Robert B. Horner
Private, United States Army
Private, U.S. Army
317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division
Entered the Service from: West Virginia
Died: September 18, 1944
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Lorraine American Cemetery
St. Avold, France
Awards: Bronze Star, Purple Heart
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
WWII vet finally comes home
In 1942, Robert B. Horner boarded a train in Pittsburgh and said goodbye to his sister for the last time.
Two years later, Private Horner would be listed as missing in action in France, one among 2,851 casualties experienced by the 80th Infantry Division, the U.S. Army's "Blue Ridge" Division, in September 1944. His unit, Company H, 317th Infantry Regiment, was among those tasked with holding a position along the Moselle River near Millery when German artillery opened up on a late September night.
More than 88,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines are considered missing in action, and nearly 90 percent of them served in World War II. A breakdown of the missing:
Gulf War: 1
Source: Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, U.S. Army
Horner's sister, Mary Atchison of Benton, Illinois, says she last saw her brother as he waved from the train window. He was 19, a year younger than she. He told her he was afraid he wouldn't be coming back.
"I was the last one to see him alive. ... He had one leave, and I was the one to take him back to the train station," Atchison said in a telephone interview. "He was an awful good brother."
The pair had grown up with six other siblings on a farm not far from Morgantown, W.Va., but the family later moved to Coraopolis. Atchison said it could be hard to get close to her brother emotionally, but the news that he had been declared missing still came as a terrible blow.
Years passed. The most destructive war in history ended and others began. Horner's brothers and sisters grew up, had families of their own.
His remains lay undiscovered in southern France for nearly 60 years, until April 2001, when a Frenchman digging in his garden came across a helmet. The discovery led to an excavation, and, finally, a homecoming for a soldier lost long ago.
This summer, Atchison, along with her son, daughter-in-law and a nephew, Jim Yeager of Washington, attended burial honors for Horner at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the helmet, investigators found skeletal remains, dog tags with Horner's name and serial number, and rations, arms and other equipment issued to U.S. infantry soldiers at the time of the battle. In June 2002, the remains were sent to the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where they were officially identified as Horner's three months later.
While forensic evidence suggests Horner may have been shot in the shoulder in a "friendly fire" incident, Army records indicate he probably died from artillery or mortar fire.
Lieutenant Colonel Gerald O'Hara, a public affairs officer with the Army's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, said more than 88,000 Americans are listed as missing-in-action. About 78,000 of those missing served during World War II.
"Of those, probably a lot are unrecoverable because they were lost over water," O'Hara said.
O'Hara's command has six investigating teams and 18 recovery teams that research missing military personnel case-by-case, much like police detectives. Currently, investigators are working in North Korea and Europe, and cases await them in Vietnam and Laos.
Horner's recovery came by chance, and it came in time for at least one of those who remembered him to honor him at his burial. Atchison said she and a sister in Las Vegas are Horner's only living siblings.
"There's not that many of us from that time living, now. They're all dead," she said.
Horner was buried with full military honors June 5 along Eisenhower Way in Arlington. The group attending the service was small, Atchison said, and it was dwarfed by rows and rows of grave markers. The scene made her cry, both for the loss of her brother and for the savagery that claimed his life and those of so many others.
"It shocks you. I just can't believe how people
really are," she said.
Lost to his country and his family, Private Robert B. Horner's body lay on a lonely French hillside for six decades -- enough time for World War II to end and other wars to begin, for children to grow and have their own children, and for the enemy Horner was fighting to become an ally.
In 1942, Benton's Mary Atchison, Horner's sister, remembers driving him to the train station, for what would turn out to be the last time she would see him alive.
"I remember saying goodbye to him and thinking how much I would miss him," she said. "It was a very sad goodbye. I started crying when he told me that he didn't think he would be coming back ... alive."
On September 18, 1944, Private Horner was assigned to Company H, 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, also known as the Blue Ridge Division. His division's duty was to secure a position along the Moselle River near the southern French town of Millery.
Unknown to the Americans, the Germans commanded the hilltop overlooking the American positions. Despite unfavorable logistics, Lieutenant General George S. Patton ordered the Third Army to continue the push east. That night the Germans unleashed mortar and artillery fire on the 317th Infantry Regiment.
This historical encounter would come at a high cost for the Blue Ridge Division. The month of September left them with 2,851 total casualties; of those, 437 were killed and 657 were reported missing.
For nearly 60 years, Private. Horner was among those listed as missing in action.
Ann Marie Yeager is the daughter of another one of Horner's sisters. She remembers stories her mother, who died in February of this year, would tell her about Horner and the kind of man he really was.
"My mom liked talking about Robert. She would always say what a fun and loving guy he was," Yeager said. "She loved telling the story about the time they were walking to school together and Robert getting scared by an owl that had flown out of a barn. Even after all these years, she still laughed long and hard at that."
According to Atchison, the one memory that sticks in her head is that of a car pulling up in the family driveway and the haunting telegram that read, "We regret to inform you ... "
And then, nearly 60 years later, another telegram came to the Atchison home that read, "There is never an easy way to inform a soldier's loved ones of this news. However, the U.S. Army has identified the remains of an Army soldier as your brother, Private Robert B. Horner."
On April 27, 2001, Michael Matheu, a French national in Southern France, was digging in his garden when he unearthed a World War II American-style metal helmet. According to Army documents, the helmet Matheu's discovered contained what appeared to be skeletal remains. Matheu ceased his digging and contacted the local office of the Gendarmerie, the French police, who along with Matheu, conducted an excavation of the site.
The following day, the French police notified the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Activity-Europe, who sent a representative to the site to take custody of the remains and evidence -- evidence that included dog tags with Private Horner's name and serial number on them, U.S. military-issued clothing, equipment, rations and armament issued to, and carried by, U.S. infantry soldiers in Europe circa 1944.
Available evidence from Army records suggests that Horner was the victim of friendly fire, perhaps mistaken as an enemy soldier and shot in the shoulder. Records indicate he received mortal mortal injuries from artillery and mortar fire.
On June 5, 2002, the remains uncovered in France were sent to the U.S. Army, Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, for forensic analysis, and on Sept. 10, 2002, scientific director Dr. Thomas D. Holland established the remains to be that of Private Robert B. Horner.
It was at this point Horner's sister, Mary Atchison, was contacted in person by members of the U.S. Army. Gisela M. Courduff of the Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support Division in Alexandria, Virginia, and assistant casualty officer, Lieutenant Renee Lewis of the 347th AG Replacement Battalion in Marion.
According to Lewis, more than 88,000 Americans are still listed as missing in action from all conflicts, with more than 78,000 of those being from World War II.
"It was a pretty hectic situation," Lewis said. "Back then they didn't have the technology to track soldiers like they do now."
Lewis also mentioned that finding the remains of soldiers from World War II is more common than one would think. Lewis added that it's not publicized as much because there is no conflict or controversy surrounding the situation.
On June 15, 2003, the remains of Pricate Robert B. Horner will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Mary Atchison, her husband, and their son, David Atchison, all of Benton, have been invited to attend the burial honors by the U.S. Army.
"This is such a great honor. There are presidents buried there; now my brother will lay to rest right next to them," Atchison said.
Private Robert B. Horner died in the line of duty, fighting and daring to die so that our freedoms would remain intact. Atchison feels that her brother still lives in her heart, and in her family members' hearts as well.
In the words of Harry S. Truman, "Freedom lives
and through it, he lives -- in a way that humbles the undertakings of most