prisoners, including a general and admiral in France.

Pawlak doesn’t know the exact circumstances of Williams’ death, but he was killed in the line of duty on July 24, the same day the 39th Infantry Regiment’s famed leader, Col. Harry “Paddy” Flint, died.

A white cross at the Normandy American Cemetery notes Williams’ life and death. Pawlak visited the grave site in March, where the marker is among thousands of white crosses. The cemetery includes 9,387 burials.

“It was a very moving experience, a very touching experience,” Pawlak said about visiting Williams’ grave.

Pawlak wants to keep researching Williams and others from the community during World War II. He said he is considering writing a book about it. The research on Williams made it very real to him the sacrifices from a small town, a family and a soldier during a time of war.

He said many other local soldiers and families played a role in this major world event.

“There are great individual stories that often come out of bigger events,” he said.