Family treasures in the dirt
One pleasant day, a local reader was digging in his backyard and noticed a small, not so shiny piece of metal, trying to gleam in the dirt.
With a little cleaning, he discovered it was a numbered token from a Portland golf course. Thinking with true history snoopin’ curiosity, he wondered who had owned the token and how it wound up in his yard.
His quest continues. Unfortunately, not every search is going to hit paydirt right away.
More recently, another reader, a metal detector hobbyist who prefers not to be identified, came across two Army dog tags that had been lying in the dirt and vegetation for at least 78 years. The tags were not together, but found near the Rogue River on opposite sides of the Bybee Bridge in TouVelle State Recreation Area.
Dog tags have been issued to U.S. service men and women for decades, and the military requires they be worn at all times. With name, identifying information and contact info engraved on the tags, the wearer could be identified in any emergency situation.
Our reader wanted to return the dog tags to family members and wondered whether it was possible to find out who these men were and why they apparently lost their tags.
Knowing that this area was part of Camp White, a military training camp during WWII, and because the tags were found near the river, the best guess (and sometimes a guess is all you have) was that they took them off to swim and couldn’t find them again when they were done.
Luckily, each dog tag lists the city and state where the soldier had lived before enlistment. Without that information, a search may never be successful.
William E. Mehrenberg, 22, grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of William F. and Eleanor. When he enlisted in January 1943, he was working as a warehouseman. His contact person was his wife, Edna, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child.
William survived the war and died in 1993 at age 72. Where he went after his training at Camp White and with which unit is still an open question; however, he did reach the rank of Tech 5, an Army technician, equivalent to a corporal.
The dog tag of 23-year-old Clifford England gives his wife, Jimmie England, as his contact who was still living in their Oklahoma home. Clifford’s father had died and he had been farming for his mother. He served throughout the war as a private with the 381st Infantry Regiment, seeing action in the amphibious invasion of the island of Leyte in the Philippines, and subsequently in the invasion of Okinawa, Japan. One of those battles qualified him for the Bronze Star, for exceptional valor in combat.
Clifford was killed in a 1955 auto collision, while driving in dense Oklahoma fog. He was 35.
Why does it seem likely that both men lost their dog tags while swimming?
Less than a year before William and Clifford’s arrival at Camp White, Frank TouVelle, a former Jackson County commissioner and member of the State Highway Commission, offered the Army use of some of his property fronting the Rogue River on both sides of Bybee Bridge. He asked that it be used as a recreational swimming area for Army officers and enlisted men.
In the area, described as “smooth and sandy with a current not too swift,” the swimming area was equipped with rafts, life preservers, diving boards, a dressing area and a restroom. Diving from the bridge was prohibited. Lifeguards were on duty, and the men MUST “wear bathing suits.” The local USO, in support of the troops, immediately asked for donations of used or new swimming suits.
The men were cautioned that “the Rogue River is just what the name implies. Exercise the utmost caution.” Anyone who has tried to wade in the river too early in the year knows what an ice cold warning that is.
The swimming area was also a primary location for practice river crossings, with troops loaded down with heavy combat gear. Those who couldn’t swim were occasionally allowed to hold onto a rope fastened across the river.
In 1946, TouVelle donated 25 acres of his river property to the state for what he hoped would become Elizabeth TouVelle Memorial Park, in memory of his deceased wife.
As for the attempt to return the dog tags, no living relatives of Clifford English have been located, and his dog tag will be donated to the Camp White Military Museum.
However, our metal detector reader has made contact with William Mehrenberg’s son and has forwarded his father’s dog tag to Pennsylvania.
Ironically, the dog tag lost beside the Rogue River 78 years ago returns to the family just a year and a half before the 78th birthday of William Mehrenberg’s son.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.